These days, we think of the American Legion as a conservative lobbying arm for veterans. But back in 1923, legionnaires were a force to be reckoned with -- or at least they wanted to be seen that way.
Their war on drugs in the early 1920s was just one way the organization enforced what members saw as American ideals. Like, you know, baseless xenophobia framed as facts. Read on for more.
A 1921 article in the Longmont Ledger includes these lines: "Ninety-five per cent [sic] of the ever-increasing dope peddlers in America are of alien birth or parentage" and "One person in every seventy-three uses drugs as a habit." Of course then-acting Director of Americanism for the Legion Garland W. Powell didn't have any source for those figures. But hey, it sounded good at the time when he was addressing his lily-white constituency and urging the group to wage "war on dope." Without such a campaign, Powell claimed, the country would be "drug soaked" by 1946.
But it wasn't really about the war on dope. Nope. It was the war on foreigners. Powell's end-goal, which he made perfectly clear, was to further restrict immigration in order to "check the traffic in dope." Yeah. The guy in charge of keeping America "American" was just concerned about the dope and not completely afraid of foreigners in general. Sure. We're talking about a man who held a national conference in 1923 with 68 organizations to come up with a comprehensive set of rules for how the American flag should be displayed.
To be fair, though, his committee for Americanism did condemn the Ku Klux Klan in 1921. So racism wasn't his thing. Just xenophobia.
According to Powell, there were more than a half-million Americans that "cannot face existence without drugs and who are swiftly sinking into a condition of hoplessness [sic] and death."
And that death has a cause: the drug peddlers!
"The death of the drug addict is premeditated murder on the part of the peddler for he knows the fatal result of the habit."
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Powell's solution? Kill the drug dealers.
"If I were in a position to introduce a bill in congress or in the state legislatures, I would make capital punishment the penalty for peddling drugs."
This seems to be a common suggestion from the era. Thankfully it never caught on with the public at large.