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.

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Drug War Critique: What Critics Get Wrong About Marijuana Legalization

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY, and discusses the brown bag talk he gave at Utica College earlier this week. 

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a talk entitled, “Drug War Critique: What Critics Get Wrong About Marijuana Legalization.” The talk is part of a monthly brown bag speaker series sponsored by Utica College’s Center for Historical Research. In light of New York State’s recent efforts to push for the legalization of marijuana as part of Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 Justice Agenda, I decided to present Cuomo’s legalization proposal and respond to a series of critiques of Cuomo’s plan presented by public officials and parent groups last week, who cited a threat to public safety as a justification for their opposition.

Screenshot 2019-02-14 at 8.26.51 AM

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World War II and Drug Prevention

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

Screenshot 2019-02-12 at 9.30.23 AMIn 1937, as the first director for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry J. Anslinger eliminated any possibility that cannabis, or “marihuana,” could be a gateway drug. When asked during Congressional hearings if “the marihuana addict graduates into a heroin, opium or cocaine user,” Anslinger responded, “I think it [marijuana] is a different class. The marihuana addict does not go in that direction.”  This definition of the “marijuana menace” denied pot’s stepping-stone relationship to “harder” drugs in the nascent debate over its prohibition. During War World II, however, Anslinger lost considerable ground in his effort to criminalize cannabis. Most influential in this set-back to his strategy, World War II created a détente in his incipient war on pot.

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The Sociological Approach, Part 2: Judy Garland and Billie Holiday

Note from Sarah Brady Siff: This post was written by student Cecilia Burtis

In California, the entertainment industry brought drug use to the forefront of public attention, where the constant press coverage of movie stars exposed drug abuse and trafficking in vivid detail. In the 1940s and 1950s, two female stars in particular were known for their well-publicized struggles with drugs, though they occupied very different spaces in public opinion. Judy Garland and Billie Holiday are two contrasting examples of how the drug policies of the 1940s and 1950s selectively punished forms of drug addiction that were considered more dangerous. Although both women fought long battles with drug addiction, the attention given to each, as demonstrated through the media, shows very different receptions of drug dependency.

Garland and Holiday, though traveling career paths that seldom intersected, shared a surprising number of parallels. Garland was born in 1922, Holiday in 1915. Their careers both began when they were young, and they began using drugs at early ages. They were well-known singers, although Garland was an actress as well, and they both struggled with drug and alcohol dependence. They both were checked into treatment several times, both contracted cirrhosis of the liver due to immense alcohol consumption, and both died in their mid-40s of drug-related causes.

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The Sociological Approach, Part 1

In an article recently published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Joseph Spillane has given me some clues on how to proceed in my own work. “Inside the Fantastic Lodge” is Spillane’s consideration of the networks, identity-making and social limitations revealed in Marilyn Bishop’s narration of her days as a young white heroin user in 1950s Chicago. The Fantastic Lodge (1961) is a book-length transcript of interviews with Bishop conducted by sociologist Howard Becker. As Spillane explains, The Fantastic Lodge was a product of the mid-century rise of a sociological approach “that took the individual as the unit of analysis.”

Spillane’s reading of Bishop’s life story construes her as the center of her own universe of social networks. By describing her social world, including the actors in it and outside intrusions upon it, he creates a piece of empirical evidence that is at once specific and universal. Historians, he writes, should continue to do this type of work in spite of a historiographic current that seems to be flowing in a different direction.

Although I have always thought of my research style as inductive—proceeding from my searching and reading rather than from my big idea—I have not really attempted to closely think and write about a single drug user. But now I have a subject whose story seems to require such an approach.

He is Keeny Terán, an adolescent Mexican-American boxer and heroin user from the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. After his meteoric rise on the amateur boxing circuit in the early 1950s (Bishop’s era of heroin use), he became a target of the news media and the police over a drug habit that he described as essential to enduring the pain of boxing, but that had originally sprung from social networks in his neighborhood and possibly at the gym where he trained.  

Teran
Keeny Terán, seated leftmost in this April 1951 Los Angeles Times photograph. What insights could boxing’s social networks hold about his heroin use?

Once targeted, Terán endured a string of public humiliations. They began when he was at the height of his notoriety: recently married, a new father, and seeking to earn a greater share of boxing’s receipts. He was arrested in the locker room after winning a fight, then outed as a supposed narcotics informant (which he denied), prompting death threats against him. Soon afterward he suddenly called off a big match and disappeared, ostensibly to a rehab center. Upon his return, a reporter double-crossed him by revealing his addiction treatment in a splashy story about his “big comeback.” Soon he was again arrested and charged with selling heroin, receiving a five-year prison sentence; about a year into serving it, the media furtively covered his divorce. The moment he hit the streets on parole, the cops marked and hounded him. He did more time, wrote a memoir that might have been lost, and ended up on methadone, which he hated.  

Many pieces of Terán’s story are missing and might never be recovered. In pursuit of facts and events, I have failed so far to ask questions about his relationship networks and his internal life, about struggles related to his family and his neighborhood and to the overlapping social worlds of boxing and heroin. More importantly, I have not yet even described these things.

The process of “describing to know” (as I’m calling it) seems to spring rather naturally from a sociological perspective. I noticed this fact last year when Ceci Burtis, a senior sociology major who conducted some research under my hapless guidance, submitted to me a write-up describing similarities and differences between two celebrity drug users. Her skilled process of simply describing aspects of the lives of these two women—Billie Holiday and Judy Garland—was simple and effective. For example, she gave me this comparison chart as a note:

Judy GarlandBillie Holiday
1922-19691915-1959
singer/actressjazz singer
whiteblack
pills: amphetamines & barbituatesheroin and marijuana
alcohol and cigarettesalcohol and barbituates
middle class familypoverty
never arrestedarrested at least three times
cirrhosis of the liver, depression, hepatitiscirrhosis of the liver, heart and liver problems
died age 47died age 44
self-administered overdosegeneral organ failure due to chronic drug use
actress at 12 years oldprostitute at 13 years old
rehab/“rest cure” four times, numerous hospitalizationsrehab three times

Marilyn, Keeny, Judy, Billie. One aspect shared by three of these lives is something Spillane describes as the “most salient” of the outside forces that can disrupt social networks and impose costs unevenly on members of those networks: the criminal justice system. Garland perhaps escaped entanglement with the law, but another disruptive force in all these cases (except personally for Marilyn, though it touched her indirectly) was the attention of the news media.

In pursuit of better history, I hope that I can begin to practice a sociological approach to writing about drug users. I also hope you will enjoy reading Ceci’s write-up about Holiday and Garland in the post that follows this one.

Points Roundtable, Part 4: Bob Beach on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the fourth installment of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. This post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up my copy of Alex Berenson’s new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence to review for Points. I was following the media coverage of the book’s release with some interest and had some idea of what I might encounter, having already written a bit (here and here) on this forum on Berenson’s propagandistic forebear, Harry Anslinger.

But as I trudged into Dunham Public Library in Whitesboro, NY, on a rainy Thursday morning to get my copy, the focus of my review here today became immediately clear. I’m an ABD adjunct and it’s January. That means I’m between appointments and, more importantly, between paychecks. I wasn’t going to count on the speed of the interlibrary loan at my college library, so I checked out the Mid-York Library System, a cooperative network of 45 public libraries in three counties in central New York.

Having had longstanding access to college/university libraries for most of my adult life, I had to renew my public library card to check out Berenson’s tome. Armed with my renewed card and the Dewey decimal call number (how quaint!), this well-heeled library user went directly to the stacks and couldn’t… find… the book. I scanned the shelves, thinking it may have been put back in the wrong place, and while doing so I took note of the library’s selection of other books on drugs, drug use and drug policy, few of which I was actually familiar with. I subsequently checked the Mid-York catalog and, sure enough, there was nothing from Points co-founder Trysh Travis, nothing from co-founder Joe Spillane. Nothing from the new team of editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

The library was clearly censoring historians.

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Points Roundtable, Part 3: Brooks Hudson on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the third installment of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceThis post comes from Brooks Hudson, contributing editor and a PhD candidate in history at Southern Illinois University. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence is refreshing in one sense: I know what I’m getting. I know where Berenson stands. Occasionally you find a crop of contrarian pieces in places like The Atlantic, Annie Lowry’s “Invisible Addicts” being one recent example, that hide behind a detached third-person voice, making it impossible to gauge what the writer believes, whether they are engaging in an empty intellectual exercise, adding a manipulative headline to drive traffic, or whether it is sincere. With Berenson, despite the shoddy research, which any number of researchers have already denounced, this doesn’t happen because his hostility to cannabis is reinforced for more than two hundred pages.

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Points Roundtable, Part 2: Isaac Campos on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the second of four installments of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceThis post comes from Isaac Campos, history professor at the University of Cincinnati and good friend of Points. He discusses Berenson’s use of his research, as well as issues Campos has with Berenson’s larger argument.

First, we’ll run an interview with Campos, followed by an unpublished working paper that Campos first presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference in Scotland last April. This paper, titled “Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra and Marijuana’s Great Historical Disjuncture,” elucidates on the ideas that Berenson used in Tell Your Children, but gives much greater historical context for Campos’s claims. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00Points: First of all, did you know that Berenson was going to cite your work in Tell Your Children?

Isaac Campos: I had no idea. I’d never heard of him until a journalist wrote to me asking about his treatment of my research.

What was your reaction to the book?

I find it kind of depressing, actually. And I’m not talking about his argument. It’s the approach and the response that I find depressing. He looks at an exceedingly complex issue, finds a lot of conflicting evidence, only uses the evidence that supports his thesis, then writes a really sensationalistic account that get lots of attention in a media landscape that rewards sensationalism and shock value. A lot of very serious and ethical scholars have been carefully studying these questions for many years. There are significant disagreements about what’s going on, but serious scholars are looking at this stuff carefully and meticulously, all the while keeping in mind that real people are affected by what we publish, so we need to respect the data.  

And then you get this former journalist and fiction writer who comes in, writes a sensationalistic book without a single footnote, but he says that the research is at this point clear, that “everything you’re about to read is true,” and characterizes those who don’t agree with him as the “cannabis lobby.” And he’s rewarded with a bunch of media coverage and book sales. So, yeah, I find it a little depressing. It’s also frustrating because I do think it’s important to take the potential risks of cannabis very seriously, as the paper we’re posting here demonstrates. But those risks need to be assessed within the whole complex of issues related to drugs, drug policy, and harm. Historically, a lot more harm has been done by bad drug policy and the propaganda used to justify it than by the drugs themselves. This book is closer to propaganda than a useful contribution to the discourse.

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