Contextualizing the First Annual “We Agnostics and Free Thinkers” AA Convention, Nov 6-8, 2014

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by the venerable Trysh Travis, former Points managing editor.

A friend with a drinking problem has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings lately, and finding them not very helpful. “I can’t stand all the God talk,” she explained. She was raised in an Islamic country where God is routinely invoked—sometimes consciously, other times mechanistically—as a punitive, fearsome presence whose main purpose in the world seemed to be to limit the freedoms of women like herself. God was the last person she felt like turning to for help.

Before you go getting up on your Fox News soapbox and calling in more drone strikes in the name of an oppressed Third World Woman, let me just note that I’ve had American friends—Baptists, Catholics, and Jews—who had the same gripe with 12-Step culture. Twelve-Step recovery’s official posture may be that it is “spiritual, not religious,” but the niceties of that distinction may be lost on people for whom “God” is hot-button issue.

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Why Is Marijuana Illegal? A Historical View – Part Two

Why is marijuana illegal? Do a quick internet search and you’ll find a series of generally related answers: racism, fear, corporate profits, yellow journalism, ignorant and incompetent legislators, and bureaucratic preservation. Almost all of these are also tied to one man: Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962. While these issues are critically important to consider, they help explain only portions of our nation’s marijuana prohibition story. Indeed, in part one of this series I examined the origins of cannabis regulations dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. These state level statutes demonstrate a clear, historical precedent for medicinal cannabis legislation in the United States, driven by the concerns of medical doctors and pharmacists seeking both their own professional authority and consumer protections in the marketplace. My objective is to suggest that these early developments demonstrate a far longer and more complex history of cannabis regulation than most existing versions of the story suggest, especially those readily available on the internet. It’s not that those internet versions of marijuana prohibition are entirely wrong; it’s that they often sustain a sensational narrative that misses critical components of this longer history and the original scholarship from which they are derived.


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Weimar Germany, Part 1: Intoxicating Metropolis

Today, as in all revolutionary times, when the existence of the individual trembles to the roots, when life and death are separated by a hair, the ecstasy of delirium and dance sprouts up as if in search of mass narcosis. – Carl Ludwig Schleich, Cocaineism, 1921

The Weimar Period has captured the popular imagination through musicals like Cabaret and films like Marlene Dietrich’s The Blue Angel. Often portrayed as a society dancing on a volcano, both the political right and left have used Weimar Germany’s permissive urban nightlife and debauchery as examples of either societal degeneration or as an open, “anything-goes” paradise. Jazz, cocaine, prostitution, and other forms of vice form one half of the Weimar stereotype: the other of course being runaway inflation, civil unrest, and the rise of Hitler.

Poster for the silent film "Laster der Menschheit" (Vice of Humanity), 1927.

Poster for the silent film “Laster der Menschheit” (Vice of Humanity), 1927.

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Operation Understanding: Disclosure and Stigma in 1976

Editors Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.

In May 1976, more than fifty people—celebrities and professionals from various fields—announced at a carefully staged press conference that they had recovered from alcoholism. The event had been organized by the National Council on Alcoholism (today the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as part of its annual conference. In 1944, Margaret “Marty” Mann had disclosed her own drinking problem and founded the NCA to persuade Americans to regard alcoholism as a public health matter. On that May day more than thirty years later, actors, politicians, journalists, sports figures, physicians, lawyers, pilots, clergymen, even an astronaut and an “Indian chief” (Sylvester Tinker of the Osage Nation) participated in “Operation Understanding.”   Arrayed in alphabetical order on risers in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., each person stood, announced his or her name, and then added, “I am an alcoholic.” Consistent with the mission of the NCA, the event planners hoped to reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism, demonstrate that alcoholics come from all backgrounds, and encourage those who struggled with their drinking to seek help.


(Click on the image for enlarged version)

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Road to Prohibition: Marijuana, the Long Story – Part One

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is the first in a two-part series by contributing editor Adam Rathge. The series is drawn from Rathge’s dissertation, which examines the century-long road to federal marijuana prohibition in the United States by analyzing the development and transformation of medical discourse, regulatory processes, and social concerns surrounding cannabis between 1840 and 1940.

Robocalls. Partisan attack ads. Pundit punditry. It’s midterm election time in America! As this post goes live, Nate Silver’s projections over at FiveThirtyEight suggest the GOP will take back the Senate. But that’s not the only measure of intrigue to be settled on November 4th. In Alaska and Oregon, voters will decide whether to implement legislation modeled on the laws passed by Colorado and Washington in 2012, making marijuana sales legal for adults in those states. Voters in Washington, D.C. will also decide on marijuana legalization (with a ballot measure that will make it legal to possess or grow small amounts, but not buy or sell it). Meanwhile, Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana. And if we take a quick look ahead to 2016, we find a half-dozen additional states considering marijuana legalization initiatives.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this recent turn toward medicalization and legalization are the contradictions it inspires. For example, if “soft legalization” passes in Washington, D.C. next month, and Congress allows it to stand, marijuana possession would be legal throughout the city, but acquiring it would still require a series of acts that remain illegal. In fact, according to federal law, none of these ballot initiatives are legal. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning it is “considered among the most dangerous drugs” with “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” and has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Despite this, twenty three states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana since 1996. Moreover, following the implementation of recreational legalization in Colorado this year, the state now allows the sale of marijuana to any adult over the age of twenty one while doctors continue to write marijuana prescriptions for patients. Cannabis is both medicine and intoxicant. All this has led the Justice Department to recently clarify its policies as the nation lurches forward toward what many consider a tipping point for widespread marijuana legalization. As such, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at how we got here in the first place. And I mean way back. A hundred and fifty years back.

Cannabis products were commonly sold and used in the United States throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, but were also subject to state regulations and restrictions.

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The Points Interview: Henry Yeomans

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome back past contributor Henry Yeomans (check out his previous series of Points posts here, here, and here). Yeomans is a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leeds. Here, he discusses new book, Alcohol and Moral Regulation: Public Attitudes, Spirited Measures and Victorian Hangovers (University of Chicago/Policy Press for the University of Bristol, 2014).

screenshot_1200Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Alcohol is a magnetic topic for public attention in England and Wales. Newspapers incessantly run stories on the ills of binge drinking, new government policies regularly seek to address ‘irresponsible’ or ‘problem’ drinking, and commentators and campaign groups routinely demand tighter laws to counter an ‘out of control’ drinking ‘epidemic’. This level of alarmed attention tends to be justified by a widespread belief that drinking in Britain is a worsening and peculiarly British social problem. Historians have shown that this public anxiety about alcohol is nothing new and that bouts of acute unease about drinking have been evident since at least eighteenth century. Comparative data on consumption, moreover, reveals that average drinking levels in Britain are only around middling in European terms (WHO, 2004; WHO, 2014) and have been declining for a decade (ONS, 2013; BBPA, 2014). The idea that British people are particularly ‘bad’ in respect to drinking doesn’t really stack up. So where does this historically entrenched public anxiety about drinking in Britain come from?

This book investigates how public attitudes and the legal regulation of alcohol have developed through time. It presents a ‘history of the present’ in which the emergence and development of this British preoccupation with our own drinking habits is traced from the eighteenth century to the present day. Particular attention is drawn to the importance of the Victorian temperance movement which, it is argued, had a subtle but profound and enduring effect on how alcohol is both understood and regulated. Ultimately, it is argued that the anxiety which frequently animates public discourse and policy responses to drinking in Britain is better explained in reference to how we think about, rather than use, alcohol.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Hopefully a lot! To start with, this is the first dedicated, systematic study of how public attitudes to alcohol in Britain have changed through the long sweep of modern history. It makes particular use of newspaper sources as a window onto dominant understandings of alcohol at different points in time and also involves an extensive consideration of changes in statutory law. These sources are studied from the eighteenth century onwards so the book provides a developmental, formative take on historical change and continuity. Additionally, the concept of moral regulation is used as a lens through which to view this long historical vista. It is not a particularly well known concept but some sociologists and criminologists have used it to analyse the ideas, beliefs and values which underpin the construction of certain social problems as well as the matrix of social relations within which problems are identified and action is (or is not) taken against them. In this book, the term is used to refer to a whole swathe of social action in which certain individuals or groups seek to change the behaviour of other individuals or groups due its perceived wrongness. As such, employing the concept of moral regulation helps focus analysis on the discourses which problematise certain forms of conduct at different points in time and the (often very long term) process through which governments, social movements and other actors then seek to affect these problem behaviours through legal or other means. The methodological and conceptual foundations of the book, therefore, make it unusual and innovative.

Importantly, these foundations help the book do two important things. Firstly, there is considerable analysis of historical periods which have hitherto been largely overlooked. The twentieth century, in particular, has long been neglected in this sort of academic research – probably as it fell into the cracks between history and social science. This book, however, analyses the formative importance of events in the 1920s, Second World War, 1960s and 1980s. The long term, discursive orientation means that, as with earlier historical periods examined, these twentieth century developments are investigated with reference to their impact on contemporary society. Secondly, the book provides new insights on issues which have been studied before. British debates about drinking during the First World War, for example, are fairly well-researched. But the use of press sources here reveals a whole moral dimension to these debates, particularly relating to the wartime ‘pledge’ campaigns for abstinence, which has not been examined before. The formative importance attributed to the temperance movement also arises from the analysis of both legal and extra-legal forms of regulation (as implied by the concept of moral regulation). So the conceptual and methodological parameters of the research allow the book to make a distinct contribution to wider literature in this area.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?-1

I actually think it is quite a funny book (or at least I found writing it funny). From Cyril Black MP’s use of a large chocolate egg as a rhetorical tool in a parliamentary debate (which I have blogged about before) to the Chinese drink-driver ‘Giggling Wong’ who was too ticklish to be examined by police officers, the book is peppered with amusing news stories about fascinating characters. I am particularly fond of the story of the 13-14 year old boy who appeared in court in 1828 after smashing a shop window while drunk. The boy, the Morning Chronicle reports, explained to the court that he had been drinking gin, rum and “Meux”. Meux was the name of a London brewery at the time but this was evidently not known to everyone as the Lord Mayor of London (acting as magistrate) asked the boy if he meant Meux water. Humouring the seemingly naïve Lord Mayor, the young boy replied “God love you, no. Strong heavy wet. Everybody knows what it is”. The Lord Mayor was appalled by the boy’s antics, although it is reported that others in the courtroom were roaring with laughter![1]

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I realized, on finishing the book, that it contains a quite limited consideration of the role of taxation in governing drinking. So I have since conducted some research on the development of alcohol excise duties in Britain which I am currently writing up. I also think there is a lot more research to be done on the ‘drink problem’ in Britain in the twentieth century. I like to think this book plugs a few gaps in knowledge here but there remain some gaping holes which need addressing.

Additionally, this book seeks to make public, national discourse on alcohol in England and Wales the object of enquiry. These parameters were chosen largely because of the shared legal system in England and Wales. But of course that focus neglects huge social and regional variations in how alcohol was consumed, understood and regulated within England and Wales, as well as the situation in other parts of Britain and the wider world. Hence, I think there is a lot of mileage in research projects which look at ‘drink problems’ in relation to their local, regional, national and international scale and consider the inter-connectivity between such ‘drink problems’. Some very good research of this sort already exists (e.g. David Beckingham’s article here) but I think this approach opens up many more promising avenues for further work.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

I would like the actor Richard E. Grant to narrate the audio book. I’m a big fan of the film Withnail and I in which he gives a hilarious, tragic and very convincing performance as a character who is drunk for virtually the whole film. Interestingly, however, Grant himself is apparently completely teetotal and has never been drunk in his life. I think this odd dichotomy, this tension between the perception of excess and the valorisation of sobriety, echoes the central themes of the book well. Plus Richard E. Grant has a posh English accent so the audio book would sell well in North America.

[1] ‘Police’, Morning Chronicle, 18 December 1828.

Teaching Points- Tom Roberts on “Psychedelic Studies”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest author is Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D, an Emeritus Professor in the Honors Program at Northern Illinois University. He is author of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind, co-editor of Psychedelic Medicine and editor of Spiritual Growth with Entheogens. His website is: Below, he reflects on the history and purpose of his course in Psychedelic Studies, one of the first to be offered in the U.S.

“Psychedelics!? You mean they let you teach a course about psychedelics? I wish I could at _____.”

“Well,” I thought, “ now that I’ve started teaching a university course about psychedelics, the ice is broken. Professors in other colleges and universities can start theirs too.”  So I thought in 1981. Naïve optimism can be a great asset. For the next 30 years almost nothing happened except at some specialized graduate programs near San Francisco.

In 1980’s, there wasn’t much new research on psychedelics. The War on Drugs was in full swing with DARE, “Just Say “No’”, and a lock-em-up attitude. “This is your brain on drugs” aired in 1987.  As Nancy Reagan said, “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare.” This wasn’t an auspicious time to teach a psychedelics course, and my optimism about other professors following suit was wildly optimistic.

Now, however, things are beginning to pick up. NYU Langone Medical School –  Bellevue Hospital has a course for medical students that’s open to others too, and at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health, Dr. Nicholas Cozzi includes a psychedelics unit in his Integrated Neuroscience course. Two undergraduate courses are going now, at last. The College of DuPage, a community college west of Chicago, has Psychedelic Mindview, which is mostly oriented toward both mental health professionals and the general student body. Best of all, the University of Pennsylvania Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Department, for the first time in the fall of 2014, offers Drug Wars: The Influence of Psychoactive Rhetoric.

History of the course

The exact origins of my course are lost in the mists of history and the fog of my memory. I know that in the early and mid-1970s, I offered a special topics course on transpersonal psychology. This was probably in the wake of a conference I organized in 1973 that looked at consciousness and transpersonal psychology, including psychedelics. I know that when Stanislav Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Psychotherapy was published, the class took turns reading chapters from my copy and discussing them in class.  That was 1975.

Realms of the Human Unconscious (1976 edition). Via

Realms of the Human Unconscious (Via

By 1981, the transpersonal special topics course became focused on psychedelics and took on the name Psychedelic Research. The first time I taught it — in fact, for its first two decades—I offered it as one of those one-shot special topics courses that are commonly titled “Special Topics in X”, “Selected Readings in X,” or “Advanced Study of X.” This didn’t require approval beyond an OK from my faculty chairperson. Fortunately, I was in the Educational Psychology Faculty of a College of Education. Unlike some departments in the liberal arts and sciences (which guard their intellectual boarders jealously) and others that restrict research only to an approved paradigm or two, colleges of education are singularly open-minded. A common College of Ed attitude is, “If it works, or even might work, let’s take a look at it.”

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