Friday, September 28, 2007

Dr. John Beresford Has Passed

Dr. John Beresford has died.

Dr. John Beresford died on September 2, 2007 in a hospital in Canada. British-born John Beresford began his psychedelic research interests in 1961, when he resigned his post as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the New York Medical College and founded the Agora Scientific Trust, the world's first research organization devoted to investigating the effects of LSD. In contrast to Leary's invitation to "tune in, turn on and drop out," Beresford wanted to keep LSD in proper perspective as a tool of scientifically trained specialists.
In 1999 I republished an article Dr. Beresford wrote comparing the Drug War to Nazi Policies. In his honor I'm republishing the article.

The Nazi Comparison

by Dr. John Beresford

Drug War prisoners that I correspond with call themselves POWs. Some write "POW in America" in the corner of an envelope under the writer’s name and prison number. "Political prisoner" and "gulag" are terms that enter conversation. Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle and The Gulag Archipelago are works sometimes referred to.

America’s vast network of prisons, boot camps, and jails invites comparison with the detention machinery of former totalitarian regimes. The certainty of conviction that an accusation of a drug law violation brings -- through confession ( 95 percent ) or trial and a finding of guilt ( the remaining 5 percent ) -- matches the idea of automatic conviction that goes with popular belief about the nazi and communist systems. "Nazi" is a term used by Drug War prisoners and non-prisoners alike, as though it were a given that the mentality behind Nazi behavior a half-century ago and the operation of today ’s Drug War is no different.

The comparison is an uncomfortable one, and one’s first inclination is to reject it. A US judge has objected that nothing in the conduct of today’s Drug War resembles the terror tactics in Nazi Germany where SS troops could storm into a person’s home and no one saw or heard of that person again. The objection is understandable, but it rests on a false premise. The Nazis were not a bunch of crooks, operating outside the confines of the law. Everything they did had legal backing, and if on some occasion a law was needed they composed one.

Flat out, it will be objected that a world of difference separates a prison from a death camp. Drug War prisoners are not intended for a holocaust. Ominously for our peace of mind, however, until the last minute neither were the people held in concentration camps. They were held there to protect the health of society. Moreover, with the obsession with death that gains ground daily, it is probable that death is in the cards for people accused of drug law violations in the future. A questionnaire is making the rounds in Congress that has Yes and No boxes for questions which include: "Do you favor the death penalty for drug trafficking?" Who in their right mind in Congress, I wonder, will check No to that question, "trafficking" being the loaded term for what most people call dealing?

Someone will point to the absurdity of thinking that America would ever tolerate a "Fuhrer," a wild man with a funny mustache and a way of haranguing crowds burlesqued by Charlie Chaplin. The point, though, is that the Nazi comparison refers not so much to rhetoric, inevitably different in two quite different places and at different times, as to the dehumanization and trashing of large numbers of people for lifestyles and practices that violate the norms of mainstream society. For this we do not need a Hitler. We can do it the American way.

Myself, I am sympathetic to the Nazi comparison. I was in Nazi Germany as a child.

In the summer of 1938, when I was 14, my parents sent me on a two-week vacation with a family in a village in north-west Germany. There were Mr. and Mrs. Otting, their daughter Irmgard, and the youngest son Wolfgang, who wore his Hitler Jugend uniform at Wednesday night meetings. The two older sons I never saw. One was in the army. The other was doing two years of voluntary farm labor, which excused him from army service.

Mr. and Mrs. Otting were old-time Christians, and had the family bible on display in the china cabinet in the dining room. On the shelf above the Holy Bible you saw the red and white dust jacket of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s version of scripture. No one said anything about it, but there had to be a copy of Mein Kampf on display for two reasons. Every five or six houses or apartments had an informant who could sift through mail, collect gossip, and pay a visit to make sure the householder did not have suspicious material lying around. Also, schoolchildren were taught to report suspicious behavior to the police.

There wasn’t any TV, but there was plenty of entertainment -- parades, outdoor concerts, Hitler on the radio, sports.

The economy was great. Everyone had a job. Germany was strong. Hitler wanted peace. New construction was going up everywhere. The trains ran on time. You didn’t see beggars in the street, hanging around. Undesirables had been rounded up, got out of the way.

The newspapers were full of praise for the Nazi system. A weekly periodical with pictures showed who the Untermenschen were, the underclass of people who had no place in decent society. In those days the underclass consisted of gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, the wrong sort of artists, trade unionists, and communists. They were described in terms we now call demonization and scapegoating.

The universities had their share of academics who endorsed Nazi policy. Doctors, engineers, race specialists, and others spelled out theories which gave the Nazis a green light.

At 14 I was barely aware of all this. Yet by the end of my two weeks with the Ottings I had a feeling that to this day remains hard to describe. I took this feeling home to England, where I promptly forgot it. It wasn’t the sort of feeling you had there. I didn’t have it during the war, which started the next year. I didn’t have it when I studied medicine, emigrated to America, became an American citizen, and lived in New York for 20 years. I didn’t have it in Canada, where I practiced psychiatry for 15 years. I didn’t have it when I retired from practice and spent time in a Buddhist monastery.

On and off, I would read about Nazi Germany, but the feeling that I had when I was briefly in Nazi Germany as a child had gone.

In the fall of 1992 an ad appeared in the personal column of High Times Magazine, sent in by Brian Adams. Brian wrote that he was 18 years old, just out of high school, when he was arrested and sentenced to ten years of imprisonment for passing out LSD to his friends. If a High Times reader was interested in LSD sentencing methods, the reader could write to Brian and learn something.

I wrote to Brian, who introduced me to Tim Dean, who introduced me to other LSD prisoners and soon I was in the thick of a correspondence which has not stopped growing. In 1993 I began to visit Drug War prisoners in prison. I drove to the Canadian border, crossed into the United States, and talked with Pat Jordan in County Jail in Nashville, Tennessee. I drove to Michigan City to talk with Franklin Martz, sentenced to 40 years in the Indiana State Prison in that city. I drove to other prisons to speak with Drug War prisoners, paying attention to the information they provided. That started my Drug War education.

One day something happened. I realized that every time I left the monastery and entered the United States I was struck with a weird feeling that left as soon as I re-entered Canada. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was as real as day. When the meaning of this realization dawned, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The feeling I had acquired in Nazi Germany and forgotten more than half a century before was back. My Drug War education had clicked in.

The feeling told me everything. The exponent of democracy had fallen on hard times. America was treading the same path as Nazi Germany. The War on Drugs and Hitler’s war on anyone he took exception to -- the symptoms in the two cases were identical.

One thing I had to accept was that I could not stay on in the monastery. I could not sit back and watch disaster unfold. I had to get out in the world and become an activist, whatever becoming an activist entailed. Even if no one else saw the War on Drugs in the same light I did, I had to do what might lie in my power to stop it.

I won’t go into what has happened since, except to mention a friendship with Nora Callahan and a tie to the November Coalition. It is a relief to know that others share the perception that historically we are in big trouble, without their having once glimpsed life in Nazi Germany.

Where it will end, no one can say. But there is reason for hope. In 1938 people in Germany did not know the price they would soon pay for subscribing to Nazi policy. We, looking back, do know. With the benefit of hindsight and with concerted effort we may still halt the juggernaut, free Drug War prisoners, reverse an unsalutary policy, and restore meaning to the words "liberty and justice for all." If we don’t, we will have no one to blame for the disaster that lies just around the corner but ourselves.

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Snake Oil Baron said...

The article makes some very good and timely points and I agree with many of the fundamental arguments but I still see some problems with the comparison of the Nazi regime with the war on drugs. They are based on similar philosophies but the difference in order of magnitude make the comparison "uncomfortable" long after the support for the case has been firmly established.

I think that I can agree that the "war on drugs" is fundamentally flawed on an ethical/moral and logical basis and that funding would be far better suited in treating addiction as a medical condition than by attacking economic reality and human nature as one might attack gravity by jumping off a ledge and screaming in defiance at the ground.

M. Simon said...


If you will recall, near the time the paper was written, Newt Gingrich was calling for the death penalty for two oz. of pot.

Attitudes have softened considerably since then.

So at the time this piece was written the comparison was not so far fetched.

Reliapundit said...

"free Drug War prisoners"


this won't make us safer.

anyone who suggests this is on drugs.

Reliapundit said...

wut did he die from:

a drug overdose


canadian healthcare?

Anonymous said...

wut did he die from: a drug overdose?

He was 14 in 1938. That means he was 83 in 2007, an age at which people routinely pass away from natural causes. The man's interest was in LSD; if he was still using anything it was likely to be that, and there is no known lethal dosage for that substance.

Anonymous said...

Well, this self-aggrandizing superhero certainly has paved a wondrous path. Any law whose contravention could land you in jail makes the government which implements it NAZIS. His whole tiresome ridiculous blather is based on a flaw only a truly imbecile mind could possibly miss: Jews in Nazi Germany couldn't help being Jews. Drug traffickers and their moron clients make their choices, fully aware of the consequences, and then cry like the children they are when required to face up to those consequences.

M. Simon said...


Your ignorance is showing.

Addiction Is A Genetic Disease