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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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @08:58PM (#31301058)
    Nice how much hate exists among our democracy. (Ok, Representative democracy)
    • by AmigaMMC ( 1103025 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:00PM (#31301546)
      Yep, that's the Land of the Free (tm) for you
    • by sqldr ( 838964 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:29PM (#31301746)

      As a recovering alcoholic, they needn't have bothered. Alcohol/ethanol, after being processed by the liver into ethene at much expense of your vitamin B suppplies amongst other things acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter to the brain, ie. it shuts down certain brain functions by binding to receptors normally associated with dopamine. It also blocks the production of seratonine, which does the opposite.

      After years of abuse, through the natural process of brain cells naturally dying and being re-cultivated, you start to overproduce excitatory emitters and underproduce inhibitory emitters. Eventually, your brain goes mental, and after going cold-turkey you feel like you want to crawl up into a ball and hide somewhere dark and quiet. In worse cases, alcohol withdrawal can kill you.

      Brain cells last a long time. I spent 6 months with a neurological illness after 10 years of abuse.

      All I can say is that the smell of the stuff now makes me feel physically sick. Poisoning it to harm people who never had a problem is just going to make even more people ill.

      Then again, neuroscience wasn't really the world's strong point in the 20s.

    • 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 PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @08:59PM (#31301062) Homepage

    From TFA:

    "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."

  • 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.

  • Ah yes... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @08:59PM (#31301068)

    Very much like the US still poisons its opiates by adding acetaminophen to them to ensure that they cannot be taken in very high doses? Ah, the war on drugs!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Ah, the war on drugs!

      Let me fix that for you.

      Ah, the war on some drugs and the American people!

      All better. (:

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

        by ChromeAeonium ( 1026952 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:43PM (#31301426)

        And let me fix that for you.

        Ah, the war on some drugs and a friggin' plant and the American people!

        • 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?

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

            by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @12:08AM (#31302436)

            Ya I've never liked the argument that because marijuana is natural it must be safe/harmless. No, not really. Plenty of dangerous natural shit out there. Some of the most deadly venoms known are from natural sources. That something is natural has no bearing at all on if it is safe or healthy or anything else.

            Now, that said, marijuana is rather safe and non-addictive, and as such ought to be legalized. However the reason to legalize it is because it is safe and we have science showing that, not because it is natural.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by tirefire ( 724526 )

              No, the reason to legalize marijuana is because free people have a right to put whatever they want into their own bodies.

            • 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.

              • , 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?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Newer Guy ( 520108 )
      Or tried to spray Paraquat on pot fields in Mexico knowing full well the pot would be smoked by Americans.
    • Re:Ah yes... (Score:5, Informative)

      by insufflate10mg ( 1711356 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:09PM (#31301616)
      The acetaminophen is added for extra pain relief - and it does help. 15mg Oxycodone w/ NO-APAP, 30mg, 40mg, 60mg, and 80mg oxycodone-only pills are more popular than the ones with APAP (Tylenol/Acetaminophen). Sure, lower-strength Percocet and Vicodin have acetaminophen in them, but it is not to prevent abuse. Put a whole bottle of Percocet/Vicodin in a cold gallon of water, refrigerate it for several hours, filter out the result, throw away what the filter catches, allow the remaining liquid to evaporate slowly. After the liquid evaporates off of a pan, there will be crystallized particles. Scrape it up, cut out doses, and snort it -- it will be approximately 85-90% the total amount of opiates in the original pills. The acetaminophen you imply is used for malicious purposes will be laying on a coffee filter in the trash.

      The acetaminophen is not to poison a hard abuser; in fact, most doctors would prefer to prescribe the opiate-only preparations due to the toxicity of APAP at high dosages.
  • 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 Gizzmonic ( 412910 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:15PM (#31301174) Homepage Journal

      Stupid doctors are as much to blame for this as the FDA. When a drug company's patent is about to expire, they often superficially change the molecular structure of the popular drug so that they can get a new patent. Then they start the marketing blitz to "ask your doctor about" the new drug. Smart doctors will prescribe the proven cure over the patent cash-in drugs.

    • by selven ( 1556643 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:24PM (#31301258)

      Several hundred thousand die per year? So it's half as bad as cancer or heart disease? I find that very hard to believe. And federally mandated poisoning? No one is forcing patients to take these drugs. Taking these drugs is a risk patients willingly take since, if they have a deadly disease, doing nothing itself has a high mortality rate.

  • by kaliann ( 1316559 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:03PM (#31301094)

    In TFA: Charles Norris.
    Because back in the day, he was just a medical examiner. He got the nickname "Chuck" from his ability to punch someone so hard they essentially became very similar to ground chuck.

  • by Saono ( 12019 ) * <r.andom@nos[ ].com ['hut' in gap]> on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:05PM (#31301110) Homepage

    Denaturing alcohol is a common practice even today to prevent tax dodging, perhaps the best mass-scale denaturing occurring today is in Ethanol plants.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Sleepy ( 4551 )

      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 sjpm ( 30128 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:07PM (#31301120) Homepage

    It's a good thing we no longer do things like that. You know, like add tylenol (APAP) to opiate painkillers so that if you abuse them you die of liver failure. Cause that wouldn't be cool at all.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:20PM (#31301218)

      Let's keep it going:

      Eugenics Board of North Carolina []

      Emp. added via bold on the interesting parts:

      The Eugenics Board of North Carolina (EBNC) was an agency of the U.S. state of North Carolina created in 1933 after the state legislature authorized the practice of eugenics by state officials four years earlier.

      In 1971, an act of the legislature transferred the EBNC to the newly created Department of Human Resources (DHR), and the secretary of that department was given managerial and executive authority over the board. Under a 1973 law, the Eugenics Board was transformed into the Eugenics Commission. Members of the commission were appointed by the governor and included the director of the Division of Social and Rehabilitative Services of the DHR, the director of Health Services, the chief medical officer of a state institution for the feeble-minded or insane, the chief medical officer of the DHR in the area of mental health services, and the state attorney general. In 1974 the legislature transferred to the judicial system the responsibility for any sterilization proceedings against persons suffering from mental illness or mental retardation.

      The Eugenics Commission was formally abolished by the legislature in 1977.

      The board sterilized about 7,600 people, many of them against their will, between 1929 and 1974, in an attempt to remove mental illness and "social misbehaviour" from the gene pool. Among the victims were 2000 young people, some as young as ten years old.

      Gotta love the government.

    • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:59PM (#31301534) Homepage

      They studied men who already HAD the disease, and allowed it to progress untreated to see what would happen.

      Still completely unethical, and one of the more atrocious chapters in US medical history. But claiming that the patients were intentionally infected with syphilis by gov't docs is simply wrong, and gives ammunition to those who would deny that the whole thing ever happened.

      OTOH, the government did intentionally inject people (including mentally retarded children) with radioactive isotopes to see what the effects of nuclear fallout would be.

  • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:17PM (#31301194) Homepage

    The BATF has a list of approved formulas which must be used to render ethanol undrinkable in order to avoid federal excise taxes. The list is available here: []

    The denaturants used range from simply nasty-tasting, to nausea-inducing, to downright lethal.

    Apparently, Uncle Sam would rather you be dead or blind than getting driunk without paying the booze taxes...

    • by Aranykai ( 1053846 ) <> on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:45PM (#31301432)

      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?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Then get rid of the poison *and* the tax. Duh.

        You think it's better for people to die than to get drunk cheap. Fuck you.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by dbIII ( 701233 )
          For some industrial uses you want to get that last couple of percent of water out of the ethanol - which you just can't do by distillation if it's a mix of pure water and ethanol (or mash or whatever). The sort of additives you can put in to make distillation to greater purity possible are volatile hydrocarbons such as benzene - pretty nasty stuff to drink. I think that is why some extremely nasty stuff is on that approved list. The answer is to treat high purity ethanol that may have things like that in
  • 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.

  • by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:39PM (#31301394) Journal

    Early on in the 13-year experiment to outlaw ethyl alcohol, bootleggers turned to its poisonous cousin methyl alcohol, also known as wood alcohol, to quench the nation's thirst. Norris and Gettler saw the results carried into the city morgue. To begin with, methyl alcohol causes the same pleasant feelings of inebriation as ethyl alcohol, but these are quickly followed by blindness, coma and death.

    So basically the bootleggers were defrauding the drinkers during prohibition by replacing the cheap (but legal for industrial uses) Methanol which can lead to blindness and ultimately death. The underground market was defrauding and poisoning people wholesale. So in effect, the Methanol was only safe to be used in industrial products as it was and would never have poisoned people if it had not been fraudulently added to alcoholic beverages in the first place. That isn't to say the government wasn't wrong, it most certainly was as is the entire concept of a drug war in of its self, it is that these underground markets were knowingly putting tainted Methanol into their products and killing drinkers as a result.

  • Still happening (Score:5, Informative)

    by stonecypher ( 118140 ) <stonecypher@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:20PM (#31301700) Homepage Journal

    This is still going on today with other illegal substances. The US has, for example, been poisoning marijuana fields with paraquat for decades.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by evilviper ( 135110 )

      The US has, for example, been poisoning marijuana fields with paraquat for decades.

      Paraquat is a herbicide. It's effects on the marijuana should be fast enough that it can't be sold and used. Statistics show that only a very small number of human deaths from the agent are unintentional, so I don't even see any POTENTIAL basis for your claim.

  • 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.

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel