Early Days in Narcotics Enforcement in the United States of America


Thirty-six years ago the Harrison Narcotics Act suddenly threw the burden of narcotics enforcement into the hands of some surprised Internal Revenue officials. I must admit that at first we were hardly equal to the task.


Author: Peter Valaer
Pages: 17 to 21
Creation Date: 1951/01/01

Early Days in Narcotics Enforcement in the United States of America

Peter Valaer
Chemist, United States Treasury Department

Thirty-six years ago the Harrison Narcotics Act suddenly threw the burden of narcotics enforcement into the hands of some surprised Internal Revenue officials. I must admit that at first we were hardly equal to the task.

As I marvel now over those early adventure-packed years, I think of the vast changes that have since taken place, brought about by this law. Though it met much opposition and discouragement at first, it has done a vast amount of good--far beyond the hopes of even the most sanguine--and now is ably administered and functioning marvellously well.

It was my privilege to analyse the very first narcotic samples under this law. The ink seemed barely dry on the President's signature to the bill when samples began to pour into our laboratory from all directions. The first batch was turned over to us by State of Ohio and represented cases made by the peerless Ralph Oyler, then with the State and later with the Federal narcotics enforcement for many years. After that samples came from all parts of the country. When I first appeared in New York City to testify, the harassed office force of the District Attorney fairly cried for mercy. There were literally hundreds of cases piled up, and for every one that was tried, it seemed that ten new ones were being made. It was much the same in other large cities. As the overworked narcotics agents said to me, it was like bailing out the ocean with a teaspoon.

We chemists had a real job at the start, for we had done no such work before. The most helpful publication at that stage was Earl Putt's article, "Microchemical tests for the identification of some of the alkaloids", published in January 1912, in which Putt included proof-positive tests for the very alkaloids that most concerned us. He described the red plates yielded by morphine with iodine solution and the platinum chloride tests for heroin and cocaine, and these same tests have been in use ever since, just as "M", "H", and "C", have remained the "big three" of the illicit drugs traffic. Fortunately for us in those early days when we were inexperienced and overworked, all the drugs were pure (unmixed) and only sure identification was required. It was only years later, after the prohibited drugs had become scarce, that mixing became common. Nowadays there is usually more milk-sugar, powdered sugar, corn starch, mannitol, magnesium sulphate, sodium bicarbonate, or some other filler in a sample than there is heroin. At the start all samples for Federal prosecutions were sent to Washington for analysis, even Customs seizures of opium. We had to travel all over the country for court cases, at a time when there was no travel by air. We carried our own small Compound microscope, a box of reagents, and our narcotics drug book, which contained what we had been able to learn about the subject. Many samples had to be examined in the field, sometimes even while the case was going on.

Sometimes we became discouraged. The prohibited drugs were apparently quite easy to obtain, and to add to our discouragement it seemed for a time that the law might be held unconstitutional. But it survived and its good work went on and on. In the meantime, for several early years, drug addiction was tremendous and crime resulting from it sometimes seemed completely out of hand.

On one of my first trips to New York while taking an early morning walk before the court session, not far from Fifth Avenue, an empty one-eighth ounce heroin bottle was thrown out of an upper window and rolled at my feet. A short distance away I found another, then another, in fact five empties within a block. An observing street cleaner with his long brush and pushcart saw me picking these up and exclaimed, "Son, if you want those little bottles I pick up hundreds on my beat and I'll save them for you." In those days one could smell from the street the crude opium cooking and smoking opium burning in many disreputable laundries and low types of chop-suey cafes. A raid on one of these places would yield what now seems like a fabulous amount of smuggled opium, both crude and prepared for smoking. Accumulated armfuls of fine opium pipes, lamps, and other smoking paraphernalia were stacked in the Revenue offices about the country like cordwood, but soon went to the furnace.

Action against opium smoking came a little earlier than action against the use of the "white drugs". In fact, "An Act to prohibit the importation and use of opium for other than medicinal purposes" was enacted as early as 1909, but it chiefly concerned smuggling through Customs and was not fully effective within the country. It was amended and greatly strengthened early in 1914, and at the same time a companion Act was passed, entitled "An Act regulating the manufacture of smoking opium within the United States, and for other purposes". Both were approved 17 January 1914, while the Harrison Act was approved near the end of the same year. Thus vigorous enforcement all along the line began in 1914 and 1915.

The Act regulating the manufacture of smoking opium as the basis of its action imposed what was intended to be a prohibitive tax: $300 per pound on opium prepared for smoking. Before the law became effective even the finest quality of smoking opium could be obtained for probably about $10 per pound. Of course prices rapidly rose as enforcement became effective, but for a good many years between World Wars the illicit prices were in general fairly stable, raw opium selling for about $50 per pound and smoking opium for $80 per pound. At the present time the price for smoking opium of very inferior quality has risen to about $450 per pound. Today it would actually be possible for the manufacturer to pay this enormous tax if he could import opium legally, but of course such a thing would not be tolerated for one moment, and there are plenty of other legal barriers, including the fact that the Smoking Opium Act also requires that the manufacturer post a bond of $100,000.

The opium pipes in early days were often very elaborate. The best I ever saw was adorned with little frogs with diamond eyes. When the pipes became subject to seizure they began to get poorer and poorer and today they are hardly more than a few pieces of rubbish fastened together.

As I have already mentioned, the 1909 Opium Act was chiefly concerned with smuggling. Under it we obtained our earliest experiences in raiding and in court cases. I was always greatly flattered when invited to go along on a raid with the Customs inspectors. It was highly exciting, for sometimes a raid would lead into the big city's Chinatown. Now and then a big haul of opium was obtained and sometimes only a few firecrackers were found.

One time I remember the officers had two objectives: to learn where the "cooking" of opium was going on and to arrest a dangerous smuggler, if they could find him. I was given the relatively ignominious task of standing guard by the kitchen door to see that no one came in or went out. While the officers raided the premises from the subterranean passages below to the very roof, I began looking around, more from boredom than anything else, inspecting the pots and pans; but when I peeped into a rice barrel I saw two huge automatics partly covered with rice. I had taken them out and was looking them over when suddenly the door flew open and a man dashed in and dived for the barrel, looking for the guns. When he saw me I pointed the guns at him and he backed into the corner and stayed there, until in a few moments the officers arrived and arrested him. He was the very man they had been after.

Of course, I need hardly say that at the present time the "Chinatowns" are fully as law-abiding as almost any other parts of our large cities, and such adventures are practically a thing of the past.

In one case I played a large part in convicting the opium cookers. Sure that they were on the right track, the raiding officers had hacked through a great heavy door, but when they entered, although they found some huge copper boilers still warm, these had been cleaned, scrubbed out, and practically polished. These boilers were shipped to Washington by freight and washed out with gallons of warm water, which was then evaporated down; but I could get no opium test from it. However, on one kettle was a mere thread which had probably once held a price tag. Opium had soaked into it and from it I was able to get an unmistakable test. The District Attorney advised the defendants and their attorneys of the evidence against them and they pleaded guilty. We afterward learned that smuggled raw opium had come through the big door, but five-tael tins and "hop toys" of smoking opium customarily went out through secret panels while the door was barred. When the raid was made the cookers got everything out through the secret panels except the big boilers, which were cleaned and polished while the officers were hacking at the door.

The black molasses-like mass of smoking opium looked very harmless to a jury. I often had to describe to the jurymen how I had seen it used, and then take out a little of the evidence on a match and burn it in court, where it always filled the room with its unmistakable odours.

One more story about the opium raids. The owner of a hotel where we were staying at the time learned who we were and begged to go with us on a raid. However, when we came to our destination he decided that he would rather stay out on the sidewalk. We first found quantities of pipes which we took down and gave him to hold while we went in again. But when the semi-drugged patrons learned it was a raid they rushed pell-mell down the steps to the street, where stood our hotel man with his arms full of opium pipes. Nearly every one of them struck at him as they fled, and when we came down with the rest of our evidence, he was at home doctoring black eyes and other bruises and the pipes were scattered all over the sidewalk.

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Although my official capacity was strictly that of an -analytical chemist, the raids on the pedlars and suspected premises of various kinds seemed to me a shining adventure, and when away from home in various, cities I accompanied the narcotics agents on many occasions. We attended court in the daytime, but our nights were filled with chasing violators, raiding dens and arresting pedlars, opium dealers and addicts. At first they rarely took it lying down; and many a fight and shot took place and threats of dire vengeance rent the night air as we slugged it out with desperate men and half-crazed addicts. There were plenty of narrow escapes and more than one brave government agent laid down his life for the cause. As I recall, there were four or five killed in the first year or two of the Harrison Act.

Once in Toledo, Ohio, a notorious pedlar-also wanted for murder for killing a policeman-suddenly sat up in bed as we burst into his room and pulled the trigger of a revolver five times in my face, but by mistake he had loaded a rim-fire revolver with centre-fire cartridges. As the officers subdued this man I hurried into a back room, and there his young wife was uncorking bottles and throwing them into a laundry tub with the water running to wash away the narcotics. In her haste, she spilled some on the floor and I stooped down to sweep it up on a piece of paper. I looked up just in time to find her lunging at me with a hatpin about fifteen inches long. Several times I had to jump out of the way to avoid being killed as she lunged at me repeatedly, until one of the State officers entered the room and knocked her unconscious with one blow. We unscrewed the sink with a monkey-wrench and from the goose-neck trap we recovered some water in which I later found on analysis four different narcotics: morphine, heroin, cocaine, and codeine. At the trial I asked the woman why she tried to kill me and she sneered: "You're a cop, aren't you?" I said "No", and then she said "If you are not, I ought to have killed you twice, for butting into something that was none of your business". She came from a criminal family and had been taught from earliest childhood to hate the police and to regard them as mortal enemies. As with most narcotics pedlars, selling drugs was not the only activity of either of this pair.. The woman's skirts were all equipped with shoplifter's pockets, and in her husband's coat at the time of the arrest was a bottle of "soup" (nitroglycerine) for blowing safes.

After several years of thrills during which we often faced waving revolvers, I decided that perhaps I had better adhere strictly to the chemical end of narcotics enforcement before -my-tack-ran out, but by that time most of the really dangerous excitement had subsided, anyway.

During the early days a hideous but lucrative practice had sprung up among some unscrupulous and heartless doctors who catered to addicts by the thousands, giving morphine injections and selling prescriptions and never hesitating to fake the last miserable cent from an addict. A war without quarter was declared against them throughout the country. In New York City I participated in making the cases in a single night, during which I posed as an addict seeking morphine and purchasing prescriptions. The favourite question was: "Do you 'jab' or do you 'blow'?" i.e. inject morphine hypodermically or snuff up cocaine.

At one place the doctor's assistant suspected me, and I was started when suddenly I felt the hard muzzle of an automatic in my back. The doctor waved away the gun but insisted on examining my arms for marks of the hypodermic needle. Up to then he had overlooked the little matter of a physical examination, but he had already sold me the prescription for morphine. He said, "You are not an addict", and I said, "I want to buy the stuff just the same". He actually let me walk out with the prescription, and when he was tried and convicted I felt a little sorry for him, for no doubt he had saved my life when he waved away that gun.

. Due to the relentless campaign of publicity as to the true significance of this monster evil it became easy to convict the guilty, as there was never any public sympathy for one who would degrade his fellow man and bring him down to miserable ruin. There could be material for writing volumes in the many exciting events, spectacular court cases and tong and gangster wars that resulted from the narcotics trade and the early enforcement efforts against those who illegally sold, gave away, or possessed the derivatives of opium and coca leaves.

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There are still some big cases made, but nowadays an agent may go a long way for a single case and usually the chemist can carry the narcotic evidence to court in his pocket. In the early days when we went to court, we had an average of fifteen or twenty cases at a time and carried five or six suitcases bulging with drugs to be used as evidence. During the first few years two or three of our largest cities averaged seventy or more cases during each term of court. Several weeks were often set for solid blocks of narcotics cases, and defendants were delivered by bus loads for trial.

In our early cases in Florida, in order to simplify the chain of evidence we were told to keep the drugs in our possession at all times. However, on one occasion I had a great deal of evidence and in addition I didn't much like the looks of the old hotel in which we had to stay, so I decided to keep only constructive possession of the evidence by carefully sealing it up and placing it in the marshal's vault. That night someone entered my hotel room and woke me up and demanded the drugs. After I had offered to turn up the lights to allow him to search my room, he left without another word. I didn't shine as a hero in this case, but I learned a lesson about not keeping large quantities of narcotics in my immediate possession.

The chemist's testimony was primarily the identification of the narcotic, and this was often conceded. However, now and then, a lawyer would sit down and pull a sheaf of manuscript out of his pocket and give the expert witness a good work-out in organic chemistry.

Some judges were very technical and others were the opposite. The technical-minded judges had thrown out a few cases because the prosecution had failed to prove that the evidence was a derivative of opium, so when I testified I was always careful to say that the substance was morphine or heroin, "a derivative of opium". However, one day in the deep South, the judge said: "Hey, young man, we are glad to have you come to see us, but you don't have to come way down here to tell us that morphine is a derivative of opium !"

In those early times the idea was prevalent that opium could not be produced in the United States. Of course, it was and still is true that the opium used in the United States is produced in other countries, whether legally imported for medical use or smuggled in for addiction. But some officers had already testified in good faith that it could not possibly be produced in the United States, and apparently it struck the court like a bombshell when I first testified that I had myself grown opium poppies and produced opium.

In order to learn about all aspects and be fully prepared for cross-examination, I grew these opium poppies at Arlington farm, where the huge Pentagon building now stands, incised the pods, obtained crude opium, extracted this and made smoking opium, and burnt the latter to yen shee, analysing all the products and obtaining some pure morphine from each as a basis for testimony from personal knowledge.

At a later date I again grew poppies at Arlington with the intention of analysing various parts of the plants for morphine. I obtained morphine even from tiny seedlings only one inch tall.

I remember causing another sensation in court when one day I was escorted directly from the train to the witness stand (because the trial was already under way) and testified that diacetylmorphine and heroin are one and the same thing. A little later I discovered that four officials of a large drug company, not defendants but involved in some way in the case, had testified on the preceding day that the two were different substances, apparently in order to get the case thrown out of court by a discrepancy between the indictment and the proof. The case concerned the seizure of a large drum containing, as I recall, 10 million heroin tablets. The defendant's lawyer insisted that because this number of tablets had been named in the indictment, each tablet would have to be individually examined. However, the judge required him to pick out 50 tablets from the drum-the tablets all looked the same so it was really a random selection-and that night it seemed to me that I nearly went blind examining them in the poor hotel light, in order to have the analysis ready for court the following morning. The manufacture of this drug of so many evil potentialities has been forbidden in the United States for many years now. A wise more indeed.

Then there was the paregoric case in West Virginia. This preparation had become a terrific nuisance and danger throughout the nation, being exempt from the requirement of a prescription. Many top officials thought we were helpless to cope with it without a new law. Paregoric was on sale not only in all drug stores but even in grocery stores, and anyone could purchase one or a dozen bottles, or even a basketful, without hindrance.

In the jurisdiction of the court, where the first case was tried, there were hundreds of victims, principally women, who were hapless slaves to this preparation. We decided to try to make a case under the existing narcotic laws, and did so. In analysing samples, I used the famous Buchbinder method, which enabled me to extract practically pure morphine from that complicated mixture-and it was well that I did, as the frantic defence attorneys gave me an inquisition that I shall never forget. But the case was won and a great principle confirmed.

My closest brush with death in the laboratory, or at least the one that frightened me most, came indirectly from narcotics. The early officers often sent in any kind of a white powder or tablet that they found, including aspirin, tooth powder, bicarbonate, bromo-seltzer, and all sorts of small tablets. Being full of youthful vigour then, I loved to identify these things and was proud of the reputation of never having failed to tell what the substance really was. This time I got some tablets which were in a regular morphine bottle, but were said to have caused entirely different symptoms from morphine when injected into patients at one of the large government hospitals. So the tablets had come to me, but all I could find was milk sugar-a quantitative analysis showed nearly 100 per cent-and innumerable extractions and direct trials resulted only in blank tests. My tablets were melting away and I resolved on a supreme effort. Getting up at daybreak Sunday morning I went to the laboratory and resumed my testing. By this time I had practically convinced myself that the tablets were "placebos"-nothing but milk sugar-so as I worked I occasionally nibbled on a tablet to see if I could notice any taste or other effect such as the numbing effect of cocaine on the lips and tongue. But I noticed nothing at all and kept on the same way until at noon I had perhaps eaten the equivalent of several tablets. Suddenly the symptoms hit me. The floor seemed to rise and I seemed to be sinking down, down, down. The sensation is almost indescribable. I was so frightened I hurriedly wrote on the desk that if my unconscious or dead body should be found, I had eaten too many of the tablets. However, after a little while, the symptoms eased up until I was able to walk and I hurried home. Early Monday morning I was back searching the medical books for descriptions of symptoms. I finally decided that the symptoms of nitroglycerine sounded most like what I had experienced, and when I tested the tablets for this, sure enough, that's what they contained. Some one on the hospital force had become addicted to morphine and stolen the original tablets, replacing them with nitroglycerin tablets which were about the same size. This addict was afterwards discovered.

I remember also the menace of the red heroin pill, when the country suddenly became flooded with pills for smoking in lieu of opium,. containing caffeine, cinchonine, heroin, usually aspirin or salicylic acid, and a red dye. The vogue for these pills started in China, where they were manufactured in Shanghai and other places. Eventually we found a pill factory on Wentworth Street in Chicago. After the true character of these pills was discovered and the full strength of narcotics enforcement brought to bear against them, they rapidly disappeared from the scene.

I remember also the beginning of the marihuana law-but perhaps that brings us too nearly up to date. Narcotics enforcement officers now do not have to contend constantly with the violence of the early days, though their work is still difficult and sometimes dangerous, with occasionally a death by violence such as occurred in St. Paul, Minnesota, only a short time ago. It is now far harder to make a case and more intelligence is required. The chemist must know more than ever, for new opiates have been introduced and the new synthetic analgesics are capable of causing addiction as serious as that of morphine and have also been placed under the law. Those who pioneered the enforcement work accomplished wonders and the Bureau of Narcotics has ably continued the task. Indeed the suppression of narcotics in the United States has been successful beyond the wildest dreams of those early days when we witnessed the beginning of enforcement under Federal law.