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The Forgotten Drug War: One Million Drug Addicts (Washington, D.C., 1919)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

In 1918, the Treasury Department established a Special Narcotic Committee, tasked with reviewing the scope of the drug problem in the United States. The Committee issued its final report, Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, in June of 1919. The product of a year’s worth of work by a committee which included reputable figures in the drug field, the report covered many aspects of the drug problem—but no part of the report drew more attention than the conclusion that the nation’s addict population numbered one million. To understand how that figure was obtained, we need to briefly review some very poor statistical analysis. And that’s part of the story. But the bigger story is that “one million addicts” took on a life of its own, a mythical number that long outlived the federal government’s own interest in its promulgation.

The Committee had surveyed physicians and pharmacists registered under the Harrison Act, asking them to report the number of addicts under treatment. Only 30 percent of the surveyed doctors replied, and these responses identified 73,000 addicts under treatment. The Committee assumed, first, that there was no duplication in any of the report and, second, that one could extrapolate from this figure that the actual number of addicts was 238,000 (in other words, that the remaining 70% of non-respondents would have reported addicts under treatment at exactly the same level as the respondents). Then, in an even bigger leap of faith, the Committee estimated that, since not all addicts were receiving treatment, the real number of addicts was one million. In truth, there’s no clear evidence of where one million came from, though it seems to have been a rough sort of compromise between a figure of 750,000 generated by the Public Health Service and 1.5 million generated by the Internal Revenue Service. We know about most of this already. We also know, courtesy of David Courtwright, that the Special Narcotic Committee got it wrong. In Dark Paradise, Courtwright employed the most reliable data at hand, and generated a maximum figure of about 300,000 opiate addicts, a number which seems to have been declining prior to 1914, and which was almost certainly lower still by 1919.

So the Committee put out a number that turns out to have been grossly inflated. End of story? Not exactly. It is important to remember that the Committee wasn’t just bungling. The Committee, and the political figures around the Committee, had an agenda that involved maximizing the scope and extent of the drug problem and justifying an expanded and aggressive federal anti-drug effort. Indeed, for months prior to the report’s publication, the “one million” figure had been aggressively promoted to the newspapers. The source of most of this was Representative Henry T. Rainey of Illinois, future Speaker of the House and head of the Committee—and, not coincidentally, sponsor of tough new amendments to the Harrison Act. Thanks in no small part to Rainey’s efforts, the one million figure took off. It appeared in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 1918), and in a September, 1918 wire story which led with the number and appeared in newspapers from the Kansas City Star to the Bellingham [WA] Herald. In December, 1918, a business journalist named Richard Spillane (no relation) published an article on national alcohol prohibition which suggested the ban on alcohol might increase the number of drug addicts, reporting that “it is stated on authority of government officials that there are 1,000,000 known drug addicts in America.” In early 1919, the Frederic J. Haskin newspaper syndicate featured a “Daily Letter” column, “Needed: An Anti-Dope League” that also featured the one million addicts claim, while Scripps Newspaper chain promoted the one million figure in discussing the work of New York City Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland (more on him in Part II of this post).

Thus far, we have a reasonably interesting historical version of what Max Singer called in 1971 the “vitality of mythical numbers,” reaffirmed by economist Peter Reuter in the 1980s in a discussion of the “continued” vitality of mythical numbers. Not so ironically, Singer’s mythical number was the amount of property crime committed by drug addicts in New York City, while Reuter’s mythical number was the number of heroin addicts in the United States. In both cases, they explained why it was that the state would sometimes generate numbers that had no basis in fact. Reuter’s summary is a good one: “Behind the complex estimating formula is some very questionable, but unquestioned, data collection…There is strong interest in keeping the number high and none in keeping it correct.” Now, it is useful for historians to know that mythical numbers exist (establishing the mythical part, in other words), and for historians to understand why the state so readily produces them (explaining the vitality part). But I think there is more still to the story. There is a surprising vitality to mythical numbers. They have a kind of Frankenstein’s monster quality to them. Once created, mythical numbers are not always subject to effective control by their creator. I’ll follow the “one million drug addicts” of 1919 further forward in time in the second part of this post. To be continued…



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