Deborah Blum talks about something I’d only heard a little bit about — the US government’s deliberate poisoning of illicit drinkers during Prohibition:
Doctors were accustomed to alcohol poisoning by then, the routine of life in the Prohibition era. The bootlegged whiskies and so-called gins often made people sick. The liquor produced in hidden stills frequently came tainted with metals and other impurities. But this outbreak was bizarrely different. The deaths, as investigators would shortly realize, came courtesy of the U.S. government.
Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.
Although mostly forgotten today, the “chemist’s war of Prohibition” remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American law-enforcement history. As one of its most outspoken opponents, Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, liked to say, it was “our national experiment in extermination.”
The US government hasn’t shown that it learned (any of) the lessons of Prohibition, and there have been documented attempts by government agents to contaminate drugs on their way to American destinations. Perhaps the best known was the use of airborne spraying of the herbicide Paraquat to make Mexican marijuana more dangerous to consume. Rumours abound of other, more recent, attempts to poison other drugs on their way to the States.