Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Curious Controversy

On a quite casual look to see how heroin is derived, ultimately, from poppies, I came across the following text in Wikipedia’s article on “Morphine” (link):

Later it was found that morphine was more addictive than either alcohol or opium, and its extensive use during the American Civil War allegedly resulted in over 400,000 sufferers from the “soldier’s disease” of morphine addiction. This idea has been a subject of controversy, as there have been suggestions that such a disease was in fact a fabrication; the first documented use of the phrase “soldier’s disease” was in 1915.

I spent the best part of half-a-day trying to find the actual source for that number—and indeed for that phrase. Wikipedia’s references were in part non-functional. In due course I discovered that the number comes from a Book entitled Drug Dependence and Abuse Resource Book, published in 1971 by the National District Attorney’s Association; in that book a single article, by Gerald Starkey, entitled “The Use and Abuse of Opiates and Amphetamines” contains the passage I quote below. (Starkey, by the way, is shown as an MD in the original book—but later, one opponent labeled him a “yellow journalist”—see below.) The passage itself is quoted in Shooting Up: A History of Drugs and War by Lukasz Kamienski (link). Here it is:

In 1865 there were an estimated 400,00 young War veterans addicted to Morphine… The returning veteran could be identified because he had a leather thong around his neck and a leather bag [with] Morphine Sulfate tablets, along with a syringe and a needle issued to the soldier on his discharge… This was called the “Soldier’s Disease.”

Wikipedia, above, also refers to a “controversy.” The source of that controversy is one Jerry Mandel, particularly his paper titled “The Mythical Roots of U.S. Drug Policy: Soldier’s Disease and Addiction in the Civil War,” available here. Mandel’s paper appears under the imprint of the Drug Reform Coordinating Network, better known, perhaps, as He argues that major addiction (say on the scale of 400,000) was not an actual fact of history but that, on the contrary, it is a much later phenomenon, evolved to support the War on Drugs. His claim is that the phrase “soldier’s disease” was not used in print until 1915. One writer who uses Mandel’s argument (of several such) also labeled Starkey as a “yellow journalist.”

Who do you believe? I tried an experiment. I asked Google Ngrams to trace the usage of two phrases: “soldier’s disease” and “army disease”; the latter term was also supposedly widely used during the Civil War to refer to drug addiction. Here is what Google had to say:

It would seem that the phrase “soldier’s disease” first appears strongly in the Civil War period—and is now back in force—thanks to controversies surrounding the legalization of drugs…

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