Fish Stories: The Drug Wars’ Unreliable Narrator

Given the Saturday Evening Post’s homogenous readership in 1926, we can forgive novice journalist Harry J. Anslinger for embroidering this lead into his article, “Tiger of the Sea”: “A moving picture with a South Sea scene is hardly complete unless the native hero, with a long dagger held between his teeth, balances his weight on the edge of a canoe to prepare for a dive to kill the shark that is between him and the precious pearl which he risks his life for to offer to the daughter of the white missionary whose beauty has captivated him.”

The reference to film is unsurprising, given Anslinger’s later fascination with Hollywood and his obsession with celebrity drug use. Students of American drug prohibition might also recognize this sort of dangerous interracial romance as an ever-present theme in Anslinger’s writing. But I want to discuss something more basic about Anslinger and his work: truthfulness.


The cover of the issue in which “Tiger of the Sea” appeared

The article goes on to describe how sharks have gained a mistaken reputation as killers of humans while actually, the vicious barracuda – a quick-moving fish with razors for teeth – is the real “tiger of the sea.” The shark, writes Anslinger, is actually “the scavenger of the sea … usually found hovering near slaughter-house drains. He invariably follows fishing craft homeward bound to gather the fish refuse cast overboard. … He is wary of live bait.” Barracudas are the real perpetrators, he writes, of many supposed attacks by “the innocent shark.”

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Why Is Marijuana Illegal? A Historical View – Part Two

Why is marijuana illegal? Do a quick internet search and you’ll find a series of generally related answers: racism, fear, corporate profits, yellow journalism, ignorant and incompetent legislators, and bureaucratic preservation. Almost all of these are also tied to one man: Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962. While these issues are critically important to consider, they help explain only portions of our nation’s marijuana prohibition story. Indeed, in part one of this series I examined the origins of cannabis regulations dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. These state level statutes demonstrate a clear, historical precedent for medicinal cannabis legislation in the United States, driven by the concerns of medical doctors and pharmacists seeking both their own professional authority and consumer protections in the marketplace. My objective is to suggest that these early developments demonstrate a far longer and more complex history of cannabis regulation than most existing versions of the story suggest, especially those readily available on the internet. It’s not that those internet versions of marijuana prohibition are entirely wrong; it’s that they often sustain a sensational narrative that misses critical components of this longer history and the original scholarship from which they are derived.


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From ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ to ‘Grow, Hemp, Grow’: Reflections on Industrial Hemp and Foreign Oil

Since the early 1970s, most Americans have been keenly aware of the effect foreign oil production and supply can have on the economy and national security interests of the United States. From the 1973 OAPEC embargo to the 1979 Iranian Revolution to more recent debates on the Keystone pipeline or Deepwater Horizon spill, the importance of “energy independence” has been a recurring theme for decades. But it may come as a surprise that similar rhetoric once surrounded a reliance on foreign hemp.

Father and son hold up their sign saying Gas Stealers beware during the 1973 Oil Crisis

Father and son hold up a sign saying “Gas Stealers Beware, We’re Loaded…” during the 1973 Oil Crisis
(David Falconer, EPA, US National Archives)

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Reflections on the NIAAA/NIDA Merger, Part 2

Francis Collins

Part 1 here.

The current merger plan arose out of a request by the U.S. Congress, accompanying the FY2001 appropriations act, that NIH engage the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of “whether the current structure and organization of NIH are optimally configured for the scientific needs of the twenty-first century.”(21) The resulting 2003 NAS report sought to define principles via which to better organize and coordinate the research enterprises across NIH’s 27 separate institutes.(22) Collapsing NIAAA and NIDA into a single institute was one of two possible institute mergers suggested for further study in the NAS report.(23) NIH devoted still more energy to the question of optimal organizational structure later in the decade. NIH’s Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) was created under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Reform Act of 2006 “…to advise the NIH Director and other appropriate officials on the use of certain organizational authorities reaffirmed under the same act.”

Four working groups were constituted in the SMRB, including the Deliberating Organizational Change and Effectiveness (DOCE) Working Group and the Substance Use, Abuse, and Addiction (SUAA) Working Group.(24) In November, 2010, the SMRB published a report offering a series of guiding principles for organizational change at NIH, developed by the DOCE Working Group.(25) Also in November, 2010, and after considering the assessments and options offered by the SUAA Working Group, the full SMRB issued a report recommending the dissolution of NIAAA and NIDA, and the creation of a new institute “for substance use, abuse, and addiction-related research.”(26) NIH Director Francis S. Collins’ statement of November 18, 2010 recommended the creation of the merged institute and requested NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak and National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMSD) Director Stephen I. Katz to impanel an NIH task force to make recommendations as to which substance use, abuse, and addiction research programs should be imported into the new institute and which current NIAAA and NIDA programs should be relocated to other NIH entities.(27) On September 12, 2011, NIAAA and NIDA advisory councils held their first joint meeting, at which various aspects of merger were discussed.(28) In a presentation dated December 8, 2011, Tabak offered an “action timeline” for the new institute, projecting its launch in October, 2013 (FY2014).(29)

Along the way, NIAAA’s Advisory Council reacted sharply against the evolving merger plan. The Council passed an unopposed resolution (14 favored, 0 opposed, 1 abstained) in February, 2010, “strongly advising NIH against a reorganization that eliminates NIAAA as an independent institute.”(30) (NIDA’s Advisory Council, on the other hand, voted unanimously in favor of merger on March 1, 2010.)(31) The NIAAA Council’s resolution offered fully a dozen reasons for rejecting merger, each discussed in turn: (32) Continue reading

Reflections on the Scheduled NIAAA/NIDA Merger, Part 1

Editor’s Note: Ready or not – and like it or not! — the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) are scheduled for merger in less than 18 months.  Points contributing editor Ron Roizen offers a two-part post on the history of the two institutes, the recent push toward merger, and the merger’s possible effects.  This signal change in the organization of federally funded alcohol and drug research in the U.S. compels the attention of readers from across Points’ spectrum of history, policy, and advocacy.  In addition to welcoming comments, we invite research and policy professionals with an interest in post-length comments on the merger– or on Roizen’s take on the merger–  to contact Managing Editor Trysh Travis ( to discuss future stints as guest bloggers.

Senator Harold Hughes

The planned decommissioning of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the creation of a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) institute to take their places, now scheduled for launch in October, 2013 (FY2014), are notable developments in the history of the federal role in the application of science to alcohol- and drug-related public problems in the U.S.  The push for merger of these two formerly separate public problem domains is by no means new.  Sociologist David J. Pittman published an article titled, “The Rush To Combine: Sociological Dissimilarities of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse,” nearly a half-century ago, criticizing what he regarded as the contemporary trend toward conflation.(1)  Pittman’s 1967 article appeared of course before either NIAAA, created in 1970, or NIDA, created in 1973, had arrived on the scene.

Despite their surface similarities, the two institutes grew out of quite different cultural and political circumstances.  NIAAA’s creation was the product of a constituency-driven movement to modernize American attitudes toward alcoholism and, beyond that, to enhance the nation’s awareness of and substantially enlarge its response capacity with respect to a massive putative “hidden alcoholism” problem lurking unrecognized in our population.(2)  The testimonies of Alcoholics Anonymous’s (AA) William Griffith Wilson,(3) National Council on Alcoholism’s (NCA) Mrs. Marty Mann, and actress Mercedes McCambridge highlighted the 1969 hearings of the Senate Special Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics, chaired by Senator Harold Hughes, which in turn lead to NIAAA’s creation.(4)

According to Nancy Olson’s account, R. Brinkley Smithers and Thomas P. Pike – the latter, an early member of AA, vice chair of the board of the Fluor Corporation, and an influential Republican who also offered testimony at the Hughes hearings – played key roles in convincing President Richard M. Nixon to sign the “Hughes Act” creating NIAAA, despite veto recommendations from some influential members of Nixon’s administration.(5) NIDA’s creation, in 1973, on the other hand, grew out of palpable public anxiety regarding the diffusion of illicit drug use in the 1960s, worry about the potential consequences of continuing heroin use by military personnel returning from wartime Vietnam, and disenchantment with the nation’s predominantly criminal justice response to drug problems to date.(6) Reform-minded members of the medical and legal professions also played key roles in the creation of the alcohol and drug institutes.  Both institutes banked on the promise of modern science to improve knowledge and strengthen social responses to their respective problem domains.  But the meaning and relevance of science’s authority and prospects differed for each.  On the alcohol side, NIAAA’s creation represented a crowning achievement for the modern alcoholism movement, now lending the prestige and resources of a freestanding federal agency to alcoholism’s disease status and its importance as a public health problem.  On the drug side, NIDA’s creation was intended to buttress mainstream society’s claims regarding the evils of illicit drugs, affirm the importance of maintaining an official tabu on drug use, and, at the same time, advance the prospects for effective treatment for drug use victims.  The passage of time showed that neither NIAAA nor NIDA stuck entirely faithfully to the scripts suggested by these founding intentions, although neither institute may be said to have abandoned these scripts either. Continue reading