“This Is Your Brain on Drugs”: Teaching Drug History

About midway through the semester last fall my department asked me if I wanted to teach my own course in the spring. My dissertation was basically complete and, since I wasn’t going on the academic job market this year, I felt that I had the time to dedicate to what I knew would be a fairly demanding task.

Prepare to Learn(Be prepared. Be very prepared.)

I also knew what I wanted to teach. After writing a 450-page dissertation on the shifting nature of marijuana laws in the 1970s and ‘80s and the role that social activism played in catalyzing these changes, I knew that I wanted to teach a course about the history of drug use and anti-drug activism in the United States – the good, the bad, and the ugly of all of it.

There’s not a lot of guidance out there on how to teach this material. There are endless websites, articles and programs on teaching children and young adults how to avoid drug use, detailing the dangers and pitfalls of addiction, but there are very few unbiased, historical resources that talk about the nature of American drug laws or the influence of drug use and anti-drug activism on our culture. For the most part, discussions of drug use and the ongoing drug war are relegated to criminal justice programs or are taught by the few dedicated drug historians who have made this subject an integral part of their careers. This meant I was pretty much going it alone, piecing together a syllabus with what I hoped would be sufficient depth and scope from the materials I had come across in my own research, or those I had noticed and appreciated in the past.

The novelty of starting afresh was thrilling. Basically, I had no rules, no “pedagogical methodology” of which to speak. I wanted only to present the most informative, widest-ranging survey of American drug history possible, with cultural resources like films, music, and even museum exhibits added to the mix. Being located in Washington, D.C., was particularly helpful since I could send my students to the DEA museum for their final paper’s critique, and since I was teaching in the American Studies department, they naturally expected the course to be interdisciplinary. We would read chapters from Martin Torgoff’s Can’t Find My Way Home, articles on marijuana legalization from the New Yorker, and watch films like Dazed and Confused or Winter’s Bone, often all in the same week. My students had a great time. So did I.

But what was particularly telling was how recent, and therefore how insufficiently understood, much of our modern history about drug use is. The early years are fairly simple: opiate abuse in the nineteenth century, the effects of Progressivism on pharmaceutical sales, the Anslinger era and hippies and Nixon. The story followed a common theme: Americans would use a drug, often in vast numbers. This drug use would then become problematic. Increased anti-drug enforcement would result. QED.

We took David Musto’s theory as our guide. Musto, the Yale historian who died in 2010, had argued as early as 1973 that American drug use occurred in cycles, and that the pendulum of public thought was constantly swinging between the poles of widespread acceptance and vilification. And history, for many decades, held this as true: marijuana, for example, was so popular it was decriminalized in a dozen states between 1973 and 1978, before skyrocketing rates of adolescent use turned public approval around and the drug was the demonized staple of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program.

david musto(The man, the myth, the legend: David Musto, 1936-2010)

But this model no longer holds so fast. After I taught them about the parent movement and the Reagan administration’s punitive turn in the war on drugs, we entered into terra incognita, the unknown land of the recent past. Sure, we talked about Woodstock ’94, “I didn’t inhale,” and medical marijuana. We discussed Prozac and the long history of mood-altering drugs. And, naturally, we talked about ADHD medications and meth. But once you get into the late ‘90s and 2000s, the natural line of drug history that developed so smoothly in decades past is interrupted, often jarringly, but how strange our nation’s relationship with drugs is today. With medical marijuana approved in 21 states and D.C., with two states legalizing its sale, and with doctors testing the use of psychedelics like mushrooms and LSD for those suffering from PTSD, the pendulum between approval and condemnation is no longer so clear. We’re in limbo these days, and that’s hard to teach.

Additionally, we had to talk about the racial ramifications of the drug war, a topic that has recently become disturbing clear. We read two chapters from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and my students were both intrigued by and unsurprised by Alexander’s claims. That the drug war is racist, that it targets non-white men, and that it can be seen as the most recent iteration in a long line of racial oppression were not new ideas for my students, nor were they in any way controversial. Instead, they were taken as a simple truth, and one that pushed many of my students to argue – rather eloquently, I thought – that simply legalizing marijuana or decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs will not stop the racial targeting of non-white men. No longer incarcerating people for mild drug offenses would be a good start, but it would treat a symptom of larger forms of structural inequality, not the disease itself.

In our last week together, I asked my students what I forgot. What drugs didn’t I talk about enough, if I talked about them at all? How could I improve the course if I were to teach it again? Their answers were great. They wanted to know more about the history of drug abuse on college campuses, in order to understand why so many of their fellow students were abusing speed, cocaine, ADHD medications, molly and alcohol. Celebrity drug culture could fill at least a lecture or two. And what about the abuse of “alternative drugs” – Krokodil, bath salts, poppers, Robotripping, sizzurp, drinking Purell, and beezing? They also wanted to watch episodes of Cops and Intervention.

Teaching drug history was one of the most satisfying and entertaining things I’ve done in grad school, and it seemed like my students enjoyed it as well. Any thoughts on your own experience in teaching drug history, or things you think I should include for the next time? You can see my syllabus on my website.

DUIA Class(Teach Your Children Well: Drug Use in America After 1945 at George Washington University, Spring 2014)