Who could have anticipated the dire consequences of the pharmacist’s experiments? It started so innocently. Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès was participating in a challenge that was sanctioned by none other than Emperor Napoleon III. His chemical concoction resulted in a controversy that would cause addictions, divide families, cost millions in regulatory enforcement, and change the world.
As you may have guessed, Mège-Mouriès’ creation was a potent substance. It was not entirely unique. Like many highly-addictive substances, it was a variation of an already-existing substance. The chemist’s variation could be produced more cheaply and easily than its counterpart. That meant that its addictive properties were distributed far and wide. No longer was it a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed by those of privilege. Mège-Mouriès made it available to the masses.
His substance made its way across the Atlantic, arriving in the United States in the 1870s. It took no time at all for it to spread throughout the country, quickly developing into a multi-million dollar industry.
When ordinary, honest, law-abiding Americans woke up and discovered that this scourge had crept into their lives, they rose in opposition. There were demonstrations in cities throughout America. Lawmakers were lobbied to do something to stop — or at least regulate — this nefarious substance.
Unsurprisingly, conflict developed between rival suppliers. Mark Twain overheard one exchange between two of them and brought the matter to national attention when he wrote about it:
Speaking of manufactures reminds me of a talk upon that topic which I heard—which I overheard—on board the Cincinnati boat. I awoke out of a fretted sleep, with a dull confusion of voices in my ears. I listened—two men were talking; subject, apparently, the great inundation. I looked out through the open transom. The two men were eating a late breakfast; sitting opposite each other; nobody else around. They closed up the inundation with a few words—having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder—then they dropped into business. It soon transpired that they were drummers—one belonging in Cincinnati, the other in New Orleans. Brisk men, energetic of movement and speech; the dollar their god, how to get it their religion.
‘Now as to this article,’ said Cincinnati… ‘it’s from our house; look at it—smell of it—taste it. Put any test on it you want to. Take your own time—no hurry—make it thorough. There now—what do you say? … It’s from our house. We supply most of the boats in the West… We are crawling right along—jumping right along is the word. We are going to have that entire trade…. why, you can’t imagine the business we do. I’ve stopped in every town from Cincinnati to Natchez; and I’ve sent home big orders from every one of them.’
And so-forth and so-on, for ten minutes longer, in the same fervid strain.Mark Twain — Life on the Mississippi
It was clear that the government would have to get involved. New York led the way. Soon half a dozen other states adopted laws that prohibited the sale, trade, and possession of the insidious substance. All that did was encourage a thriving black market and further empower the criminal masterminds who preyed upon an unsuspecting public.
By 1908, 32 of the 46 states had strict laws on the books. Despite the laws, the trafficking of the substance continued. Some voices were calling for regulation rather than prohibition. They argued that if the commodity would be legalized, the government could at least help make it safer and would enjoy the benefits of being able to tax it. Such talk was akin to blasphemy for many law-abiding Americans. They saw it as a threat to their very existence and demanded nothing short of total eradication of the addictive substance.
When World War II hit, the country’s attention shifted to more pressing matters. It was while the country was supporting the war effort that Mège-Mouriès‘ dangerous drug succeeded in making its way into almost every home in the USA. It would be 1970 before the last of the laws that restricted the substance was repealed, but everyone knew long before that the battle was over. The nation was successful in defeating its enemies in WWII, but on the homefront, the battle had been won by the sinister substance that had invaded seventy years earlier.
In all likelihood, you are a user. Perhaps you just dabbled as a recreational user at some point, but it’s far more likely that you continue to partake to this day. You probably would say, “I’m not an addict. I can quit any time I want.” If that’s true, would you have any concerns about opening your home for an inspection?
That sinister substance, addictive additive, and dangerous demonic drug may be lurking in your home at this very moment. If we were to conduct a search, we wouldn’t be looking in your medicine cabinet. It’s far more likely to be hiding in plain sight behind the doors of your refrigerator.
The next time you so casually feed your addiction, remember the terrible divisiveness and fear that not too long ago was caused by …. margarine.
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