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50 Years Ago: Drugs and the Death Penalty

While the controversy about the abolition of hanging has been causing such a furore in this country, a significant change in the American law recently has passed by almost without comment. This is the passing by Congress of the Bill aimed at the drug traffic in the United States, which includes in its provisions increased penalties for trafficking in drugs and, in particular, the death penalty for those found guilty of selling heroin to young people under 18. The background of the Bill, the drug traffic,was recently reported on by a US correspondent of the Economist (14th July, 1956). The picture is horrifying.  According to the Economist's correspondent the United States is said to have more drug addicts that all the other Western nations combined, and the authorities are engaged in a constant battle against the traffic. The main impetus to it is given by the needs of 60,000 addicts who are prepared to spend anything from $10 to $100 a day to satisfy their craving. To get this money, many of them resort to crime, and it has been said that about half of the crimes committed in large cities and about a quarter of crimes in the US are the result of this drive to get drugs. The police seem to be able to do little more than hold their own. Smuggling is fairly easy, and rife. The product is small and expensive, and profits are huge - nine ounces of uncut heroin can earn $50,000 when diluted for retail sale. New pedlars soon step in to take the places of those arrested and put in gaol.  Apart from the sale of such vicious drugs as heroin, there is a large business done in other less dangerous drugs, much of itbarely legal. In the words of the Economist :- "But the narcotics problem extends beyond the underworld; it reaches on to the counters of unscrupulous chemists. Housewives eager to lose weight take amphetamines and do not realise that they have become addicts until it is too late. Officials are also worried about the widespread use of barbiturates (sleeping pills). In theory these are obtainable only with a physician's prescription; in fact many chemists will sell them and users do not realise that addiction leads to grave dangers to mental health". Altogether a terrible story. And made even more dreadful by the extension of the death penalty to try to deal with it. (Article by S. H., Socialist Standard, August 1956).