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.

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.

Continue reading

A Case For Local Control?

local control.When a topic like local control comes up, most historians rightly think of modern conservatism. As a convenient device to couch exclusionary policies, a deference to local control often meant preserving the race and class-based homogeneity of white communities. However, local control has not been universally supported in all cases. A deeper look at the politics of local control suggest that supporters of local control only support such measures in specific instances—situations in which local control is vested to the “right” people. When LBJ empowered poor urbanites via the Office of Economic Opportunity, traditional supporters of local control lambasted his administration for bureaucratic waste in the name of “handouts.” Perhaps LBJ had a point. Perhaps local control can be used as an inclusive policy initiative for populations traditionally excluded from the political processes shaping their own communities. This is most obvious with respect to policies addressing local crime and drugs.

perils of fed.In thinking more about this issue, I re-visited Lisa Miller’s work, The Perils of Federalism. Miller powerfully argues that the structure of contemporary federalism in the United States squeezes out the local. Privileging voices less familiar with problems on the ground—policy bureaucrats and moral entrepreneurs eventually make substantial decisions shaping the lives of those previously silenced. Thus, those that feel the daily brunt of criminal violence and aggressive crime control policies have no recourse. Perhaps more troubling, such citizens have little reason for hope, a sense of agency, or a sound rationale for believing they hold a meaningful stake in the life of their community. As issues loom larger and more important on the national stage, more and more opportunities for voices apart from the grassroots emerge. This leaves local voices stage left when issues reach the state or national level. For grassroots activists who toiled tirelessly to get their issues to state or national congress, this is particularly painful. Continue reading

The Silences of Our Work, Part II: Trauma

Editor’s Note: Today, Points brings you the second 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.

I chose to focus my time as a guest blogger on Points focusing on the Silences of Our Work because, in the academic spaces in which I exist, I am most frustrated by what goes unsaid. The gold standard of “science” calls for ignoring certain variables, so that other variables may be tightly controlled. Our work is silenced by design.

Trauma figures prominently in the lives of many of our clients and their relationship to substances, but is often silenced in our work. I don’t mean that everyone who struggles with alcohol and other drug use has experienced trauma– but many people I’ve worked with have, yet the existence of trauma is largely unacknowledged in mainstream discourse about substance abuse in the United States. In my qualitative interviews and clinical work with participants of harm reduction programs, trauma frequently plays a role in participants’ narratives about their relationship to alcohol and other drugs. Yet in the discourse about these clients, trauma rarely enters the conversation. The “why behind the what” is absent.

Continue reading

Exorcising the Demon (Drinks) in “Severance”: Mad Men Roundtable, Part I

Editor’s Note: Points prides itself on offering historically-informed analyses of modern phenomena, and there is perhaps no better phenomenon for our collective eyes than AMC’s overwhelmingly popular series Mad Men. As the show begins the second half of its last season, Points managing editors Claire Clark and myself, as well as contributing editors Mike Durfee and Kyle Bridge, offer our thoughts on how intoxicants are being used in the series, what they mean to the characters, and what modern viewers can read into their use. 

We bring you the first part of our roundtable on Mad Men today, and look forward to another at the season’s close. – EBD

Continue reading

The Silences of Our Work, Part I: A Preface

Editor’s Note: Points is delighted to welcome Heather Sophia Lee, PhD, LCSW, an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Lee is a practicing clinician and qualitative researcher who studies how stigma influences access to health and social services. Today, Lee opens her series on silencing and substance abuse with a reflection on her relationship to this work.

Some months ago, Points co-founder Trysh Travis read an article I published about integrating harm reduction and twelve step approaches to treatment, and asked how I became interested in addiction research. My answer: I began observing addiction and recovery long before I learned to study these processes systematically. I was born into the witnessing of addiction; it began with my father’s struggles and untimely death when I was nine years old.

This experience exposed me to the scripted language of recovery at an early age. But I’d argue that, even for people without this early formative experience, the scripts of addiction treatment and drug policy manage to shape the psyche. I’ve witnessed many contrasting cases in which the dominant response model to drug and alcohol issues (i.e., punitive, abstinence-based, and informed by an explicit set of assumptions) failed to meaningfully reach those in need of help.

Later, as a clinician-scholar, I believed there must be a better way to engage those in need of help and began exploring alternatives. I acknowledged that the dominant model does reach some people– but it fails to reach most people, and that was the population I wanted to engage. As I reflect on my personal and professional experiences, I think my work has been driven by something deeper and less tangible than clinical efficacy: the greatest injustice in treatment practice and scholarship is the silenced voices of those who struggle with addiction. I also believe that by facilitating space to desilence those voices, we will learn about our failings and be better able to help those who struggle with substance use and misuse in this country.

Image via Harm Reduction Coalition (harmreduction.org)

Image via Harm Reduction Coalition (harmreduction.org)

Continue reading

The Points Interview: Chris S. Duvall

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome Chris S. Duvall, an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of New Mexico and the author of Cannabis (University of Chicago, 2015).

  Book_Cover#2Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

It’s a world history of the plant genus Cannabis, which is the most widespread crop.  The events that enabled cannabis to colonize the world from its evolutionary origins in Central Asia include many of humanity’s most notable migrations.  Nowadays, people mostly think of ‘cannabis’ as meaning ‘marijuana’, but the plant has meant many things to many people.  It has been bred to produce fiber, oilseeds, and drugs.  In the West, cannabis was most valuable historically as the source of hemp, used to make ropes and sailcloth during the Age of Sail.  Its value sank to almost nothing by the early 1900s, when sails no longer powered commercial shipping.  When Europeans first encountered drug cannabis in Asia and Africa in the 1500s, they saw this as an unfamiliar, wasteful use of a familiar, valuable plant.  Unfortunately, this perception resonated with European colonialist views of the world, and cannabis drug use entered negative stereotypes about non-Europeans—even though Europeans have used the drug since they first encountered it.  Layered upon these stereotypes was the reality that most cannabis drug users were members of low labor classes.  For centuries this use was tolerated, but in the early 1900s, authorities increasingly saw drug cannabis as a problem.  Since hemp had lost nearly all value, cannabis drug control laws had minimal economic consequences to 20th-century authorities.  The laws that emerged were biased against the poor and people of color, and current drug-law enforcement maintains these biases.  The history I tell in the book challenges widespread ideas about the plant’s past, because most cannabis world histories have been light on research and heavy on political advocacy for or against prohibition.

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

I think perhaps that it provides an account of the plant’s cosmopolitan distribution based on physical geography, plant biology, linguistics, sociology, pharmacology, science studies, and history.  I’m a geographer, so my approach is different from many historians.  My strongest influences in writing the book were post-colonial scholars like Judith Carney, Londa Schiebinger, and James Blaut, alongside drugs historians like James Mills, Isaac Campos, and David Courtwright.  My past research has focused on understanding people–plant interactions from multiple disciplinary perspectives, not just drug plants in history.  I think my interdisciplinary approach helps bring new ideas into the discussions of drug historians.

So what new ideas might the book bring?  Three come to mind.  First, there has been really important research in plant genetics recently that clarifies the evolutionary history of cannabis.  This work shows that there are two cryptic species that people were unable to differentiate except through drug use until the 1960s.  Recognizing the genetic basis of psychoactivity and the plant’s evolutionary geography is helpful for understanding why cannabis drug use has often signified cultural difference, not plant diversity, in Western thought.  Second, in African Studies several works in the past two decades have shown that societies around the Atlantic bear clear cultural inheritances from Africa, despite past, Eurocentric historiography.  I argue that many cannabis drug cultures around the Atlantic are fundamentally African in terms of language and technology (that is, paraphernalia—the bong is a pre-Columbian African invention).  This is the topic on which I continue to do research.  Third, and really important in considering marijuana’s African past, is the book’s emphasis on social context, not cultural heritage, in determining drug use.  African cannabis knowledge is widespread because the plant entered the Atlantic primarily through western Central Africa, and because African-descent peoples have demographically dominated labor underclasses for centuries as a consequence of slavery, colonialism, and racism.  Nonetheless, poor, hard laborers from all continents—slaves, sailors, sex workers, low-ranking soldiers, prisoners—have been the drug’s main users for centuries.  World histories of cannabis have tended to mask this because they have dwelled upon more charismatic episodes—ancient religious uses in South Asia, 19th-century European pharmacology, and the marijuana boom amongst middle-class people in the Global North since the 1960s.

Continue reading

Recent News Round-Up: Hoarders Edition

A few months ago, I was packing for my fifth move since 2008. I emptied every closet, box, and drawer. With every move, I’d shed belongings— a full twelve boxes of books in move number four— so why, I wondered, am I still knee-deep in useless things?

The answer was that, in true academic fashion, I’d redefined “useless.”  Turns out “keep,” “store,” and “toss” are unstable categories: I classified our household belongings entirely differently after reading the New York Times article on Marie Kondo, a home organization expert with a devoted global following.

Kondo has a best-selling book and a robust media presence, but her most famous piece of advice could be summed up in a tweet: Touch every item you own; if something doesn’t “spark joy,” discard it. I applied this method to my packing process, and a lot of things I’d been storing went out the door. (I also made a few personal archival discoveries— see below).

My "Just Say No" buttons from elementary school. Joy!

My “Just Say No” buttons from elementary school. Joy!

The process got me thinking about Americans’ warped relationship with material possessions, an entanglement that has grown more dysfunctional over the past several decades. Even as the middle class flounders, easy credit, cheap foreign labor, and larger home sizes have made it easier than ever for the average American to acquire far more possessions than he needs or can use. Since excessive, compulsive consumption factors into most definitions of addiction, it’s unsurprising that Americans’ increasingly acquisitive habits have led to cultural anxieties about purchasing (and hoarding) behavior.

Continue reading

Write for Points!

Points Readers,

If you’ve thought about jumping into the frying pan (so to speak), now’s your chance. We’re ready to mix things up on Points’s masthead, and we’re looking for a few new contributors.

But first, a bit about us: Points produces informed and accessible reflections on the history of alcohol and drugs, the web of policy surrounding them, and their place in popular culture.

In the past year, we’ve explained why marijuana is illegal, coined the term “damp feminism“, braved the comments sections of addiction-related news stories, resurrected the fight over drug-related movie ratings in the Reagan Era, explored the role alcohol and drugs played on the battlefields of World War I, asked what the Acid Rescue Squad can teach today’s health educators, made a few surprising findings in Harry J. Anslinger’s gore file, re-read the Black Panther pamphlet Capitalism+Dope= Genocide, and discovered that the urban Drug War of the 1970s and 1980s played out differently in one North Florida city.

We’re looking for fresh voices and pieces to add to that list. We’re especially interested in expanding our roster to include bloggers who work on areas outside the US and in fields closely related to the history of alcohol and drugs (e.g. sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, criminology, bioethics, public health, etc.). Interested in adding your perspective? Just email Claire Clark (claireclark@gmail.com) and Emily Dufton (emily.dufton@gmail.com). Introduce yourself and pitch ideas for two pieces you’d like to publish with Points.

Cheers,

The Editors

The Points Interview: Elaine Carey

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcome back former editor Elaine Carey (you can read Carey’s previous posts here). Carey is Associate Professor and Department Chair of History at St. Johns University. Here, she discusses her latest book, Women Drug Traffickers: Mules, Bosses, and Organized Crime (University of New Mexico Press, 2014).

screenshot_1248Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Growing up in Florida during President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, I became familiar with multiple dope stories, both formal and informal. I followed the news about the Miami drug wars, and I noticed that men and women were involved in drug trafficking.

From living outside the United States for much of my childhood, I learned that women dominate the informal or secondary market.  They are street vendors, maids, nannies, and prostitutes; they work off the books. Combined with those observations, women’s and gender history teaches us to ask different questions of the historical evidence. Beginning in the 1990s, I read much of the literature on drug trafficking, and I was struck by the absence of women.  Women were rarely mentioned, and they were never identified as partners or bosses.  If they were identified, they were lovers, or they were perceived as unreliable in the trade.   My starting question was: If women dominate the informal labor market, why aren’t they involved in drug trafficking?

In 1997, I stumbled on the newspaper coverage of Lola la Chata, a Mexico City drug dealer and crime boss who controlled much of the city’s heroin trade, and I noted her longevity and success. I sought other women who were bosses.  Guess what?  There were many, far more than in my book. I found women bosses in the US, Canada, Mexico and many other parts of the world. They worked with their lovers, husbands, fathers, and sons. Or they built their own criminal networks that employed their children, lovers, or other family members.  Until recently, scholars and policing agents either ignored or downplayed the role of women in those partnerships and organizations, which, I think, contributed to women’s career longevity.

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

While most scholars acknowledge women in the drug trade, I think many considered them mostly as addicts or low-level workers such as mules.  The history of drug trafficking demonstrates that women have parallel experiences to men.  Like the majority of men, they are addicts and low-level workers, but they are also dealers, partners, bosses, financiers, and traffickers.  Those who rise to the top are exceptional, whether men or women. Women’s historical involvement in the drug trade complicates the metanarratives of crime, vice, and policing, but also women’s and gender history.  I think the case studies allow the reader to consider how women intersect to global or local illicit markets, and I think the work leads to other questions that might be pursued by other scholars.  For example, what is the role of women in money laundering?

Continue reading