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“The Opium Wars”: The Biopolitics of Narcotic Control in the United States, 1914–1935

Abstract

The emergence of the narcotic control regime in the early twentieth century US provides a historical case study of what Michel Foucault has called “biopolitics”. At the collective level, narcotic control policy emerged as a regulatory mechanism to secure the national population from the spread of addictive substances through an elaborate system of surveillance and control. At the individual level, the drug user emerged as a new criminal subject at the center of an array of medico-penal technologies that sought to understand the psychological and somatic dimensions of addiction, and to normalize the addicted person.

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Notes

  1. Scholars have argued that popular images of the drug menace and the so-called ‘dope fiends’ were intrinsically linked with contemporary racial, ethnic and class differences and prejudices (Courtwright 1982; Duster 1970; Hickman 2000; Musto 1989). Even the writings of some scientists seem to reflect racial stereotypes regarding drug use. In an article in the New York Medical Journal, Dr. Perry Lichtenstein, a physician at the New York City Prison stated that drug habits vary according to racial identity (Lichtenstein 1914, 965). Commenting on the increase in the use of cocaine in the urban vice districts, the chairman of the Committee on Acquirement of the Drug Habit of the American Pharmaceutical Association, Hynson (1902) asserted that prostitutes, African-Americans and Chinese immigrants are the most likely drug users.

  2. Though the Harrison Act was the most comprehensive drug control law of the time, there were already precedents of anti-drug legislations at the state and the federal level. In 1875, the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance that banned the smoking of opium within the city limits. Some other cities followed with similar legislations. Many of these legislations resulted from mobilizations against Chinese immigrants (Courtwright 1982). The Federal government legislated a ban on opium smoking by the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act (SOEA) of 1909 (Duster 1970; Musto 1989).

  3. Both Doremus and Webb rulings, four justices dissented from the majority opinion. This narrow margin might have contributed to the reversal in United States v. Linder (1925).

  4. A few years earlier, in United States v. Jin Fuey Moi (1916) the Supreme Court ruled that the Harrison Act was simply a revenue act, and regardless of its moral implications it should only be used for enforcing revenue laws.

  5. One of the major issues in all these cases was the argument that criminal prosecution for possession of narcotics as stipulated by the Article 2 and 8 of the Harrison Act results in federal usurpation of the police power of the states (Virginia Law Review 1920).

  6. The Federal Narcotics Bureau merged with the newly established Bureau of Drug Abuse Control in 1968 to form the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which was succeeded by the current Drug Enforcement Administration established in 1973.

  7. It was transferred to the newly established National Institute of Mental Health in 1947.

  8. An important part of the therapeutic regime in the narcotic farms, involved the observation of the patient/inmate in the so-called ‘metabolism chamber’. According to Kolb: “It is an airtight chamber in which the patient is kept for 24 h. All food, water and air that he takes in all excretions, including perspiration and expired air, are minutely measured. Comparisons are made on the same subject during and after addiction to morphine. Every motion of the patient is recorded on a moving drum” (1939, 399).

  9. Similarly, Brown provides an early exposition of the labeling perspective: “Society is general stigmatizes him with the attitude ‘once a dope fiend, always a dope fiend’. The police thinks of him as a potential criminal ready to do violence to satisfy his appetite…While drug addiction is a pernicious habit resulting in physical and mental deterioration for the user, this fact is not any more important than the social definition of its use (Brown 1931, 367).

  10. Even Kolb himself said later that a blanket criminalization of addiction have led to obfuscation of the medical nature of the problem and this leads to a ‘misguided frenzy’ of imprisoning addicts rather than treating them as mental patients in need of psychological and somatic therapy (Kolb 1962).

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Neil Brenner, Craig Calhoun, Troy Duster, Sarah Kaufman, Elizabeth Pacilio as well as the editor and the reviewers of this journal for their comments and criticisms. The research for this paper was partly made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Archive Center.

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Correspondence to Saran Ghatak.

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Ghatak, S. “The Opium Wars”: The Biopolitics of Narcotic Control in the United States, 1914–1935. Crit Crim 18, 41–56 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-010-9098-4

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Keywords

  • Drug User
  • Addiction Treatment
  • Crime Control
  • Drug Problem
  • Geneva Convention