Sunday 21 February 2010

Poisonous prohibition

Radley Balko points to a jaw-dropping Slate story on one of the open secrets of prohibition: the government deliberately made industrial alcohol far more poisonous than it previously had been, killing some 30,000 at least 10,000 drinkers.
To sell the stolen industrial alcohol, the liquor syndicates employed chemists to "renature" the products, returning them to a drinkable state. The bootleggers paid their chemists a lot more than the government did, and they excelled at their job. Stolen and redistilled alcohol became the primary source of liquor in the country. So federal officials ordered manufacturers to make their products far more deadly.

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 results were immediate, starting with that horrific holiday body count in the closing days of 1926. Public health officials responded with shock. "The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol," New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said at a hastily organized press conference. "[Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible."

His department issued warnings to citizens, detailing the dangers in whiskey circulating in the city: "[P]ractically all the liquor that is sold in New York today is toxic," read one 1928 alert. He publicized every death by alcohol poisoning. He assigned his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, to analyze confiscated whiskey for poisons—that long list of toxic materials I cited came in part from studies done by the New York City medical examiner's office.

Norris also condemned the federal program for its disproportionate effect on the country's poorest residents. Wealthy people, he pointed out, could afford the best whiskey available. Most of those sickened and dying were those "who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff."

And the numbers were not trivial. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. "Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes," proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.
In a war, folks move pretty quickly into ends justifying means stories:
During Prohibition, however, an official sense of higher purpose kept the poisoning program in place. 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?" asked Nebraska's Omaha Bee.
As best I'm aware, prohibition's deadly effects today come more indirectly; that doesn't make it right....


  1. "As best I'm aware, prohibition's deadly effects today come more indirectly"

    Not quite right, Eric. The NZ Police have been spraying blue Roundup (Glyphosate anyway) on cannabis crops for years. They seem to think that poisoning cannabis buyers is a deterrent.

  2. I'd thought that glycosphate was very non persistent and rather friendly, all things considered. At least in seed crops, it's safe enough to spray to dry the crop prior to harvest: you don't have to leave it lying in swath long for all of it to evaporate off. Or does it do something different when the crop is the leaf rather than the seed?

  3. I think you've misread the death toll. The key quote is: "the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people."

    The number 30,000 is used elsewhere in the article for the number of speakeasies in New York.

    I wish there was a citation for the "some estimates".

  4. @Sameer: I really don't think smoking glycosphate would be good for you; I just don't know how much of it could possibly be left on the plants post-harvest, drying, etc. Maybe the toxin is in the dye they're using, which would be more persistent.

    @Michael: You're right; fixing now. The article is written by the author of a new book called "The Poisoner's Handbook"; I'd bet the full details are in her book. The article is an excerpt, I believe, from her research for that book.