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Rufus King Collection | Drug Hang Up
The Drug Hang Up, America's Fifty-Year Folly
by Rufus King
Chairman Kefauver and the Mafia Myth
RETURNING to the main strands of the narrative, as World War II approached, estimates of the addict population promulgated by the Treasury Department kept shrinking-demonstrating, of course, Treasury's effectiveness in enforcing the federal law. But as the curve continued downward it began to look as if the federal agency might be working--or at least talking- itself out of part of its job. Soon after Harry Anslinger assumed command in 1930, the official figure had been with threatened undulations upward when the Bureau sought appropriations, and claimed declines when the efficacy of the T-men's performance was in question. It is important to remember that because there was no contact between addicts and society other than arresting police, and because of a blackout on nonofficial information about the situation, the Bureau could assert virtually anything it wanted, with little fear of challenge. Even so, there were some apparent inconsistencies. For example, female addicts outnumbered males two or three to one at the time the Harrison Act was passed (when more valid estimates could be made), and this ratio had seemingly reversed itself by the end of the thirties. Similarly, white addicts had greatly outnumbered nonwhites for at least a full generation under federal controls, until suddenly the official majority turned black. And with each periodic hysteria about increases in addiction among youths there would have had to be large inputs of new addicts early in their life spans, with the result that tens or even hundreds of thousands of female, white, and aging victims must simply have vanished conveniently when they were no longer wanted in the count. Nor are arrest and prosecution figures very enlightening: federal cases reached a high plateau in the 1925-30 period and then curved sharply downward (from around 7,000 per year to around 3,000), while state and local authorities, emerging more prominently on the scene after 1930, accounted for a moderately increasing number of cases until the 1950's and then suddenly produced a skyrocket curve (5,000-6,000 in 1945; 33,000-35,000 by 1955). But the latter figures are unreliable because of inadequate and irregular reporting techniques, and the picture is additionally confused, after 1937, by the inclusion of marijuana cases. In any event it is a virtual certainty that between 1940 and 1945, while war disrupted most of the globe, there was a marked decline in whatever the true level of addiction might have been, although the Bureau did not risk discounting its own importance too much, and brooked no speculation in which the figure ever got below 30,000. By 1948 Commissioner Anslinger was officially promulgating a ratio of one addict per 3,000 in the population, bringing the total back up to 45,000. Yet at this point observers began to comment on the fact that no great postwar increase in addiction had developed, and to make the heretical suggestion that drug addiction might not be so great a national hazard after all. So the Bureau went into action. Anslinger and other spokesmen announced that addiction was once again alarmingly on the upswing and that, as always, young people were in danger of being enslaved in great numbers. Through Bureau reports and Treasury handouts, old dogma about the addict were refurbished -that "criminals use dope as a substitute for courage," that "one of the most remarkable features of the personality of the criminal addict is his tendency to induce others to become addicts," and that addicts "derive real pleasure from inducing others to follow the same vice" and are "no more useful to the community than a case of smallpox." In his familiar left-hand-right-hand pattern, U.S. Commissioner Anslinger reported to Congress and his home audience what U.N. Delegate Anslinger had himself told the international body about an alleged Japanese plot (related in 1948 but actually referring to a prewar episode):
. . .a document submitted by the representative of the United States giving full information on the factory built by the Japanese authorities in Mukden for the purpose of manufacturing narcotic drugs to be distributed to the inhabitants of Manchuria. . . . Because narcotic drugs constituted and may constitute in the future a powerful instrument of the most hideous crime against mankind, the Commission recommended to the Economic and Social Council that steps be taken to insure that the use of narcotics as an instrument of committing a crime of this nature be covered by the proposed convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide.
The Bureau warned that drug addicts should not be paroled or put on probation like other convicts because "cure of addiction in no way includes any degree of cure with respect to the pre-dominant criminal tendencies." And it was asserted that all the old illicit sources which had flooded the American market be-fore the war were opening up again and that new bases, notably India and Hong Kong, were also becoming important. In 1949 the official line included this:
The Bureau has noticed during the past few years an alarming increase in the number of young persons, those in their teens and early twenties, arrested for violation of the federal marijuana and narcotic laws in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. . . . There also have been an increasing number of these young narcotic offenders who admit starting the use of narcotics with marijuana, then after a short while changing to the more powerful narcotics such as heroin, morphine and cocaine.
And now the Bureau began pushing a new notion, that at this time the threatening increases in the drug traffic were due to soft-hearted judges and ought to be met by drastic increases in the length of sentences imposed on convicted drug-law offenders. The idea that long prison sentences are per se an effective deterrent is an oversimplification which has been fought by enlightened penologists since the turn of the century. Besides assaulting the discretion (and, indeed, the integrity) of the judiciary, it grounds in the patent distortion that longer terms meted out to those who have run the whole course of detection, apprehension, prosecution, and conviction will deter other potential offenders. Planners of crime worry about being caught. Police-including Anslinger's dope cops and their successors today-deter crime by making apprehension swift, accurate, and certain, not by cutting comers or beating the drums for savage punishments. Instead of allowing judges to fit sentences to the circumstances of each offender as well as to his offense, and instead of giving comparatively new rehabilitation aids like presentence investigation, probation, and parole a chance to play their parts in the process, the thrust of this Anslinger-originated nonsense was to force the hands of the judges indiscriminately in all cases by reviving statutory mandatory minimums. This was the T-men's new campaign, and to some extent the entire aftermath of attacks on judges in general, and latterly on Supreme Court justices in particular, for "coddling" criminals, may be traceable to this badly motivated beginning. In 1950, on the eve of the Kefauver investigation, the Bureau shifted emphasis slightly to report that the "rising" increase in the use of narcotics by youngsters now involved primarily "young hoodlums." The nation was responding to the newfound menace of juvenile delinquency, and accordingly the official line was modified: The Bureau is giving particular attention to this disturbing situation and is convinced that the majority of the young persons encountered in the narcotic traffic are of the hoodlum type and not school children. When arrested for a narcotic violation many of these young persons are found to have prior arrests for violations other than narcotics.
And by 1950 the harsh-punishment theme was being sounded insistently:
Stiff penitentiary sentences for convicted purveyors of narcotics would assist materially in checking this increased use of narcotics by young persons since it would not only remove those persons from the traffic for a considerable period of time, but would act as a deterrent to others who might contemplate engaging in this nefarious traffic.
Contemporaneously the Bureau missed no opportunity to stir up excitement at the state level. Witness the following, from an alarming report by a Special Study Commission in New Jersey:
When the present narcotic menace first arose, Governor Alfred E. Driscoll was one of the first Chief Executives of any State in the country to take action. . . .
The United States is fortunate in having as its leader in the fight against the illicit narcotic traffic one man who stands out like a beacon, the outstanding authority in the world on the subject and the finest type of public official, Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The Commissioner and his associates are career men dedicated to their work and completely unselfish in their devotion to duty. When this Commission commenced its work, the first thing that was done was to solicit the assistance and advice of the Commissioner and the members of his department. The response was immediate, and the subsequent efforts to aid us were completely unselfish and untiring. The citizens of our country are fortunate in having Commissioner Anslinger lead this fight, and we wish grate-fully to acknowledge the fatherly assistance which he has given to us.
The tough-penalty campaign bore fruit on Capitol Hill in 1950, as we have already related in the marijuana chronicle, when one of Anslinger's strongest supporters, Congressman Hale Boggs, introduced his bill to increase all drug-offense penalties, with mandatory minimums of two years for a first offense, five years for a second offense, and ten (to twenty) for third and subsequent repetitions. The Bureau immediately endorsed this as being "of material assistance in the fight against the narcotic traffic." When the Kefauver Committee (Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce) got under way the following year, Commissioner Anslinger was one of its earliest official witnesses. He testified that his Bureau's enforcement of the narcotic laws for the past generation had reduced the problem by half, but went on immediately to warn that there had been recent marked increases in addiction, "mainly among young hoodlums." He told the Committee that addicts always tend to make more addicts, and avowed that most addicts cannot be cured by any means presently known." Interestingly, in view of what we shall see in a moment about his proprietorship of the Mafia, on this first Crime Committee appearance Anslinger said that the distribution of illegal drugs in the United States was being accomplished "sometimes by individuals, but more generally by organizations of greater or less complexity." Some individuals were simply associated in the relation of buyer and seller, and sometimes they were in a common conspiracy to distribute drugs, but he explained how they might shift from one organization to another "and intermittently in and out of the traffic." Not a word about Mafia. He said that characters like 'Waxey" Gordon, "Legs" Diamond, and "Lepke" Buchalter dipped into narcotics from time to time, along with (the only Italian in the roster) "Lucky' Luciano. At the time of this testimony, the underworld organization which had been receiving most attention, and which currently most fascinated and terrified the general public, was Murder, Inc., and-sure enough-Anslinger told the Committee that Murder, Inc., was not only an interstate but actually an inter-country and intercontinent drug-pushing organization, "obtaining its supplies in China and distributing them from New York throughout the country, particularly to the Southwest." He said his Bureau estimated that Murder, Inc., "smuggled into this country and distributed enough narcotics to supply one-fifth of the entire addict population." After giving the senators some typical Bureau anecdotes-shot to death while sleeping in his mother's home," "blood on the seat and brain tissue on the dashboard," "killed by a shotgun blast before the eyes of his 15-year-old daughter"-Anslinger concluded that the narcotics traffic feeds on the slow murder of its customers, and urged as his principal recommendation that increasingly severe sentences should be imposed on an drug offenders, with, typically, a bootstrap reference to statements he himself. had planted in various international proceedings: "Both the League of Nations and the United Nations have recommended more severe sentences as one of the best methods to suppress the traffic."
As a result of this testimony and subsequent hammering on the same theme, the Kefauver Crime Committee adopted the reintroduced Boggs bill as one of its own recommendations in 1951, and the 82nd Congress enacted it. So instead of maximum sentences of up to two years for most drug offenses and increased maximums only for repeaters, federal judges found themselves compelled to give at least two, five, and ten years (two to five, five to ten, and ten to twenty) for each succeeding conviction in a drug category, with, moreover, no possibility of using the alternatives of suspended sentence or parole for second and subsequent offenses, though such devices remained available for all other convicted defendants, including traitors and murderers. The American Bar Association and other concerned groups fought the Boggs Act, but to no avail. In 195 1 anything that made lawmakers look tough in the view of their frightened and confused constituents was sure-fire; there was not so much as a murmur of dissent in either house as this lamentable measure went through. .
Without denying that the Kefauver hearings had some worth, at least in dramatizing the broad significance of so-called organized crime to American TV viewers, it must be noted, nonetheless, that (a) not a single Crime Committee recommendation except the Boggs Act became law (until Attorney General Kennedy picked three or four up, without attribution, a dozen years later); (b) the Committee uncovered nothing which was not already documented, and often stale besides, in some police file or newspaper morgue; (c) arch-villains like Costello and Accardo were virtually created for their roles by Committee-initiated publicity before being presented on the screen; and (d) after a seemly wait for the "heat" to subside, many of the same operations were revived in the same locales, often with the same underworld figures apparently in control. I have doubtless assumed a heavy enough burden by arguing in these pages that the American drug experience reflects so much folly and fraud. But I do not back away from the inference that related areas, including much of the crime-control spectrum and especially the "organized crime" field, are similarly tainted. The unfolding of the Mafia story-which I believe to be largely fiction-illustrates this. "Mafia' is supposed to be an acronym from a cry of protest that arose spontaneously all over Sicily on March 30, 1282,- when a French soldier of the then-occupying forces raped a young bride in a church in Palermo on that day (and no other). Its existence as a force in American life was first suggested in 1893, to justify the lynching of a dozen Italians by a New Orleans mob after they had been found not guilty in a trial for murdering a popular New Orleans police officer named David Hennessy, who had died in the arms of his faithful lieutenant, Billy O'Connor, murmuring, "They got me, Bill." The wily Sicilians thereupon stayed out of sight so successfully that their next significant appearance anywhere on the scene was in Cleveland in 1928, where a group of twenty-three persons, most of them obviously Italian and described as "alleged Mafia leaders," were arrested in a downtown hotel, found to be in possession of fire-arms, and made the subject of a group photograph. Again there was a long lapse, punctuated only by a few Sunday-supplement references to 'Black Hand Societies' in immigrant ghettos, until the late 1940's, when Mafia stories began to turn up once more.
But this time the sinister Italian conspiracy emerged as the exclusive creature of the Narcotics Bureau. The Mafia concept suited the Bureau ideally as a back-drop for its own image-building. It had mysterious foreign roots, overtones of danger and violence, and an exotic quality akin to that of the Chinese tongs, which had been so successfully (and undeservedly) associated with opium dens a quarter century earlier. And indisputably there were identifiable Italian-Americans more or less prominently connected with criminal enterprises throughout the country. Many had drifted into boot-legging and learned how to operate in the so-called rackets during the 1920's when, as recent immigrants, there were not many comparable opportunities available to them in the upper-world.
The Mafia provided Commissioner Anslinger with another answer to Director Hoover, whose FBI was still upstaging competing enforcement agencies by glamorizing individuals as wartime master-spies, communist agents, and candidates for its Ten Most Wanted list. Obviously a full-blown international secret society, played up as an evil adversary that the Bureau had to battle constantly, offered propaganda advantages surpassing those of even the most glamorous single malefactor. In this connection it is noteworthy that Hoover and his G-men scorned the Mafia and deprecated all suggestions that there was any such thing until the early 1960's, when Attorney General Kennedy unearthed Joe Valachi and took the concept away from Treasury by renaming it Cosa Nostra. After that a total and impenetrable monopoly of all revelations about Cosa Nostra was maintained by justice's FBI for nearly a decade, until some protesting citizens of Italian ancestry forced Attorney General Mitchell to drop the entire matter forthwith-whereupon their leader was felled in a 1971 on-camera shooting that was as improbable, bizarre, and police-dominated as the 1963 Ruby-Oswald execution in Dallas. But the ramifications of that are indeed beyond the compass of these pages. As has been noted, at the beginning of the Kefauver hearings Anslinger not only made no references to the Mafia, but pointedly credited the illicit drug traffic to persons and organizations with non-Italian names and no ties to tiny Sicily. Throughout its early proceedings, the Crime Committee itself talked about the "mob" or the "crime syndicate," and played no favorites as among Irish, Jewish, Italian, or, for that matter, melting-pot overlords of crime. But the seeds were being sown, and the Mafia story was taking shape largely from Narcotics Bureau revelations. Anslinger's anecdotes of Bureau conquests, alluded to a few pages back (brain tissue on the dashboard, remember?), turned up verbatim in the Kefauver Committee's famous Third Interim
Report early in 1951, and according to the Bureau, as quoted by the Committee:
It is almost inevitable that the Mafia should take an important part in American criminal rackets. Here is a nation-wide organization of outlaws in a sort of oath-bound, blood-cemented brother-hood dedicated to complete defiance of the law where personal advantage or interests are concerned. Here is a more or less permanently established network, an organized maze of underground conduits, always ready and available when racket enterprise is to be furthered. The organization is such that a member in one part of the country can, with perfect confidence, engage in any sort of illicit business with members in any other section of the country-
Observing that it was very difficult to obtain any reliable data about Mafia operations, the Senate Committee produced the 1928 Cleveland group picture as "one notable concrete piece of evidence." It deemed ominously significant the fact that one of the Italians who had appeared in that photograph twenty-three years earlier, and who had been revealed to the Committee "by the experts" to be a top Mafia leader, was unable to give a satisfactory explanation of his presence at the Cleveland gathering when interrogated by Chairman Kefauver two decades later. It also deemed significant its discovery that virtually all witnesses of Italian extraction denied knowledge of the Mafia, denied being members of it, and sometimes openly ridiculed the notion, which denials the Committee characterized as "patently absurd." At this point, the Kefauver Committee put itself on record as "inclined to agree with the opinion of experienced police officers and narcotics agents" that the Mafia dominated the American crime scene, with extensive international ramifications:
The Mafia is a secret conspiracy against law and order which will ruthlessly eliminate anyone who stands in the way of its success in any criminal enterprise in which it is interested. It win destroy anyone who betrays its secrets. It will use any means available political influence, bribery, intimidation, etc., to defeat any attempt on the part of law enforcement to touch its top figures or to interfere with its operations. Anslinger could scarcely have asked for more. But when the Crime Committee's Final Report came out a few months later it contained a central section on drugs tuned to near-hysteria, and it restated virtually every item of Bureau cant even more strongly: The illegal traffic in narcotic drugs exemplifies organized crime at its devastating worst. It represents one of the great tragedies of our times, especially when it preys upon young people who are ignorant of the effects of drug addiction not only upon themselves as individuals but upon family and society as a whole. Addiction resulting from an ignorant or depraved attempt to obtain temporary pleasure is an inexcusable tragedy. Drug addiction is a form of contagious disease with a high recurrence. . . . Against this backdrop of tragedy, the picture of the dope peddler promoting drug addiction in order to create new customers is nothing short of revolting. . . . In the past 24 months, America has been jolted to its foundations by the discovery that youngsters, especially in the larger cities, are using narcotic drugs, many to the point of addiction. New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. saw big increases in the number of underaged drug users coming to the attention of the police. In a large number of cases, these young people were engaging in crime for the sole purpose of supporting their drug habit. The Committee recounted (and this is still 1951) the sad stories of a nineteen-year-old boy who threw away a scholar-ship at an eastern university because of drugs, a Midwestern freshman who dropped out in his first semester and stole money from the mails-"all because of dope," a group of collegians who grew marijuana in their backyard, and girls in their late teens with narcotic habits who admitted resorting to prostitution . rather than endure the horror of going without drugs." From Harlem came reports that 50 per cent of all members of youthful street gangs smoked marijuana, including youths of thirteen; indeed, even some nine-year-olds had reportedly been approached by peddlers attempting to have them take drugs.
On the Mafia, the Final Report summed up in these fulsome terms:
Experienced enforcement officers believe that the present influx of heroin from abroad is managed by the Mafia with Charles "Lucky" Luciano, notorious gangster, vice king, and racketeer, deported convict, now resident in Italy, as the operating head. . . . World-wide in scope, the Mafia is believed to derive the major source of its income from the distribution and smuggling of narcotics. An undercover agent of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics testified at length before the' Committee just after his return from an extended assignment in Italy. Asked whether Luciano is the kingpin of the Mafia, the agent responded that if "Lucky" isn't the kingpin, "he is one of the Royal Family," that he receives large sums of money from American gangsters and that he certainly wields influence in Mafia policy matters,
The only area in which Bureau control of the Kefauver findings slipped a little was in the matter of public education. Anslinger's violent insistence that any dissemination of public information about drugs would stir up curiosity and cause addiction was resisted by the Committee, which recommended a cautious program to inform people of "true facts." Responsibility was placed on the nation's educators, who were exhorted to start information programs in the schools, and although there were no immediate changes, this marked a turning point; gradually in the following decade, there were the beginnings of a few serious assaults on Bureau-fostered ignorance about the drug problem. The Committee recommended that Commissioner Anslinger's force of agents be doubled and that his Bureau's appropriations be substantially increased. Even the communist menace was given a drug tie-in in the Final Report. Although, it noted, most nations were willing to help control the production of opium poppies, "there is some doubt as to the attitude of Communist China", and moreover, when the United States representative on the U.N. Commission (Anslinger, of course) called attention to heroin manufacture in Communist China, "the Russian delegate tried unsuccessfully to have his remarks stricken from the record."