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United States Government Medicine Science

US Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition 630

Hugh Pickens writes "Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Deborah Blum has an article in Slate about the US government's mostly forgotten policy in the 1920s and 1930s of poisoning industrial alcohols manufactured in the US to scare people into giving up illicit drinking during Prohibition. Known as the 'chemist's war of Prohibition,' the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, killed at least 10,000 people between 1926 and 1933. The story begins with ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which banned sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the US. By the mid-1920s, when the government saw that its 'noble experiment' was in danger of failing, it decided that the problem was that readily available methyl (industrial) alcohol — itself a poison — didn't taste nasty enough. The government put its chemists to work designing ever more unpalatable toxins — adding such chemicals as kerosene, 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. 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 to stop the poisoning program. But an official sense of higher purpose kept it in place, while lawmakers opposed to the plan were accused of being in cahoots with criminals and bootleggers. The chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, one of the poisoning program's most outspoken opponents, liked to call it 'our national experiment in extermination.'"
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US Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition

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  • And today: (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cnaumann ( 466328 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @08:59PM (#31301066)

    The penalty for drinking untaxed alcohol is still death or blindness.

  • Feds still going on (Score:4, Interesting)

    by harvey the nerd ( 582806 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:03PM (#31301084)
    One might observe the very real actions of the FDA, approving EXPENSIVE dangerous new drugs, that should never have been released, and disparging other treatments that still work better (older generics, supplements). Some estimates are that several hundred thousand per year die because of such federally approved/mandated poisoning, millions more are injured.

    Had a parent injured by several modern malpractices and pharmacides, turned out the way to survive was doing some older things that made simple biochemical sense. Much, much better now and I have objective measures to demonstrate it.
  • by reporter ( 666905 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:08PM (#31301126) Homepage
    The deliberate decision by civil servants and politicians to poison alcohol is just another example in which self-righteous people choose to play god. Another horrible atrocity sponsored and conducted by Washington is the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment [] (TSE). Doctors paid by Washington injected syphilis into unsuspecting indigent Americans and studied the progress of the disease. When the experiment began, there was no cure for syphilis. However, after a cure -- i. e., penicillin -- was discovered, the doctors refrained from offering the cure to the subjects of the experiment. Washington wanted to see what happened to the human body when syphilis is allowed to run its course, ultimately killing the victim.

    If you are reading my words with disbelief, I suggest that you visit the Web link that I have provided. The TSE was real and was an atrocity committed by the American government against its own citizens.

    President Bill Clinton ultimately apologized to the victims and their families.

  • by guyminuslife ( 1349809 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:30PM (#31301308)

    Dude, have you ever tried opiates? (I mean, in the socially-acceptable, medical way.) Adding acetaminophen to Vicodin is like adding vanilla extract to a bottle of tequila.

  • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:34PM (#31301350) Homepage

    The situation today is not that different. For example, deaths in the US and Mexico arising from heroin generally fall into two classes: (1) deaths because importing and selling heroin often involves violent criminal gangs, and (2) deaths because illegal heroin is impure. Both categories of deaths are purely government-inflicted, in the sense that the US government could end them tomorrow if it chose to legalize heroin.

    Category #1 is pretty obvious: no more drug-related shootings if the stuff is being grown, imported, refined, packaged, and sold legally.

    Category #2 is less well known to most people. When opiates were legal, people would generally just smoke opium. It had some bad health effects (e.g., constipation), but nothing all that deadly. People weren't overdosing from it. If you smoked too much, you fell asleep. Opium was legal in the US until around the turn of the 20th century. During most of the 20th century in the US, people were using extremely impure heroin. The impurities had two effects. One was that if it was maybe 10% heroin and 90% other ingredients, you couldn't get high from smoking or snorting it, so you had to inject it. AIDS transmission through shared needles wouldn't exist if heroin wasn't so impure that it had to be injected. The other was that the impurities themselves (often really nasty, random stuff like Ajax cleanser) could have devastating health effects. When you see a heroin addict who's lost all his teeth, it's because of the impurities, not the drug itself.

    More recently, people have started to use black tar heroin imported from Mexico. Here [] is a series of articles about black tar heroin from the LA Times. This stuff is much cheaper than traditional heroin, so you don't get as many property crimes because druggies are stealing to support their habits. However, the black crud tends to cause collapsed veins and other problems. Also, a lot of people are overdosing because the black tar is stronger than they're used to. If heroin were legal, people would be able to look at the packaging and get accurate information about its strength.

    Let's legalize heroin in the US tomorrow. Mexico could pull back from being on the verge of becoming a failed state. People in the US would stop dying. Violent and nonviolent crime would be reduced. The prison population would be greatly reduced. The US has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, due almost entirely to the failed war on drugs. Keeping all those people in jail is extremely expensive. E.g., California spends more on prisons than on higher education.

  • What about all the people who need denatured alcohols in an industrial or commercial fashion? I'm a construction contractor and I use all the time as a solvent. I for one would rather not have to pay those taxes.

    If they chose to drink something that is clearly harmful, why should I give a damn?

  • I approve of this (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Bemopolis ( 698691 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:46PM (#31301444)
    I've been touting this idea for years: when drugs are seized, they should be poisoned and sold back on the streets and the money put back into the War on Drugs. And don't make a secret of it either: hold a press conference, with the chief of police saying "We seized a ton of pot last night. It's now in circulation with a shitload of toxin in it. Good luck, suckers!"

    I mean, it's a fucking WAR on Drugs, right? The news channels need a body count. Then, after a few senators' daughters drop dead, maybe we can reconsider the rationale for it all.
  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:48PM (#31301456) Homepage Journal

    Uhm, you do know that methanol is added to any ethanol not intended (or taxed) for human consumption, don't you? That is, the government would rather have people die or go blind than risk letting someone get away with evading a sin tax.

  • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:00PM (#31301548)

    You can drink methanol with no ill effect.

    You simply have to remain constantly drunk on ethanol for a week+ after.

    The liver is what turns methanol into the real toxins that kill you.

    It 'prefers' to metabolize ethanol.

    The kidneys excrete methanol unmetabolized.

    If you stay drunk on good quality booze for long enough you will pee out all the methanol.

    During prohibition they used shit like _mercury_ salts to denature alcohol.

  • by elucido ( 870205 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:46PM (#31301840)

    I'm not saying the government is behind the weed found with lead in it, but after reading this I wouldn't be surprised. []

  • by Aldenissin ( 976329 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:57PM (#31301938)

    No, but the government IS behind making all cigarette smokers smoke FSC, and it seems to make them MORE dangerous as the cherries fall out of the ends! Do your cigarettes seem to be going out for no reason, do you cough more lately, or have other symptoms??? Check out FSC and get ready to be pissed! To prevent several hundred people from dying by burning the house down, eveyone who doesn't roll their own (millions in America) is going to smoke have to smoke carpet glue! []

  • Re:Ah yes... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RobVB ( 1566105 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:19PM (#31302088)

    they came to us through purely natural process.

    Other things that are natural: snake poison, cancer, meteorites. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's healthy. I have no strong opinion about whether or not marijuana should be legal, but the "it's completely natural" argument doesn't work for me.

  • by J_Omega ( 709711 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:21PM (#31302110)
    at which point in the story were drugs legalized?
  • by grandpa-geek ( 981017 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:22PM (#31302114)

    Denatured alcohol wasn't the only poisonous alcohol people drank. Some people drank wood alcohol (methanol), which is itself poisonous. I remember hearing of a concoction called "smoke" that was wood alcohol mixed with water. The people who drank it were called "smoke hounds". It could make them blind and kill them, but they drank it anyway. I once heard of a blind musician who had become blind by drinking smoke when he was in prison.

    Some people are crazy enough to drink anything, poison or not.

  • Re:Ah yes... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TheVelvetFlamebait ( 986083 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:28PM (#31302146) Journal

    The trivialisation angle doesn't work, since it tends to cuts both ways, i.e. if it's just a friggin' plant, then why are people so attached to smoking it?

  • by cas2000 ( 148703 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:42PM (#31302220)

    so because someone chooses to ingest one kind or some kinds of poison(s), it's perfectly legitimate to force other poisons on them withour their consent and/or against their will?

    it's fascist wowser harm-maximisation thinking like yours that prevents safer forms of nicotine ingestion from being available on the market. ditto for other drugs.

  • Re:Methanol (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 28, 2010 @01:40AM (#31303070)

    The fact remains that these bootleggers were adding a chemical that was already known to be poisonous and extremely dangerous to drink. It's like complaining that the government put strychnine in gasoline and since bootleggers were adding gasoline to their drinks the government was solely responsible for deaths. No. These bootleggers put poison in their products to begin with; they knew it was killing people and they did it anyway.

    But we're not talking about bootlegged booze. Prior to the 1920's, pharmaceutical rubbing alcohol was generally pure ethanol. There was simply no reason for it to be anything else. Read accounts from that time period; you'll not infrequently run across accounts of poor folks/patients/sneaky drunks buying pure alcohol from a pharmacy and drinking it. In a time before malt liquor, Thunderbird, and vanilla extract, pure grain alcohol from a pharmacy was what you drank when you were homeless, or when you were hiding it from the wife.

    And that is what we're talking about the government poisoning. And, as you said, "they knew it was killing people and they did it anyway." It's not like today, where everyone grows up knowing that you don't fucking drink rubbing alcohol; it had, up to that time, generally been safe. Adulteration of pharmaceutical alcohol came out of left field at a time when it had suddenly become the only alcohol available. Of course it killed people. How could it not?

    Sorry chief, the summary isn't flamebait. When a person could buy something they'd been drinking for ten years without issue and then keel over dead because the government poisoned it, that's a problem. And it's a problem that has absolutely nothing to do with bootleggers.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 28, 2010 @02:28AM (#31303314)

    The only people who aren't beholden to them are the seriously rich. Even the uninsured get hit by insurance review boards because the uninsured pay for all the stuff the insurance co's don't pay for or don't pay enough for.

  • Re:Ah yes... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wrook ( 134116 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @02:40AM (#31303390) Homepage

    Personally, I have very few real problems with the legalization of marijuana except for one. The preferred method of ingestion is smoking and smoke is very rarely contained. *I* don't want to smoke marijuana whether directly or through second hand smoke. Even if only legal in one's own home, I have enough problem with people smoking cigarettes on their porch/balcony and having it waft through my bedroom window. As a recreational drug, someone's enjoyment of it shouldn't result in me having to smell it. As stupid as it is, the current illegal status of marijuana makes conversations like, "Would you please not smoke a joint right under my bedroom window" much easier than its tobacco oriented counterpart.

  • by feuerfalke ( 1034288 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @02:55AM (#31303474)

    Your post is so chock-full of unnecessary hyperbole and alarmism that it's hard to know where to start picking it apart. First of all, you don't need to look to illegal drugs to find something that's insidiously addictive and "freedom destroying"; nicotine, an already-legal and freely available drug, is as addictive as heroin [] (and I should point out that it's the tobacco corporations, not the government, who are profiting the most from the millions of cigarette addicts.)

    Second, you're making the false assumption that everyone who supports legalization of addictive drugs also supports the recreational use of these drugs. This is not the case at all. The philosophy behind addictive drug legalization has two main facets; one is that - yes - we should not legislate what others may or may not do with their bodies. If someone wants to turn themselves into a slave to opioids, they can be my guest. Even though I don't approve, I'm not going to stop them; it's their choice, and even if they might find themselves without a choice to stop down the road, that doesn't change the essential fact that they had the freedom to inflict their addiction upon themselves in the first place. Secondly, and more importantly, it's about harm-reduction. People are going to use drugs no matter what; legalizing them would simultaneously dramatically reduce the health risks (by allowing addicts access to pure, regulated, measured doses) and positively impact society (by cutting out a gigantic source of profit for criminal organizations across the world.)

    In fact, on that note, I'll show you the flip side of the situation: By allowing drugs such as coke and heroin to remain illegal, we are handing billions of dollars to Mexican drug cartels, the Taliban, and other major criminal organizations, who then terrorize local populations, bribe and corrupt government/military officials, and generally speaking threaten the very foundation of civilized life in the countries that they operate in. Are you telling me that the bloodbath currently happening in Mexico - which is costing thousands of people their ultimate freedom, life - is less important than some heroin junkie's self-inflicted "freedom destruction"?

  • by Sleepy ( 4551 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @02:56AM (#31303476) Homepage

    But you did not balance your statement... denaturing is meant to make you FEEL sick so you don't want to drink the stuff. If you pushed past the nausea and drank the stuff anyways, you will NOT die with denatured alcohol.

    This was just government sanctioned murder for political purposes.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <> on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:49AM (#31303728)
    Where do you think the money comes from, anyway? How is any of this a solution to anything? Am I the only one who sees how stupid this whole thing is? Forget about it, it won't work. You have to actually think about the real problem if you hope to do anything other than shuffle around worthless pieces of paper (or numbers in some computer somewhere). Don't ask me to explain myself, just think about it for a minute. You guys are basically arguing about which system won't solve the problem the best.
  • by Dalambertian ( 963810 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:50AM (#31303736)

    What kind of sick view of the world warps a person to the point where they believe that having someone brush their teeth with the old meat whistle is actually a bad thing?


    I think I was a freshman in high school when one of the Jesuits at the catholic high school I attended said that oral sex was sinful because it was a sexual act that did not give glory to the Lord as a reproductive act. That was when I realized there could not be a god that would give us peckers and mouths and then say "Oh, by the way...use them and you will burn for eternity!?. It just defied any sort of logic IMO.

    That was about the end of organized religion for me. Although I did once go to a Catholic Youth Organization function once more because I thought I might be able to get Patti O'Connor to give me a wobble job if I was really nice to her and appeared to be a devout person. It didn't work, so I never again darkened the door of a religious institution.

    There are just so many disturbing parts of your past that it's hard to look directly at my monitor. I will say this, though: for every sexual act you find perfectly reasonable, there are always people who will take issue with it, and vice versa. For example, I'm guessing you're not a big fan of consensual sex with children, but there will always be people who will consider you a prude for being so unenlightened.

  • by toriver ( 11308 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @04:21AM (#31303874)

    He might be from one of the variants that considers Jesus to have brought "a new pact" and thus rendering the Old Testament deprecated.

  • by tehdaemon ( 753808 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @07:08AM (#31304428)
    You don't understand addiction very well at all. Banning drugs increases their addictive power significantly. This is established psychology. It also greatly increases the harm from drugs - they cost tons more, financially ruining the addicts, as well as discouraging them from treatment.

    You are worried about a government promoting drugs? well, that would be bad. That would about double the number of addicts. Yes, only double. Most users of hard drugs (heroin, cocaine, etc.) never become addicts. Basically there is a huge chunk of the population that is immune to addiction to most drugs. Why? They don't need what the drug provides. I'll use one of the most addictive substances known as an example.

    People who try to quit smoking have about a 5% chance of succeeding cold turkey. That goes up to 15% with nicotine patches/gum. With an antidepressant? 30%.

    Most addicts are depressed, or have mental illness, or too much stress, etc. This is what makes them vulnerable to 'self-medicate' to fix their troubles. Since drugs do alter the reward/pleasure centers in ways similar to what the normal mind naturally does, it does temporarily 'fix' the problem. Only it isn't permanent, it usually makes the mind even more off-balance once the drug wears off, -> classic addiction symptoms. However if the mind is already getting what it needs, then the motivation to take more isn't strong enough to cause addiction. It does a 'wow that was quite a trip' and goes on with it's life as normal. Just the way most adults who drink alcohol do.

    It should be obvious to anyone that drugs aren't a serious threat to mankind. Most of them have been around for 1000's of years, and they haven't been banned until very recently. Unfortunately logic and knowledge aren't most people's strong points. What we get instead is common 'sense' like yours. (ie. whatever sense people do have in common...)

    tl;dr version: Drugs are NOT the 'most successful destroyer of freedom', and banning them only makes them more successful destroyers of freedom. both for the addicts, and everyone else.


  • by OeLeWaPpErKe ( 412765 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @07:26AM (#31304472) Homepage

    I do wonder though, industrial alcohol kills whether or not poison is added to it (and home-brewed alcohol is even worse). You could actually formulate this very same policy as trying to get people not to drink the poison by making it taste bad.

    The only statistics are the deaths caused by alcohol poisoning, not a single death case reports that the strychnine had anything to do with the death (any kid and his dog will clearly see the difference in a corpse between alcohol poisoning and strychnine poisoning. Someone dying from strychnine poisoning *will* have died in an extremely cramped position, all muscles totally stretched, while alcohol poisoning will slowly lead to multiple organ failure, in other words, they wouldn't have missed it). And every society that outlaws drinkable alcohol, whether or not they poison it, will have lots of dead people on it's hands.

    Every large city in the middle east, excepting Israel, has between hundreds and thousands of dead on it's hands due to use of selfmade or industrial alcohol every year. Not 70-year old people dying from liver failure that "probably" was caused by long-term alcohol poisoning like sometimes happens in America (which is a very peaceful way to die, incidentally), but 20 year old, perfectly fit men and women dying painfully after arriving in the hospital. Ryadh, the capital of the saudi women-stoning "kingdom of madness", has over a 1000 dead from alcohol poisoning yearly (including the son of the police chief a few years back, guess he couldn't get the money for imported alcohol from daddy).

    Drinkable alcohol is a purified form of ethyl-alcohol. Industrial alcohol is (mostly) Methanol []. It has an LD50 of 0.4g/kg. Which means that drinking 70 cl whisky made with methyl-alcohol will kill 50% of the people who drink it.

    A third of a bottle of orange juice with just enough methanol to make it taste more or less like a wine will also kill 50% of the poeple who drink it.

    Perhaps it's just me, but these numbers could easily have caused 20000 deaths during the prohibition without any help from the government. It seems to me the government would have to have added quite a bit of poison to even match the natural poisonous nature of illegal alcohol, to raise it would very, very easily have resulted in contamination of the entire food chain, which obviously didn't happen. So perhaps it's time to give the benefit of the doubt here, and not blame the government for the deaths of people who were poisoning themselves.

    Btw : who voted in these policies ? Well, prohibition :

    64th Congress (1915-1917)
    Majority Party: Democrat (56 seats)
    Minority Party: Republican (40 seats)
    Other Parties: 0
    Total Seats: 96

    Who voted in the poisoning policy ?

    65th Congress (1917-1919)
    Majority Party: Democrat (54 seats)
    Minority Party: Republican (42 seats)
    Other Parties: 0
    Total Seats: 96

    And who voted it out ?

    66th Congress (1919-1921)
    Majority Party: Republican (49 seats)
    Minority Party: Democrat (47 seats)
    Other Parties: 0
    Total Seats: 96

    (The grandfather of Al Gore had a lot to do with these policies, man, talk about a guy that just does not have a very good history)

  • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @12:53PM (#31306726) Homepage

    , due to it's illegal status. Smoking is the method of consumption that gives the user the maximum effect from the minimum amount of pot. This is important when dealing with an illegal commodity that costs hundreds of dollars per ounce.

    If pot were legal, the costs would be more in line with what it is, a dried herb. This would allow users to ingest it in less efficient ways, such as putting it in food. Someone eating a brownie under your bedroom window isn't going to annoy you that much, is it?

Variables don't; constants aren't.