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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Taking Opium in 1861: A Reporter’s Weirdly Funny Story

Newspapers are extraordinary historical sources in their sheer number and their accessibility. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of them as research on opium in the late 1800s. During this age of cheap print, high literacy rates, and early investigative journalism, much ink was spilled on the puzzling and alluring vice of opium in all its forms.

A number of reporters ventured into the verboten interiors of opium dens in San Francisco and New York to write first-person accounts, or tried it at home or among friends. Their assessments of the experience of smoking opium varied wildly: some wrote about seeing God and paradise, while others dryly concluded the drug was good for little except falling asleep.

Some journalists’ accounts of the opium use of others are stern, Progressive-spirited exposes, while some are sensational and colorful (yellow, to be exact).

But in the newspapers, this era also belonged to humorists. One of Mark Twain’s earliest pieces of reporting described the “comfortless operation” of opium smoking, whereby an experienced smoker “puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke—and the stewing and frying of the juices would well-nigh turn the stomach of a statue.”

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Surveying Drug Prevention

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal. In it, he surveys how schools, parents, and Congress responded to increased drug use in the 20th century through anti-drug abuse education initiatives. 

In the opening scene of the 1936 cult classic Reefer Madness, Dr. Alfred Carrol speaks to a parents’ group about preventing the “marijuana menace” that threatened their children. Haranguing the terrified mothers and fathers during the meeting, Carrol explains that this “frightful assassin of youth” could be stamped out with “compulsory education on the subject of narcotics in general, but marijuana in particular.” Carrol argued that “enlightenment” was the path to eliminating this “scourge.” However, the focus on educating parents to “Tell your Children,” the title of Carrol’s talk and one of Reefer Madness’s other titles, proved more popular than mandated public school education.  In fact, it would be decades before Americans felt comfortable teaching young people about narcotics in the classroom. This revealing debate about drug prevention and the tactics to stop drug abuse became a pivotal concern in communities across America, especially after drug use increased after WWII.  This brief survey of congressional hearings and debates about anti-drug abuse education in the 1950s and 1960s shows that this topic became a lightning rod for larger arguments about the role of the state in local communities and the classroom, but also indicates the controversies and debates that can be fleshed out as I target sources and archives for this project on the history of public drug education programs in post-WWII America. [1]

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First as Tragedy, Second as Farce: The Recent Rise and Fall of CBD Cafés in France

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. There have been a lot of discussions about CBD – the non-psychoactive component of cannabis – lately. See, for example, this recent article in the New York Times. Guba points out that France’s short-lived experience with CBD cafes shows how history is continuously repeating itself, especially in terms of drug policy, and that a better understanding of how nations have dealt with intoxicants in the past could prevent the same mistakes from being made over and over again. 

In the early summer of 2018, nearly four dozen stores selling legal “cannabis light,” or products with cannabidiol (CBD), ranging from distillate cartridges and edibles to actual flower, opened across France. After the first of these stores, called Bestown, appeared in the city of Annœullin (Hauts-de-France) on 24 May, over 50 similar establishments opened their doors in Paris, Nantes, Grenoble, Marseilles, Caen, Reims, and Lyon. Pictures of lines queued around the block at the Parisian merchant “Cofyshop” made the rounds in the international press. Le Monde devoted nearly a dozen articles to its coverage of “cannabis fever” sweeping the hexagon.[1] Then on 11 June the government officially declared the stores illegal, and police swept in and barred their doors.

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A Bestown shop, which opened in Béthune, in northern France, in May 2018. From France 3.

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In August, the Bestown shop in Le Havre had to close. Transcription of note: “Following a change in legislation, we are forced to withdraw from sale our CBD products. We apologize for the inconvenience.” From ACTU France.

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Beyond Legalization: Making the Case for Centering Pot in the 2018 Midterms

Editor’s Note: Ready to vote in next week’s midterm elections? Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, in which he explains the status of America’s shifting cannabis laws and shows what new state and federal initiatives might mean for 2018 and beyond.

In many ways 2018 was the Year of Pot. Sales of legal weed are booming in nine states and Washington, D.C. Pot sales are expected to flirt with $11 billion this year and could reach $25 billion annually by 2025, according to some estimates. Last month, on September 21, Governor Ralph Torres of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) signed the first legalization legislation in a US territory. Congressional reform proposals have become more frequent and publicized. Perhaps as many as 15 states were considering voter initiatives (the exclusive route to reform in the United State prior to the CNMI legislation) for 2018 to expand access to marijuana. Six states will vote on, or have voted on ballot measures in 2018, while the remainder failed to register the appropriate signatures. Five states will consider recreational legalization (Michigan; North Dakota) or medical legalization (Missouri and Utah; Oklahoma approved in June) while the sixth (Colorado) will consider redefinition of industrial hemp.

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Representatives from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands after signing legalization legislation in September 2018

Public support for legalization continues to grow (to 62% according to a recent poll) and support for medical marijuana has become overwhelming. But support for increasing access to pot will likely remain a very low priority for voters on election day. Especially this year, when the midterm elections appear to be a referendum on the Trump Administration, it seems a little indulgent for folks to continue to push a legalization agenda in this election season. However, the party that controls legalization will be able to shape the contours of reform, and those contours comprise some of the most important issues surrounding legalization according to activists.

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Many Scholars Think Drug Courts Harm Policy Reform, Not Vice Versa

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Enjoy!

The current so-called opioid epidemic has placed an urgent frame around drug-related policy debates in Ohio. Here, the current midterm election ballot includes Issue 1, a state constitutional amendment that would convert level 4 and 5 drug felonies—charges for possession and use of drugs—into misdemeanors, somewhat like California’s Proposition 47 in 2014. Ohio would be only the sixth state to take similar measures to reduce drug-related mass incarceration.

So Issue 1 was much on the minds and lips of panelists at “Facing Opioids: Drug Enforcement & Health Policy in Today’s Epidemic,” an Oct. 19 symposium at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. The event reminded me how little I know about current events and policies related to drug control, living, as I and many other historians do, in the past. I appreciated the chance to listen to legal experts in criminal justice and public health talk about Issue 1, drug courts, harm reduction, and other topics related to Ohio’s very high rate of overdose deaths.

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Towards a Global History of Intoxicants: The War on Alcohol

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In it, she brings a global focus to drug and alcohol history and reviews Lisa McGirr’s book on federal Prohibition. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-10-18 at 8.23.09 AMLisa McGirr’s stimulating recent book The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (Norton, 2016) links early twentieth-century temperance to the origins of the muscular federal authority we know today. Historians typically trace the enlargement of state power to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to lift the United States out of the Depression in the 1930s. However, McGirr points to earlier growth in the Prohibition era. By creating new categories of legal violations, the ban on brewing and selling alcohol transformed crime into a “national obsession” for the first time in American history. The government responded to public panic by expanding law enforcement—a measure whose effects linger today in such forms as the War on Drugs.

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“Mapping the Muggleheads” – Digital History, GIS, and Marijuana Historiography

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Adam Rathge, director of enrollment strategies and part-time history professor at the University of Dayton, drug scholar, and longtime friend of Points. In it, he shows how using tools like digital mapping and geocoding can shed new light on historical accounts and reveal previously hidden or misunderstood narratives–particularly useful when trying to understand controversial issues like alcohol and drugs. Enjoy!

Nearly three years ago, on January 6, 2016, I attended a session at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting entitled “Digital Publishing Initiatives: Training Humanities Scholars.” The panel was sponsored by the AHA Graduate and Early Career Committee and featured four excellent papers, one of which ultimately led me on a digital publishing journey that will finally come to fruition later this week with the forthcoming publication of “Mapping the Muggleheads: New Orleans and the Marijuana Menace, 1920–1930.”

Before elaborating on that story, however, I’d be remiss not to mention the other papers I saw that day. Adam Mandelman and Spring Greeney from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed the work of Edge Effects, a digital magazine produced by graduate students at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) at UW-Madison. Mark Sheaves from the University of Texas at Austin showed off the work of Not Even Past, a monthly publication designed “to bring great history writing to the public” (not unlike our beloved Points blog). Patrick R. Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins from the Ohio State University chronicled the monthly publications from Origins that “provided historical insight on current events that matter to the United States and to the world” (also not unlike our beloved Points blog).

While each of these online publications was impressive, my inspiration that day came from Meredith Doster of Emory University, who presented the work of Southern Spaces – a peer-reviewed, multimedia, open-access journal published by the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. As Meredith showed, Southern Spaces was dedicated to publishing research “about real and imagined spaces and places in the US South and their global connections.” Almost immediately my mind was churning with excitement. At the time, I was in the throes of writing my dissertation (“Cannabis Cures: American Medicine, Mexican Marijuana, and the Origins of the War on Weed, 1840-1937”) and was in the process of formulating a chapter that drew heavily on early twentieth-century newspaper accounts of marijuana use in New Orleans. The city’s “marijuana menace” seemed like a perfect avenue for exploring real and imaged spaces.

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