Feb 252010

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.

Industrial alcohol is basically grain alcohol with some unpleasant chemicals mixed in to render it undrinkable. The U.S. government started requiring this “denaturing” process in 1906 for manufacturers who wanted to avoid the taxes levied on potable spirits. The U.S. Treasury Department, charged with overseeing alcohol enforcement, estimated that by the mid-1920s, some 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen annually to supply the country’s drinkers. In response, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge’s government decided to turn to chemistry as an enforcement tool. Some 70 denaturing formulas existed by the 1920s. Most simply added poisonous methyl alcohol into the mix. Others used bitter-tasting compounds that were less lethal, designed to make the alcohol taste so awful that it became undrinkable.

To sell the stolen industrial alcohol, the liquor syndicates employed chemists to “renature” the products, returning them to a drinkable state. The bootleggers paid their chemists a lot more than the government did, and they excelled at their job. Stolen and redistilled alcohol became the primary source of liquor in the country. So federal officials ordered manufacturers to make their products far more deadly.

By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and 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. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.
The results were immediate, starting with that horrific holiday body count in the closing days of 1926. Public health officials responded with shock. “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.”

Governments, yes, always act in the best possible ways for the largest number of people (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOOOD’). I hereby renounce my doubting ways and surrender myself to its loving embrace.

  4 Responses to “Government is basically benign”

  1. And I thought the reason that they don’t spike all the drugs they capture and re-release them into the black market is that even for governments that are clearly contemptuous of their citizens there are limits. Now it sounds like it might be because one of them already tried it once, or something very much like it, and it didn’t work. Mind you that can be said about the whole Prohibition experiment and it’s not stopping the idiots treating an increasing number of other recreational drugs the same way as grog in 1920s America. I doubt that lacing heroin and coke has never occurred to anyone in governments now, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before one of them actually tries it.

    • Actually the article I linked to there mentions an American plan to crop-dust a bunch of Mexican marijuana with some horrible chemical. People complained. Go and read!

      • Bloody hell. Paraquat for a bit of puff! The mind boggles.

        • Surely, as the article points out and then ignores, dusting hemp with paraquat doesn’t lead to poisonous spliffs, just a lack of Mexican spliff ingredients. Which, as the article then fails to point out, simply leads to more expensive spliffs and bigger profits for non-Mexican ingredient importers?

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