Forgotten Drugs of Abuse I: T’s and Blues

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  It’s about a new drug, a killer, raging through a major American city filling ERs and morgues and leaving a trail of wrecked lives.  Just a year ago heroin was the big problem, but now this new scourge accounts for three-fourths of drug busts and a third of all addicts seeking treatment.  Experts are saying there’s no way the drug will stay in one city: “similar to an infectious process,” it will inevitably spread across the nation.  It’s already surfaced in a handful of cities, and who knows where it will strike next.

Scourge of Our Cities

The year is 1978, and the Talwin panic is in full swing.

Wait, you don’t remember the great Talwin terror of 1978?  Maybe haven’t even heard of Talwin?  Don’t feel bad.  Despite the promising start, the Talwin scare never really got off the ground.  There were a few headlines here and there, a TV documentary, and a day of testimony in Congress, but in the annals of anti-drug crusades it was small potatoes.

Why?  1978 was a great year for drug crusades, and this one seemed to have plenty going for it:  Talwin really was causing major public health problems in Chicago; it had a hip, media-friendly street name (“T’s and Blues”); and most of its abusers were nonwhite, urban poor—classic drug-war boogeymen.  More:  one of the largest sources of Talwin in Chicago was a Medicaid clinic, where, Congress was told, the drug was “handed out literally like M&Ms.”  The headlines could have written themselves.  “Hard Working Taxpayers’ Dollars Going to Give Dope to Junkies!”  And if that wasn’t enough, how about this sound bite from the Congressional hearings:

Thank you indeed!  “Grandmothers are buying Talwin on the street”:  does it get any better than that for an anti-drug crusader? It wasn’t supposed to end up like that for Talwin.  Continue reading →


Dry Pushback Against Mann’s Alcoholism Movement and Robert King Merton’s Manifest and Latent Functions: A Perplexing Combination

Cross’s church in Berkeley

My thinking on this post started off in one direction and then suddenly veered into another direction entirely.  As you’ll see.

My original plan was simply to recount a triangular correspondence involving Laurance L. Cross, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Marty Mann that occurred in 1947. 

Their letters to one another captured a telling instance of pushback against Mann’s then-fledgling alcoholism-is-a-disease campaign from a disgruntled dry. 

Laurance L. Cross was pastor of the Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley, California and, from 1947 to 1955, that city’s mayor as well; he was also apparently a staunch and diehard dry sympathizer and as well (sans any hint of mutatis mutandis) chair of the local unit of Mann’s National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (NCEA).  

Harry Emerson Fosdick was a nationally prominent Protestant theologian.  His controversial advocacy of a modernist position on biblical interpretation landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1930.  Fosdick was also a member of Mann’s organization’s advisory board and as well brother of Raymond Fosdick, chief of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s philanthropic establishment.   According to Wikipedia, H.E. Fosdick’s 1939 favorable review of  Alcoholics Anonymous (i.e., “The Big Book”) is still regarded in that fraternity as “significant in the development of the AA movement.”  Continue reading →

Pharmaceutical Suspicion

Michele Bachman’s implosion on the campaign trail back in late September is now widely accredited to her suggestion that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. In an earlier post, I argued that pundits should think twice before dismissing Bachman due to her position on this topic, and while Bachman’s campaign collapsed a lot more quickly than I expected, I continue to think that her arguments about vaccination were potent ones.

"La Vaccine Mort en Avortant de Son Dernier Monstre," ca. 1800

There is a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industry running through much of American culture – indeed, a Harris Poll last year found that just 11% of Americans consider pharmaceutical companies “honest and trustworthy,” a remarkable finding given that virtually all of us place the products of these companies in our bodies and many of us literally depend upon them for our lives. The idea that the drug companies are deceitful and, perhaps, predatorial is widespread, stretching from the halls of academia to the claims of Scientologists, from right wing populists to the Rainbow Family, from alternative health care practitioners and their allies in the New Age and health food movements, to patient advocacy groups, anti-psychiatrists, and more. Even libertarians, who usually trust just about anyone able to make gobs of money, exhibit a certain skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry when they start talking about legalizing marijuana and other drugs. So what’s going on here? Continue reading →

The Downward Spiral: Drugs in the Occupy Movements

Occupy Wall Street may be getting the most coverage today, given Mayor Bloomberg’s overnight sweep of Zucotti Park, but those interested in the role of drugs in the Occupy movements may want to keep an eye on the West Coast, where media outlets are all getting “on message” about the “drug problems” in the Occupy encampments.

Memorial for an Overdose Victim, Occupy Vancouver

Our friends at The Fix asked  last week “‘Will Drugs Kill ‘Occupy LA’?”.  Their story may have been a bit breathless for high-minded readers of Points, but it posed key questions about public health and safety that seem to loom larger every day.  (An analogous issue was raised, with combined irony and pathos, in a post to online magazine n+1 about problems managing the Zuccotti Park drum circle— come to think of it, it may not be analogous, it may be the same issue.)  Yesterday, major Canadian news outlets confirmed that a woman found dead in an Occupy Vancouver tent was a victim of an overdose– the second in as many weeks.  Similar public health concerns have been raised about Occupy Portland.  Given that these stories are eerily coincident with police and government official crackdowns, any good social constructionist will be tempted to observe that “the scourge of drugs” is being mobilized as a frame to justify squashing the threatening politics of the movement. Continue reading →

Soivet-Era Temperance: Just Say “Nyet”

Editor’s Note: Today marks the second in a series of guest posts by art historian Tamás Sajo, designer at Studioloum Press.  Last week he led us through the Gorbrachev-era’s homage to the lubok, “With Joint Forces Against Drunkenness”; this week we take a slightly different turn, examining iconic anti-alcohol images from mid-century that have been re-purposed in a contemporary campaign against Coca-Cola, long known as the beverage of choice  for a new imperialism. 

Both mass alcoholism and the fight against it were integral parts of everyday life in the Soviet Union, from its formation until its dissolution. For much of the 19th century, Russians’ per-capita alcohol consumption was among the lowest in Europe, and even this consumption was strictly controlled by rural and urban communities as well as the intensively working temperance societies. After the beginning of the forced industrialization introduced by Communism, millions of villagers poured into the cities and, liberated from the control of the community and with access to various sources of cheap alcohol, quickly established a culture of permanent drunkenness–drinking that aimed at a rapid unconsciousness.

The Soviet state on the one hand supported this as an instrument for draining off social tensions: Stalin in 1930, at the beginning of monumental industrialization, wrote to President of the Council of People’s Commissars Molotov demanding “the greatest expansion of vodka production possible for the sake of a real and serious defense of our country.” On the other hand, the state clearly saw that this level of alcohol consumption would lead to a drastic reduction in lifetime (male life expectancy had fallen to 47 by the 1990s) and that, due to the early decomposition of families it would significantly stunt Russia’s birthrate.  Since both of these would reduce the Soviet Union’s competitiveness in the race between the two world systems, from time to time the government tried to roll consumption back with anti-alcohol campaigns. At the same time the government was all too aware that it  could not renounce the revenues from the alcohol monopoly:at the beginning of Communism alcohol taxes meant a whole quarter of the state budget; their falling during Gorbachev’s 1985 anti-alcohol campaign contributed significantly to the decline of Soviet economy.

In the coming weeks I will outline some important stages of this story on the basis of Russian and American literature in this series prepared for Points. From the temperance unions of Tsarist Russia to the alcohol ban of early Communism, through the campaign of 1929-30 and its periodical renewals after Stalin’s death in 1953 to Gorbachev’s “dry law”, we will examine each time a group of publications to see how they tried to curb the “green snake” of alcoholism. Continue reading →

Update: Occupy Wall Street’s Drug Problem(s)

Editor’s Note: Points is pleased to present today a cross-posting by freelance writer and addiction specialist Jed Bickman, a regular contributor to (among others) The Nation, The Huffington Post, and The Fix–an online magazine of addiction and recovery culture whose debut we discussed last spring.  While the Points staff likes to think that our provocative think piece on drugs in the Occupy movements blazed a trail on the topic, as desk jockeys whose duty is first and foremost to serve the citizen-students of Florida we are limited in our ability to follow up on developments on the ground.  Thus we’re especially grateful to on-the-scene reporters like Bickman, who can bring our readership incisive coverage like that in the post below.  Thanks to him and to The Fix for allowing us to re-publish.

So how much of a drug problem is there at Zuccotti Park? That may depend on which side of the park you happen to be in.

Zucotti Park: Two Sides to Every Story

According to police and organizers, there are “two sides of town” in Zuccotti Park…and at night the differences become vividly apparent. The side of the park adjacent to Broadway, where the main protests are held and where the media center and library are, forms the clean, public face of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Long after midnight, a frenetic burst of activity continues under the bright lights.  By contrast, the other side of the square, adjacent to Trinity Place, has become an unlit camping area for overnight protestors, where sleeping bodies occupy pretty much every available space. Anyone who wants to spend the night can do so… and the lack of oversight has allowed less savory elements to set up shop among the mostly law-abiding protestors.

Street medic Paul Kostry, a 27-year-old volunteer from New Mexico, told The Fix that several drug dealers had taken over a few of the sleeping tents on the dark side of the park, selling drugs from cocaine to heroin to marijuana. “We’ve got our own set of drug lords here, unfortunately,” Kostry says. “We know what tents they’re operating out of, and we’re doing our best to deal with them.” But Zuccotti Park, he adds, is a microcosm of New York City itself—including people with drug problems and those who prey on them. “Everyone recognizes that we cannot allow the drug dealing, and there are certainly steps being taken to deal with that,” Kostry says. “But we are here to help the victims of that. There’s a reason the medical tent is where it is.” Continue reading →

Points on Blogs: Reading *The Neuro Times*

“Points on Blogs” returns this week, with a visit to The Neuro Times, “an historical blog dedicated to neurology and neuroscience.”  The Neuro Times is the work of Dr. Stephen T. Casper, an Assistant Professor in the History of Science at Clarkson University, along with a small group of contributors.  Casper recevied his doctorate in the History of Medicine from University College London, where he studied the history of British neurology.  Here’s how he describes the blog:

The Dictionary of Neurology Project seeks to inform scholars, physicians, scientists and the wider public about trends in the history of neurology and neuroscience. While it is foremostly concerned with promoting history for the sake of history, the project also seeks to inform about and critique the growth of “neuroculture,” a trend that has emerged in various quarters in the last two decades to ascribe complex elements of culture and society to human neurobiology. 

Our contributors provide commentary, critique, and high quality content about the neurosciences, and we seek to establish and build a broad and global community that engages in historical and sociological studies devoted to the many sciences (clincial and basic) that primarily focus on the nervous system. This blog, in consequence, serves university and medical communities as well as wider publics.   

Should Points readers care?  Not long ago, David Courtwright urged fellow historians to

Poster for the film The Pusher

Holding a copy of Addiction Biology?

“take a hit” of neuroscience, adding in good pusher fashion, “just don’t get addicted.” David made it clear what he meant: “Suspicion of scientific arrogance and imperialism ought not to prevent anyone from the selective appropriation of research insights, especially those  that illuminate the common or synergistic features of drug action.” (1)  Meant as a provocation of sorts, David’s call for common ground between history and neuroscience certainly does not go so far as to suggest that historians drop their posture of suspicion (nor do posts like this one suggest any impending sense of mutuality between fields).  And that, it seems to me, is where The Neuro Times helps, by creating a space for well-informed suspicion. Continue reading →