3. White working-class opiate use 1910-1920

Submitted by Steven. on January 20, 2012

It has been suggested that until the Harrison Act (1914) and other legislation limited the medical supply of narcotics and made it virtually illegal to buy, sell or consume the drugs, addicts were recruited from all social classes, not particularly from the working class (Terry and Pellens 1928; Duster 1972).

This is based on unsystematic observations made by early surveyors, and upon the widespread availability of narcotics in the form of patent medicine..

The only evidence we have been able to locate was referred to in the preceding section and deals exclusively with Washington,D.C. (Weber 1909). This suggests that the use of patent medicines was inversely related to family income. The higher the income, the smaller the proportion of income spent on such medicine; the lower the income, the higher this proportion (Table 3).

This is only a suggestive finding, for it indicates nothing about the size of the aggregate or per capita consumption of the medicines by income group or class; a small proportion of a large income spent on patent medicine may still have purchased more medicine than a larger proportion of a small income.

The data included in Table 3 on family expenditures for sickness and death are also far from conclusive, but they reflect the higher rates of fertility and then mortality in the lowest income group, as compared with the others. It may be hypothesized that the largest proportion of these expenditures was made on death (funeral, etc.) in this group, and on doctors to prevent to prevent death in the highest income group. patent medicines were a substitute for the doctor in the lowest income, and narcotics obtained by doctor's prescription would commonly have been consumed only by those income groups able to afford the doctor's fee.

It stands to reason that the class of people with the longest working hours, the most physically demanding occupations, the least income for adequate clothing, housing and heat during winter, and the least access to professional medical treatment, would experience the highest incidence of respiratory diseases, and would consume in the aggregate relatively more of the opiate or cocaine-based patent medicines.

As indicated previously, it does not necessarily follow that consumption of these medicines and so-called opiate addiction were positively associated, although that was the typical assumption upon which has been based much of the claim for middle-class addiction prior to the Harrison Act.

The only other evidence regarding the class of drug users around the time of the Harrison Act confirms that they were modally of working-class origins, as measured by occupation or education (less than high school). There was, for example, a noticeable increase in the number of adolescent drug users between 1910 and 1915. The evidence for this is scattered through individual court, hospital and prison records; for instance, a judge of the Court of Special Sessions, New York, reported that in 1916 and 1921 this was the peak for that age group (Helmer 1974). Bloedorn found that the largest proportion of drug cases admitted to Bellevue Hospital between 1908 and 1916 were between the ages of 21 and 23, and most had begun drug use as teenagers ((1917:315-16).

Heroin users in particular, according to the same author, tended to be younger than morphine, opium and cocaine users, and their proportion of the hospital's drug-addiction intake rose steadily after 1913. Rosenblutt, who was Superintendent of a New York State reformatory in 1914 (Bender 1963:183) and Lichtenstein, who was a medical officer attached to the Tombs, New York City's prison (Lichtenstein 1914:962), both identified the immediate pre-war period as one of a heroin epidemic, and other sources confirm its working-class nature. Bloedorn wrote that "there can be no doubt that overcrowding, congestion, unsanitary surroundings, and a lack of facilities for healthful recreation are predisposing factors in drug- addiction" (1917:309). Lichtenstein, with a somewhat different theory, identified the same antecedent class variable: "the greater number (of addicts) are on the gangster type and consequently are mental and moral degenerates" (1914:964). Parallel studies of heroin use among enlisted men in the Navy (R.S. 1916) and Army (King 1916) provide partial background data which reinforce the central class tendency.)

Few of the data sources provide information on the race or ethnicity of these drug users. There is not much doubt about identifying the military users as white, but the adolescent population in New York is more difficult to characterize. It was almost certainly not Chinese, and in New York, according to Lichtenstein, the three most common groups by ethnic origin (heroin users only) were American, Italian and "Hebrew American" (Jews born in the U.S. to immigrant parents) (Lichtenstein 1914:964). Indeed, among the 159 arrestees whose names were reported by the New York Times between 1913 and 1915 (the first 24 months after enactment of New York City's own anti-narcotic legislation), Jews were especially prominent. They appear to have dominated the street trade in drugs in Brooklyn, where Samuel Goldberg, known as "King of Cokies," was arrested for possession of cocaine in July 1914. Italians, or combinations of Italians and Jews, ran dealing networks in lower Manhattan and in the Tendeloin areas (Helmer1974).

In the statistics of the New York city narcotic Clinic close to 70% of the patients between 1919 and 1920 were American- born, and Jews with East European backgrounds were a sizable proportion of both these and the foreign-born whites (Helmer 1974). The breakdown for occupations revealed that fewer than 70% of the patients in all could be classed as professionals, managers or proprietors - the majority of these in fact were actors or actresses. Of the rest, most were unskilled or semi-skilled manual workers (the two commonest occupations listed were driver and laborer), followed by skilled tradesmen, and last of all, by clerks and salesmen (10%) (Helmer 1974).

No doubt doctors, who were commonly thought to be prone to morphine addiction, may have been able to conceal their habits and secure their source of supply, but in the aggregate it is likely that neither they nor the middle-class housewife, who, many researchers still believe, was the typical pre-war addict (Duster 1970:12), amounted to much in comparison with the large bodies of "respectable" and "criminal" working-class drug users.

Once this is established, it will be evident that the socioeconomic pattern of narcotic addiction has scarcely changed since before legislation made narcotics illegal. It remains to illustrate further how that legislation has functioned in the context of simple class conflict, and to consider whether the rise of the black addict since 1940 is explicable as a unique phenomenon of race or a conventional one of class.