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Menace in the West, by Henry O. Whiteside

Review by Ed Quillen

Colorado history – November 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Menace in the West – Colorado and the American Experience with Drugs, 1873-1963
by Henry O. Whiteside
Published in 1997 by the Colorado Historical Society
ISBN 0-942576-38-1

The “good old days,” if one bothers to read their history rather than listen to a politician on the stump, weren’t a time of innocence and virtue. Our forebears were not angels.

Menace in the West examines drug laws — how they got put on the books and how they were enforced — in Colorado for the 90 years before 1963. It thus avoids most of the recent controversies, but it remains instructive nonetheless.

For instance, there’s a pattern. First create press hysteria over some substance. Tie that substance to a minority group, and fabricate fears that the plague is spreading into the majority population. Then pass laws and create enforcement agencies.

This has little connection to science or medicine, or even the good of society, but as Menace in the West makes clear, it is the story of drug laws in Colorado.

During the formative years of Colorado Territory, the menace was opium. It or its derivatives were common ingredients in patent medicines then used by all classes of society, but the smoking of opium was portrayed as the peculiar vice of Chinese laborers, who were des pised anyway because they worked hard and cheaply.

Thus, “Exposés of the opium dens or `hop joints’ of Denver’s Chinatown on lower Wazee Street were a periodic feature of the local press. Newspaper accounts worked the association of opium smoking with the Chinese to the mutual discredit of both… The Denver Rocky Mountain News applauded Leadville’s simple elimination of the opium threat by driving out the Chinese.”

Then came published fears that white people were acquiring the vile habit, or, as the headline put it: “Caucasian against Mongolian — the Survival of the Fittest.” Then the strict laws and strong penalties, and then attention turned elsewhere: “Press attention to raids in Denver and mining towns such as Georgetown and Fairplay soon became desultory….”

The pattern returned with cocaine, “initially sold in the commissaries of many Colorado mining camps.” It was tied to black men, who might then use it to ply white women — the rest of the story is easy to surmise.

It came around again with marijuana in the 1930s, which supposedly made Hispanics in the San Luis Valley either energetic and crazy, or too lazy to work. In either contradictory case, it was a menace–and Colorado led in getting federal regulation of a plant.

Whiteside tells these stories clearly in this short book, which comes with thorough source notes and a useful index. His writing style, though rather dry, generally remains interesting, as he examines how laws that were initially designed to encourage treatment became bludgeons to produce severe punishment.

The old photos evoke the time when anybody, no prescription necessary, could go to the pharmacy and buy a few grains of morphine — and of a society that somehow managed to avoid collapse on that account.

Anyone interested in solid facts about Colorado and American drug laws, rather than the propaganda put out by bureaucrats eager to expand their powers, will find this book readable and informative — and more than a little tragic, when one ponders all the people in prison for doing things that were quite legal for their great-grandparents.