Prohibition, Jake Leg, Methanol & Jamaican Ginger: Adulterants 100 Years Ago

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.

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