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Drugs, Demons, and Fiends: “I Can’t Breathe” (Guest Post)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is by Suzanna Reiss, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i and author of the recently published book, We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire (University of California Press, 2014). Reiss offers a timely meditation on the legacy of the Harrison Narcotics Act, which turned one hundred yesterday. 

As we confront the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the first US federal drug control law, it is difficult not to be haunted by current events. What is happening today in contemporary policing reflects the legacies produced by drug control and its origins in the deep racial animosities and inequities that contributed to the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914. This centennial commemoration should provoke national soul-searching about the drug war’s contribution to racialized policing and its ties to economic inequality in American society. It certainly is not cause for celebration.

Listen to two accounts – separated by a hundred years, sharing too much.

They are worth quoting at length.

“He imagines that he hears people taunting or abusing him, and this often incites homicidal attacks upon innocent and unsuspecting victims.”

 “But the drug produces several other conditions that make the ‘fiend’ a peculiarly dangerous criminal. One of these conditions is a temporary immunity to shock – a resistance to the ‘knock down’ effects of fatal wounds. Bullets fired into vital parts, that would drop an insane man in his tracks, fail to check the ‘fiend’ – fail to stop his rush or weaken his attack.”

 “And many other officers in the South, who appreciate the increased vitality of the cocaine-crazed negroes, have made similar exchange for guns of greater shocking power for the express purpose of combatting the ‘fiend’ when he runs amuck.”

 “Knowing that he must kill the man or be killed himself, the [police] chief drew his revolver, placed the muzzle over the negro’s heart and fired – ‘intending to kill him right quick,’ as the officer tells it. But the shot did not even stagger the man. And a second shot that pierced the arm and entered the chest had just as little effect in stopping the negro or checking his attack. Meanwhile the Chief, out of the corner of his eye, saw infuriated negroes rushing toward the cabin from all directions. He had only three cartridges remaining in his gun, and he might need those in a minute to stop the mob. So he saved his ammunition and ‘finished the man with his club.’”

Listen to police officer Darren Wilson’s testimony before a St. Louis County grand jury, 2014 [2]:

“I had never seen them before. And then the next thing I notice was that Brown had bright yellow socks on that had green marijuana leaves as a pattern on them.”

“His whole reaction to the whole thing was something I’ve never seen. I’ve never seen that much aggression so quickly from such a simple request to just walk on the sidewalk.”

“The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

 “And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

“At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

“I shot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.”

“It is an antipolice area for sure…it is just not a very well-liked community.”

“Yes, that’s not an area where you take anything really lightly. Like I said, it is a hostile environment.”

Let those words resonate.

*          *          *

The specter of the “negro cocaine fiend” that circulated in national media outlets in 1914 helped garner public support for congressional passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act. The legacies of this today are in part a country with the largest percentage of its citizens behind bars in the world, and the majority of them for drug offenses. While the white population consumes the most of both legally and illegally purchased drugs, criminal sanctions fall disproportionately on poor and minority communities. The fact that the policing of drug consumption, number of arrests, and length of sentences disproportionately targets the poor and racialized minorities is not news, but it is worth reflecting on how this came to be.

In 1914 a toxic mix of racial anxiety, economic ambition, and government interest in developing new techniques of social control together helped lay the foundation for our current system of mass incarceration. The Harrison Narcotic Act itself is dry reading, effectively authorizing a government-run licensing and taxation system for the exclusive process by which a person or institution could become authorized to be a legal producer, distributor, or consumer of drugs. In practice, the results were dramatic. The new drug law effectively meant that (primarily middle class white) people with access to physicians’ prescriptions, medical board licenses, government contracts, or pharmaceutical company protections had relatively un-policed access to drugs while other’s efforts to acquire drugs for recreational or medicinal purposes became very, potentially legally, hazardous. This was not prohibition but selective control and enforcement.

Some people made money, some people were cured, some people indulged in recreational reveries, and others were policed.

The demographic breakdown of those policed is not hard to come by; neither are the unnervingly long-lasting images and ideas that were the foundations of this societal institutionalization, and the racist claims made to justified it.

There is no shame or regret in either hundred-year separated law enforcement account that the forces of state coercive power – the police – are approaching working class neighborhoods and communities of color as inherently threatening “hostile environments”, and that lethal violence is unsurprisingly a pre-determined first response. Officer Wilson’s dehumanizing and casual reliance on objectification: “it looks like a demon,” has echoes of the “negro cocaine fiend” that terrorized the white public’s imagination in 1914 – superhumanly immune to powerful weapons and determined to do harm. These types of fears and rationalizations buttressed police forces’ increased reliance on weapons and tactics designed for military application in US domestic settings and the ongoing warlike ‘us vs. them’ mentality that too frequently characterizes contemporary policing. And still, central to this is the popular image of the dangers of black drug use that continues to justify state violence. It is striking the ease with which simply mentioning past or present drug use rapidly turns victims into criminals in the public eye, while glorifying, or at least justifying violence against them including in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, and the unidentified black man killed by the southern sheriff in 1914.

All of this is tied to a much longer national history founded on racial and economic exploitation, and a cultural unwillingness to address its legacies. But the Harrison Narcotics Act empowered a whole new genre of justified policing that targeted primarily poor and minority communities’ consumer habits as inherent threats to the well-being of society. Those that invoke ‘crime statistics’ as a justification for why African American communities receive a disproportionate amount of surveillance and policing forget that the selective enforcement of law has produced those statistics. Historically the police have worked to protect the largest producers of both dangerous and beneficial drugs in this country – the pharmaceutical industry – while providing the foundations for a much larger societal effort to keep some people in their place: the explicit design and intent of the Harrison Narcotics Law. Should we not question the law if this is what it empowers?

I can’t breathe.

[1] Edward Huntington Williams, M. D., “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are A New Southern Menace,” New York Times, February 8, 1914, SM12

[2] Testimony of Darren Wilson, August 10, 2014, uploaded by the New York Times


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