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.

Points Supports the National Endowment for the Humanities

Until last week, Points readers might have thought Donald Trump’s occasional and inconsistent public statements on marijuana represented his greatest stake in any of the blog’s more obvious topics of interest. His appointment of hardline – though increasingly embattled – Attorney General Jeff Sessions attested to his aloofness if not hostility toward the issue, even if several commentators believe cracking down on pot will be an uphill political battle.

However, the most alarming recent development from the White House is the president’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities, a program that has supported several of the blog’s featured authors, contributing editors, and readers. We urge you to please call your Senate and House representatives to oppose de-funding critical projects by the NEH and other relevant grant-awarding government bodies.

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Tiered Justice

This just in: Lady Justice can see race and class quite clearly from under that blindfold.  In 2012, HSBC a criminal banking conglomerate settled in court for $1.9 billion in fines rather than face criminal prosecution.  Restorative justice has its virtues, but less so when said justice is routinely offered to some and not others.  The 2012 settlement detailed how Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel and Colombia’s Norte del Valle cartel laundered $881m through HSBC and a Mexican unit. In some cases, Mexican branches had brazenly widened tellers’ windows to allow big boxes of cash to be pushed across the counters.  HSBC also violated US sanctions by working with customers in Iran, Libya, Sudan, Burma and Cuba.

More recently, a litany of articles have rightfully criticized our tiered system of punishment that goes well beyond disparate sentencing across lines of race, space, and Pay to Stay jailsclass.  As of late, private run facilities for “select” offenders offer upgraded amenities for the upwardly mobile incarcerated.  For $100 dollars a night, rapists and petty drug offenders, and those found guilty of a range of crimes can sidestep traditional prisons for an extra modicum of safety and comfort.  For that very fee, one sex offender circumvented the indignities and dangers of county jail in order to stay at a boutique jail in Seal Beach, replete with flat screen TV’s, a computer room, and brand new beds.  After serving his six months of pseudo-incarceration, Alan Wurtzel left with an $18,250 dollar tab.  Perhaps more importantly, his experience was most certainly more palatable than that of those serving time in county jail for the very same crime, or in other instances, lesser crimes.  “Pay-to-stay” private jails have been on the rise in California since 2011, adding yet another Pay to Stay jailschapter to our history of unequal punishment.

As an historian of the Crack Era, I’m well-versed in our unfettered enthusiasm for punishment, particularly when it applies to poor nonwhite urbanites.  A closer look at the years leading up to the national panic over crack in 1986 suggest that our patterns of tiered justice have much deeper roots.  As David Courtwright has reminded us again and again, what we think of particular drugs (or crimes) and how to respond to them as a society is often dictated by how we view its particular set of users, or in Wurzel’s case, predators.  The scandal that shook Choate Rosemary Hall in 1984 elucidates this reality.  Perhaps the preeminent preppie connect. choateboarding school in the nation, Choate sprawls across 500 pristine acres in Wallingford, Connecticut, with a century-old tradition of wealth and excellence.  Well-preppie connect. JFKheeled graduates are too numerous to name, but one young man we might remember was John F. Kennedy.  Certainly, young Jack might have been up to similar mischief as his contemporaries were in the early 1980s, mischief that lands citizens from the wrong sides of the track long stretches in county jail, state or federal prison–not Seal Beach.

So what happened at Choate and why should we care?  In April 1984, scholarship student Derek Oatis arrived at Kennedy Airport from what can only be called a two-day business trip to Caracas, Venezuela with former Choate student and his  girlfriend Catherine Cowan.  Per customs agents, a random inspection of the young entrepreneur’s luggage and pockets netted five plastic bags and a talcum powder container filled with one pound of high-Preppie Connect. NYP Headlinepurity cocaine.  Later reports tabbed the take at 350 grams with an estimated street value of $300,000, a substantial amount of cocaine to be smuggling internationally.  Worse still, Oatis had on his person a list of Choate students who were financing his drug run and expecting their drug of choice upon his return.  All told, 16 former Choate students plead guilty to participating in the buying scheme, while countless others managed to elude authorities.  Further investigation by prosecutors revealed that smuggling from Venezuela directly to the school had occurred on at least seven occasions dating back to 1982.

Several curious events ensued.  First, within 24 hours the DEA turned the case over to local law enforcement–an odd decision given the quantity and international scope of the purported crime.  Second, within the same 24 hours, local officials granted Oatis release on $10,000 bail.  Third, New York prosecutors received an unusual call from the then Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, on behalf of Little Rock native and defendant Cathy cathy cowan.Cowan.  Despite feasting upon the political utility of Law and Order politics as Governor, routinely approving hundreds of extradition orders for Arkansas residents prosecuted in other states, Clinton balked in this particular instance.  Clinton delayed the process for months, stating that it would be “unconscionable” to expose Cowan to New York’s harsh drug laws.  After receiving a fair bit of political criticism for the move in a conservative climate of punishment, Clinton personally negotiated reduced charges for Cowan–three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.  It is worth noting that Cowan’s lawyer, William R. Wilson had close ties with the Clinton’s.  In addition to his role as a longtime campaign contributor, Wilson had tried cases and shared legal fees with Hillary Clinton.  More germane to the moment, Wilson was at the time representing Clinton’s half-brother, Roger, on federal cocaine charges.  Read More »

Episode 6 of Pointscast Now Available!

On the latest episode of Pointscast, the first, best, and only podcast of the Points blog, hosts Alex Tepperman and Kyle Bridge offer their thoughts on the ways domestic and international drug use are portrayed in American media. But first, for months listeners have been submitting questions for our expert Q&A series. Kyle opens the episode by asking Bob Beach (, a doctoral candidate at SUNY Albany and frequent Points contributor who studies cannabis use and policy before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, a simple question from a curious listener: why is weed illegal?

Be sure to check out the Pointscast Twitter and Facebook pages and listen to other episodes on Soundcloud! If you have questions for our Q&A series or general comments on the podcast, please email us at

New Research on the Opioid Addiction Epidemic

Editor’s Note: Frequent Points readers are aware of Jonathon Erlen’s ongoing bibliography of dissertations related to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Entries were formerly published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs journal but have since moved to the Points blog. Below are a few highlights concerning the United States’ opioid addiction epidemic. Contact Dr. Erlen through the link above.

Comparative Study of Compliance among Patients Attending an Opiate Outpatient Treatment Center in Rural Appalachia

Author: Morris, Jerry R. More »

The Points Interview: Martin Torgoff

Points is pleased to feature Martin Torgoff discussing his new book, Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs (De Capo, 2017).


Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

My last book, Can’t Find My Way Home: America In the Stoned Age, told the story of how the use of illicit drugs went from the underground to the mainstream, and how that changed the cultural landscape of America. This book tells the story of the underground itself–how drug use entered the DNA of our popular culture in the first place.Read More »

A Taste of Dutch Drug Policy: Topics of Interest for ADHS 2017

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was provided by Berrie van der Molen and Lisanne Walma, PhD candidates at the Utrecht University. 

The next bi-annual ADHS conference is hosted in Utrecht, The Netherlands from June 22 to June 25, 2017, and drug use and drug policy make the Dutch news often. Headlines of recent years include the taking of party drugs at dance events, underage drinking, the deaths of tourists in Amsterdam due to white heroin, and the introduction of the weed pass. What was the role of Dutch drug policy in these cases? What other issues emerge from the implementation of the policy? Although policy decisions are usually pragmatic, they can lead to unexpected and often contradictory messages…Read More »

Dissertation Roundup: Youth At Play Edition

Editor’s Note: Frequent Points readers are aware of Jonathon Erlen’s ongoing bibliography of dissertations related to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Entries were formerly published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs journal but have since moved to the Points blog. Below are a few highlights concerning drugs and young people. Contact Dr. Erlen through the link above.

The Effects of Exposure to Violent Lyric Music and Consumption of Alcohol on Aggressiveness

Author: Smith, Buren Steve, Jr.Read More »

What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part IV: Scott Taylor

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, “What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. Scott Taylor, associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, contributed the fourth installment. Be sure to check out part III by William Rorabaugh

What do I wish people knew about the history of drugs?

As the early modernist on this panel, the main point I want to make today is that the patterns of our thinking and behavior around drugs and alcohol run deep – what we see today we also saw 200 and 400 years ago. Briefly, I’d like to show you what the early modern history of drugs can tell us about two trends today: marijuana legalization and the new opiate epidemic.Read More »

The Points Interview: Murray Carpenter

51vvjkjjkll-_sx331_bo1204203200_Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Murray Carpenter to our author interview series. His book, Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, was published by Penguin in 2014.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, and yet most of us do not think of it as a drug. We simply think of it in terms of the caffeine delivery mechanisms we enjoy—coffee, tea, soda or chocolate. For most people, in moderate doses, caffeine has short-term benefits, making us feel alert, energetic, and happy. It improves athletic performance, and emerging research suggests long-term health benefits, too. But it has very real risks for some people, triggering anxiety, and interrupting sleep. Caffeinated is a wide-angle investigation of caffeine culture in the U.S. I reported the book from research labs, the Green Mountain/Keurig plant in Vermont, coffee farms in Colombia, the world’s largest tea market in Beijing, a cocoa farm in Mexico, and a triathlon in Hawaii.

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

In October 1909, federal agents seized a truckload of Coca-Cola syrup as it crossed the border from Georgia to Tennessee. Harvey Wiley, the hard-charging director of the Bureau of Chemistry (predecessor to the FDA), alleged that the beverage was misbranded, containing neither coca nor kola, and that it was adulterated with an addictive substance: caffeine. (At that time, the caffeine was extracted from waste tea leaves by a fledgling St. Louis chemical company called Monsanto.) The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before being settled in 1917 with a consent decree.

The court documents and press coverage provide remarkable details about the Coke of that era. In those days, Coke was typically sold in 8-ounce servings, with 80 milligrams of caffeine—the exact size and caffeine dose of today’s Red Bull. Put another way, Coca-Cola invented the energy drink more than a century ago. The court case led Coke to alter its formula, reducing the caffeine concentration.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The most interesting aspect of the book was investigating the powdered caffeine industry. First, I visited the largest coffee decaffeination plant in the US, in Houston, which produces about a million pounds of powdered caffeine annually. I learned that is a drop in the bucket. The U.S. imports 15 million pounds of caffeine powder annually. That’s enough to fill 300 40-foot shipping containers. (Imagine a freight train two miles long, each car loaded to the brim with psychoactive powder.) Most of that is blended into soft drinks. And it’s powerful stuff—a 12-ounce can of Coke requires just 34 milligrams, about 1/64th of a teaspoon. Ten grams, about a tablespoon, will kill an adult.

Most of the powdered caffeine we import is synthetic—produced in pharmaceutical plants. Like much of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s largely been offshored to lightly regulated factories in China and India. Just three Chinese plants produced nearly half of our total imports in 2011, seven million pounds. I tried to visit plants in China, Germany and India as part of my research. My requests for tours were denied. But I did see the exterior of the world’s largest caffeine factory, in a dingy industrial park in Shijiazhuang, China.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would like to see more caffeine research in three areas. It would be interesting to learn more about how small doses of caffeine—like the 34 milligrams in a can of Coke—influence consumer choices. We still have more to learn about our genetic predispositions to metabolize caffeine differently, despite a lot of terrific research in this area. Finally, we have more to learn about caffeine’s long-term effects on neurological health. Intriguing research suggests that caffeine is associated with cognitive health, but it is challenging to separate the effects of caffeine from the effects of other constituents of coffee, which is still Americans’ primary source of our favorite drug.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

My boring answer is that the narrator should be Sean Pratt, who actually read the audiobook and did a great job!

What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part III: William Rorabaugh

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, “What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. Part III is brought to you by William Rorabaugh, Dio Richardson Professor of History at the University of Washington. Be sure to also check out part II by Isaac Campos

I would like to make four points about alcohol and drug use that historians of both substances need to keep in mind while doing their research.

First, Jack Blocker’s Cycles of Reform is very instructive on the long-term cyclical nature of alcohol consumption in the United States. Heavy use is associated with heavy abuse, and when society becomes alarmed by heavy use, a temperance, prohibition, or other restrictive movement will be precipitated. These movements use different methods, but they do succeed in reducing consumption and harms. As a result, the problem sinks below the radar screen, the public loses interest, and consumption and harms begin to rise again until another cyclical peak and reaction takes place. Alcohol and other substances all take the form of epidemic waves both in the United States and in other cultures. Drug researchers, in particular, can profit from examining the record concerning alcohol, which as a legal, taxed substance for most of American history has better consumption data than is available for most illegal substances.Read More »