One of my favorite judicial officers of all time is now-retired Judge Frank Hoover. Judge Hoover served as a Superior Court Judge here in Kern County for many years, but also was instrumental in the establishment of Drug Courts throughout the United States. Toward the end of his career, he was assigned to hear family law cases, which is how I came to know him.
Judge Hoover has a great sense of humor, and a knack for the pithy saying. My two favorites are:
“Most folks get their political opinions from reading the whole bumper sticker.”
“Just because something has failed in the past has never stopped us from doing it over and over again, with more money.”
I came to appreciate the second one after speaking with Judge Hoover in preparation for a training on drug abuse that he gave to a section of our County bar association. We had discussed some possible approaches to the subject, and he mentioned that I should read a book that had been an important influence on his thinking. Fortunately our local library had a copy, as this book is unfortunately out of print.
This book is a history of illegal drugs in the United States. It draws extensively on primary sources from the past 150 years, so the narrative is flavored by the writing and views of each era. Thus, the purple prose of the ads for patent medicine in the 1890s and the breathless hyperbole of the reporting on the crack epidemic in the 1980s are both on view.
The book starts out with the innocent era when opioids and coca were considered to be all-purpose medicines. Coca-Cola, of course, used to contain a significant quantity of cocaine. Morphine and heroin were even marketed to children, as in the case of “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.
"For children teething. Greatly facilitates the process of Teething, by softening the gums, reducing all inflammation; will allay ALL PAIN and spasmodic action, and is SURE TO REGULATE THE BOWELS. Depend on it, Mothers, it will give rest to yourselves and RELIEF AND HEALTH TO YOUR INFANTS. Sold by all chemists, at 1s 1/2d per bottle."
Eventually, of course, it became clear that these drugs were addictive, and led to a host of related problems. Despite what legalization proponents say, the problem would not simply go away with removal of the criminal prosecution. A significant majority of those addicted are not fit to work or participate in mainstream society.
The author refers to this era as the first American drug epidemic. It started primarily amount white, middle class women; spreading eventually to the typical addict demographic: young, poor men alienated from mainstream society.
Initially, enforcement focused on regulating the use of narcotics in medicine and in keeping doctors from prescribing to addicts. The problem spread beyond this, however, and the same sources for illegal alcohol during prohibition found that distribution of heroin was even more lucrative.
This era came to an end primarily through the disruption of supply during World War Two. Most of the refining occurred in Europe, and the effects of the war combined with the general blockade of shipping to essentially eliminate the supply for a time.
Although this temporarily sobered up thousands of addicts, there was still the problem of what to do with them. As soon as the supply returned, many if not most would simply resume the habit. At this time, methadone treatment was first used, with some success. Not everyone considered it a success, however, and a division arose which persists to this day. Is the point of drug treatment to attain complete abstinence from all use, or is it to enable the addict to function in society? Is it enough that a person is able to hold a job and care for his or her family, or is the use of any opioid immoral in itself? This, of course, was an argument applied to alcohol during prohibition.
The second epidemic started after the war, among the black jazz culture. At this time, what we think of as “drug culture” really started to take shape. Being “hep” was linked to drug use, which then became a requirement of participation in “hep” culture. Music and drugs were linked in a way that has unfortunately endured. As Artie Shaw said at the time, “Jazz was born in a whiskey barrel, grew up on marijuana, and is about to expire on heroin.”
This time, the spread was reversed: drugs went from a lower class habit to a more widespread phenomenon. The concept of alienation from the mainstream was no longer looked on as a disadvantage, but as an advantage.
At the height of this second epidemic came true missionaries of drug use such as Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg, who believed that drugs could be the gateway to self-improvement.
Eventually, however, the effects of drugs became clear as they did during the first epidemic, and public opinion changed again. Enforcement became more of a priority at this time.
Of course, by this time, it was much harder to control supply. Production had spread to Southeast Asia, which was under Communist threat. The CIA actually encouraged anti-Communist groups to fund themselves using drug production – perhaps not the best of decisions in hindsight.
The third epidemic occurred in the 1980s and 90s with cocaine. This time, a repeat of the first epidemic occurred: use started among the upper and middle classes. Cocaine was expensive and thus somewhat self limiting. However, it was still dangerous and addictive even in the powder form. The death of athlete Len Bias brought this fact home in dramatic fashion.
The drug made its transition to the lower class with the development of crack cocaine which was less expensive, at least at the outset. The alarming fact about the spread of crack is that it appeared to appeal to women like no other drug before it. Heroin tended to be primarily (although not exclusively) a male drug of choice, perhaps because of the use of needles. Crack could be smoked, and this seemed to increase its appeal.
This book was written in the 1990s, so it misses what is probably the fourth epidemic, methamphetamine. Since Kern County is a major source of meth, it is quite popular among the local addicts, and the drug is a constant topic in the news.
In addition to the history of addiction, this book tells the history of enforcement. This portion reads like a tragic farce. From the beginning, the enforcement agencies have been vulnerable to infighting and corruption, to lack of focus, to failure to anticipate or notice new trends, and to conflict with other national and international goals.
The author posits that there are three essential facets to the fight against addiction. First, drug culture must be addressed. If the culture shrinks, the number of addicts should shrink as well. If fewer young people get started using, then the older addicts will die off and not be replaced. In each case where drug use has shrunk, this was the case.
The second facet is the treatment of addiction. While no cure has a great success rate, those that involve extended inpatient treatment seem to work better. Oddly, both voluntary and involuntary programs have statistically similar rates, which gives hope that not all recovery need start with the addict. Drug court in particular seemed to have many positive effects. The threat of jail time (which would typically be used once or twice with a given addict), regular testing and accountability, and positive social reinforcement combine to be fairly effective. If recovery was not a possibility, there would be far more addicts today. In 1985, a survey was done that revealed that fully 1/3 of those ages 18-25 claimed to have tried cocaine. Clearly only a small percentage of those were unable to eventually lead normal lives.
The third facet is the one that has unfortunately been the hardest to address: international control of the sources. Originally, it was the first world countries that produced narcotics. Thus, they were subject to international pressure and sanctions. This is not the case with most third world drug producing countries. With each epidemic, the distribution and sourcing has grown to be bigger and more violent, with the cartels now able to behave like political and military entities of their own. Until supply is severely restricted, there will always be a problem.
Judge Hoover position, as he explained it to me, is that we tend to look at the drug problem as a government problem, one with a law enforcement solution. In reality, it is a social and family problem. Drug culture and the growth of fatherless families have fed off each other in a self-reinforcing cycle. This problem will have to have a solution within society and the culture rather than simple government intervention.
If you can find this book, by all means read it. Addiction affects nearly every family, and a better understanding of the history behind the present situation sheds light on what has and has not been effective. It also promotes careful thought as an alternative to simple solutions that fit on bumper stickers.