Wednesday, April 27, 2016

addiction is less about drugs and more about human connection


thenation |  Drugs aren’t what we think they are; the Drug War isn’t what we think it is; addiction isn’t what we think it is; and the alternatives aren’t what we’ve been told they are.

LF: Let’s start with going back 100 years; I was sort of entranced to read your descriptions of Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup, and the situation with respect to drugs before Prohibition.

JH: It’s fascinating. Drugs were legal in the United States, in Britain, everywhere in the world. If you wanted to buy opiates, you go to a local store, the equivalent to CVS; it was mostly sold in the form of something called Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was a kind of cough mixture. You could buy cocaine-based teas; you could buy cocaine-based drinks; and it’s important to understand there were some problems related to that. There was of course some addiction just like we have addiction to alcohol; it was not that big a deal. The vast majority of addicts had jobs; they were no more likely to be poor than anyone else; and really what you see, I tell it through the story of this extraordinary doctor in California at the birth of the Drug War called Henry Smith Williams, who really saw that as soon as drugs were banned all sorts of problems started to metastasize.

They’re transferred from pharmacies to armed, criminal gangs who suddenly have to be terrifying; they start having fights; suddenly the price goes massively up so addicts are driven into everything from prostitution to property crime. You suddenly see this huge outbreak of all sorts of crime that wasn’t there when they were legal. 

LF: Now, Dr. Williams was up against quite an opponent, that’s this Harry Anslinger guy. Can you tell us, what can you tell us about him, and why was he so obsessed with Billie Holiday? JH: Harry Anslinger I think is the most influential person who almost no one’s ever heard of. He’s the inventor of the modern War on Drugs. He takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending; so he’s got this huge department with basically nothing to do, and he wants to find a purpose, and he’s always been driven all his life by two really strong hatreds: One is of addicts, and the other is of African Americans.

He was regarded as a racist in the 1930s by racists, to give a sense of how extreme he was, and he really became fixated on Billie Holiday, as I learned from his archives and from interviewing Billie Holiday’s surviving friends; and, you know, 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage and sings “Strange Fruit,” a song against lynching, and that night the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tells her to stop, and she refuses. Billie Holiday was a tough person. She had promised herself, when she was growing up in the slums of Baltimore, she would never bow her head to any white man; and she told them to basically go screw themselves, and that’s when the stalking of her began.

He first of all sends this guy called Jimmy Fletcher to kind of stalk her, and the first agent that he sends falls in love with her because she was so amazing. He sends her to prison; she said at the trial, you know, it was called “the United States versus Billie Holiday,” and that’s how it felt. She gets out, she can’t perform anywhere because you needed a license to perform, and you know the thing she loved is taken away from her, but still Anslinger is not finished with her.