Investigative Poetics – 4 – (Drugs – 1)

AG: Then, later on, I got into writing pop songs. So the fruition of this is “CIA Dope Calypso”  (which will be coming out on Columbia Records this Fall) [1977] – [Allen then plays, in its entirety, his recording of “CIA Dope Calypso” – “In Nineteen Hundred And Forty Nine/China was won by Mao Tse TungChiang Kai-sheks army ran away/And they’re waiting there in Thailand today/ Supported by the CIA/ Pushing Junk down Thailand way…”] – Well, actually that’s a product of a collaboration with Ed (Sanders) over a long period of time, a mutual exchange of ideas and turning each other on to possibilities of poetics as well as possibilities of investigation

I’ll talk a little more about that particular thing. That song is from “First Blues”, which is a book of songs put out a couple of years ago, and is a by-product of maybe fifteen or twenty years of preoccupation with the whole dope problem, and research into it, related to literary matters, oddly enough (or, inextricable from literary and cultural research to begin with). It all started (when I was) hanging around Times Square in the (19)40’s (as described by (William) Burroughs’ Junkie, and my Preface to it, which we have in the library).
I realized the official government version of what marijuana was like and my own experience, and my friends’ experience, were two different universes. Because, at that time, 1945, (19)46, you’ve got to remember, it was really a question of “dope fiends” – that it was really terrible – like public cock-sucking, or something, like something awful! – the idea that “grass”, marijuana, was in such bad repute, that the official propaganda was that it sent you straight to the mad-house! I guess you know (all) about that historically, don’t you? There’s been enough re-runs of the old Reefer Madness movies of the (19)30’s.

I couldn’t figure out how that could be –  how people could be so disjointed. And by doing just a little bit of research, I realized that there really was a conspiracy – in other words, a misunderstanding, that could not have come about without an enormous amount of money and effort and energy being put into a campaign of public education that would distort people’s ideas. So I began actually doing a little bit of research on it in the (19)40’s. And one of the first things I found was that Mayor La Guardia of New York had a report on marijuana made that said that it was alright. It gave marijuana a clean bill of health, only ten years earlier, in 1938 (the same year that Congress was illegalizing it). So I realized it had been a political struggle. Then, doing further research into the whole history of the narcotics bureau, I realized it was a case of Parkinson’s Law – that a government bureaucracy like that tends to find more and more work for itself, tries to extend its power and take over more and more territory. And then I began thinking, “well what about the junkies then?”. And I began researching that. And the roots of that problem go back to World War 1 and 1918-1920 and the Harrison Act. You find out that, before that, junkies were not considered “dope fiends” but just a medical problem, and that a gang of doctors in New York State, who had a private clinic, who wanted to make money, had legislation passed in New York State making it illegal for doctors to prescribe heroin, that it had to be done in their licensed and registered clinics. So they made a lot of money on  it. In other words, it was, like, a group of people who wanted a little monopoly on the commerce. Then there was a guy, Representative Volk, who got up in Congress, (and) denounced it as a conspiracy by a group of doctors to make money by getting a franchise on all the heroin cures in their up-state New York rest homes. And then there was a big fight. And then the Treasury Department stepped in and closed down government clinics. (These clinics were) like the British system now, where you can go, like our present Methadone system. (But the Treasury Department) closed down all the clinics in New Orleans, advising a cut-off of federal funds, and drove all the junkies onto the street, where the junkies then began robbing and stealing to get money for their fix, and that led to the idea of junkie as a criminal. And that was re-inforced by the Treasury Department men going out and busting them with guns. So, pretty soon, like, a circular system had been set up. And then, a lot of doctors protested the government intervention into the patient-doctor relationship, so there was then an attack on the doctors by the Treasury Department, and something like twenty-thousand doctors were busted for trying to do regular medical treatment for junkies, and a number, an enormous amount, paid fines, and about three thousand went to jail!
– Yeah?

Student: What was the Harrison Act?

AG: The Harrison Act was 1918,1920, I think. That was the original law that began regulating junkies – junk, regulating the sale of heroin and opiates

Student: Also booze?

AG: No

Student: No booze?

AG: No. It was of that time, though, of the time of Prohibition. It was that same nature. I think the provisions were.. some sort of technical provision that a docor had to be licensed to prescribe for addiction.

Student: Not just a regular medical license, but a..

AG: A special licence beyond that.

Student; A special license?

AG: You had to have a license from the Treasury Department, an Opiate License from the Treasury Department. So the Treasury Department took over the licensing of the medical profession in this area. Really weird, actually. Think of how weird it is anyway that The Treasury Department should have control of Drugs. You take it for granted, but when you think historically – how did that ever happen? Well, it goes back to this situation. (Harry) Anslinger, who was head of the Treasury Department Narcotics Control Board, was.. (and I think he originally worked for Prohibition in Alcohol Control – Actually, I’ve forgotten half of all this).

Student: Allen?

AG: Yes?

Student: Who was supplying the dope in those days?

AG: Oh, up to 1918, it was a regular commercial thing. You could get snake-oil remedies in drug stores – laudanum, paregoric, tincture of opium, you could buy, There were a number of junkies – legal junkies – old ladies or young, who would have their laudanum every day, Maybe one hundred thousand or a half million, just like now, same thing, except there was no fuss about it. It was just sort of like, Aunt Minnie going upstairs to take her laudanum, and then she’ll retire for the evening. But she’ll be down tomorrow-morning and cook breakfast!

You can get the history of all this in a couple of really good books. Let’s see – America’s Drug Hang-Up – Fifty Years of Folly, written byRufus King, who was former chair of American Bar Association and American Medical Association Joint Committee on Narcotics Policy – a very intelligent guy. And that’s the best historical survey of the build-up of the narcotics bureaucracy and of narcotics politics. America’s Drug Hang-Up – Fifty Years of Folly – Rufus King. And another good book is The Addict and the Law by Alfred R Lindesmith, Indiana University Press. Those are the early pioneers in all this research. There’s lots of other books now, but I haven’t kept up with the literature. They were the early breakthrough books, actually. And I guess, Lester Grinspoon‘s book on marijuana [Marihuana Reconsidered (1971)] probably has some of the early history.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-seven minutes in and continuing until approximately forty minutes in]   

One comment

  1. This is an interesting view into the history of opiates in America. Sadly today there are many lives devastated by addiction to heroin but there is hope and help available for those who are seeking recovery.

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