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The Peril of the Drug Habit

By Charles B. Towns

Century Magazine, Vol. 84 (August, 1912), 580-88.

It is human nature to wish to ease pain and to stimulate ebbing vitality. There is no normal adult who, experiencing severe pain or sorrow or fatigue, and thoroughly appreciating the immediate action of an easily accessible opiate, is not likely in a moment of least resistance to take it. Every one who has become addicted to a drug has started out with small occasional doses, and no one has expected to fall a victim to the habit; indeed, many have been totally unaware that the medicine they were taking contained any drug whatever. Thus, the danger being one that threatens us all, it is every man's business to insist that the entire handling and sale of the drug be under as careful supervision as possible. It is not going too far to say that up to the present time most drug-takers have been unfairly treated by society. They have not been properly safeguarded from forming the habit or properly helped to overcome it.

It has been criminally easy for any one to acquire the drug habit. Few physicians have recognized that it is not safe for most persons to know what will ease pain. When an opiate is necessary, it should be given only on prescription, and its presence should then be thoroughly disguised. A patient goes to a physician to be cured; consequently, when his pain disappears, he naturally believes that this is due to the treatment he has received. If the physician has used morphine in a disguised form, the patient naturally believes that the cure was effected by some unknown medicine; but if, on the other hand, he has received morphine knowingly, he realizes at once that it is this drup, which is responsible for easing his pain. if he has received it hypodermically, the idea is created in his mind that a hypodermic is a necessary part of the treatment. Thus it is clear that the physician who uses his syringe without extreme urgency is greatly to be censured, for the patient who has once seen his pain blunted by the use of a hypodermic eagerly resorts to this means when the pain returns. Conservative practitioners are keenly aware of this responsibility, and some go so far as never to carry a hypodermic on their visits, though daily observation shows that the average doctor regards it as indispensable. The conservative physician employs only a very small quantity of morphine in any form. One of the busiest and most successful doctors of my acquaintance has used as little as half a grain a year, and another told me he had never gone beyond two grains.

Both of these men know very well that only a small percentage of drug-takers have begun the practice in consequence of a serious ailment, and that even this small percentage might have been decreased by proper medical treatment directed at the cause rather than at its symptom, pain. An opiate, of course, never removes the cause of any physical trouble, but merely blunts the pain due to it; and it does this by tying up the functions of the body. It is perhaps a conservative estimate that only ten per cent. of the entire drug consumption in this country is applied to the purpose of blunting incurable pain. Thus ninety per cent. of the opiates used are, strictly speaking, unnecessary. In the innumerable cases that have come under my observation, seventy-five per cent. of the habitual users became such without reasonable excuse. Beginning with small occasional doses, they realized within a few weeks that they had lost self-control and could not discontinue the use of the drug.

A very common source of this habit lies in the continued administration of an opiate in regular medical treatment without the patient's knowledge or consent, or in the persistent use of a patent medicine, or of a headache or catarrh powder that contains such a drug,The man who takes an opiate consciously or unconsciously, and receives from it a soothing or stimulating or pleasant effect, naturally turns to it again in case of the same need. The time soon arrives when the pleasurable part of the effect-if it was ever present-ceases to be obtained; and in order to get the soothing or stimulating effect, the dose must be constantly increased as assimilation increases. With those who take a drug to blunt a pain which can be removed in no other way, it is fulfilling its legitimate and supreme mission and admits of no substitute. Where it was ever physically necessary, and that necessity still continues, an opiate would seem inevitable. But the percentage of such sufferers, as I have said, is small. The rest are impelled simply by craving-that intolerable craving which arises from deprivation of the drug.

But whether a man has acquired the habit knowingly or unknowingly, its action is always the same. No matter how conscientiously he wishes to discharge his affairs, the drug at once begins to loosen his sense of moral obligation, until in the end it brings about absolute irresponsibility. Avoidance and neglect of customary duties, evasion of new ones, extraordinary resourcefulness in the discovery of the line of least resistance, and finally amazing cunning and treachery-this is the inevitable history.

The drug habit is no respecter of persons. I have had under my care exemplary mothers and wives who became indifferent to their families; clergymen of known sincerity and fervor who became shoplifters and forgers; shrewd, successful business men who became paupers, because the habit left them at the mercy of sharpers after mental deterioration had set in. For the immediate action of morphine by no means paralyzes the mental faculties. Though when once a man becomes addicted to the drup, he is incapacitated to deal with himself, yet while he is under its brief influence his mind is sharpened and alert. Under the sway of opium a man does venturesome or immoderate things that he would never think of doing otherwise, simply because he has lost the sense of responsibility. I have had patients who took as much as sixty grains of morphine in a single dose, an overdose for about one hundred and fifty people, and about fifty grains more than the takers could possibly assimilate or needed to produce the resultan excellent illustration of how the habit destroys all judgment and all sense of proportion.

Against this appalling habit, which can be acquired easily and naturally and the result of which is always complete demoralization, there is at present no effective safeguard except that provided by nature itself, and this is effective only in certain cases. It happens that in many people opium produces nausea, and this one thing alone has saved some from the habit; for this type of addict never experiences any of the temporarily soothing sensations commonly attributed to the drug. Yet this pitiful natural safeguard, while rarely operative, is more efficacious than any other that up to the present has been provided by man in his heedlessness, indifference, and greed.

I have seen over six thousand cases of drug habit in various countries of the world. Ninety-five per cent. of the patients who have come to me taking morphine or other alkaloids of opium have taken the drug hypodermically. With few exceptions, I have found that the first knowledge of it came through the administration of a hypodermic by a physician. It is the instrument used which has shown the sufferer what was easing his pain. I consider that it has been the chief creator of the drug habit in this country. In 1911 I made this statement before the Ways and Means Committee, then occupied with the matter of regulating the sale of habit-forming drugs, and I personally secured the act which was passed by the New York legislature in February, 1911, to restrict the sale of this instrument to buyers on a physician's prescription. Before that time all drug stores and most department stores sold hypodermic instruments to any one who had the money. A boy of fifteen could buy a syringe as easily as he could buy a jack-knife. If a physician refused to give an injection, the patient could get an instrument anywhere and use it on himself. The bill has passed only a single legislature, but I am arranging to introduce a similar bill before all the others, and hope to have the State action confirmed by a Federal bill. At present in Jersey City, or anywhere out of New York, any one may still buy the instrument. It is inconceivable that the syringe should have gone so long without being considered the chief factor in the promotion of a habit which now alarms the world, and that as yet only one State legislature should have seen fit to regulate its sale. Restricting the sale of the syringe to physicians, or to buyers on a physician's prescription, is the first step toward placing the grave responsibility for the drug habit on the shoulders of those to whom it belongs.

The second step to be taken is to prevent by law the use of habit-forming drugs in patent and proprietary medicines which can be bought without a physician's prescription. Prior to the Pure Food and Drugs Act, created and promoted by Dr. H. W. Wiley, druggists and patent-medicine vendors were able, without announcing the fact, to sell vast quantities of habit-forming drugs in compounds prepared for physical ailments. When that act came into effect, these men were obliged to specify on the label the quantities of such drugs used in these compounds, and thus the purchaser was at least enabled to know that he was handling a dangerous tool. Except in a few States, however, the sale of these compounds was in no way restricted, and hence the act cannot be said to have done much toward checking the formation of the drug habit. Indeed, it has probably worked the other way, for there is perhaps not an adult living who does not know that certain drugs will alleviate pain, and people who have pains and aches are likely to resort to an accessible and generally accredited means of alleviation. Yet the difficulties in the way of passing the Pure Food and Drugs Act are a matter of scandalous history. What, then, would be the difficulties in passing a Federal bill to restrict the sale of patent medicines containing habit-forming drugs? It is of course to the interest of every druggist to create a lasting demand for his article. There is obviously not so much profit in a medicine that cures as in one that becomes indispensable. Hence arises the great inducement, from

The druggist's point of view, in soothing-syrups and the like. In this country all druggists, wholesale and retail, are organized, and the moment a bill is brought up anywhere to correct the evil in question, there is enormous pressure of business interests to secure its dismissal or satisfactory amendment.

To show the essential selfishness of their position, it is only necessary to quote a few of the arguments used against me before the Congressional Ways and Means Committee when I was making a plea for the regulation of the traffic in habit-forming drugs. They claimed that registration of the quantities of opiates in proprietary medicines would entail great bother and added expense, that these drugs are usually combined with others in such a way as to result in altering their effect on the user, and that, anyway, so small an amount of these drugs is used that it cannot create a habit. Now, as a matter of fact, the combination of medicines in these remedies makes not the slightest difference in the physiological action of the drug; further, it is found that, just as with the drug itself, the dose of these compounds must be constantly increased in order to confer the same apparent benefit as in the beginning; and finally, it is well-known that what creates the craving is not the quantity of the drug, but the regularity with which it is taken. A taker of one eighth of a grain of morphine three times a day would acquire the habit just as surely as a man who took three grains three times a day, provided the latter could tolerate that quantity.

The average opium-smoker consuming twenty-five pills a day gets only the equivalent of about a quarter grain of morphine taken hypodermically or of a half grain taken by the mouth. A beginner could not smoke a quarter of that quantity, but still he acquires the habit. Any amount of the drug which is sufficient to alleviate pain or make the taker feel easier is sufficient to create a habit. A habit-forming drug having no curative properties whatever is put into a medicine merely for the purpose of making the taker feel easier. One wholesale house alone prepares and sells six hundred remedies containing some form of opiate. Most of the cases of the cocaine habit have been admittedly created by so-called catarrh cures, and these contain only from two to four per cent. of cocaine.

In the end, the snuffer of catarrh powders comes to demand undiluted cocaine; the taker of morphine in patent medicines once the habit is formed, must inevitably demand undiluted morphine.

This easy accessibility of drugs in medicinal form is more dangerous than moralists care to admit. The reason why opium-smoking has been, up to the present, less prevalent in the United States than in China and some other countries is probably that the preparation of it and the machinery for taking it are not convenient. If opiumsmoking had been generally countenanced in America, if the sale of the pure drug had been for generations permitted here, as it has been in China, if houses for its sale and preparation had been found everywhere, if its social aspects had been considered agreeable, if society had put the stamp of approval upon it, opium-smoking would be as prevalent here as it has been in China. Our human nature is essentially little different from that of the Chinese, but lack of opportunity is everywhere recognized as a great preservative of virtue. Due allowance being made for the difference of moral concepts, our standards of morality and honesty and virtue are certainly no higher than those of the Chinese. Thus, were the conditions the same in both cases, there is no reason to suppose that opium would not be smoked here as much as there; but fortunately it has not yet become thus easy, convenient, and agreeable, and consequently that particular phase of the evil has not yet reached overwhelming proportions. On the other hand, the alkaloids of opium administered hypodermically or as ingredients in many patent medicines are thus convenient, and as a result this phase of evil has reached overwhelming proportions. Nor have we any cause for congratulation upon our particular form of the vice, for opiumsmoking is vastly less vicious than morphine-taking....

It has been demonstrated to be quite practicable for all the opium-producing countries to make the drug a government monopoly; it would be equally practicable for them to sell directly to those governments that use it for governmental distribution. The only obstacle to an international understanding is that the producing countries know very well that government regulation would materially lessen the sale of the drug. Within the borders of our own country such a system would simplify rather than complicate present conditions. We have to-day along our frontier and in our ports inspectors trying to stop the illicit traffic in opium, and the money thus spent by our Government would be more than sufficient to handle and distribute all of the drug that is needed for legitimate purposes. Any druggist could of course continue to buy all that he wished, but he would have to account for what he bought. The drug would serve only its legitimate purpose, because the druggist could sell it only on prescription. This would at once eliminate the gravest feature of the case, the indiscriminate sale of proprietary and patent medicines containing small quantities of opium. The physician would thus have to shoulder the entire responsibility for the use of any habitforming drug. With the Government as the first distributor and the physician as the last, the whole condition of affairs would assume a brighter aspect, for it would be a simple matter to get from the physician a proper accounting for what he had dispensed. If he knew he must answer for every case of drug-taking which he was a factor in creating, he would be very careful in his administration of the drug. Thus the new crop of users would be small, and less than ten per cent. of the opium at present brought into this country would be sufficient to meet every legitimate need.


Somebody, however, would be greatly out of pocket by this, just as somebody was greatly out of pocket when the slave-trade was stopped or when gentlemen ceased to regard daily drunkenness as a mark of gentle breeding. For it cannot be denied that if druggists should dispense their wares only for legitimate purposes, a good many stores now in existence would have to go out of business. Hence the solid and organized opposition to any bill restricting the sale of habit-forming drugs. That New York State now has such a bill is largely due to the fact that one man's activities were backed by unlimited money and unlimited publicity. And stringent as it is, this act is quite inadequate and ineffective.

The need for regulation will be evident from an incident or two. I had a patient who had been buying morphine for several years from a wholesale druggist. The druggist, when confronted with the fact, said that the man had represented himself to be a physician. It is true that he had done so; but if the druggist had been obliged to account for his sales, he would have ascertained whether the man was really a physician or not; and in the second place, under any responsibile system he would not have been allowed to sell to any one but a retail druggist.

Another patient had a quantity of druggist's letter-heads printed, and with the aid of these he bought all the morphine he could pay for. At the present time, in such cases as the above, a wholesale druggist is entirely protected. As for the retailer, any one who can hire a licensed pharmacist may open a drug store to-morrow, and no other responsibility need be incurred. A man in New York can beg, borrow, buy, steal, or manufacture the pad of a doctor from Kalamazoo, walk into a drug store, and write a prescription, and under the law the druggist is justified in supplying him with as much morphine as he demands. There are authentic directories of physicians, but no druggist is required to keep them on file or identify any signature. The consequence of all this criminal looseness is that even under New York's stringent law any man who wants a drug is always able to buy it. There are discredited doctors in New York City who make a business of writing and selling prescriptions at a very small sum to habitual users and unscrupulous peddlers, and there are some doctors whose certificate is openly at the service of the apothecary.

Across the Hudson, however, the law is not so stringent, and a man does not have to go through even this formality. Inhabitants of Jersey City were startled a while ago to hear that school-children there were buying cocaine from vendors. A firm in Philadelphia can ship a carload of morphine to a man in New York without the slightest hint of criticism or illegality. There is nothing to prevent a resident of New York from getting opium from any dealer outside of the State of New York, provided he can muster a letter-head or a prescription. The dealer is naturally not going to worry about what becomes of the drug so long as he cannot be made to undergo any sort of punishment for it. His business is to sell as much as possible. Until all boards of health of the various States get together and meet thorough organization with thorough organization, nothing really effective can be accomplished. They should formulate an adequate bill and get the Federal Government to adopt it. When the morning mail or the express-wagon or a street-car ride can place you beyond the range of restriction, what is restriction worth? On the other hand, if you are willing to leave to the man who sells the wares the regulation of traffic in those wares, what can you expect?

The conscientious druggist will not dispense any more habitforming drugs than he can help, despite the colossal temptation to do so; but it would be quite extraordinary if he were to let a customer depart without making a sale. And all druggists are not conscientious.


The important habit-forming drugs are opium, cocaine, and the small but dangerous group of "hypnotics." These last-trional, veronal, sulphonal, medinal, etc.-are chiefly coal-tar products, and are not always classified as habit-forming drugs, but they are such, and there are many reasons why the sale of them should be scrupulously regulated. The opium derivatives go under the general head of narcotics. Morphine is the active principle, and codeine and heroin are the chief derivatives of opium. Codeine is one eighth the strength of morphine; heroin is three times as strong as morphine.

Though the general impression is otherwise, the users of these two drugs acquire the habit as quickly and as easily as if they took morphine. Many cough and asthma preparations contain heroin, simply for temporary alleviation, since, like opium, it has no curative power whatever. From time to time I have had to treat cases of heroin-taking in which the victims had thought to satisfy their need for an opiate without forming a habit. In the cases where it was given by prescription, it was so given by the physician in the sincere belief that it would not create a habit. All this despite the fact that heroin is three times stronger than morphine, and despite the fact that physicians know that anything which will do the work of an opiate is an opiate. Codeine, notwithstanding the fact that it is weaker than morphine, is likewise habit-forming; yet doctors prescribe it on account of its relative mildness, even though they know that it is the cumulative effect of continued doses, and not the quantity of morphine in the dose, which results in habit. As with morphine, to use either of these drugs effectively means in the long run the necessary increase of the dose up to the limit of physical tolerance.

The most harmful of all habit-forming drugs is cocaine. Nothing so quickly deteriorates its victim or provides so short a cut to the insane asylum. It differs from opium in two important ways. A man does not acquire a habit from cocaine in the sense that it is virtually impossible for him to leave it off without medical treatment. He can do so, although he rarely does. On withdrawal, he experiences only an intense and horrible depression, together with a physical languor which results in a sleepiness that cannot be shaken off. Opium withdrawal, on the other hand, results in sleeplessness and extreme nervous and physical disorder. In action, too, cocaine is exactly the opposite of opium, for cocaine is an extreme stimulant. Its stimulus wears off quickly and leaves a corresponding depression, but it confers half an hour of capability of intense effort. That is why bicycle-riders, prize-fighters, and race-horses are often doctored, or "doped," with cocaine. When cocaine gives out, its victim invariably resorts to alcohol for stimulus; alcoholics, however, when deprived of alcohol generally drift into the use of morphine.

The wide-spread use of cocaine in the comparatively short period of time since its discovery has been brought about among laymen entirely by patent preparations containing small quantities of it. These have been chiefly the so-called catarrh cures, which of course cure nothing. With only a two to four per cent. solution, they have created a craving, and in the end those who could do so have procured either stronger solutions or the plain crystal. As with the other drugs, in order to maintain the desired result the dose must be increased in proportion as tolerance increases. Wherever the sale of patent medicines has been restricted to those presenting a physician's prescription, the consumption of cocaine has at once been lessened. A man cannot afford to get a physician's prescription for a patent medicine; and even if he could, the reputable physician refuses to prescribe one that contains cocaine. When an overseer in the South will deliberately put cocaine into the rations of his negro laborers in order to get more work out of them to meet a sudden emergency, it is time to have some policy of accounting for the sale of a drug like cocaine.

It is also extremely important to regulate the sale of the hypnotic coal-tar derivatives. All the group of hypnotics should be buyable only on a physician's prescription. They all disturb heart action and impoverish the blood, thereby producing neurotics. No physician, without making a careful examination, will assume the responsibility of prescribing for a man who comes to him in pain, yet a druggist does so constantly. He knows nothing of the customer's idiosyncrasy; that, for instance, an amount of trional which would not ordinarily affect a child may create an intense nervous disorder in a particular type of adult. To the average druggist a headache is only a headache; he does not know that what will alleviate one kind of headache is exceedingly bad for another kind, and furthermore it is not his business to warn the customer that a particular means of headache alleviation may perhaps make him a nervous wreck. The patient usually has the same ignorance. In a case which was once brought to my attention, a girl swallowed nine headache powders within one hour. Had there been ten minutes' delay in summoning a doctor, she would have died; as it was, she was seriously ill for a long time.

These, then, the narcotics, cocaine, and the hypnotics, are the chief habit-forming drugs. They form habits because it is necessary to increase the dose in order to continue to derive the apparent benefit obtained from them in the beginning, and because, when once the habit is set up, it cannot be terminated without such acute discomfort that virtually no one is ever cured without medical help. In drug addictions the condition of the patient is not mental, as is generally supposed, but physical. Definite medical treatment to remove the effects of the drug itself is imperative, whether the victim be suffering from the drug habit alone or from that habit in a body otherwise physically disordered. With regard to the cure of the habit, as in the case of the conditions which permit of its being acquired, it may justly be said that the victims have been unfairly treated. But my purpose in the present article has only been to show how exposed we all are to the danger, and to recommend the only means by which we may safeguard ourselves.

The need of Control by the Goverment and Physicians

The prevalence of the drug habit, the magnitude of which is now startling the whole civilized and uncivilized world, can be checked only in one way-by controlling the distribution of habit-forming drugs. With the Government as the first distributor and a physician as the last, drug-taking merely as a habit would cease to be. If physicians were made accountable, they would use narcotics, hypnotics, and cocaine only when absolutely necessary. Nobody should be permitted to procure these drugs or the means of using them or any medicines containing them, without a doctor's prescription. By such restriction the intense misery due to the drug habit would be decreased by nine tenths, indeed, by much more than this; for when a physician dares no longer be content with the mere alleviation of pain, which is only nature's way of announcing the presence of some diseased condition, he will seek the more zealously to discover and remove its cause.


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