Report by Terry Gotham
Picture New York City, Christmas Eve night, Bellevue Hospital. 60 people hospitalized over the course of the evening, with another 23 hospitalized from drug poisoning within the next 48 hours. With 8 dead by the time the smoke cleared, it sounds like a news story you’ve heard every week this year coming out of some distraught community in Ohio or Connecticut or Georgia? It’s got to be a bad batch of fentanyl? Maybe some spiked heroin or morphine that no one saw coming. It was actually alcohol and the year was 1926. As the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1927:
“Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.” Others, however, accused lawmakers opposed to the poisoning plan of being in cahoots with criminals and argued that bootleggers and their law-breaking alcoholic customers deserved no sympathy. “Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?”
~The Chemist’s War (Deborah Blum, 2/19/2010 Slate.com)
Returning to the History of Addiction series this week, I’m going to be exploring one of the lesser known eras of adulterated drugs in world history, Prohibition-era America. While it’s widely known that alcohol was still available during Prohibition, we have a romanticized idea of what this was like, with the speakeasy culture, Al Capone and flappers dominating our vision of it. The reality of bathtub gin and moonshine had some dangerous facets that we don’t talk about, that even continue to this day in places like Russia. This ties directly to the continued prohibition/unaffordable nature of scheduled substances.
Even though alcohol was technically illegal during the era of Prohibition, millions of gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen every year to reprocess or “renature” into a drinkable form for eager Jazz Age consumers. Time reported back in 1927 that a new formula for “denaturing” industrial-grade alcohol was being introduced by the government. This meant that industrial alcohol became that much more lethal, with Time noting, “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness.” It’s easy to just assume that this was done for the purpose of harming drug users, but after doing some more research, it looks to be a lot less black and white than that.
After the industrial alcohol is stolen, the re-naturing process could be thought of as similar to the processing of coca leaves into cocaine. Making the denaturing formula more deadly was thought to discourage re-naturing by the chemists bootleggers paid to do this work. As discussed in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, there was something of an arms race going on in 1920’s America, but it had started long before Prohibition. in 1906, the USA took a page from Europe’s playbook, denaturing alcohol used in paints & solvents, so it wouldn’t be taxed in the same way as hard liquor. The way alcohol was made “more lethal” was by adding methyl alcohol, also known as methanol or wood alcohol, and a bunch of awful tasting additives to it. This would ostensibly sway bootleggers from using it, as “renaturing” took work and cost a lot, plus it would keep people from drinking paint solvents they bought from the hardware store.
Anyone else want to guess where this story is going by now? To quote the Slate article once again:
By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.
~The Chemist’s War (Deborah Blum, 2/19/2010 Slate.com)
On the surface this seems pretty brutal, but when you look at the bigger timeline, it loses a bit of its malevolence. These additives are the end of a long, losing battle by the government to discourage people from using industrial alcohol or selling improperly distilled hooch, that started 21 years earlier, and didn’t really end until Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Of course, the steps that occurred in 1926 & 1927 were particularly poisonous, which is why we saw the spike in adulterant related death. But, this perspective ignores the businesses that were complicit in denaturing alcohol or even selling adulterated tinctures themselves.
The Jamaica Ginger Paralysis Crisis of the 1930s is an excellent example of a situation that occurred throughout Prohibition that mirrors overdose outbreaks brought on by fentanyl/fentalog adulteration of heroin. Approximately 30-50,000 Americans across the country were affected by what was known as a “foot drop” or “wrist drop” which referred to a weakness, numbness & eventual paralysis in an extremity. Jamaican Ginger was sold as a headache remedy & digestive aid, but in reality was a 140 proof 2 oz bottle of strong ginger spirit called “Jake” consumed in poor communities throughout the South. Two bootleggers named Harry Gross & Max Reisman created a company named Hub Products and tricked an MIT professor into research a new way to renature the alcohol. The proposed solution, tri-o-tolyl phospate or TOCP, was advanced enough that it allowed the tincture to pass the US Treasury Department’s evaluation. It also caused paralysis due to damaging upper motor neurons, but at the time was believed to be safe. By 1930, thousands of “Jake” drinkers began to suffer from the aforementioned foot drop, which resulted in a very odd gait:
Some victims could walk, but they had no control over the muscles which would normally have enabled them to point their toes upward. Therefore, they would raise their feet high with the toes flopping downward, which would touch the pavement first followed by their heels. The toe first, heel second pattern made a distinctive “tap-click, tap-click” sound as they walked. This very peculiar gait became known as the jake walk and those afflicted were said to have jake leg,jake foot, or jake paralysis. Additionally, the calves of the legs would soften and hang down and the muscles between the thumbs and fingers would atrophy.
Jamaica Ginger, Wikipedia
The two songs linked were popular at the time, and contributed to the effort that finally brought the problem to the attention of the medical community, who eventually identified the cause as TOCP. Just think, 100+ years ago, blues & jazz were being used as harm reduction, attempting to warn people about poisoned hooch that the recreational community might have been consuming. Even though it saved his life, I can’t expect DMX to ever rap about Narcan.
Why does this Jake Leg matter? Because it’s still happening. In 2012, 20 people died drinking knock-off, falsely branded liquor in the Czech Republic. In 2015, almost 70 people died in Mozambique drinking contaminated beer. In Russia, people are still dying from adulterated alcohol, even in the year 2017. When drugs are illegal or unjustly scheduled, we’ve seen again and again, people not only still do the drugs they desire, but they do them in demonstrably more unsafe ways. This is just as true now with fentanyl & fentanyl’s analogs as it was with methanol & other alcohol substitutes used by bootleggers and drug dealers almost 100 years ago. There was plenty of innovation in the Prohibition era surrounding cocktails and synthesizing techniques, and we’re seeing similar types of uncontrolled experimentation today in the explosion of synthetic cannabinoids, cathinones & novel psychoactive substances flooding the recreational drug markets.
And if nutmeg was unavailable, a compounder might just say, “Screw it.” The level of adulteration that was going on at every single step was incredible. If importer one cut his rum with water to increase his profit, so did buyer number two, and so on down the line, with each purchaser touching up the spirit with essential oils—flavor bombs, more or less—to create something that would meet consumer tastes. Rarely, a bad batch could be fatal, or lead to permanent disability such as blindness.
~Wyatt Marshall, How Would-Be Alchemists Made Booze During Prohibition, Munchies (Vice), 3/1/16
There are plenty of conspiracy theorists who believe that “they” (being the government, corporations, Killary Clinton, lizard people, etc) have released “poisoned” fentanyl and heroin into the country to “thin out the herd” or to engage in population control. In the same way that there are plenty of people who believe that the government poisoned alcohol in the 20’s to kill people. While people have died directly from the government prohibiting usage in both cases, the intent that is so easy to believe, simply wasn’t there then and isn’t there now. There was no Senator or Congressperson spearheading a commission to determine how best to kill citizens, nor has there ever been any solid evidence of the malice that Facebook posts & YouTube videos so easily spread. Instead of talking about Shadow Illuminati, how about we just discuss the policies that are actually killing people? In both cases, Prohibition prevented access to the safe versions of the desired substance. Which didn’t end consumption and resulted in deaths that were entirely preventable. A private company sold adulterated Jake, attempting to get around restrictions on sale of a controlled substance for profit, in the same way that Purdue Pharmaceuticals lied to ensure Oxycontin was seen as less potentially harmful and addictive. Let’s stop pretending Prohibition works and start figuring out how to keep people alive and out of harm’s way. It’s been almost 100 years, you’d think we would’ve learned something by now.