The Points Interview: Isaac Campos-Costero

Editor’s note: Today’s entry in the Points Interview series is number twenty-seven, and features Isaac Campos-Costero discussing his recently published Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Between the 1840s and 1920, marijuana was overwhelmingly associated with two effects in Cover of Isaac Campos' Home GrownMexico– madness and violence. And I really mean overwhelmingly. There were hundreds of reports of marijuana turning its users into violent maniacs and such reports went almost totally unchallenged in published sources. Furthermore, the belief that marijuana caused violent madness appears to have been especially prevalent among the lower classes. In other words, it does not appear that these views were imposed on average Mexicans by propaganda campaigns from above. If you could go back to 1890s Mexico City and ask an ordinary person on the street to describe the effects of marijuana, they almost certainly would have told you that “it makes you crazy.” Of course today marijuana is associated with very different effects. Even the most aggressive drug warriors, in their most hyperbolic moments, would shy away from claiming that marijuana causes violence and madness. That just seems absurd given more recent experience with the drug. Thus my book  explains how marijuana earned this reputation. In the process it documents pretty much everything about cannabis’ history in Mexico, from its introduction to the country as a fiber-producing industrial plant in the 1530s, to its nationwide prohibition in 1920. The book thus also traces the origins of prohibitionist drug laws in Mexico and hence the origins of Mexico’s war on drugs. Ultimately I argue that marijuana probably had some role in triggering “mad” behavior and even violence but not because marijuana necessarily causes such effects in any context where it is used, but, rather, because of what researchers have long referred to as “drug, set, and setting”—that is, the interaction between user psychology, the setting of the drug’s use, and the  pharmacology of the drug itself. Simply put, what people think is going to occur when they take a drug is often as important as any other factor in producing a particular behavioral effect. Thus if you think a drug should make you lazy, it’s much more likely to make you lazy, and if you think it should make you crazy, it’s much more likely to make you think you are going crazy. Furthermore, marijuana is a substance ideally suited to convince people that “madness” might result from its use. It can produce anxiety, panic attacks, and even hallucinations at high doses (hence its classification as a “psychotomimetic” drug). But, again, like all drugs marijuana’s effects are highly conditioned by the social and cultural setting of its use, and the psychological “set” of its users.  In Mexico, a country with the richest collection of hallucinogens on earth and where, since the sixteenth century, disputes over the use of such substances have been intimately linked to political and spiritual conflict, it is not so surprising that the use of marijuana would soon be associated with madness and even violence. And that association has had an enormous historical impact in North America. These ideas not only helped inspire Mexico’s drug-war policies but, as I demonstrate in the book, they also served as the foundation of “reefer madness” ideas in the United States. Thus these Mexican ideas were also crucial to the development of the U.S. war on drugs as we now know it, with marijuana as one of its “big three” targets alongside cocaine and the opiates. Continue reading →

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Mexico’s Election: Drug Continuities or Contingencies? By Javier Alvarez-Isasi and Elaine Carey

As historians, we know that there are historical continuities and contingencies.  We study these, debate these, and occasionally we attempt to make a few insights into the present day.  This post attempts to perform the latter. So, here we go again with another Mexican presidential election that is rife with continuities and contingencies.

Voting in Atlacomulco, July 2012

In 2000, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) lost seventy continued years of presidential power. That year, we observed the elections and the massive eruption of street celebrations when it was announced that Vicente Fox had won the election.  Twelve years later, 2012 was the PRI’s come back year, and it ran as a deep-pocketed opposition party with a telegenic candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.  Of course, the PRI had less support from the middle and educated classes, groups that the party had  courted since the 1940s. With the murder of the PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, the Zapatista uprising that same year, and the Aguas Blanca massacre of a group of campesinos (Mexican peasants) in 1996, the PRI lost credibility in all levels of the public sphere.  The PRI political machine had long created an illusion of respectability and control through sheer force and media manipulation.  However, massacres, social upheavals, bank collapses, power politics resembling organized crime syndicates, hyper inflation, and devaluations became more and more difficult for Mexicans to stomach and ignore. Continue reading →

GlaxoSmithKline, Drug Marketing, and the Problem of Disease Inflation

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced that the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline had agreed to settle criminal and civil complaints related to its illegal marketing of the popular antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s. In addition to a number of other offenses, the settlement also covered allegations that the company had failed to report safety data to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its diabetes drug Avandia. In order to settle the case, the company agreed to plead guilty to promoting Paxil and Wellbutrin for uses that had not been approved by the FDA. The company also agreed to pay $3 billion in criminal and civil fines, which might seem like a huge amount of money until you realize that Paxil, Wellbutrin, and Avandia earned the company at least $28 billion during the period covered by the settlement. As one industry analyst commented, “a $3 billion settlement for half a dozen drugs over 10 years can be rationalized as the cost of doing business.”

For those of us interested in the machinations of Big Pharma, neither GlaxoSmithKline’s behavior nor the terms of the agreement are particularly surprising. Over the past decade these types of settlements have become increasingly common. In 2007, for example, Purdue Pharma settled for the relatively modest sum of $634 million for illegally promoting OxyContin as less addictive than other painkillers. In 2009, Eli Lilly settled for $1.4 billion for illegally marketing Zyprexa for the treatment of dementia, among other problems, despite being approved only for the use of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In the same year, Pfizer settled for $2.3 billion for illegally promoted its painkiller Bextra, and in 2011 Merck agreed to pay $950 million to settle complaints that it had illegally marketed Vioxx. In May of this year, Abbott Laboratories settled for $1.6 billion for illegally marketing an anti-seizure drug. Any day now, the Justice Department is expected to announce that Johnson & Johnson has settled claims that it illegally promoted Risperdal, a drug currently approved for the treatment of schizophrenia. The expected settlement is about $2.2 billion. Earlier in the year, a judge in Arkansas had ordered the company to pay $1.2 billion in fines for hiding the dangers of the drug in its promotional efforts. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

There is a tremendous amount to be said about all this, most of which isn’t good, but for the moment I want to focus on the effort to promote drugs for so-called “off-label” use. Under the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (and subsequent amendments and laws), it is illegal for pharmaceutical companies to promote drugs for uses that are not approved by the FDA, or for the treatment of patients that are outside of the approved age range, or to promote the use of drugs at higher doses than for which they are approved. However, it is perfectly legal for physicians to prescribe drugs for any condition, to any patient population, and in any amount that they see fit. The result is that there is a tremendous incentive for companies to promote their products illegally: Continue reading →

Florida’s Cannabis Cannibal? Zombies, Bath Salts, Marijuana, and Reefer Madness 2.0

Editor’s Note: In a “ripped from the headlines” post, guest blogger Adam Rathge historicizes the recent episode of the Florida face-eater, drawing parallels between the contemporary panic over bath salts and 1930’s-era alarm over “reefer madness.”  A PhD candidate in History at Boston College, Adam is at work on a dissertation entitled “The Origins of Marijuana Prohibition, 1870-1937.”

On May 26, a 31-year-old man named Rudy Eugene tore off the clothes of a homeless man under a highway in Miami, Florida and then ripped off parts of the victim’s face with his teeth. According to witnesses, when a uniformed police officer shouted at him to stop, the attacker allegedly looked up, growled, and then “kept eating the other guy away.”The officer then shot Eugene at least five times before he fell dead on the scene. The damage, however, was done. Much of the victim’s face was gone; his skin ripped away, nose bitten and his eyes gouged. Given the horrific nature of the event, news reports immediately spread around the country, with most observers wondering the same thing: what could possibly make a person eat someone’s face? The answer, of course, was drugs.

The Crime Scene

Reports from the Miami Herald show that local police initially theorized the attacker might have been suffering from “cocaine psychosis,” a drug-induced craze that bakes the body internally and often leads the user to strip naked to try and cool off. Speculation on the internet suggested it was a mix of hard drugs, or perhaps a bad batch of LSD, or even the beginning of a Zombie apocalypse. Just days later all of these theories  were put to rest when the head of the Miami police union publicly speculated that Eugene was actually on “bath salts” – a range of synthetic stimulants that mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal substances. Though bath salts had previously been blamed for psychotic episodes and wild hallucinations in other cases around the country, the gruesome nature of the face-eating case helped fuel a growing fear and hysteria of these legally available substances. Instantly, and for weeks after, police speculation on Eugene’s alleged use of bath salts became fact, firmly solidified in the national media as other shocking stories about this new and horrific drug emerged.

The Presumed Precipitator

To the general public much of this information undoubtedly seemed as novel as it was shocking. As a drug historian watching this story unfold, the developing narrative actually sounded pretty familiar: a sensational story, a new more-dangerous-than-ever-before drug, and law enforcement officials clamoring for strict laws to combat it, all combining to drive a nationwide panic. Continue reading →

The Crack Baby Incident

guess which one is the crack baby…

A funny thing happened when I started telling people about the crack baby myth: they didn’t believe me. “Myth?” they said, “but the crack baby is real!” My facebook page was consumed in a 25-comment debate before I could convince some of my intelligent, educated friends that, indeed, the crack baby is a fiction. An off-hand comment to a doctor likewise met with amazed surprise – no such thing as a crack baby? Over coffee, friends struggled to let go of the idea of the crack baby because, as one person confessed, it feels so viscerally true. How could something as awful as crack not cause permanent damage to babies? Maybe we don’t yet know how, their resistance implied, but it must be true.

…not this one!

Saying there is no such thing as a crack baby might be a slight exaggeration, but it pales in comparison to the things people were saying in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the fact that infants born to crack-using mothers were not old enough to attend school, moral entrepreneurs (to borrow Becker’s term) were already warning about a “bio-underclass” flooding our communities and schools, unable to suckle or learn or feel human emotions. Even though early studies suffered from methodological shortcomings (small sample sizes, unreliable identification techniques, selection bias, inconsistent measures, high-attrition rates, racial and class bias) and confounding variables (alcohol, tobacco, and other drug exposure, overlap between cocaine exposure and poverty, poor home environment, lack of parental care, poor maternal health, poor nutrition, social disadvantage, maternal depression), politicians used the specter of the crack baby as part of a larger swing towards conservative, victim-blaming, anti-woman, racist, and classist social and legal policies, with terrible consequences for mothers and children.

“Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious. They work everyday to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives” – R. Reagan

… but pregnant women often couldn’t access treatment, Mr. President, so who are you calling the criminal now?

Forgive me, then, if I sound glib when I say that there is no such thing as a crack baby. It just seems that if we have to continue to prove this very basic point, then we can’t go on to think about lessons we might learn from the whole crack baby scare.

Continue reading →

Bill W.: A Remembrance and a Review, Part 2

U. Mass. Press, 2000

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part look at Kevin Hanlon’s documentary Bill W.  In yesterday’s installment, biographer Matthew J. Raphael recounted his own experiences trying to capture and contextualize the life of AA’s co-founder for the book Bill W. and Mr. Wilson.

Bill W., an excellent new film from 124 Productions, takes a qualitative quantum leap over My Name Is Bill W. (1989), an ABC made-for-television movie starring James Woods as Bill Wilson and James Garner as Dr. Bob Smith.  Bill W.’s widow, Lois Wilson, lived just long enough to read and approve that script, and the lead performances, especially Woods’s, are convincing. But as Norman K. Denzin asserts in Hollywood Shot by Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema (1991), the fusion of Bill W.’s life with the “origin myth” of AA makes this film “a piece of official A.A. ideology that reproduces this organization’s version of its place in American society.” In effect, it employs biography as a means to place Wilson and AA alike “outside history, politics, and power.”  What I referred to yesterday as “the bedtime story” becomes an agreeable fairy tale for the New Agey Twelve-Step Recovery communities of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bill W., by contrast, connects Wilson directly to the history, politics, and power that bore on his life both inside AA and, to a lesser degree, in the outside world. The film takes account of such social conditions as the Great Depression, the shady new devices (some invented by Wilson) for boosting Wall Street profits, the gaudy excesses of the 1920s, in which Wilson eagerly participated, and the stark racial divisions that Bill W. finessed by encouraging “separate but equal” meetings in the South.

The overall treatment of race, however, seems a bit underdeveloped and thus slightly evasive.  Only one of the shadow-enshrouded AA members interviewed for the film is African American – a detail viewers might fail to recognize if he did not (at the director’s prompting?) move his tell-tale black hand into the light. The film gives a brief depiction of the Bowery as the ultimate hell-hole into which alcoholics can fall. But while the context suggests white alcoholics, the illustrative old photographs show only black down-and-outers.

Not Pictured in “Bill W.”: Whiteness

Still, only a zealot of political correctness would find much fault here. Continue reading →

Bill W.: A Remembrance and a Review, Part 1

Editor’s Note: Matthew J. Raphael is the author of the biography Bill W. and Mr. Wilson: The Legend and Life of AA’s Co-founder (U. Mass. Press, 2000).  He uses a pen name in deference to AA’s 11th Tradition of anonymity. Recently retired from a long career as a critic and historian of American literature, he here turns his attention to the latest Bill W. bio, Kevin Hanlon’s documentary film of that name.

The first and only time I was lunched by a literary agent, he offered to get me a 50K advance for a trade book biography of Bill Wilson.

The Setting was Something Like This

At the time, little in this vein existed beyond Robert Thomsen’s novelistic Bill W. (1975) and the official AA book, “Pass It On” (1984). But soon thereafter, things began to pop. In the same anno mirabilis, 2000, were published: Bill W.: An Autobiography, based on interview tapes he made with Thomsen; Mel Barger’s My Search for Bill Wilson; Francis Hartigan’s Bill W.; and my own Bill W. and Mr. Wilson– all of them soon to be followed by Susan Cheever’s authoritative My Name Is Bill (2004).

Obviously, I demurred about that advance, which might have been just the start of some hefty royalties if the book caught on. The agent knew I could write well enough for the job and also handle the research. My candidacy was enhanced by the AA membership we had in common. I even had a leave coming up, and the advance would have allowed its extension for an additional semester or two. If only I would put my scholarly project aside and take up the biography! Continue reading →