Conference Announcement: “Addictions Old and New”

Editor’s Note: This week we’re posting a special mid-week conference announcement. We hope that those who can make it will be in Richmond next month for what’s sure to be a really excellent series of talks. Thanks to David Courtwright for bringing this to our attention!

And remember, this conference requires advance registration. You can sign up for that here

Addictions Old and New

Douglas Southall Freeman Conference
October 22-23, 2015
University of Richmond

The variety of addictive behaviors has apparently increased in the last half-century. With varying degrees of sophistication, researchers have applied the concept of addiction to activities like eating and Internet gaming and viewing pornography, as well as to traditional practices like smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol and taking psychoactive drugs.

This conference brings together experts from different disciplines to describe the development of “new” addictions as well as new developments with respect to “old” addictions, e.g., nicotine vaping, liberalized prescription laws, and digitized gambling machines. To what extent have technological and policy innovations increased the variety, amount, and severity of addictive behaviors? Do these addictive behaviors (old and new) share common social and biological features? Is there an essential unity to the nature and study of addiction, or are we confronted with disparate behaviors that happen to have some common elements, such as craving and relapse?

This two-day conference is free and open to the public. However, the keynote address on October 22 requires advance registration.

Keynote Address: What is Addiction and What do Addictions have in Common?

Thurs., Oct 22
7:30 p.m.
Tyler Haynes Commons, Alice Haynes Room

Welcome: Jacquelyn Fetrow, Ph.D., provost, professor of chemistry, University of Richmond

Speaker: Charles O’Brien, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

This event is free but you must register in advance.

Sessions and Presentations: Fri., Oct. 23

All sessions will take place in Jepson Hall, Room 118. The Friday presentations do not require advance registration; however, we recommend that you arrive early to assure optimal seating.

Food, Drink, and Addiction

9–10:40 a.m.

David Courtwright, Ph.D., Presidential Professor, University of North Florida; Douglas Southall Freeman Professor, University of Richmond
Food as a Drug: How Good is the Analogy?

Virginia Berridge, Ph.D., director, Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Whatever Happened to Alcoholism?

Session Chair: Sydney Watts, Ph.D.,  associate professor of history, University of Richmond

Coffee Break
10:40–11 a.m.
Jepson Faculty Lounge

Prescription Medication, Opioids, and the Heroin Revival

11 a.m.–12:40 p.m.

David Herzberg, Ph.D., associate professor of history, University of Buffalo
Uppers and Downers: Past and Present Abuse of Stimulants and Sedatives

Andrew Kolodny, M.D., chief medical officer, Phoenix House
The Prescription Opioid Epidemic and the Heroin Revival

Session Chair: Sara Black, Mellon Dissertation Fellow, Rutgers University

12:40–1:40 p.m.

Lunch can be purchased at several locations around campus. Two options near Jepson Hall are the Passport Café in the Carole Weinstein International Center, and Lou’s in the Robins School of Business.

Digital Technologies and Behavioral Addictions

1:45–3:25 p.m.

Natasha Dow Schüll, Ph.D., associate professor of science, technology, and society, MIT
Addiction by Design: From Slot Machines to Candy Crush

Robert Weiss, M.S.W., founding director, The Sexual Recovery Institute
Hyperstimulation and Digital Media: Sex and Tech Addictions

Session Chair: Manuella Meyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, University of Richmond

3:25–3:35 p.m.

New Nicotine Products and New Marijuana Laws

3:35 –5:15 p.m.

Robert Balster, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology, VCU Medical Center
Old Drug in a New Container? Nicotine Addiction, Harm Reduction, and E-Cigarettes

Mark A.R. Kleiman, Ph.D., professor of public policy, Marron Institute of Urban Management, New York University
Cannabis Use Disorder is Not a Brain Disease, and It Does Not Matter Anyway—Science and Policy in the Legalization Debate

Session Chair: Jess Flanigan, Ph.D., assistant professor of leadership studies and politics, philosophy, economics, and law, University of Richmond

5:15–5:25 p.m.

Roundtable Discussion

5:30 – 6 p.m.

Moderator: David Leary, Ph.D., University Professor, University of Richmond

For further information about the event, contact Deborah Govoruhk, administrative coordinator, Department of History.


Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Carl Hart

Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Dr. Carl Hart to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana UserHart is an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University and a visiting research scientist at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. His most recent book, High Price, won the 2014 PEN E.O. Award for literary science writing. You can follow him on twitter or read his work on his personal website, which provides access to facts about illicit drug use to the general public. 

Hart is our last guest contributor in this series. Next week, we look forward to welcoming Howard Becker himself, who will offer his response to the rerelease of his book. 

Carl HartAn Argument for Drug Literacy

Nearly 30 years after Howard Becker published his seminal paper Becoming a Marihuana User, I smoked my first joint and my experience was similar to those of the research participants described in Becker’s study. It was a balmy Miami night in early fall 1983, when I was just fifteen. Two of my friends—Derrick and Ed —decided that they were going to get me high.

Ed drove us to the spot in Opa-Locka where he bought his weed. Then we parked at the end of some deserted street and smoked a couple of joints, listening to the mellow sounds of the Quiet Storm on 99.1 WEDR.

“Shit, I don’t feel nothin’,” I declared. “This ain’t shit.”

Derrick and Ed looked at me and then at each other. Laughing, someone said, “Yeah, he fucked-up.” I continued to insist I was fine and that I really didn’t feel any different than usual, but both of them just laughed and repeated, “That nigga fuuuucked-up.” Everything I said, every time I laughed or simply looked at one of them only confirmed – in their minds – that I was actually high. Of course, I didn’t think so.

In fact, I didn’t notice anything unusual at all until I got home. My sister Joyce took one look at me and said, “Damn, you must be fucked-up.” I brushed her off, as I had heard that earlier from my friends. In retrospect, I must’ve been acting a bit cautious and tentative, not like my usual bold self. My eyes were probably red or maybe I reeked of weed. I didn’t yet understand how marijuana affects consciousness and behavior.

Things started getting strange when I got to my room. I put on some music and tried to fall asleep but couldn’t. Suddenly, I felt like I was inside the beat. Feeling slightly panicked, I wondered what was happening. The song was surrounding me, throbbing, inescapable. It was a familiar track but I heard unfamiliar instruments. Every sound in the song was acute and intense. That wasn’t the way music was supposed to sound, or so I thought. My heart, too, seemed to have speeded up. I felt as though it was keeping time with the R&B rhythm. Was it unhealthy if it did that? Could it kill me?

This experience was thoroughly disconcerting. I knew I wasn’t usually so conscious of my heartbeat; I knew I didn’t usually find music so intense. I didn’t understand at all that this experience was supposed to be enjoyable. My friends hadn’t briefed me on how to detect marijuana-related pleasurable effects or any other effects. All I knew was that I didn’t like having my senses or consciousness altered; it felt uncomfortably beyond my control. I found it disorienting and even slightly frightening. As a result, I didn’t smoke marijuana again for at least two years. But many more years would pass before I was taught how to detect and experience marijuana-related pleasurable effects. If only I were introduced to Becker’s work much earlier.

Becker’s major proposals are that people become regular marijuana users only when they learn to: (1) smoke the drug in a way which will produce real effects; (2) recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) enjoy the sensations s/he perceives. Perhaps these ideas were controversial in 1953. They aren’t today, as they not only apply to marijuana, but to all recreational drugs. Otherwise, it makes little sense to take a drug if it has no pharmacological effects. And when it does have an effect – whether it is heroin or LSD or cocaine – the user needs to be made aware of the desired effects as well as the negative effects because they often accompany each other. But, with sufficient knowledge, one may be able to minimize less desired effects while enhancing the pleasurable ones.

The key, however, is knowledge. Becker’s emphasis on users gaining a deeper understanding of drug effects, as well as novices using in the presence of more experienced users, increases the likelihood that drug users will remain safe. It’s not difficult to see how these ideas extend beyond marijuana use. Consider, for example, the country’s current focus on opioid overdoses. The likelihood of fatal drug overdoses decreases substantially if there are others present, so that timely medical attention can be received. In my view this is the real contribution of Becker’s work, especially in light of the fact that people will always continue to get high. In fact, each year in the U.S., more than 20 million Americans report regular illegal drug use. The most important concern for me is keeping users safe. The findings from Becker’s research more than 60 years ago go a long way in achieving this goal.

The Forgotten Drug War: One Million Drug Addicts (Washington, D.C., 1919)

In 1918, the Treasury Department established a Special Narcotic Committee, tasked with reviewing the scope of the drug problem in the United States. The Committee issued its final report, Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, in June of 1919. The product of a year’s worth of work by a committee which included reputable figures in the drug field, the report covered many aspects of the drug problem—but no part of the report drew more attention than the conclusion that the nation’s addict population numbered one million. To understand how that figure was obtained, we need to briefly review some very poor statistical analysis. And that’s part of the story. But the bigger story is that “one million addicts” took on a life of its own, a mythical number that long outlived the federal government’s own interest in its promulgation.

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Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Cookie Woolner

Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Cookie Woolner to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana UserWoolner recently completed her Ph.D. in history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and is currently serving as a postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. You can follow her work on her personal website and twitter

Cookie-WoolnerMarijuana, Race, and Music Cultures from Jazz to Hip Hop

Howie Becker’s pioneering study, Becoming a Marihuana User, emerged from the mid-century Chicago jazz scene. The relationship it chronicled between drug use and music subculture is a long one, which has been more dangerous for some than for others. In our current moment, many of the young black men whose lives have been taken too soon by the police are often demonized as weed-smoking, hip hop-loving thugs – that is to say, they brought their deaths upon themselves. The association of marijuana use with African American music and culture may be a stereotype, but it has real effects.

Ironically, when one digs into the history of marijuana and its connection to the jazz world in the early 20th century, it appears white men were primarily responsible for introducing black musicians and Harlemites to weed (or in the parlance of their day, gage, tea, muggles or reefer, among many other names). Italian-American Leon Roppolo, the clarinetist for the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, was said to have introduced marijuana to the Chicago jazz scene, in particular to Jewish saxophonist Mezz Mezzrow, who later became weed dealer to Louis Armstrong and much of Harlem. “Mezz” became another nickname for pot, according to the saxophonist, who also considered himself an “honorary Negro.”

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Intoxicated Identities: Tim Mitchell’s Framework for Analyzing Drug Users

As any historian of drugs or alcohol knows, drug use has typically been mapped onto a binary spectrum between abstinence and addiction. The implication of the binary is that the more drugs one does, the closer one gets to a problematic fall. By contrast, the fewer drugs one does makes the user safer from the drug’s negative side effects. While plenty of drug historians have challenged this binary representation, especially as it pertains to addiction and addiction treatment, scholars still have a much harder time thinking of heavy drug use as anything but problematic.

Historians, especially those intent on breaking down historiographical binaries, should read Tim Mitchell’s 2004 book, Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol’s Power in Mexican History and Culture. This book, though ultimately disappointing itself, is a helpful starting point the abstinence/addiction binary right from the source. In it, Mitchell questions the limiting tendency, even for the more critical observers, to view excessive drinking (binge drinking) only as a form of abuse. Mitchell’s bold suggestion – that in the right context heavy alcohol use can represent a mode of solution-seeking – serves to turn the logic of intoxication on its head.

Solution Drinkers?

            Solution Drinkers?

Though disappointing in terms of its methodology and conclusions, Mitchell’s forays into representations of legitimate drinking open intellectual doors for historians of drinking and drug use. He argues that intoxication has an important functional role to play in Mexican culture and history. His is a subtle but significant corrective to previous studies of Mexico that relegated intoxication to the margins of that story. He uses much of this existing scholarship in his analysis, but by bringing alcohol use (and not just alcohol) to the fore, he complicates existing scholarship by reconceptualizing alcohol’s role to one of prominence and not mere incidence. For Mitchell, alcohol has been and remains an important element in social debates about gender and family relationships, as a phenomenological tool for altering time perception, and most importantly as a form of resistance and rebellion. This post will focus on the implications of Mitchell’s framework for my own research on cannabis users in 1920s New York. I’ve spoken about gender in a previous post, so I’d like to focus on the second two of Mitchell’s thematic threads: alcohol’s role in altering consciousness and as an identity-creating tool of resistance.

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Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Amanda Reiman

Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Amanda Reiman to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User. Reiman is the Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, where she works to develop DPA’s marijuana reform work as it relates to litigation, legislative and initiative drafting, campaign strategy, policy advocacy, media relations, fundraising, and public education in the local, state, federal, and international jurisdictions in which DPA is active. You can follow her work on twitter.

ReimanMarijuana prohibition is fruitless, because we have already learned to enjoy it.

Howard Becker’s seminal work, Becoming a Marihuana User, lays out the pathway to marijuana use based on the experiences of those who have used the substance. The gist of the piece is that there are three steps to becoming a marijuana user: 1) learning how to correctly ingest it; 2) recognizing the effects; and 3) interpreting the effects as enjoyable. According to Becker, if a person completes the three steps they will continue to use marijuana until they can no longer feel the effects and/or it is no longer enjoyable, at which time they will stop their use.

This theory is supported by the fact that most people who stop using marijuana do so without formal treatment. The term “aging out” is often used to refer to folks who discontinue their marijuana use once they take on the responsibilities of job and family. This makes sense in the context of Becker’s work, because he purports that changes in how marijuana use is viewed in one’s peer group and community can change the ability to derive pleasure from smoking. Indeed, today we see many people age out of marijuana use, and then return to the practice once they no longer have as many daily responsibilities and/or are beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging.

Becker is a sociologist and his work on social learning focuses on interviews with marijuana users, but there is a vital policy implication that can be derived from this work as well. According to Becker, the single driving force behind continued marijuana use is the ability to derive pleasure from it. If this is indeed the case, how could prohibiting marijuana ever be successful at reducing use? Prohibition relies on the theory that punishment influences drug using behavior. When it comes to drugs with a more serious level of dependence potential, we know this is not the case. Those experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms are not necessarily dissuaded from use because of the threat of criminal justice intervention. The data support this, as harder drug use in the United States has remained fairly stable even in light of rising financial support for the war on drugs. But what about marijuana?

Marijuana use among adults has been increasing. As Becker points out, no severe withdrawal syndrome drives use, but rather the presence of pleasure. It seems, then, that prohibitionist policies for marijuana are futile because continued use is about pleasure and shared experience, something that prohibition has been unable to influence. As laws change and marijuana use is no longer dampened by the threat of incarceration, and the market provides a wide variety of products and potencies, the experiences of pleasure will become even more common.

What are the impacts of changing views of marijuana on expectation effects? It is commonly said that in order for drug use to occur, two things must be present: predisposition and availability. Becker is critical of predisposition and likens it to an underlying desire or need to use a substance before initiation even occurs. However, if we have gotten to a place in society where the use of marijuana is perceived as a positive, healthful practice, even prior to initiation, then predisposition might be replaced with expectation. Interestingly, recent research shows that this new expectation of a positive marijuana experience seems to be limited to adults. Approval of marijuana use and use itself among young people is down. This could be attributed to the rejection by young people of what is considered desirable among adults. If this is in fact the case, and youth expectations for pleasure from marijuana are inversely related to those of adults, increased acceptance and positive expectations around marijuana use in the adult population might be the best deterrent for youth use that we have come across.

As Becker rightfully points out, in some ways marijuana itself has changed since this study was first conducted. Advanced cultivation techniques and the threat of arrest have resulted in higher potency strains (think Moonshine during alcohol prohibition). However, in states that now have legal marijuana systems, we are starting to see lower potency strains and products come back into fashion, especially among those who are re-initiating use after aging out. It would be fascinating to replicate Becker’s study today to assess the evolution of becoming a marijuana user.


We’re Looking for a Few Good Writers

It’s getting to the point where only a rare day goes by when something about Americans’ use of drugs and alcohol isn’t featured in the news. Whether it’s discussions about the dangers of new synthetic drugs or the New York Times continually challenging the drug war, there has never been a better time to offer your insights about drug and alcohol history. Especially with the 2016 elections rapidly approaching and marijuana legalization poised to be a topic of debate, there is a growing, and increasingly interested, audience for reliable, historically-accurate news about America’s (and the world’s) use of intoxicants. And Points is going to be there, leading the way.

We’re open to any and all ideas – national, transnational, international; modern or ancient; drugs and/or alcohol; treatment, addiction, recreational use. We’d love to hear voices from abroad, and from people who are pushing the boundaries in drug and alcohol scholarship. A post here at Points can reach over 8,000 readers a month, and we’re working to bridge the gap between academic and public scholarship. It’s an exciting time, with exciting possibilities, and we want you to be a part of it.

If you’re interested in becoming a guest blogger or a contributing editor here at Points, please contact me at We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.