Why 2,000,000 Americans Are Dope Fiends (Jun, 1930)

Why 2,000,000 Americans Are Dope Fiends

DR. WM. I. SIROVICH, a leading authority, tells here the amazing facts about the illegal dope traffic, which in recent years has assumed the proportions of a national peril. He is a member of Congress and a physician, and is leading the fight for an international agreement to stem the blighting tide of habit-forming narcotics that pours into this country from abroad.


IN THE United States, one out of every sixty persons is a drug addict. During the decade from 1920 to 1930, the number of narcotic victims in America has doubled, tripled, quadrupled. One ton a year of crude opium and its derivatives would meet the legitimate medicinal and scientific needs of the nation. Yet, last year, approximately 200 tons were smuggled into America. The amount of morphine consumed is thirty-five times that required; and, with a smaller population than that of Germany, France, and Italy combined, we import ten times as much crude opium as these three nations together.

Such startling figures as these, presented, a few weeks ago, on the floor of Congress by Dr. William I. Sirovich, Representative from New York and a leading authority upon narcotics, have aroused officials to new efforts to stem this tide of habit-forming drugs. The House Ways and Means Committee reported favorably on the Porter Bill, to create a Bureau of Narcotics in the Treasury Department, and the House passed it. Governors of many states began investigations to find how they could best cooperate in fighting the traffic. In New York City, U. S. Attorney Charles H. Tuttle advocated the passage of a law to send dope peddlers to prison for life if convicted a second time.

What are the causes of the alarming increase in the number of drug addicts? Who are these more than 2,000,000 victims of a body and soul destroying habit? What are its effects on the health and morals of the nation? Where do the enormous quantities of drugs come from? How are they smuggled into this country and then retailed? How can the illicit traffic be prevented? How can narcotics be restored to their rightful place as a reliever of pain and kept from becoming a plague?

Recently I asked Dr. Sirovich to answer these and other questions for the readers of Popular Science Monthly. As superintendent of a New York City hospital and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, a legislator and one of the leading spirits in America’s light against the drug traffic, he has had wide opportunity to study the subject from all angles.

The problem, I found, is an exceedingly complicated one, even more involved on account of its international aspects. To begin with, the reasons for the shocking increase in narcotic consumption in the past ten years cannot be understood without a knowledge of who and what drug addicts really are.

In the public mind, narcotics are generally associated with crime and criminals. But though lawbreakers, especially holdup men and murderers, often are dope fiends, they are by no means the only users of drugs. There are addicts among the rich, the poor, and those of the middle class; among the socially respectable and members of the underworld; among the educated and the ignorant. Yet, in the main, they belong to one group; in the words of Dr. Sirovich, they all are “psychopathic constitutionally inferior types.”

“They are mostly men and women,” he explained, “who are afraid to face the unpleasant realities of life; in other words, moral cowards. To escape from the hard world of reality, with its pain, failure, disillusionment, unhappiness, and worry and to cross into a world of fantasy and oblivion they use four bridges—the bridge of opium, the bridge of morphine, the bridge of heroin, the bridge of cocaine. To return, they also have to cross four bridges—the bridge of sighs, the bridge of humiliation, the bridge of degradation, the bridge of infamy.

“There are five principal reasons why. this type of person first takes up narcotics. Four of these are physical; the fifth mental. The physical incentives are pain, sleeplessness, inflammation or irritation of all kinds, and digestive disturbances. The mental condition that causes thousands of people to turn to drugs is lack of courage or initiative. They take dope for sustenic purposes; that is to say, as a stimulant to bolster up their nerve.”

Now up to 1920, Dr. Sirovich told me, a large percentage of this latter group used liquor as a stimulant. But when, on January 16, 1920, Prohibition went into effect, they found their supply either cut off entirely or hard to obtain. Many feared the poison in denatured industrial alcohol that flooded the bootleg market in the first years of Prohibition. And so they turned to dope. Another factor that contributed to the increase in addicts was the fact that a number of bootleggers, alter plying their trade for a while, found it easier, safer, and more profitable to handle dope than booze. Peddling drugs does not require transportation of goods in large bulk, detection is harder, and there is no danger from hijackers. Thus, Prohibition was one of the chief causes for the increase.

“Official figures bear me out,” he said.

“In the year 1919-1920, 250,000 pounds of crude opium were imported into the United States. The following year, with the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act on the statute books, the imports leaped to 950,000 pounds, almost four times the quantity.”

The manufacturers of narcotics, he explained, were fully aware of the change in conditions in this country. They speeded up production and unloaded their stuff on the United States by every conceivable means. And though liquor is now easier to get and also less dangerous to drink than in the beginning of the Prohibition era (P. S. M., May ’30, p. 19), this overproduction of narcotics has continued, making illegal importation and sales the only way in which the drugs can be disposed of. Moreover, the drug habit is progressive, and it is safe to say that few if any former drinkers returned to liquor once they had taken up dope.

Virtually all the drugs which are used illegally in America come from foreign countries. There are just fifty-four narcotic factories in the world, four belonging he maintains, to the United States. This makes the drug problem an international one and therefore even more difficult to solve than the Prohibition question, which is almost wholly national in character. The location of all the production centers is known. Thus the source of all illegal dope can be traced. But before the traffic can be stamped out, an international agreement, a sort of “‘narcotics League of Nations,” is necessary. At present, the only countries refusing to sign such an agreement are England, France, Holland, and Switzerland—all large producers of opiates. England owns the greatest number of narcotic factories. Switzerland, which has several, makes two pounds of drugs a year for its own citizens and sends twenty-three tons, or 46.000 pounds, to other lands.

Dr. Sirovich proposes that an international convention be called by President Hoover in 1931. Representatives from all countries would meet in Washington to engage in a world-wide antidrug crusade. This move, he believes, would focus public attention upon the nations that yearly are increasing their output of narcotics, destroying unfortunate men and women mentally, morally, and physically for the enrichment of the drug-factory owners.

The only solution for the increasing use of drugs, Dr. Sirovich declares, is to stop the flood at its source. The total output of the world’s fifty-four factories is more than a thousand tons a year. Three tons would meet the legitimate requirements of the entire world. The number of production centers, he feels, should be limited by international agreement. As battleships are sunk by naval agreement, he proposes that forty-eight of the narcotic factories be “sunk,” leaving six to carry on the work of supplying the opiates really needed for medicinal and scientific purposes. The owners of the abandoned factories could be reimbursed from a fund raised by public subscription.

But until this solution is reached, drugs will continue to claim new victims, undermining their health, dulling their minds, destroying their moral fiber. Incomplete statistics, the only ones available, indicate that a dope user lives from a few to thirty years. His weakened condition makes him an easy prey to disease and infection of all kinds. Dr. Hobart A. Hare, famous drug authority, tells of several cases in which the systems of women addicts were so permeated with the drug that their new-born infants collapsed on the second or third day owing to lack of their customary doses.

Few of those who begin using narcotics are fully aware of the aftermath. All narcotics demand larger and larger doses as time goes on. One eighth of a grain is sufficient at the start. But by the end of six months to a year, to obtain the same reaction, the addict requires from two to three grains. The average dose of the average morphine addict is from ten to thirty grains a day. Some dope fiends use as much as 250 grains a day—nearly four tea-spoonfuls—an amount sufficient to kill five hundred normal men!

AND the cost of this habit is enormous. An ounce of morphine or a similar narcotic smuggled into the United States is worth $150; seven times its weight in gold. At the European sources, the price is about fifty cents. It costs the average addict from five to seven dollars a day to indulge his habit; the sum, of course, increasing as he uses larger amounts. An addict taking 250 grains daily would spend nearly $75 a day or more than $27,000 a year for drugs alone.

Where, unless the victim happens to be rich, does the money come from? That, Dr. Sirovich told me, is where the relationship between drugs and crime comes in. Narcotics dull the mind and weaken the body of the user so he is unable to earn an honest living and at the same time make him desperate for more money. A large share of the robberies, holdups, and murders committed in America can be traced directly to drugs. These crimes are perpetrated either under the influence of dope, which gives the evildoer the necessary nerve; in order to obtain more narcotics; or under the combination of these conditions. When illegal narcotics go, Or. Sirovich maintains, a high percentage of crime will go with them.

OF THE 200 tons of such illegal drugs smuggled into the United States last year, 85 per cent came through the port of New York, he told me. Because of the ingenuity of the smugglers, detection is extremely difficult. And so far as the retail peddlers are concerned, they are much harder to discover, arrest, and convict than bootleggers, due to the fact that drugs can be carried about the person or in small bags or brief cases without arousing suspicion.

Still, the Federal narcotic agents often prove a match for the smugglers. In one haul, a short time ago, they confiscated 4,500 pounds in a single shipment at New York City. It came in on a liner in a box labeled “Brushes.”

In another case, a box labeled “Bowling Pins” aroused the suspicion of the agents. On the side of the box were the letters “I. T.” This meant that the box was “in transit” and was to be taken directly from the boat to a bonded warehouse to await shipment on the first train for its destination. The agents trailed the truck driver who drove off with the box. On his way to the warehouse, he turned into a side street and pulled up before an empty building. Several men came out and together they carried the box inside.

A few minutes later, they emerged again bearing what appeared to be the identical box they had carried inside. The truckman started off. In the next block, the agents stopped him, tore open the box—and found nothing but harmless bowling pins. But when they returned to the building, they surprised members of the dope ring opening the original shipment. In it were bowling pins, but each was hollow and filled with morphine.

A FAVORITE ruse by which big shipments of opium and its derivatives reach America, Dr. Sirovich explained, is as follows: The smuggler poses as an exporter who has an order for drugs from some foreign country. From the State Department, in Washington, he obtains an “export certificate.” This allows him to bring the shipment into the United States from a drug factory in some other nation “in transit,” to send on to his “customer” in the foreign country. The box cannot be opened while passing through the United States and it is to be kept in a bonded warehouse when it is not en route by railroad or steamer. But somewhere along the way, the shipment is diverted and another box, identical in size, shape, weight, and markings, but filled with any sort of junk, is substituted and sent to the “customer ” in the foreign land.

During the past twelve months, narcotics at the rate of more than two tons a month have been shipped to Patagonia, the wild, sparsely-inhabited southern tip of South America. Practically all of these drugs, it is safe to say, “disappeared” somewhere along the route and were used in illegal traffic.

One of the most ingenious systems of smuggling morphine is by means of the “dope letter,” a method recently uncovered in an American penitentiary. Someone on the outside sends an inmate a harmless-looking letter. It appears to be on ordinary writing paper. But, before the letter is penned, the paper is soaked all day in water saturated with morphine. Then it is allowed to dry, after which a short note is written on it. In prison, the convict tears off and dissolves in water pieces of the missive each day, thus obtaining an uninterrupted supply of the drug.

At another institution, a suit of clothes was sent to an inmate. It was found that each button on the garment contained a cavity filled with opium and morphine. Another time, a woman sent a picture of her son to a friend in prison. When guards examined the photograph, they found that enough morphine was hidden in the back to last for three months.

RECENTLY, Federal agents captured a supply of narcotics being carried about in a Bible. The center of the book had been hollowed out to provide space for morphine, cocaine, and hypodermic needles. Another time, they found a supply of dope hidden in cakes of soap. The cakes looked exactly like dozens of others in the same carton.

Candy is often used by dope smugglers to hide their contraband wares. The heroin, cocaine, morphine, and opium is coated with chocolate to give it the appearance of an ordinary piece of candy. In some cases, the dope is colored with dyes so it exactly matches the hue of the caramel or chocolate in which it is secreted. Cigarettes, with dope hidden inside, is another method by which the dope peddler escapes detection.

When the headquarters of a notorious drug ring in the eastern part of the United States was raided some time ago, quantities of morphine were found concealed in the panels of the wall with hidden scales for weighing the dope. By employing such devious methods, the narcotic smuggler escapes detection. There is only one Federal narcotic agent for every half million people in the United States. Consequently, most of the large hauls made by Federal men are achieved through information from disgruntled employees of the smugglers, or through lucky accidents.

Such an accident took place a few years ago in New York City. An automobile bumped into a barrel of “fish” which had just been unloaded upon a pier from a vessel. The barrel tipped over and, from a tin container within, there tumbled a flood of white pellets that looked like moth balls—a fortune in pure morphine. The entire consignment was found upon examination to contain illicit narcotics valued at three quarters of a million dollars.

Four drugs—opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine—are the ones that are smuggled and cause all the trouble. Cocaine, extracted from the coca leaf of South America and Java, is used so infrequently that the main fight centers upon the other three, all derived from the opium poppy of China, India, Persia, Turkey, and Egypt. It is estimated that there are as many as 100,000 users of opium, morphine, and heroin in the city of New York alone!

AT FIRST sight, crude opium suggests the pulp of crushed raisins. It is obtained by cutting the side of the unripe seed capsule, which is about the size of an egg, when the poppy is a little less than a year old. From the cut a milky white secretion oozes. In twenty-four hours it turns dark and coagulates.

From this crude opium morphine is extracted, and from morphine heroin is obtained.

In all, eighteen narcotic drugs are derived from crude opium. Morphine usually comes in tablets that look like aspirin. Heroin and cocaine, known to addicts as “snow,” are white powders having the appearance of talcum. Both cocaine and heroin are sniffed up the nose in the manner in which snuff is taken. Morphine is usually injected with a hypodermic needle and opium is eaten or smoked.

Just what happens when such drugs are taken? The first effect is a feeling of exhilaration, Dr. Sirovich explained. The drug affects the medulla, or “small brain,” stimulating heart and lung action. The addict feels strong, happy, courageous. Hence the name, often applied to heroin, “happy dust.” This lasts from half an hour to an hour. It is during this period that heroin-using gunmen commit their murders and holdups. Later, the drug deadens the cells of the main brain, particularly those in the forepart which govern perception, and the addict falls into a stupor filled with pleasant dreams. This lasts from eight to ten hours. The awakening is accompanied by nausea, headache, tremors, and depression.

FANTASTIC hallucinations are often experienced by the confirmed drug user, while another curious effect produced by narcotics concerns the eyes. When a doctor examines a patient who is in a drug stupor, the first thing he does is lift the eyelids and glance at the pupils. If they are contracted into pin points he knows morphine or opium was the drug used. If the pupils are dilated, heroin was used. However, young ambulance surgeons are always warned to look at both eyes when they are called to examine a man found unconscious. If one pupil is small and the other large, the victim has been black-jacked or has fallen and struck his head, resulting in a hemorrhage of the brain on the side of the pin point pupil.

A question that many people ask, and one that I put to Dr. Sirovich, is: How can you tell a drug addict? In the early stages it is often impossible, he told me. But later many signs are evident. The features are expressionless, indicating a lack of mental activity. The cheeks are sunken and the eyes lusterless. The color of the skin varies from a waxen pallor to a bluish appearance. The finger nails become brittle and chip off. The teeth soften and crumble away. Gradual loss of weight increases monthly. Addicts become excessive cigarette smokers. The blood pressure of morphine users is above normal; of heroin users, below normal. Yawning every few seconds is a symptom. Tremors are frequent and extreme muscular weakness finally ends in collapse.

Frequently addicts become fanatics, crusaders for drugs, seeking to persuade others to take up the habit. They think of nothing else, and when two or more addicts get together they talk for hours about their experiences.

In that way, many a weak character is made into a dope fiend. And like all other vices, the habit is much easier to acquire than to lose. Curing an addict is a difficult procedure and seldom entirely successful. At institutions where drug users are given the “cure,” the amount of drug is reduced gradually. This tapering off process requires from a month to six weeks. Only in cases where the patient strongly desires to be cured is the effect permanent. Most addicts return to the drug as soon as they are released.

Thus medical science is almost powerless to redeem these unfortunates. The only way to combat this grievous evil is eternal vigilance on the part of the Government and, better still, the cessation of manufacture of all narcotics not required for medical or other scientific purposes.

  1. jayessell says: January 1, 20085:33 pm

    In the photograph on page 42, just above the words “New York, standing at right”.
    Are those drug paraphenalia or part of the sound system?

  2. Jaybeast says: May 4, 201110:43 am


  3. John says: May 4, 201111:01 am

    jayessel: Those are pipes.

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