Weekend Reads: The Many James Browns Edition

Weekend Reads revolves around the central idea that there is something to be gained in examining celebrity drug use and, much more importantly, the way society discusses public figures’ use and abuse of drugs. By looking at singers, athletes, politicians, actors, and others, we’ve gotten a chance to meditate on modern drug issues from a variety of perspectives, resulting in some provocative discussions about morality, hypocrisy, race, gender, class, and the law. In fact, the only perspective that Weekend Reads has not yet covered is that of the non-celebrity, the view that should matter most when we try to understand the broadest implications of American drug culture.

Most weeks, a story about someone like James Brown getting hopped up on PCP and engaging in a South Carolina-to-Georgia interstate police chase – as he did on September 24, 1988 – would be prime fodder for a column. We might retrace the way the police, the public, and the media responded to Brown’s actions before delving into the larger implications of Brown’s prior “straight edge” views toward drug use, his well-publicized support for the Republican Party, and his equally well-publicized civil rights work. In the right hands, it could be a fruitful look into an enigmatic man who, to some extent, mirrored America’s own schizophrenic relationship with drugs.

Another James Brown we won’t be addressing.

While profiling the “Godfather of Soul” would be fun, however, it wouldn’t get us any closer to knowing the perspectives of those people early social historians referred to as the “inarticulate.” By looking at James Brown, Grammy-winner and national icon, we get little sense of what drug culture looks like “on the ground.” Through a series of vignettes, however, we can better appreciate the funny, stupid, curious, and cruel aspects of drug culture. Luckily for us, the last month has seen a rash of news stories about James Brown and drugs. Not that James Brown, of course, as the famed Barnwell, South Carolina-born bandleader passed away on Christmas Day, 2006. No, the news has reported on a multitude of other James Browns, whose various drug-related misadventures can give us a more holistic of what drugs mean on a societal level.  Continue reading →


Harold A. Mulford, Jr. — In Memoriam

Editor’s Note:  Points welcomes Paul Roman’s warmhearted reflections and commentary on fellow sociologist Harold Mulford’s life and work.  Mulford was a pioneer in the application of sociological thought and methods to alcoholism and alcohol as public problems.  As Paul’s commentary amply suggests, Hal was also a passionate and respected scholar.   

This memorial for Harold A. Mulford, Jr. will neither begin nor end with the standard statement about how much we have lost with Hal’s passing on June 28, 2012 just short of “four score and ten” at age 89.  Tapping a perhaps less common tradition, let us celebrate some of the unique gifts that alcohol social science gained by his travels with us.

Hal Mulford’s life has both storybook qualities but as a scholar, features that are absolutely unique.  Born on an Iowa farm and growing into a strapping handsome man, Hal was a hero in the Good War, with a medal-producing record of laying down the enemy with major artillery during D-Day and then fighting on through the Pacific Theater to nearly the end of the War.  After marriage and the beginning of his family, and a GI Bill bachelor’s degree from Morningside College in 1947, his eventual education at the University of Iowa led him to a doctorate in sociology in 1955.  Here he was substantially influenced by Manfred Kuhn, founder of what is known as “The Iowa School of Symbolic Interaction” wherein the somewhat elusive tenets of this perspective are put to hard-nosed empirical test.  Hal’s work continually reflected this perspective; my attempted summary of the core of his life’s work would center on his efforts to construct the symbolic and interactional world of the deviant drinker and alcoholic through scale construction. Continue reading →

Disposable Citizens

In May of 2008 recent Florida State graduate Rachel Hoffman reluctantly got in her car with 13,000 dollars in cash set to buy 2 and ½ ounces of cocaine, 1500 pills of Ecstasy, and a semi-automatic handgun in a Tallahassee P.D. approved sting operation.  A few weeks earlier, two disparate events promised to change the trajectory of Rachel’s life.  First, she earned admission to a master’s program in mental-health counseling.  Second, more dubiously, Rachel found herself pinched by police who discovered 5 ounces of pot, along with assorted pills of Ecstasy and Valium surreptitiously tucked under her couch cushions. Threatened with possible felony charges of possession with intent to sell and “maintaining a drug house,” Rachel decided to cooperate.  Information leading to a mere pot bust though—authorities informed Rachel—would not be enough to make the charges disappear.  Instead, they would need Rachel to bring Tallahassee P.D. arrests netting large quantities of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, or guns.  With little choice, Rachel unwittingly made herself disposable.  As such, Rachel took on a new, less human persona in the eyes of law enforcement.  Rachel became Confidential Informant No. 1129; one of many replaceable, interchangeable parts in the modern War on Drugs.

Rachel Hoffman

Whether Rachel’s attackers discovered the wire in her purse, or simply found the nature of her first-time purchase suspicious is relatively inconsequential.  What does matter, very much so, is that Rachel’s body—riddled with bullets from the gun she planned to buy for police—turned up 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee.  As you might imagine, the murder of a white middle-class, female, suburban college graduate garnered considerable media attention.  Hoffman’s case received prolonged coverage from Jenifer Portman of the Tallahassee Democrat, Vince Beiser of the Huffington Post, and ABC NewsThe saga of Rachel Hoffman and the overarching issue of confidential informants has now resurfaced, with the publication of Sarah Stillman’s recent New Yorker piece entitled, “The Throwaways.”

Far too often, confidential informants adversely effected by the modern war on drugs do not fit the description of Rachel Hoffman.  Lacking the trappings of a college education, middle-class status, and perhaps whiteness, many cautionary tales of informants go untold.  More frequently, the disposable citizens shuffled through the dangerous informant system are young people from low-income communities, often nonwhite, and sometimes underage.  The risk, and potential loss of these human lives receives less media scrutiny and legislative concern then they ought to be afforded. Continue reading →

A Colombian Queen’s Tale: The End and Beginning of Griselda Blanco

Griselda Blanco, the Cocaine Godmother, was gunned down in front of a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia on September 3, 2012.  Since her initial indictments in New York City beginning in the early 1970s, Blanco has flitted in and out of the popular imagination.  Tales of Blanco emerged first in police and court documents and newspapers. In more recent years, she could be found in nonfiction, docudramas, popular magazines, blogs, YouTube, and other media.

Like other high-level female drug traffickers, Blanco created important alliances with men, but differed from her peers due to her extensive use of violence.  She employed it as an offensive tool against male competitors and even men who were employed by her or her clients.  Violence served to demonstrate her power and to strike fear in the men that surrounded her. Her ruthlessness contributed to a growing gangster hagiography and titillation that continues to surround her and those men connected to her. This explains why her death brought new attention.  Yet, Blanco’s story is another New York City organized crime tale with many twists and turns: changing criminal enterprises, licit and illicit work, lovers turned traitors, and police/criminal chases across continents. Continue reading →

Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part VI, Reflections of an Accidental Drug Historian

It was April 2005 when I walked up to the car rental booth at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport and announced to the man behind the counter, “I’m high on cough syrup.” I had spent a year researching the history of the Narcotic Farm for a documentary with my partner JP Olsen and at that moment I felt like a test subject in the institution’s Addiction Research Center. I let loose a verbal flash flood: “I’m having trouble using my hands and things look streaky and my feet are kind of floating but that’s not what I meant to say. My name is Luke Walden. I’m really high on cough syrup.”

Addiction Research Center Inventory (ARCI)

I was close to reenacting an old story: in trying to calm a body-wracking cough, I had taken two gulps of an unfamiliar syrup called Delsym and accidently gotten high. And I kind of liked it. While my intoxication subsided by the next morning, I continued to enjoy the medicine’s apparent side effect of making tedious work (videotaping a sales conference) not just bearable but even pleasant for two full days. But suddenly on the third day I found myself bored to tears, exhausted and desperate. I considered taking more of the orange syrup and if there had been a fourth day I might have. A news segment on the tiny TV in my taxi back in New York made me glad I hadn’t. I learned that Delsym’s active ingredient Dextromethorphan (dxm) was the hot new drug of abuse among high school kids. It all seemed like a familiar story ripped from the annals of drug history.

Four years after finishing The Narcotic Farm, I find myself still hooked on the history of drugs. (Literally. I just spent two guilty hours compulsively reading old Points posts and watching YouTubers trip on dxm and salvia.) It puts me in a strange position. I am a generalist documentary filmmaker (and now mostly full time dad) who only got involved in the “Narco” project at JP’s invitation. So I am sometimes startled to find myself on stage in academic settings, being asked serious questions about what addiction is, what lessons we should take from Narco’s history, and what I learned from doing this project.

I tell audiences first that I learned to approach historical accounts and especially documentary films with a healthy dose of skepticism. Filmmaking is highly constrained by the need to engage and constantly maintain the viewer’s interest. This is usually interpreted to mean that “storytelling” takes precedence over all, that a good story follows an Aristotelian or “Hollywood” structure and is told in terms of one or two main characters’ emotional experiences. I call it the tyranny of narrative. In a historical documentary it means compressing complex ideas into sound bites and omitting important histories that interrupt the story. Documentaries are also supposed to have a clear point of view – the filmmakers’ stance on who the good guys and bad guys are. Instead JP and I tried to tell an accurate, neutral and nuanced story and were dismayed when the producer of one PBS independent film series told us our film was “too objective for public television.”

On the nod at the ARC

I also tell people that studying the history of Lexington has educated me surprisingly well to cope with having an addict in my own extended family. This unexpected benefit first became clear when I recognized that my mother-in-law was “on the nod” at Christmas dinner. Rather than being mystified to see a normally vivacious person slumped over the ham, my study of the old Addiction Research Center lab films allowed me to confidently identify opiate intoxication. Catherine had been prescribed OxyContin after shoulder surgery and had tried to taper her dose by cutting her time-release pills in half. It was an old familiar story of accidental overdose. I thought of myself floating through Sky Harbor.

My historical research equipped me to speak matter-of-factly despite Catherine’s history of defensiveness about her alcoholism. She agreed not to drive and to see a doctor about minimizing her use of narcotics. But her entanglement with opiates didn’t stop there. Some months later I took one look at Catherine lying sick in our guest bed with her legs stirring the sheets and recognized that she was kicking cold turkey, just like the test subjects in the A.R.C. films. She had run out of her prescription but thought she just had the flu.

After several months she got clean, but she believes that the opiates “softened her up” so that depression could trigger a shockingly severe relapse to alcohol after 10 years sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. My research helped me again. When she called with crazy excuses for failing to do what she promised I was emboldened by our interviews with retired former addicts and by our study of therapeutic communities such as Matrix House to confront her. I could say, “I know you are lying to me and I know that’s what addiction makes people do. If you can be honest with yourself and with me that you have been drinking, then we can discuss the actual situation and figure out how to work on this problem together.” Her years of work in AA and my ability to compassionately confront her opened a productive dialogue. Ongoing conversations didn’t solve the problem, however, and over the next few months things deteriorated. In one three-week period she was admitted to an ER and two detox centers and spent a day in jail.

At her lowest point Catherine took comfort from one of Lexington’s lasting legacies: the definition of addiction as a chronic relapsing brain disease.  This model was proposed and debated by Harris Isbell, Abraham Wikler and others at the ARC in the 1950s and has since evolved and become entrenched as the public slogan of federally funded research on addiction. Points has entertained a lively discussion about what David Courtwright has recently called “the NIDA paradigm.” But one aspect of this idea not extensively explored in recent Points posts is how the disease concept affects people in recovery and their families.

Catherine has told me that thinking of addiction as a disease helped her to overcome deep shame so she could make the honest self-assessment necessary to get back on the path of recovery. Discussing addiction as a disease allowed me to frame it not as a problem with her as a person, which might make her feel attacked and me resentful (though inevitably there is a bit of both), but as an affliction. If she had cancer I would be compassionate even though her smoking might have brought it on. Similarly, thinking of addiction as a medical problem allowed me to set aside emotional reactions to her addictive behavior and act as compassionately as possible. Ironically, having completed outpatient rehab and with several months sober in N.A., Catherine now says she doesn’t think that addiction is a disease. That definition is no longer relevant for her and instead she thinks about recovery in terms of taking personal responsibility for her choices.

Promoting the disease model at Lexington. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1939.

It’s also ironic that in my own life the most useful lesson of Lexington’s forty year history is the original ideal upon which it was founded in 1935: that addicts should be treated with compassion, as “sick” people needing help. Defining addiction as a disease can be useful. It elicits compassionate behavior (and policy decisions and funding) from those who do not suffer from it. But I remain curious about how addicts themselves experience the effects of the disease definition. Do they feel liberated from shame and stigma? Or burdened with a defective brain? Does defining addiction as chronic and relapsing facilitate recovery or precipitate relapse? How would I feel about it had I gone back to the Delsym again and again and taken a journey as hard as Catherine’s?  And do these pragmatic, treatment-oriented considerations even matter for addiction researchers or historians? As an accidental drug historian I find that they matter to me.

— Luke Walden

CFP: “Under Control? Alcohol and Drug Regulation, Past and Present” –London, 2013

Your Host

Call for Papers: “Under Control? Alcohol and Drug Regulation, Past and Present,” London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 21st-23rd June 2013. (PLEASE NOTE NEW LOCATION!)

Sponsored by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, Alcohol Research UK, the Society for the Social History of Medicine, Bowling Green State University, and Brock University. Individual papers and proposals for panels are invited for this international conference.

Confirmed keynote speakers:

  • Professor Virginia Berridge (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
  • Professor Paul Gootenberg (State University of New York)
  • Professor James Simpson (Carlos III University of Madrid)

Panel proposals (3 x 20-minute papers) or individual papers (20 minutes) are invited.  We will also consider proposals for fringe sessions using non-conventional formats e.g. screenings, debates etc.

Subjects may include (but are not limited to):

  •   Global drugs trade and the war on drugs
  •   Crime and policing
  •   Prohibition
  •   Tobacco control
  •   Regulation of drugs in art, film and literature
  •   Temperance and its influences
  •   Alcohol licensing and pricing
  •   Media regulation / advertising and marketing
  •   Religion and alcohol or drugs
  •   Dependency and treatment
  •   Policymaking and the political process
  •   Alcohol and radical politics / revolutions / social movements
  •   Use and control of drugs in premodern cultures
  •   Alcohol and drugs in sport and popular culture

Proposal formats:

  • Panel sessions: brief abstracts (c. 200 words) of each paper plus a brief statement (c. 200 words) outlining the panel theme and a brief biography of participants.
  • Single papers: brief abstract (c. 200 words) and brief biography

Revised deadline for submission:

  • 30th October 2012

Visit the conference website;

send all proposals to undercontrol2013 [at] gmail [dot] com


Weekend Reads: Fiona Apple Edition

To denounce a celebrity for his or her abuse of privilege is, most of the time, totally fair and uncomplicated. When Floyd Mayweather argues that he should have his jail sentence suspended because he has no access to bottled water or designer meals in the clink, one feels a justified contempt for the boxer. Or when Lindsay Lohan, a DUI recidivist, argues that she should not have to serve the fraction of a sentence a non-celebrity would have received because she’s followed most of the strictures of her parole requirements, one is right to scoff. Mayweather and Lohan’s actions are the baldest form of American aristocracy – millionaires’ expectations that not only should they not be punished for their crimes in a manner commensurate with the treatment of “little people,” but that the court should not even feign equal treatment under the law. After, Lohan wasn’t making the case she was living within the confines of the law but, rather, that she shouldn’t have to.

Stories like Mayweather’s and Lohan’s provide Americans with a certain schaudenfreude. There is an undeniable pleasure in seeing callow, self-satisfied one-percenters run afoul of the law and, in turn, have society remind them that there are greater forces than their chequebooks at work in this world. Put another way, the 99%’s collective enjoyment of celebrity imprisonment makes us all momentary Marxists. In savoring the stupidity, hubris, and punishment of the privileged, we feel a collective satisfaction that mitigates the frustration felt over the preposterous rewards given to people who make the most paltry of contributions to society.

Apple’s most famous moment (don’t worry, we’ll get to it…)

On the surface, Fiona Apple fits into the mould of a celebrity whose downfall we might enjoy. A singer-songwriter who has been a millionaire – with all of money’s attendant privileges – for her entire adult life, Apple is the latest star to make the case that she has been unjustly treated by “the man” after being arrested for – and admitting to – breaking the law. In most cases, I myself would mock Apple for the misplaced chutzpa she showed in trying to transport drugs over the Mexican border, as well as for her subsequent eagerness to whine about being caught. As is sometimes the case, though, the implications of Apple’s case are a little too complicated to allow for pure schaudenfreudeContinue reading →