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Drug Packaging: Newspapers’ Long History of Sensational Narcotics Reporting

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).

It seems true (though not perfectly true) that laws and policies conform to public opinion eventually. I recently attended a virtual meeting on sentencing reform wherein one of the panelists, a district judge, twice underscored the deep importance of public opinion to criminal justice reform. His comments stood out because, in my academic experience, people so rarely talk about public opinion as an element of policy change. Yet everyone seems to agree it exists.

We might reasonably feel optimistic these days about the drift of public opinion toward decarceration and liberalizing drug laws, but such winds have more often blown in the opposite direction. A century ago, the Supreme Court followed public opinion and affirmed the constitutionality of the Volstead Act, leading the country into the disaster of federal alcohol prohibition. Such laws did not lead to orderly sobriety but to similar measures against other substances like the widespread “preventive” prohibition of cannabis. Such was the historical argument of legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread in 1970. They worried that contemporary public opinion about cannabis had been inflamed by the larger social conflicts of the 1960s, consigning the marijuana debate to “the public viscera instead of the public mind.”

Sadly, they were right. Although many scholars and activists in the early 1970s considered legalization imminent, this possibility disappeared in a cloud of bad press and President Carter’s spiraling public approval rating. Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, Joe Biden was one leading politician who often proposed or supported escalations of the drug wars because of public opinion. Biden, and other drug warriors, explicitly argued that the people wanted tougher drug policies and more federal aid to drug law enforcement. (The people, he said, were even willing to spend money on it.)

Public opinion is uncontrollable yet essential; public opinion can be either fickle, deep-rooted, or mysterious. But since public opinion can—and often does—influence laws and policies, we might think about it more often. In that spirit, I offer a brief collection of media artifacts from several different eras that have helped shaped public opinion about drug control. Americans have been consuming a sustained diet of drug-related information for more than a century.

Packaged Drugs Featured Image

In a vanished world of heavy newspaper readership and spectacular competition among publishers, investigative series or editorial “packages” of related stories signaled both importance and entertainment value. The war on prohibited drugs was a perennial topic that was elastic enough to express many values: nativism, anti-communism, Christian moralism, and more. The topic was popular with readers in all time periods. Both titillating and dangerous, its themes included exotic ritual, corruption of young women, enormous sums of cash, musicians and their urban nightlife, and the mysterious workings of an illicit international market.

We must also admit that Americans also have been drawn to coverage of drug control because of their widespread tendency to support racism and authoritarianism. It was not only that such fare allowed a vicarious experience of solving a mysterious crime and bringing wrongdoers to justice, or that it let upstanding citizens fret over the moral implications of uncontrolled drug use. Rather, readers understood that drug laws targeted minority citizens and constituted a tool of the white establishment. Outrage at the consequences of drug use was outrage at the consequences of racial integration and/or immigration; satisfaction with the punishment of drug crimes was satisfaction with racial oppression.

Series about drugs created negative impressions of drug use and users and nurtured belief in the connection, forever claimed by politicians and law enforcers, between drugs and crime. For that reason these sources deserve attention. Here are a few examples among thousands of drug-war series that have been produced by the American press.

1923: “Devil Dust”

Oakland Tribune “Devil Dust” series in 1923.

In its earliest form, the original concept for newspaper series was the printing of longer written work—most commonly fiction—in multiple parts. Publishers used the serialization to encourage readers to purchase subscriptions so that they would be sure not to miss any installments. Series were also useful content since they could be prepared ahead of time, unlike daily or weekly reporting on public affairs. The feature/entertainment nature of such content made it good for “magazine” sections of larger newspapers such as the Oakland Tribune.

The line between fact and fiction often was quite unclear. “Devil Dust,” by George C. Henderson, was a crime adventure story (with romance) in which the plot hinged on a real event: US prohibition of drug importation. The main characters, a Chinese opium smuggler and a white titan of American industry, respond to prohibition by forming an unholy alliance to evade the US Treasury and carry on their trade. A lavish illustration accompanied the first installment, and a custom-lettered series title was reused each day.

A year later, the author of “Devil Dust” published the nonfiction book Keys to Crookdom, a fact-laden tome on crime and justice with one of its 30 chapters devoted to “The Narcotic Problem.” (Police-science celebrity August Vollmer penned the Introduction.) But can one really traffic in both fiction and fact? I asked that question in a Points post about Harry Anslinger writing for the Saturday Evening Post.

1935: “Confessions of a Fashionable Drug Addict”

“Confessions of a Fashionable Drug Addict” series from the San Francisco Examiner in 1935.

This series was ghost written for Brenda Dean Paul, a daughter of British aristocrats who became a bohemian “party girl” and developed a morphine habit. She was a subject of police surveillance and had been charged, jailed, paroled, and of course followed by the press. But readers were there to imbibe details about the hedonistic follies of upper-crust lost souls mingling indiscriminately with a fascinating, hidden criminal world.

Put together, the installments roughly equaled Paul’s addict memoir titled My First Life, published the same year. Who knows whether the stern tone of condemnation and regret for her own behavior was real? Historian Christopher Hallam writes about Paul and many other fashionable opiate users in White Drug Cultures and Regulation in London.

The serial format—a single body of work broken into parts and continuing from issue to issue—was still primarily used to publish novelistic/confessional types of content. However, developments in printing technology were making it increasingly possible for newspapers to package graphics, photographs, and text together into an enticing visual whole. For an enjoyable, artistic journey through Hearst coverage and other “yellow journalism” about drugs, see The Dope Chronicles.

1959: “Mexican Monkey on Our Backs”

Times-Mirror Company employee publication Among Ourselves (left) touts the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning Series by Gene Sherman (right).

The Los Angles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (see above) for Gene Sherman’s series of articles on heroin and marijuana smuggling across the border into Southern California. The newspaper later reprinted the articles in a pamphlet provocatively titled “Mexican Monkey on Our Back.” Overall, the series blamed the increase in drug-related crime in Los Angeles on Mexican and US officials’ failure to enforce prohibition—indeed their lack of interest in the problem. A single-page photo spread featured scenes from Mexico and the border. Historian Matthew Lassiter has discussed the role of the LA press during the 1950s in creating a “racialized pusher-victim discourse that collectively criminalized minority youth while decriminalizing white teenage lawbreakers.”

1982: “War On Drugs: A Domestic Vietnam”

1982 series, “”War on Drugs: A Domestic Vietnam,” by Gannett’s Fort Myers News-Press.

This extended critique of the inefficiency of the US drug wars ran over the week between Christmas and New Year’s in the Fort Myers News-Press, a Florida daily. Reporter Sharen Johnson’s series, “The War on Drugs: A Domestic Vietnam,” got well into the weeds describing how wealthy drug dealers used tax havens to hide their cash; graphics helped explain the process. She also reported the murder of a California lawyer who had become a state’s witness after getting pinched by the feds in a byzantine investigation. It seems the killer never was identified, but the shooting and a graphic description of the crime scene, set in a parking garage, helped set a tone of menace and conspiracy. The News-Press was one of some 80 Gannett papers, many of which republished Johnson’s series in early 1983.

Final Thoughts

For more than a century, lurid and sensational media accounts of drugs, drug users, and the trade in illicit drugs has helped shape American public opinion about the use and regulation of intoxicating substances. From the thinly fictionalized tales of the early 1900s to the lengthy investigative reporting of the second half of the twentieth century, media reporting about drugs has often tended to emphasize the dangers that drugs posed to white Americans at the expense of nefarious racialized drug traffickers and dealers. Perhaps it’s time to see if a more sober discussion about drugs and drug use can influence public opinion.



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