By Helena Valente and Daniel Martins / The Vaults of EROWID
People use drugs. This is an inescapable reality that has been tormenting policymakers and legislators around the world. From ancient times, human beings seek altered states of consciousness, frequently via the use of psychoactive substances (Escohotado, 1999). People eat, swallow, smoke, snort, and inject drugs to amplify, numb or distort the senses and change mood, even if this involves some degree of risk to their health. Different governments have tried different approaches, some more liberal and others more punitive, to restrict this type of behavior (OSF, 2011). However, there is a considerable fringe of society that consumes, and will continue to consume, drugs (UNODC, 2016).
Almost as old as drug use is the adulteration of drugs, the intentional and unintentional addition of components which are not usually part of a given substance. History is full of reports of adulteration, some more dangerous than others (Cole et al., 2011). Prohibition and the desire for profit seem to go hand in hand with adulteration. In the 1930s over 50,000 people in the United States of America (USA) suffered from partial paralysis due to a spinal cord cellular damage related with the consumption of Jamaica ginger extract. Jamaica ginger was a medicinal extract of ginger root that was used for respiratory infections and digestion problems, but contained more than 70% alcohol (Morgan, 1982). After the USA's National Prohibition Act, which prohibited the production, sale and transport of alcohol, was enacted in 1919, Jamaica ginger became a popular and cheap way of getting intoxicated and circumventing prohibition.
To enforce prohibition, authorities soon required a change in the content of the medicine to make it bitter and difficult to ingest in order to discourage people from drinking it. In an effort to bypass prohibition the bootleggers started replacing the ginger contents with other substances that could make the medicine more palatable, and at the same time pass the analytical control done by authorities. One of the adulterants that became commonly used in the Jamaican ginger extract was trorthocresyl phosphate (TOCP), later discovered to be toxic and damage nerve cells. When the cause of the epidemic paralysis was detected it was already too late for several thousand victims (Morgan, 1982).
Ultimately, it was acknowledged that alcohol prohibition was not working for a considerable number of people and ignoring the law gained social tolerance. The incidents resulting from adulteration and the violence related with organized crime that surrounded the sale of illegal alcohol, contributed to a strong popular opposition to Prohibition that eventually led the act to be repealed.