The Forgotten Drug War: One Million Drug Addicts, Part II

In the first part of this post, I described the manner in which the Treasury Department and its Special Narcotic Committee produced the “mythical number” of one million opiate addicts residing in the United States in 1919. The methods (if that word can be applied here) to arrive at the one million figure involved a laughable mixture of bad statistics and lazy guesswork. Moreover, historian David Courtwright has subsequently marshaled enough empirical evidence to show that the estimate was at least three times larger than the actual figure. As I mentioned in part one, the one million addicts are a classic example of what Max Singer had called in 1971 the “vitality of mythical numbers,” an observation reiterated by economist Peter Reuter in 1987 in his own discussion of the “continued” vitality of mythical numbers. The Treasury Department arrived at a figure that served their organizational interest in maximizing the need for drug control efforts, and they and their political allies worked to disseminate that figure. But that wasn’t the point of my post. Today, in part two, I’d like to consider what happened to the “one million addict” figure, after it was first promoted by the federal government.

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