Editor’s Note: Okay, it wasn’t really the front page, but Points Managing Editor Joe Spillane was featured in the Gainesville Sun yesterday (17 October), talking with staff writer Nathan Crabbe about his career as a drug historian and an innovative class he is teaching this term on Illicit Enterprise. We re-post the story here to give readers a glimpse of one of the powers behind the Points, as it were. Not included here are the reader comments on the article, but given the political tenor of Florida right now, you can probably imagine what they are like.
UF Professor Teaches Course on Illicit Enterprise
University of Florida professor Joseph Spillane has his brain on the history of drugs. Spillane, an associate professor of history, is the author of books on the history of cocaine and drug policy and was featured on a recently aired History Channel documentary about the history of drugs, “The Stoned Ages.” He teachers an honors course in illicit enterprise this semester. A Q&A with Spillane follows.
1) What lessons can be learned from studying the history of illicit enterprise?
The first thing my students learn is that studying the history of illicit enterprise is really the study of licit enterprise as well, since we learn how and where the boundaries get set between what are considered acceptable and unacceptable forms of behavior. We also learn that there are no “easy” lessons from history. Did alcohol Prohibition, for example, end because it wasn’t working, or because anti-Prohibition forces managed to pull themselves together politically? The answers we choose influence the lessons we learn. Finally, we certainly learn how much of a challenge it is controlling illicit enterprise. Organizations from drug traffickers to human smugglers have a long history of learning, adapting and responding to efforts to put them out of business.
2) How did you become interested in researching illicit drugs?
My work in this area began in graduate school, with a project for the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center. They were interested in the early history of cocaine, before it had been criminalized. Essentially, they wanted to know “what happened?” and I was offered the chance to go find out. No one knew the answer, so it required a lot of original research. That project turned into a dissertation, and then a book, and since then I’ve learned just how many unanswered questions there are, which keeps me motivated!
3) How does society’s approach to illicit drugs today differ from the past?
In the fundamentals, there’s a lot of continuity. For most of human history, people have been attracted to psychoactive drugs (including alcohol) as a means of altering their consciousness. And, for most of human history, other people have found that to be troubling or disturbing enough to make drug use an issue for public discussion. That said, there are at least two big changes that matter a lot. On the use side, just as with every other kind of modern consumer behavior, we now have access to an unprecedented range of psychoactive substances from which to choose. Think about it like you would the channels on your television — we’ve gone from just a few common options, to hundreds. No matter how you look at it, the sheer volume of drugs available to us today presents great challenges.
On the control side, the first major change in the modern world was the use of the criminal law to attack the problem of drug use. Here in the United States, we’ve been waging a war on drugs for a century now. For a more recent change, I’d simply point out that our level of engagement with the drug issue was grown enormously in the past 40 years. This is true both for treatment — where we now have a vast treatment infrastructure that didn’t really exist before the 1970s — but also for criminal justice, where the scale and scope of the war on drugs has grown beyond anything we could have imagined back in the 1960s.