Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

30. Popularizing the barbiturates as "thrill pills" 

The first major campaign against nonmedical barbiturate use was launched in 1942, with an article in a magazine called  Hygeia (subsequently renamed  Today's Health), published for the lay public by the American Medical Association. The article was called "1,250,000,000 Doses a Year." A second  Hygeia article, "Waco Was a Barbiturate Hotspot," followed in June 1945–– and similar articles have appeared through the decades since then in  Hygeia and  Today's Health. Their main message was to warn people away from barbiturates unless they were secured on prescription from a personal physician. Other magazines followed the  Hygeia line; thus  Collier's ran an article, "Thrill Pills Can Ruin You," in April 1949. States began passing laws against nonprescription barbiturates; arrests engendered newspaper headlines, and for the first time a black market in barbiturates became profitable. Agents of the United States Food and Drug Administration began to suppress nonprescribed barbiturates generating more publicity. By the end of the 1940s, a nation that had for decades used barbiturates sensibly, to go to sleep or to calm the nerves, had been persuaded that the drugs were "thrill pills." What might have been anticipated did in fact occur. Some people who would never for the world have taken a sedative or a sleeping pill now began getting drunk on the new "thrill pills." For them the warnings served as lures; illicit barbiturate use increased from year to year. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the relatively harmless sleeping tablets of the 1930s played their new role as one of the major illicit American drugs.

At first the illicit barbiturate users were mostly adults; children and adolescents tended to prefer stimulants to depressants. By the 1960s, however, even young children had heard the news that you can get roaring drunk on "barbs," and had succumbed to the lure. "Especially during the past year," Dr. Sidney Cohen told the Subcommittee on juvenile Delinquency of the United States Senate judiciary Committee on September 17, 1969, "young people, some in the pre-teen age group, have become involved." 1 The fact that barbiturates were available in many family medicine cabinets as well as on the black market no doubt facilitated this trend. Dr. Cohen cited a survey indicating that at one college, 24 percent of students had used barbiturates–– though in almost all cases only sporadically. "There is now no generation gap in the abuse of barbiturates," Dr. Cohen concluded. Production in 1969, he indicated, would total ten billion doses, up 800 percent from 1942, when the antibarbiturate campaign was launched –– "enough to provide each man, woman, and child in this land with 50. At least half of this supply gets into the illicit market." * 2

* Though enormous, the ten billion doses of barbiturates, licit and illicit, were of course only a modest fraction of the number of comparable doses of alcohol consumed per year.

The American experience with barbiturates after 1940–– the explosion of illicit barbiturate use following warnings, publicity, restrictive laws, and punitive arrests–– should have taught society a lesson. Yet during the 1960s the same policies were followed with respect to LSD and marijuana–– with much the same results, but on an even larger scale.

An elementary conclusion seems warranted. The more often the warning lure is presented, the direr the prophecies of doom, and the more emotion-laden the tone of the message, the greater the likelihood of popularizing the drug under attack.

Chapter 30

1. Dr. Sidney Cohen, in  Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, gist Cong., 1st Sess., September 17, 1969 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), p. 293.

2. Ibid.


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