When I think about the term “miscarriage of justice,” I think about the obvious ones. A defendant is convicted of a crime that they didn’t actually commit, a police officer uses excessive force, official incompetence allows someone who has committed a crime to walk away from legal consequences, “on a technicality.” Less obvious but also significant is the role of undue influence and corruption as individuals with money and power who commit crimes frequently overwhelm the criminal justice system or avoid consequences altogether.
Elizabeth Bass, The G-Woman at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – Part 2
Editor’s Note: In the second of two posts which re-open the Points ‘Hidden Figures of Drug History‘ feature, Bob Beach explores Elizabeth Bass’s career as a G-Man at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Picking up where we left off, Elizabeth Bass was appointed as district nine supervisor of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in Chicago in 1933. Even if we consider what we know about the role of women during the Prohibition phase in the war on drugs, and the context of the Roosevelt Administration’s efforts to break political taboos in appointing women to prominent roles during his term, the appointment of a woman to this position seems rather remarkable.
Her age, 71 when she took her position, was perhaps more remarkable. It was over the limit for federal employees in the Civil Service, but was waived by one of Roosevelt’s many executive orders, allowing her and other aged political allies to join his administration. Her glaring disqualification as a lifelong political operative was her complete lack of law enforcement experience. This concern was exacerbated by deeply embedded assumptions about gender (not to mention age) in the world of law enforcement.
Elizabeth Bass, The G-Woman at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – Part 1
Editor’s Note: In the first of two posts which offer new additions to former ‘Points’ feature ‘Hidden Figures of Drug History‘ Bob Beach explores the colorful career of Elizabeth Bass prior to her role as a G-Man within the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Anti-Narcotics as Social Critique: Earle Albert Rowell’s Crusade
We are introduced to David Dare in Experiences of David Dare in Bible Research, a novel written by Earle Albert Rowell in 1933. Dare, presenting a series of lectures on biblical prophecy to a town of agnostics gradually wins over the Emersons, a local family who become convinced by Dare’s lectures and convert to Christianity. Four years later, Dare and the Emersons reappear as a team of anti-narcotics crusaders, saving a wealthy family, the Marvels, from the perils of addiction in Dope Adventures of David Dare.
Dare’s creator, Earle Albert Rowell had written several short books on religion and drugs through this period. One about the opium habit from 1929 Battling the Worlves of Socitey and another about the new scourge of marijuana in his 1939 book, On The Trail of Marihuana. Described by his publishers as a well traveled anti-narcotics crusader, a member of the White Cross International Anti-Narcotics Society. He and his son Robert, Earle’s opium pipe in hand, had criss-crossed the country educating the public about narcotics and writing about his work.
Rumor and Libel: Regulating Cannabis in the Panama Canal Zone, 1914-1935.
On October 2, 1935, in the midst of Reefer Madness, Nelson Rounsevell was convicted of a single libel charge in a Panama Canal Zone District Court. Rounsevell, editor of the bilingual Panama American had published a series of editorials in the summer of 1935 alleging that Colonel James V. Heidt and Major General Harold B. Fiske were running a “suicide post” at Ft. Clayton, after reports surfaced of four suicides in six weeks at the fort. In one editorial, Rounsevell referred to Heidt as, “the Simon Legree of the zone, [relentlessly] driving his men by day and [ignoring] marihuana smoking by night.”
While the story seems have all the trappings of reefer madness discourse, his conviction on libel charges might seem curious. Surely, if Harry Anslinger had been involved, he may have led the charge against Heidt and Fiske himself. In fact, Rounsevell was indicted on five separate charges of libel during this episode and was only convicted on a single charge. I suggest that understanding the Rounsevell libel case involves understanding the evolution of marjiuana regulations in the Canal Zone that predate the conflicts of reefer madness in the U.S. Soldiers overworked, bored, and isolated had been using marijuana as a solution-seeking activity to pass time and cope with the tremendous stress and isolation of military life in the Canal Zone. Rounsevell’s error was not reporting marijuana use, it was misunderstanding the motivations for use. Marijuana use did not cause the suicides, but the factors that did were factors that also influenced an individuals use of marijuana.
The Eyes of the City: Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on the Marihuana Problem in New York
I recently attended the Urban History Association conference in Chicago, October 13-16 along with Tina Peabody and Shannon Missick, two colleagues from the University at Albany, SUNY, presenting a panel about the shifting focus of municipal resources toward (and away from) issues of trash collection, food access, and marijuana use. I examined the La Guardia Committee Report on the Marihuana Problem in New York, published in 1944. The committee was tasked with investigating the validity of public hysteria surrounding marijuana use in New York City during the so-called Reefer Madness era, which galvanized political support for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
The committee report stands as a clear refutation of Anslinger’s version of the marijuana threat, and though largely ignored at the time, constitutes a rallying cry for advocates of legalization today who use the report to expose the flimsy bases for the drug’s initial prohibition. The report has thus become a hot new source for historians to re-examine. In a newly published article in the Journal of Policy History, Emily Brooks discusses the disconnect between federal marijuana policy approaches and local marijuana policy approaches, centering the La Guardia report within this policy conflict. Brooks argues that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was able to exert its power to shape marijuana policy and along with an assist from the American Medical Association, to circumscribe medical and scientific inquiries into the plant despite the efforts of La Guardia and the New York Academy of Medicine to counter their power in the late 1930s.
Holy Smoke: Religious Freedom and Medical Marijuana in the 1990s.
During my visit to the NORML archives, I found a few interesting items on religious uses of marijuana during the 1990s . These were appealing because I remember coming of age during a time when you’d occasionally hear a story about people getting busted for drugs and “claiming religious freedom” to justify their dangerous criminal behavior. I decided to gather these sources expecting that I could work with them at some point.
Frequent readers, have read a few of my thoughts about historical perspectives on motivations for cannabis use and the following will speak to this research interest, but the real motivation for picking these sources back up is NFLer Colin Kaepernick’s recent pre-game protests against abuses of police power. In my own experience, the social media storm seems to boil down to a conflict over who can own the controversy. Meanwhile Kaepernick’s own words about his motivation fail to resonate. In a story twist familiar to drug historians, the failure to understand real motivation obscures and threatens to silence or erase a public act of defiance against social injustice.
Highlighting Race, Ignoring Motive: Science, Subjectivity, and Walter Bromberg at Bellevue
The year 1934 was a turning point for cannabis in the U.S. This was the year that Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics turned its attention toward the marijuana menace, thus inaugurating the reefer madness era. That same year, Dr. Walter Bromberg, senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, published the first in a series of articles about his examinations of cannabis users in New York. The article, entitled “Marihuana Intoxication” appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Historians have pointed to Bromberg’s work as a direct challenge to the FBN’s narrative of the marijuana menace during this period. His general conclusions seem to affirm this characterization, especially in terms of the extent and impact of use. For example, in the ’34 article, Bromberg describes a survey of felony convicts in Manhattan in which only seven smoked the drug regularly, and none of their crimes were committed as a result of, during or after, marijuana intoxication. By 1939, Bromberg was able to link the misinformation directly to the propagandistic efforts of various public institutions, even forcing Anslinger to respond personally.