Starting Points

Points (n.) 1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.

Finding “The Real Thing”: Mad Men Roundtable, Part II

Editor’s Note: Points is thrilled to present our final roundtable on the television series that has given drug and alcohol historians the most to discuss over the past seven years: Mad Men. Claire Clark, Amy Long and I present our thoughts on the series finale, which aired on Sunday, May 17, and its meaning and repercussions for ADHS scholars. 

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Finding the Tea Pad: The Social Spaces of Casual Marijuana Use

In my previous posts, I began to ask questions about how to find user voices in the archives. In my last post, I moved to a more direct discussion of sources from actual users — jazz musicians– and their relevance to social history methods. But I haven’t yet raised the bigger question: how did everyday users contribute to the historical record on cannabis use during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? In another speculative exercise, using a combination of disparate source material, I will begin to lay out the foundation of an answer to this question. Further research in this area, connected to my dissertation project, will hopefully crystallize into a more workable hypothesis about casual marijuana use during this period.

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The Films of Adrian Cowell: Opium stories from the Shan State to Hong Kong to Washington, DC (Guest Post)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcome Hannah Palin (Film Archives Specialist) and Nicolette Bromberg (Visual Materials Curator) from the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. The University of Washington has a wonderful collection of materials by the British filmmaker and journalist Adrian Cowell. Beware, alcohol and drugs historians– once you read their descriptions of the Cowell collection, you might be tempted to book your tickets to Seattle!

In January 2015, the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, received  6 pallets of materials shipped from London. They were stacked high with boxes of 16mm film, audio and videotape, photographs, newspaper clippings, transcripts and log books—covering three decades of work by British filmmaker and journalist, Adrian Cowell. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Adrian Cowell created television documentaries detailing the complex relationships between minority insurgents in a remote region of Burma and the international opium trade originating in Southeast Asia. The Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection contains Cowell’s work tracking the opium trade from its production in Burma to the addicts and dealers in Hong Kong to the drug policy makers in Washington, D.C. It includes the most extensive collection of images of the remote Burmese Shan State in the world, gathered during Cowell’s trips documenting opium merchants, opium caravans, militias, insurgents and other activities related to the opium trade. A year and half after its arrival, Special Collections’ staff, students, and volunteers are still slowly working their way through the collection of over 2000 items, most of which have never before been made public.

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords, Part Two of The Opium Series

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords,
Part Two of The Opium Series

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The Past as Pregaming: A Review of the National Archives Museum’s “Spirited Republic”

A pensive stone figure sits outside the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., atop a platform reading, “what is past is prologue.” But if a new exhibit, “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History,” is any indication, perhaps it should more appropriately read, “what is past is pregame.”

Past is prologue

“Spirited Republic” is sure to attract many visitors with its novel subject matter, which benefits from sponsorship by the History Channel and several alcohol industry trade groups. Before entering completely, visitors are greeted by dozens of gallon jugs mounted to panels representing declining annual alcohol consumption from 1830 to (an apparently arbitrary) 1978. To flesh out these figures, the main exhibit series is divided into four chronological parts: “Good Creature of God,” illustrating alcohol’s place in colonial America and the Early Republic; “Demonizing Drink,” showing how nineteenth century reformers inserted Temperance into the national conversation; “Sober Nation?,” chronicling the saga that was Prohibition; and “Conditional Acceptance,” highlighting the role of alcohol since Repeal in 1933.

Each of the four areas features some non-document artifacts but primarily uses printed sources alongside contextualizing placards. (What else would you expect at the National Archives?) The first section, “Good Creature of God,” briefly acknowledges alcohol’s broad barter function before the American Revolution. Perhaps it is only fitting that an alcohol history exhibit in the nation’s capital reminds us that taverns were hotbeds of anti-British sentiment on the eve of the Revolutionary War. We are treated to contemporary import records, travel manifests (including some from Meriwether Lewis, who procured thirty gallons of wine among other intoxicating beverages for his fateful exploration with William Clark), Continental Army pay slips consisting entirely of spirits, and early, relevant patent applications such as one for Adolphus Busch’s renowned pasteurizer.

The next area, “Demonizing Drink,” places Benjamin Rush’s iconic “Moral and Physical Thermometer” (1784) front and center. Its placard explains that by the late eighteenth century, nascent ideas about alcohol’s lethal, disorderly, and addictive potential were circulating in medical, evangelical, and capitalist discourse. Still, these exhibits partially slight two critical temperance constituencies: women (though some Women’s Christian Temperance Union materials are present among others) and WASP nativists (though it is noted that many immigrant groups opposed prohibition). Partially making up for the lack of Indian presence in the first section, “Demonizing Drink” also displays some moral reformers’ efforts to stem alcohol sales to tribes like the “Stockbridge” (or “Muh-he-connewee”) Indians, who in 1822 fled rampant liquor trade in New York and resettled in what is now Wisconsin. Other notable documents include disciplinary records for alcohol-related misconduct in the U.S. Navy and its subsequent abolition of liquor rations, advertisements for temperance lectures, and hospital registers of patients suffering “dipsomania,” a proto-addiction concept characterized by irresistible craving for alcohol.

The introductory narrative to the next section, “Sober Nation?,” interprets Prohibition as a noble cause that might have worked were it not for the quick takeover of the illicit liquor trade by organized crime and the high cost of enforcement, particularly as the Depression took hold. Photographs and brief biographies introduce us to some agents on the front line, with some attention to the few immigrants, blacks, and women among them. The exhibit attributes their ultimate ineffectiveness to having few in numbers, relying on patronage appointments to fill ranks, and of course corruption. (An explanatory placard notes that the bureau “became more professional” after 1925, but does not elaborate how.) A fascinating artifact in this section is the “Illustrated Map of the Tenth Prohibition District, Showing the Conditions in Each County as to Public Sentiment, Illicit Distilling and Unlawful Stills, Transportation and Possession” (1930), which included the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida and color-coded their counties by frequency and severity of offenses. The lily-white hues of many rural Florida areas in particular raises questions of alcohol prevalence and the limits of state power. Other documents of note include the joint resolution proposing the Eighteenth Amendment to the states, clever advertisements for alcohol as a prescribed medicine, and Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign materials promoting his intent to repeal Prohibition.

Finally, the last section, “Conditional Acceptance,” shows how American society has treated alcohol since the 1930s. The resolution proposing the Twenty-First Amendment is one of the first items on display, neatly bookending the previous theme. Photographs, tax records, advertisements, and a colorful assortment of dozens of contemporary beer labels drive home American enthusiasm for Repeal. Not even World War II could dampen love for drink, which crafty marketers pitched as one of the “little things worth fighting for.” This section then jumps over two decades and resumes its narrative through the anti-drunk driving campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. One glass case contains prototypes for the breathalyzer (invented in 1955), but the message is mostly derived from print materials put out by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and  looping public service announcements featuring then-famous athletes. The final displays are essentially cautionary tales: an ad featuring Betty Ford saying that she is “living proof you don’t have to die for a drink,” a poster warning mothers-to-be about the dangers of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (written in Spanish, a reflection of demographic trends), and a case full of recovery literature including the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and correspondence between famous addicts including First Lady Ford and Johnny Cash.

My chief complaint about “Spirited Republic” is its inattention to drinking culture, at least among ordinary Americans. However, the last wall does feature a mishmash of artifacts from diplomatic drinking culture, such as F.D.R.’s cocktail shaker, Gerald Ford’s wine glasses, and alcohol-related gifts to Ronald Reagan (a decanter) and Bill Clinton (a statue of a Cossack straddling a wooden cask) from foreign dignitaries. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to see Richard Nixon’s whiskey face, a video montage of presidential toasts is on repeat near the exit.

“Here’s to double standards!” Source: New York Post,

The exhibit also curiously sidesteps the ongoing prohibition of other psychoactive substances, especially considering that its promotional pamphlet claims the story of alcohol “echoes today’s debates on… the legalization of drugs.” Bait-and-switch aside, I can appreciate this sober appraisal of an often sensationalized topic. But when visitors exit to peruse the gift shop, hopefully they’ll purchase or at least thumb through a thorough, more nuanced book about alcohol in American history. If not, they may come away with the pervasive impression that the past is an impersonal march of progress. The history of alcohol and drugs, with their attendant legal and public health debates, should instead emphasize the critical influence of human agency.

Anyone spot their own work?

Anyone spot their own work?

Celebrating a year of new Points

It’s hard to believe, but an entire year has passed since we relaunched Points.

In that time, we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve welcomed wonderful new writers to our staff of contributing editors (including Bob Beach, Nick Johnson, Matt June, Gabriel Roberts, and Sarah Brady Siff). We’ve featured twenty interviews with authors of exciting new books. We’ve had guest posts from Kim Sue, Heather Sophia Lee, Lucas Richert and Erica Dyck, Camille Higham, Suzanna Reiss, Jessica Diller Kovler, Ingrid Walker, Justin Martin and Bradley J. Bourougerdi, among others. And we’ve featured tributes to some of those we’ve lost over the past twelve months, including Sasha Shulgin, Joseph R. Gusfield, and Ernie Kurtz.

We’ve also covered some amazing topics. Points is clearly guaranteed to never bore! We’ve dug into the archives (especially Harry Anslinger’s “gore file”); we’ve discussed silencing and substance abuse; we’ve hosted a roundtable on Mad Men (with another to come); we’ve featured reports from conferences and dissertation abstracts; we’ve discussed “Teaching Points,” a guide to bringing debates over drug and alcohol use into the classroom; we’ve examined the role alcohol plays in the lives of women and explored the term “damp feminism”; we’ve explored why marijuana is illegal; we’ve looked at the role drugs play on television and even offered our favorite media recommendations for the holiday season; we wrote 100 words to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Harrison Act; we featured a series on cannabis and heroin in modern Atlantic history, and the roles of drug use in Weimar Germany and in World War I; we explored the intricacies of the year 1976, hoarding, the events in Ferguson, Mo., substance abuse and movie ratings, and the La Leche League and Alcoholics Anonymous as lay health movements.

There’s probably not much that we didn’t cover.

But we couldn’t have done it without you. We’re so thankful that you’ve continued to support Points as we move into our second year of relaunched, re-inspired, re-purposed action. As always, let us know if there’s something you want to see but haven’t, if you have any questions, and if you want to suggest a topic or pitch an idea. We’d love to hear from you.

Happy Cinco de Mayo (a holiday that probably deserves its own post-length analysis here), and happy birthday to the relaunched Points!

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‘That Funny, Funny Reefer Man:’ Reading Reefer Madness through Jazz Music during the 1930s


“Man whats the matter with that cat there?/ Must be full of reefer!/ Full of reefer?!” -Cab Calloway “The Reefer Man” (1932)

During the 1920s and 1930s young Americans of all stripes were mesmerized by a new kind of music: jazz. The jazz movement combined various musical styles like ragtime, blues, folk, and classical music with an improvisational, polyrhythmic flair. Its popularity among African-Americans and American youth raised red flags among the older generation. The music (much like it’s 1950s cousin, rock n’ roll) became a scapegoat for delinquency, sexual depravity, and of course, drug use.

Among these charges, jazz was closely associated with the rise of cannabis use in places like New Orleans, Harlem, and Chicago. Some scholarly arguments about the topic suggest that the emphasis on marijuana overlooked the prevalence of heroin and alcohol use within the jazz community. Others stress that the connection between marijuana and jazz is sound– its use is discussed explicitly in several jazz songs of the 1930s– and the jazz discourse was a direct challenge to the anti-drug contentions of Anslinger and others.

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The Points Interview: Mary Neuburger

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome Mary Neuburger, a Professor of History; Chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies; and Director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Below, Neuburger discusses her recent book, Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria (Cornell, 2012), which chronicles the politics of tobacco production and consumption in Bulgaria from the late Ottoman period through the years of Communist rule. 

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.16.14 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Balkan Smoke is a cultural and social history of tobacco in Bulgaria, with focus on the modern period, roughly 1863-1989. It traces the long and transformative process of the introduction and then expansion of largely “Oriental” tobacco production and exchange in this region, in tune with the rise of a global addiction to tobacco. Like most commodity histories, it is a story that inevitably crosses borders, elaborating on the roles of the most critical global and regional players like the Ottoman Empire—from which Bulgaria became autonomous in 1878 and independent in 1908—as well as the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  The tracing of this process is coupled with a history of smoking (and anti-smoking) culture in Bulgaria, again in the context of global shifts in smoking practices. The books looks at the rise of and changes in patterns (particularly of public) smoking in Bulgaria, but also at the varied (though largely unsuccessful) sources of resistance to tobacco on health, social, and moral grounds.  All of these processes take quite different forms in late Ottoman and early post-Ottoman Bulgaria, in times of war, particularly World War II when Bulgaria was aligned with Nazi Germany, and then, perhaps most dramatically under communism. It is this part of the story that is perhaps the most revealing, as the Bulgarian communist tobacco monopoly, with its gargantuan Soviet market, became the top exporter of cigarettes in the world by the mid-1960s. It was attuned to consumers, and willing and able to adopt technologies and aesthetics wholesale from the West, all in the name of “building socialism.” Given the central role of this industry in the Bulgarian economy, state-driven anti-tobacco campaigns, which peaked in the mid-1970s, were always half-hearted and doomed for failure.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Historians of alcohol and drugs undoubtedly share my fascination with historical changes in the acceptability of intoxicants in various contexts. Bulgaria presents a fascinating case because of its place on the “periphery” of Europe, with a complex set of outside influences that shaped its encounter with tobacco. Tobacco was introduced from the New World into the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, where the plant adapted to the local climatic and soil conditions growing on small mountain plots (as opposed to plantation lowlands as in the US). Its properties altered into various “Turkish” or “Oriental” varieties that were more flavorful, had less nicotine, and eventually became were sought after in Western markets. This was particularly true after the success of the famous Camel brand released by R.J. Reynolds in 1913, and the eventual dominance of the market of American (and European) “blends”. In the Ottoman Empire, smoking was historically a Muslim habit, an accompaniment to coffee, consumed in hookahs and pipes in the largely Muslim coffeehouse—an institution (and beverage) that spread West in the early modern period. By the late nineteenth century, however, Ottoman Christians, including Bulgarians, were becoming smokers and tobacco consumption expanded rapidly in the twentieth century, tied to Bulgaria’s Europeanization following its gaining of autonomy in 1878, to the World Wars and the Cold War.  The local coffeehouse was replaced by the gleaming European-style café, and ties to European, American, and Russian markets played a role in the expanding Bulgarian tobacco economy.  This is just a taste for the kinds of details the books engages, putting the story of the rise of a dominant tobacco economy in Bulgaria into a complicated regional and global context.

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Will I Be A Dope Doctor When I Grow Up?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome Kim Sue, a previous contributor (check out her earlier posts here and here), medical anthropologist, and dual degree MD/PhD candidate at Harvard University. On the heels of Points’ recent posts about the difficulties of reconciling clinical and scholarly perspectives on addiction treatment and the media frenzy about the recent prescription opioid epidemic, Sue offers a historical and ethical reflection on having the power to dispense prescriptions.

I first met Anita in the Boston jail where she was doing time for passing bad checks related to a prescription opioid addiction. She had first been introduced to opioids after giving birth to her first child several years earlier. “I was prescribed percs [percocets] for pain related to the delivery,” Anita explained. “I just remember taking them and being high and cleaning … I took four or five at a time.” Anita’s drug use spiraled out of control, as her physiological tolerance to the opioids increased and she needed to buy more and more pills to get the same effect. One day, Anita’s dealer offered her heroin, and off she went.

Ethnographers and historians of drug use are all too familiar with stories that resemble Anita’s. As an anthropologist who studies prisons and addiction treatment, I find it relatively easy to point the finger at doctors for their professional complicity in “epidemics” of opioid addiction.

But as a medical student in my final year, destined to start residency in July in an internal medicine-primary care program, I also worry I won’t be able to refuse prescriptions for opioids for patients presenting to me in distress and pain.

Historians of medicine and drug use have detailed how physicians—whether they wanted to or not—became central to the distribution and administration of opioids in the United States. In the wake of the Harrison Narcotics Act, addicts had to obtain prescriptions for their drugs, and so-called “dope doctors” would provide them for cash. The alternative to the dope doctor was the street druggist, the so-called “pusher.”


Laudanum (image via Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images)


Doctors and opiates have a long, complex history. In the era of magical formulations, Dr. Thomas Syndenham compounded laudanum by mixing “two ounces of opium and one ounce of saffron dissolved in a pint of Canary or sherry wine” with a “drachm of cinnamon powder and of cloves powder,” as historian Richard Davenport-Hines noted in his history of the subject. At the time, opiates (plus or minus alcohol) were among the few medicines that were actually effective pain relievers (working at the μ pain receptors in the brain). They were instrumental in bolstering the medical profession’s emerging reputation for dispensing effective interventions rather than simply bearing witness to suffering. Indeed, enterprising pharmacists and doctors alike created their own patented formulations of various narcotics marketed as cure-alls– a mix of magic, profiteering, and chemistry.

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Old Ideas for a New Era: On Reading Sam Quinones

Sam Quinones and I share an affinity for this startling fact: more Americans now die of drug overdoes than car crashes. I often say this when I am trying to convince someone that it’s important to study the drug wars; Quinones last week used the tidbit in the first paragraph of his New York Times opinion piece titled “Serving All Your Heroin Needs.”

In this article—and probably elaborated in his new book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic—the L.A.-based journalist writes about a new breed of Mexican heroin dealers who deliver drugs “like pizza” in cities across the Midwest. He uses a nickname for the dealers coined by a cop he knows: Xalisco Boys, for the poppy-growing region from whence they come to the United States looking for a fast buck.

Sam Quinones, Dreamland (Bloomsbury Press, 2015)

Sam Quinones, Dreamland (Bloomsbury Press, 2015)

I have no doubt the system of low-violence, customer-service-oriented drug dealing that Quinones has studied for several years is real. But the old chestnuts he hauls out in talking about the public health problems caused by the increased availability of heroin in smaller cities deserve comment.  Continue reading

The Silences of Our Work, Part III: Alternate Paths to Recovery

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, Points brings you the third in a series of posts on silencing and substance use by Heather Sophia Lee, PhD, LCSW, an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. You can read the first installment here and the second installment here

For my dissertation, I conducted a qualitative study of two harm reduction programs. The purpose was to describe the experiences of participants in harm reduction programs given that “outcomes” of such programs were difficult to measure.

At that time evidence existed for the efficacy of harm reduction practices, like needle exchange programs, in reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Less was known about the impact of harm reduction as a model for addiction treatment. Its broad focus made it unclear which “outcomes” were most important to measure. Coupled with political resistance, many agencies often avoided calling their work “harm reduction” to avoid scrutiny which might interfere with meeting the needs of their clients.

As a novice qualitative researcher, I was intuitively curious about how harm reduction was being integrated into twelve step recovery experiences. I was also interested in the extent to which one might be just as likely to come to abstinence through harm reduction as abstinence-only based treatment. Harm reduction and twelve step models were often cast as mutually exclusive, and I knew there was a deeper story to be known though I wasn’t yet sure what it was.

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