Reconsidering Ansinger: Race, the Gateway Theory, and the Origins of Marijuana Prohibition (Part II)

Editor’s note: This post concludes Seth Blumenthal’s two-part series on the origins of marijuana prohibition and the gateway theory of drug use. Make sure to catch up on Part I and please email the author at

Even the people who stood in opposition to the Marijuana Tax Act, such as Dr. William C. Woodward encouraged enforcement, claiming “we need heavier penalties” to stop the “illicit traffic that has developed in it [marijuana] for injurious and deleterious purposes.”  Yet, Woodward argued against the law to protect physicians’ and pharmacists’ right to prescribe cannabis as he blamed marijuana addiction on youth and claimed the problem will continue “until we develop young men and young women who are able to suffer a little and exercise a certain amount of control.”  When it came to educating young people and the medical industry, Woodward suggested, “we must deal with the narcotic addiction as something more than a police measure.”  In this context, even for opponents of prohibition, it was assumed that “young men and women” were the symbolic white victims that should be protected from marijuana and criminalization.


Marijuana also became a representation of the new concerns about youth, specifically, the advent of the teenager.  In 1937, a FBN representative spoke to over two thousand members of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers and asked them to help in the “relentless warfare on marihuana”; the most “pernicious” of drugs caused “temporary sense of complete irresponsibility that led to sex crimes” and was sold by “Mexican peddlers who have since reaped a financial harvest in the larger centers.” While this the FBN’s rhetoric linked marijuana dealers with immigration and urban settings as an enforcement issue, the Congress’ president spoke about ways to protect youth from pot as she told parents and educators to teach children to “think clearly…weigh evidence and enable them to meet new situations.” Naming these “new situations,” this gathering feared taverns, pool rooms with slot machines, “soft drink parlors with curtained booths” and “moving picture houses with low grade pictures and ‘bank nights.’”[1] So concerned about white teenagers learning about this vice from films such as Reefer Madness, the New York Board of Regents banned Assassin of Youth unless shown for educational purposes and not at “any place of amusement.” This distinction meant to emphasize the film’s warnings about marijuana and protected kids from learning about pot in the context of leisure and entertainment. Thus, parents concerns about marijuana’s seductive and addictive high served as the incipient foundation for the gateway theory. All sorts of threats lurked in the new suburban landscape that now confused so many parents who had never witnessed the rebellious behavior exhibited by adolescent American whites.


Scholarship on the advent of the teenager in the 1920s and 1930s shows American parents’ fears about adolescents’ vulnerabilities in modern, suburban leisure settings.  More widespread and pernicious than the racial minorities who purportedly smoked and sold pot; music, cars, cigarettes, and soda bars also invaded a new youth culture that spread throughout the growing suburban neighborhoods across America. These were new facets of the adolescent lifestyle that sparked their parents’ imaginations about the dangers lurking beneath.  As Grace Palladino explains the problem; “by the 1930s high school students seemed more convinced than ever that experimentation was a normal part of growing up.”[2] While Anslinger emphasized reports about Mexican peddlers, stories also blame pot for other youthful indiscretions and experimentation.  Kids were doing crazy things while high; one couple eloped while smoking marijuana, another young marijuana addict pawned his mother’s jewelry to satiate his craving for cigarettes.  Reading this anecdotal evidence cynically, perhaps marijuana also became a convenient excuse for young people looking to defend their actions.

In addition, in the 1930s, the depression raised fears of suicide, violence, crime, and the youth unemployment, and marijuana became a symbol of each these problems.  In one example, Anslinger explains that the depression had increased “vagrant youths coming into contact with older psychopaths” and initiated a rise in marijuana use.[3] While pot’s associations with opioid addiction evolved, marijuana’s unknowns created opportunities for its opponents to connect its use with whatever danger threatened young Americans. Since 1937, each version of the gateway theory requires historical context, as the larger danger that awaits “addicts” shifts with temporal and popular anxieties.

Although Reefer Madness has been revived to mock the 1930s’ silly perceptions about cannabis, dismissive reactions to this cult classic miss the film’s depiction of pot’s enduring threat as a gateway for young whites in an idealized suburban space.  As historian Martin Lee observed, prohibition resulted from “the synchronicity among Washington, Hollywood and mainstream media in the war against cannabis.”[4]  This does not mean, however, that the message was the same or repetitive, rather they each offered an important piece to the prohibition argument. Reefer Madness, for example, contrasted the ideal white suburban space with the various dangers it included. This larger anxiety, not the FBN’s racist scapegoating, shaped this film and resonated with many Americans. After all, it was a local church group of parents who began the project before a Hollywood production team bought the film to adapt and sell on the heavily attended sensationalist circuit of exploitation pictures.  The timing seemed right for another drug film as Marijuana had just played an eighteen day showing in Minneapolis for 25,000 admissions. Thus, Reefer Madness and the rash of exploitation drug films in the 1930s offer an important window into the cultural foundation for prohibition and the gateway theory.

A scene from Reefer Madness, 1936

The opening scene establishes the message and the audience, as the story of fallen innocence is told in a School-Parents Association meeting on the recent evil marijuana had wreaked on a lily white and otherwise pristine community. During the meeting, Dr. Alfred Carroll excoriates the adults in the room and “school-parent groups about the country” to demand “compulsory education” and “stamp out this frightful assassin of our youth.” The film describes a group of friends who are lured into a marijuana den by an adult couple.[5] Here, young people laugh hysterically, dance frantically, grope each other and are led into a world of crime and murder. This threat did not require an “other,” as the casts of all the drug films in the 1930s– even the pushers who prey on the high school students– are white. Reefer Madness is so white for several possible reasons. First, the film genre during this time almost never casted villains as non-whites.  As historian Schaefer explains, the film only showed “pleasure-seeking, attractive, white, middle-class youth” because it followed Hollywood’s pattern of avoiding stories that featured minorities.[6]  Second, the audience itself was mostly white and often young. This crowd had very little exposure to Mexicans, urban blacks, or marijuana as the film played nationally under four regionally specified titles and also appealed to movie-goers in the East where Anslinger admitted marijuana had not yet appeared in significant quantities.[7] To grab a national audience, then, popular drug films such as Marihuana and the Assassin of Youth showed the stepping stone argument for protecting innocent kids.[8] For most Americans in the late 1930s, the plight of experimental white teenagers proved more compelling than targeting Mexicans. Still, in the congressional hearing on prohibition, Anslinger could not admit marijuana needed a gateway theory as his reach for complete prohibition precluded any complexity in comparing pot to heroin.

As early as 1931, Dr. A.E. Fossier had claimed that marijuana use led to heroin addiction. Anslinger dismissed weed’s stepping stone potential in Congressional hearings out of the pragmatic need to separate marijuana as an unknown narcotic with unique effects unrelated to and more monstrous than anything that existed.[9]  “In medical schools, the physician to be is taught that without opium medicine would be like a one armed man….Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll, and all the evil of Mr. Hyde.”  When it came to weed, however, Anslinger warned: “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”   While Anslinger’s testimony avoids the pot to heroin gateway argument for prohibition, his effort to protect American youth shares an ideal that framed marijuana as a seemingly innocuous yet deadly Trojan horse. This view marijuana as a deceptive attack on innocent and vulnerable youth also drives the “stepping stone” theory. Anslinger denied the connection between pot and opiates during the hearings, but that relationship resonated with the many Americans who attended the drug exploitation films during the 1930s.

In 1951, Anslinger pivoted and argued that marijuana led to heroin use in the context of the new American fear, the Cold War.  Why he made this change is clear, as heroin had become widely labeled a seditious infection promoted by the Chinese who imported the opioids to make Americans pacifists.  Thus, the shift in American fears, from local concerns about adolescents, crime and sexuality to the foreign invasion of soul numbing narcotics forced anti-marijuana activists to advocate cannabis’ gateway potential. In 1951, the Senate voted to declare marijuana a drug that led to other drug use and soon after increased penalties.  The worst part, as Anslinger argued, was that drug addiction was a “contagious disease,” and “Red China” was attempting to subvert American society by smuggling heroin into the country. This meant that all pushers were criminals who infected American youth and threatened the nation’s democracy.

In 1972, spelling out marijuana’s gateway potential to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Richard Nixon explained: “once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society — marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc. then you’re done.”[10] Nixon, the first President to declare a “War on Drugs,” railed against marijuana’s role in the youth revolt and drug culture as he cheered his aides to “hit it hard,” opting to, “Enforce the law, you’ve got to scare them.” But, even as the War on Drugs began in the early 1970s, enforcement focused on busting pushers and sparing first time offenders–plenty of cover for white suburban pot smokers trying to avoid the punitive American justice system.

During the 1980s. new and since debunked research showing that marijuana caused brain damage (think “This is your brain on drugs” and Just Say No) once again made marijuana the problem, and a gateway theory became less essential to the reasoning behind Ronald Reagan’s own War on Drugs.  As Reagan pointed out, “hard and soft….drugs are bad and we’re going after them.” Still, while marijuana legalization efforts sprang from gay rights activists in San Francisco who saw its medicinal potential with AIDS patients, Reagan’s drug advisor, Carlton Turner, offered a contradictory version of the drug that once again adapted the gateway theory.  Turner connected the drug to a new scourge, HIV, claiming that homosexuality “follows along from their drug use” and puts pot smokers at a higher risk of getting the disease. Though these comments cost Turner his job, this Reaganesque fantasy of pot and social depravation showed once again why historians and recently more Americans have become skeptical of the gateway theory.[11]

The medicinal marijuana movement evolved in the 1990s, kryptonite for the super gateway theory.  This development blurred the distinction between medical “cannabis” and menacing “marihuana” that made possible the concerns about pot as a stepping stone drug. As it has become abundantly clear, many Americans now think that marijuana does have the good of Dr. Jekyll.  In fact, the website for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program just recently removed marijuana from its list of gateway drugs, and researchers now even contend that there is a potential reverse gateway as some states are attempting to treat opioid addicts with marijuana. The rise and fall of the gateway theory provides a clear picture of what is changing now, and why the legalization effort has achieved so much success.  Still, David Simon, the director of the popular show about Baltimore’s own war on drugs, The Wire, argued that new US drug laws only help “white-middle class kids.”[1] “If they [politicians] can find a way for white kids in middle-class suburbia to get high without them going to jail,” Simon argued, “and getting them to think that what they do is a million miles away from black kids taking crack, that is what politicians would do.” Blaming Anslinger for this phenomenon ignores the more complicated forces that shaped prohibition. By understanding the protectionary, spatial foundation of the war on drugs, the recent reforms appear to mirror the traditional concern over public health for suburban, white youth and perpetuate “the reciprocal criminalization of blackness and decriminalization of whiteness.”  The rise and the fall of the gateway theory indicates that marijuana reform is limited, but also show that this change in drug policy could lead Americans to expand the public health emphasis concerning narcotics laws.

[1] “David Simon, Creator of The Wire, Says New US Drug Laws Help Only ‘white, middle-class kids’”, The Guardian, April 25, 2013.

[1] “War on Marihuana Urged on Parents: Federal Expert Calls on P.T.A”, May 4, 1937; The New York Times, p. 26.

[2] Grace Palladino, Teenagers: An American History, (Basic Books; New York, 1997.)

[3] Ibid

[4] Martin Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific, (New York: Scribner;, 2013), p.53.

[5] Reefer Madness, Louis J. Gasnier: Director; George A. Hirliman Productions, 1936.

[6] Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, Duke University Press Books; Durham, North Carolina,1999), p.233.

[7] “Marihuana makes Maniacs of Mild People: Is WarningThe Milwaukee Journal, Jan 30, 1945, p.4.

[8] Marihuana, Dwain Esper: Director, Roadshow Attractions, 1936; Assassin of Youth, Elmer Clifton: Director, BCM Roadshow Productions, 1937.

[9] David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. (New Haven: Yale University Press., 1973).

[10] Oval Office Conversation.690, March 21, 1972, 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm White House Tapes.

[11] “Reagan Aide: Pot Can Make You Gay”, Newsweek, October 27, 1986, p.95.


Reconsidering Anslinger: Race, the Gateway Theory, and the Origins of Marijuana Prohibition (Part I)

Editor’s Note: This week’s post comes courtesy of contributor Seth Blumenthal. In Part I, he unpacks some of the racial motivations for marijuana prohibition. Stay tuned for Part II, chronicling other national concerns about cannabis. Contact the author at  

Amidst the political debate over marijuana legalization in Massachusetts, State Representative Hank Naughton recently argued: “Marijuana is a gateway drug to the problems of the opioid crisis that we’re having today.” The Committee Chair on Public Safety and Homeland Security continued, “It’s not just a business and it’s not like a six pack of beer. There’s a lot more to it.” This stepping stone narrative– that marijuana is relatively benign but leads to something much worse– has served as the foundation of prohibition in America that treats young white users as victims and criminalizes the “invading pusher.” As historian Matt Lassiter points out; “the marijuana-as-gateway mystique…helped institutionalize two inter-linked but spatially distinct approaches: public health campaigns in white middle-class neighborhoods and militarized interdiction in urban minority areas.” Despite the changing rhetoric that drove anti-marijuana politics over the decades, the gateway theory connected these two principle motivations; one based on enforcement and the other on protection.


Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics

In 1937, however, as the first director for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry J. Anslinger eliminated any possibility that cannabis, or “marihuana,” could be a gateway drug. When asked during Congressional hearings if “the marihuana addict graduates into a heroin, opium or cocaine user,” Anslinger responded, “I think it [marijuana] is a different class. The marihuana addict does not go in that direction.” This definition of the “marijuana menace” left little room for nuanced understanding of pot’s stepping-stone relationship to “harder” drugs in the nascent debate over its prohibition. Still, Anslinger explained the racialized difference between marijuana’s predators and its victims, as he warned Mexicans were “selling cheap joints to white children.” By separating the two, white users as victims and immigrant pushers as criminals, the first prohibition of marijuana began the two-tiered effort to confront drug use. Anslinger’s simplistic emphasis on criminalizing marijuana still allowed for a widely shared distinction between arresting dealers and protecting youth. “Primarily,” one leading prohibitionist from New York’s Federation of Women’s Clubs argued in 1937, “we want to protect our young people from a danger which is not apparent to them.” Although Anslinger denied the “gateway theory,” he and the various voices in the anti-marijuana effort created the idealized white adolescent victim trope that set the racial framework for the “stepping stone” mythology.
Most scholars promote the Anslingerian narrative that simplifies the initial prohibition of marijuana as one man’s strategy. While not as distinguishable in the 1930s, the gateway theory’s racist implications should also complicate this interpretation of marijuana’s political history. As Lassiter contends, “While historians are belatedly examining crime politics and mass incarceration, which have clearly shaped the inequalities of the metropolitan land¬scape, the role of social movements and interest groups in the formation of drug policy remains underexplored.” Considering marijuana prohibition’s beginnings by examining the social and cultural landscape that inspired parents’ concerns about their adolescent children, I argue that even before pot smoking increased amongst white middle class youth in the 1950s, parents, politicians and popular media from films to newspapers began the crucial step of imagining a gateway theory and the spatial distinctions that supported the racially bifurcated policies during the ensuing war on drugs.
For several decades now, scholars have debated Anslinger’s motives. Many recent interpretations blame racism, drawing a clear line that connects prohibition politics since the 1930s to the inequalities of mass incarceration today. One Huff Post article about Anslinger modeled this teleological, simplified explanation under the headline, “Marijuana Prohibition Was Racist from the Start. Not Much Has Changed.” This focus on Anslinger’s racist motives make sense–after all, Anslinger cultivated and spread the bigoted underpinnings of prohibition, especially the regional argument shared amongst the southwestern states concerning Mexican immigrants and “marihuana.”
Several quotations attributed to Anslinger also highlight his racist views, the most common of which being: “Their [“Negroes”] satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” In addition, race drives the contemporary debate about marijuana policy, as the New York Daily News reported that 86.5% of the city’s roughly 46,600 misdemeanor arrests like pot possession in the first three months of 2016 involved people of color. Furthermore, recent scholarship such as Khalil Muhammad’s prove that marijuana became a tool of the carceral-state and intensified painful racial disparities in the justice system, as the modern war on drugs created “the reciprocal criminalization of blackness and decriminalization of whiteness.” Thus, the war on pot after WWII involved a racist, punitive “New Jim Crow” emphasis on enforcement.
Mono-causal arguments about prohibition’s origins gloss over the reason that the war on marijuana is such a rich case for scholars of carceral studies and the history of drugs and alcohol. The popular determination to exclusively credit Anslinger’s racism for prohibition misses an opportunity to scrutinize the tenuous, shifting gateway argument for making pot illegal. To be sure, xenophobic and racist notions about invading pushers motivated the initial prohibition of marijuana in 1937. Scholars such as David Musto found that regional, anti-immigration pressure pushed Anslinger to act on marijuana in the 1930s. As one letter to Anslinger from a Colorado journalist complained: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish speaking residents.” Though, even this urgent appeal for action was built on widely held assumptions in the press about weed’s frightening potential, as the letter continued: “officials fear it, not for what it had done, but for what it is capable of doing. They want to check it before an outbreak does occur.” Thus, even where the racially charged pressure to act was greatest, its mostly preventative motivation came from popular, national fears and mythology.


In fact, many racist quotations attributed to Anslinger are either poorly cited, wrong or just plain fabrications. (while Wikiquote labels this quotation as “disputed” several books have used it, which has sparked an unresolved controversy about its validity). In fact, when Anslinger revealed his obvious racism in 1934, it nearly lost him his job. After Anslinger called one marijuana user and informant a “ginger colored nigger,” Senator Joseph Guffey (PA-D) complained and asked that Anslinger be replaced. While Anslinger’s pejoratives explicitly betray his bigotry, politics demanded that he make a more subtle connection between race and marijuana.
The most racially charged depictions of black and Mexican peddlers appeared in yellow journalistic efforts to exploit sensationalized marijuana atrocities. Much of Anslinger’s anecdotal evidence relied on these articles, some of which he himself wrote, and each story fell into three basic types: articles about the prohibition movement, articles about criminals who blamed their actions on marijuana and the most common type, marijuana busts. Articles that documented marijuana and heroin arrests established the dominant narcotics storyline after 1937, as they emphasized busts that caught “peddlers” and always emphasized when dealers and growers were “Negro.” Once prohibition began, the message became less about the growing crisis and more to reassure Americans that the FBN had control of the situation and the problem was somewhat contained.
Still, the actual enforcement relied heavily on local police and Anslinger’s efforts did not translate into the racially targeted carceral state we recognize today. While over 500 Americans went to federal prison under the Marijuana Tax Act by 1943, the New York Academy of Medicine’s careful study on marijuana users, commissioned by New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia in 1944, provided glimpses into ways marijuana smoking continued with relative impunity. As the report reads, “In the Harlem dance halls smoking was frequently observed either in the lavatories or on the main floor.” The report then reveals, “Whereas the smoking of marihuana was not encouraged, nothing was done to prohibit such practice.” By 1945, total arrests actually declined sharply as law enforcement began to accept the difference between “individual violators” and “well-financed conspiracies.” This focus on peddlers assured the federal law’s wide support as it comforted Americans that the government could protect their children from the sinister side of adolescence and from prison. Americans feared criminals, but more commonly feared their children becoming criminals.

Another Shot: Will dAd5GNE “End” Cocaine Addiction?

Among Facebook friends familiar with my work, dozens of conversations have started by their linking me to relevant pieces on, for example, the racial disparities of marijuana legalization, the therapeutic application of psychedelics, and, perhaps less pressing but no less appreciated, the varieties of ways our ancestors got high.

As much as I try to stay up on my drug news, sometimes people scoop me. This most recently happened last month when I received an article with a fantastically understated title: “Groundbreaking Treatment could be the End of Cocaine Addiction.” It was certainly enough to make a skeptical drug historian smile (and chuckle at the layered humor of Yahoo Finance covering anything related to the stockbroker’s culturally purported substance-of-choice).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort fulfilling every stereotype

Cocaine addiction is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future, but the new treatment, called a cocaine “vaccine,” offers some promise. It’s certainly groundbreaking at least. Dr. Ronald Crystal, principal investigator for currently-enrolling clinical trials at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornel Medical Center, correctly notes that, “While there are drugs like methadone designed to treat heroin, there aren’t any therapeutics available to treat cocaine addiction.” Addiction research scientists understand fairly well how our opioid receptors operate but most are perpetually vexed by cocaine’s complex neurotransmitter influence.

The vaccine, named dAd5GNE, combines parts of a common cold virus with a particle molecularly similar to cocaine, triggering an immune response against both. “Once immune cells are educated to regard cocaine as the enemy,” Crystal explains, “it produces antibodies, from that moment on, against cocaine the moment the drug enters the body.” The idea is to neutralize cocaine particles before they pass the blood-brain barrier, blunting their effects. This is a key distinction among addiction medications like methadone, which partially block opioid receptors once drugs like heroin cross over.

Crystal concedes that the process may not reliably pan out for humans. Years ago, his team observed vaccinated rats appearing less hyperactive after cocaine use than non-vaccinated rats, and the isolated antibody absorbing cocaine particles in a test tube, but scaling up is not necessarily linear. “We need to find out if the vaccine will cause enough anti-cocaine antibodies to be produced so that it works in humans, too.”

Crystal’s cautious optimism is not reflected in articles like the one my friend shared (though author Melody Hahm is considerably more measured in the main text). Once Crystal began experimenting on primates after mice, an article from The Fix invited readers to “[i]magine that cocaine addiction could be eradicated, poof, with a simple vaccine. [Crystal] now thinks his team has actually figured out a very clever trick to make that dream a reality.” A recent article in the New York Post calls the treatment a potential “saving grace” for addicts.

Methadone did little to alleviate the structural inequalities that contributed to drug addiction, as elaborated in this 1966 pamphlet

Poof! The drug historian continues smiling. In the early 1960s, scientists Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander began using the synthetic opioid methadone to treat heroin addiction. Soon, journalists began proclaiming the drug as the “magic bullet” solution to the nation’s growing heroin problem. (But not without reason; the uniquely favorable conditions of early methadone trials, which featured rigorous screening processes for applicants and included staggered patient cohorts in cumulative retention data, produced impressive results: anywhere from 71 to 94 percent of users ceased criminal activity, found steady employment, and/or enrolled in college.) But heroin addiction was most prevalent in poor, high-stress urban neighborhoods characterized by racial discrimination in housing and employment. Methadone didn’t alter the scene much in places short on opportunity and long on reasons to use and sell dope. For decades, critics have credited the drug with simply perpetuating social conditions that give rise to drug use in the first place.

dAd5GNE may face similar charges. It doesn’t eliminate craving for cocaine, it just reduces the drug’s effect. Research suggests cocaine must occupy at least 47 percent of a dopamine transporter to produce a characteristic high and Crystal’s vaccinated primates never reached levels above 20 percent. But committed human addicts may accidentally overdose trying to bridge the gap, assuming they stick with the vaccination booster regiment at all, while polydrug users have an easier workaround. In any case, neither the setting or consequences of cocaine use on a social or individual level will probably change much. And, like its opioid-blocking counterparts, the cocaine vaccine gets us no closer to answering questions about addiction’s natured and (or?) nurtured etiology.

However, the vaccine has one major advantage over most opioid maintenance therapies: it has virtually no addictive potential. Twelve-step adherents and other abstemious interests liken methadone maintenance to substituting one drug – read: addiction – for another. Opioid replacement drugs can induce a mild euphoria, create physical tolerance, and even be fatal at certain dosage thresholds, which, at least theoretically, are non-issues for vaccine boosters administered weeks apart.

However, this treatment is not for everyone who does cocaine. The vast majority of users enjoy it as a fun or utilitarian stimulant without adverse outcomes. Many have no desire to stop. But even for problem users hoping to quit, the cocaine vaccine may go the way of methadone, Antabuse, and nicotine patches: magic bullets for some, stopgaps for others, nothing for most. (Assuming, of course, that trials confirm dAd5GNE is viable for human use.) But for anyone who earnestly desires to break patterns of destructive behavior, here’s hoping for more poofs in the future than the past.

Announcing the latest episode of Poinstcast!

The latest episode of Poinstcast is now available on Soundcloud for your listening pleasure! On this episode, Alex and I introduce a new segment, the Paper Chase, where we unpack the cultural meaning of even silly-sounding news from a not-so-bygone era. We end with a discussion of the “lovable drunk” television trope, particularly on The Bachelor and other reality (“reality”) shows featuring heavy alcohol use. Join us for a meandering conversation about dogs on marijuana, a purported heroin Queenpin in 1940s Chicago, and whether Barney Gumble and Karen Walker are held to a gendered double standard.

As always, feel free to reach out via email at, post on or message our Facebook page, or find us on Twitter. (#YouVapeBro?)

Holy Smoke: Religious Freedom and Medical Marijuana in the 1990s.

During my visit to the NORML archives, I found a few interesting items on religious uses of marijuana during the 1990s [1]. These were appealing because I remember coming of age during a time when you’d occasionally hear a story about people getting busted for drugs and “claiming religious freedom” to justify their dangerous criminal behavior. I decided to gather these sources expecting that I could work with them at some point.

Frequent readers, have read a few of my thoughts about historical perspectives on motivations for cannabis use and the following will speak to this research interest, but the real motivation for picking these sources back up is NFLer Colin Kaepernick’s recent pre-game protests against abuses of police power. In my own experience, the social media storm seems to boil down to a conflict over who can own the controversy. Meanwhile Kaepernick’s own words about his motivation fail to resonate. In a story twist familiar to drug historians, the failure to understand real motivation obscures and threatens to silence or erase a public act of defiance against social injustice.Read More »

Submit your questions to Pointscast!


Most of the time, podcasting is a one-way street. But we at Pointscast, the first, best, and only podcast of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, want to know what you want to know about the history of drugs (illegal or otherwise). We’re actively soliciting questions for our network of experts to answer on the air. Do you want to know more about alcohol Prohibition, the Opium Wars, why particular drug epidemics come and go, or how authorities got the idea that “Reefer Madness” was onto something? Are you curious about how historians of illegal activity do their research? Would you like to start your own project but you don’t even know where to begin reading? Chances are we know somebody—or know somebody who knows somebody—who can hook you up. Submit your questions on this site, email us at, post on or message our Facebook page, or find us on Twitter. Also stay tuned to the ADHS Points blog for updates and new episodes. In the meantime, check out our back catalog on Soundcloud; it might inspire a question for our next installment!


CFP: Southern Association for the History of Medicine and Science

Editor’s Note: In the email announcement for this conference, SAHMS Outreach Chair Jonathon Erlen advised colleagues that “Papers related to the history of substance abuse are most welcomed”! 

Call for Papers: Southern Association for the History of Medicine and Science (SAHMS) Nineteenth Annual Meeting,  Coastal Carolina University, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, March 16-18, 2017

Submissions for individual papers or for panels can be made online at the SAHMS website, at

SAHMS is seeking paper submissions from scholars in the history of medicine and science. Anyone including students, with an academic interest in the history of medicine and or science is to welcome and encouraged to submit a paper.

History of Medicine and Science is broadly construed to encompass all fields and subfields historical, literary, philosophical, legal, and sociological related to the historical understanding of any aspect of science, medicine, health care, and the medical and health science professions.  SAHMS also welcomes paper submissions on closely related topics, including issues related to science or medicine involving race, disabilities, sustainability, technology, and gender studies. Participants may propose individual papers or panels of several papers on a particular theme.

If you are proposing a panel, please provide the title and theme of the panel, and a list of 3 or 4 authors and paper titles related to that topic; each author will need to individually submit their own paper proposal for their paper within the panel.  SAHMS reserves the right to reject individual papers or the entire panel topic, or to add thematically related papers to the panel as our scheduling needs dictate.

Each presenter is limited to 20 minutes, with additional time for questions and discussion when possible. Please do not submit papers that have already been published, presented, or scheduled for presentation at another meeting. All participants and attendees are responsible for their own travel expenses and must pay conference registration costs/meeting fees.

A limited number of student travel awards are available each year; for more information click on “Student Travel Grant Guidelines” on the SAHMS website, and see the “Call for Papers” page. Students MUST follow these guidelines to be considered for these travel awards.
For further information about this meeting or SAHMS in general, please contact the SAHMS President and Program Chair, Adam Davis, at, or email the organizational inbox at

Deadline for paper abstracts and panel submissions is: October 31st, 2016. The Program Committee will notify you as to whether or not your paper is accepted no later than November 16th, 2016. 

Teaching Points: Teaching the “So What?” in “Marijuana in American History”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Seth Blumenthal, a Lecturer at Boston University. Contact the author at

In 1994, the president of the Modern Language Association, Patricia Meyers Spacks, outlined the need to consider “So what?” in higher education. “We get a bad press these days … many believe that we too often devote our efforts to enterprises mattering only to ourselves,” Spacks warned.  “Our research and writing, these critics appear convinced, possess even less value than our teaching. ‘So what?’ echoes loudly around us.”[1] Spacks then suggested a solution:  “We must answer ‘So what?’ as a real rather than a rhetorical question.”  This battle cry to co-opt the critics’ “So what?” applies to disciplines across the humanities that have suffered from a shift toward more focused and vocational training in college. Specifically, while making historical narratives compelling and relevant has always motivated historians’ research and teaching, this cause has become even more urgent with on-going decreases in student enrollment in history courses.

As a lecturer in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences writing program, I have attempted to answer this call by teaching the first history course dedicated to cannabis in the United States, “Marijuana in American History.” This course attracts students from a wide array of fields in fulfillment of BU’s required two-semester writing and research sequence. For many students, especially those from disciplines outside of the humanities, taking a course that revolves around writing papers represents a trip to a foreign land. Thus, students’ dismissal of history writing as an arcane and niche enterprise reflects a wider protest that asks “So what?” in its most derisive context, analogous to its evil twin, “Who cares?” In 2007, 2.24 percent of college graduates majored in history, but only 2.02 percent in 2011.[2]  In response, historians have initiated an emphasis on a new pedagogical approach to authentic historical problems or controversies that more accurately reflect the profession’s self-directed historical inquiry to establish an argument’s significance—the “so what?”

In my own teaching, making history relevant is a two pronged strategy. First, the subject, marijuana, is a popular topic that many students (mostly male) are curious about for a variety of reasons (some better than others). This course follows three eras of marijuana politics. First we cover the major controversies surrounding the Anslingerian prohibition years in the 1930s; next, we examine the war on drugs that began in the 1960s; and finally, we research the legalization era that began in the 1990s.  The topic obviously provides a rich cultural history with a dizzying array of sources that engage students but also consider marijuana’s symbolic and political significance. For example, while reliable entertainment, comparing Reefer Madness, Easy Rider, Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High provides a fascinating window into Americans’ shifting sentiments about pot and the stoner from the 1930s to the 1980s. While the first two papers ask students to argue about the historical trends in marijuana culture, science and politics, the final assignment embraces the topic’s current controversy and asks students to develop an argument about the reason for the recent growing support for legalization. This assignment gives students free reign to choose their topics, as they write about issues such as marijuana culture and research in social media, women’s roles in the effort, the motivation for racial justice and of course the medicinal movement.

Second, this class shows history as controversy with contemporary implications rather than a list of dates and names. Students analyze political texts such as congressional testimony and Richard Nixon’s tapes to explore the complicated messages and cultural assumptions that informed our policies on drugs. Practicing these historical skills, students quickly learn that as soon as they can formulate a thesis, the “so what?” should also be included.  Why does it matter if we scapegoat the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, for passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937? What lessons should we learn from following the rise and fall of the gateway theory? What does millennials’ overwhelming support for legalization say about this generation? All of these questions push students to make the connections between their scholarly argument and its current implications. Beyond the academic pursuit of marijuana history’s larger significance, my students can feel the topic’s controversy outside the classroom.

Soon, the class picked up wider publicity and critics predictably asked why something like this should pass as “college material.” One response to an article USA Today ran on “Marijuana in American History” expressed the abhorrence that many parents shared. “As a parent of a prospective student: STRIKE 1” read one typical reaction.  “This is not something we are looking for in a future college.” As a new hire, I began to question my decision to offer the course. After checking with BU’s public relations office, however, I quickly realized that the positives greatly outweighed the negatives and they reassured me of the university’s support.  In addition, students in my class found the controversy over their course flattering. One even expressed that she felt she was actually a part of history, while another engineering student reflected in his course portfolio, “At this time I think I have far greater perspective on the marijuana issue, but really what I think I got out of this course was a greater appreciation for how the whole ‘liberal arts college’[humanities?] thing can teach you how to think about issues.”  In his paper, he argued that courses like “Marijuana in American History” are necessary, asking: “if marijuana has been legitimized in business, medicine and in politics-why not in academics?”—essentially developing a “so what?” that answered many critics who wondered “who cares”? (Or as one person protested: “And this course will prepare the student to do something?”). Despite the current hostility to the humanities, or perhaps because of it, the history of marijuana is a new and exciting field that can expand undergraduates’ notions of history’s role in changing perceptions of drugs and alcohol in society.

[1] Patricia Meyers Spacks, “Presidential Address 1994: Reality-Our Subject and Discipline,” PMLA, 110 (May, 1995), 350-357.

[2]Robert Townshend, “Data Shows a Decline in History Majors,” Perspectives, 51 (April, 2013); Mills Kelly, “A Looming Disaster for History,” April 12, 2013, edwired ;


Introducing our new managing editor, Kyle Bridge

Since Claire Clark and I took over Points in April 2014, we’ve been committed to bringing you the most unique, thoughtful, and hopefully entertaining posts on alcohol and drug history available on the web. And, through the consistent quality of our writing, we’ve achieved some significant success: we now reach nearly 9,000 unique visitors each month, and record over 13,000 views. Our articles have been picked up by Hacker News, Reddit, and the Atlantic, and we’ve become a trustworthy destination for researchers looking for information on national and international drug and alcohol history, whether that concerns the use of alcohol and tobacco in World War I, race in the modern war on drugs, or the correlation between mugshots and the abuse of meth. We have our staff of a dozen contributing editors and numerous guest bloggers to thank for the quality and value of our posts, and I’m constantly in awe of the incredible work they regularly turn out.

But my time as managing editor is coming, if temporarily, to a close. This post will be published on September 1st, which is also the due date of the birth of my first child. Though there are no guarantees that my baby boy will actually show up on that day, I’m handing over the reins to assistant managing editor Kyle Bridge, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Florida, so that I can focus on raising a tiny human and completing the manuscript for my first book: Grassroots, the history of marijuana activism from the 1960s to today, will be released by Basic Books in fall 2017.

Kyle has been involved with Points for years – you may recognize him from Pointscast, the podcast he produces with Alex Tepperman – and I have all the faith in the world that he’ll continue to oversee more incredible work from our writers. You can contact him at if you’re interested in writing for Points, giving any comments, or just wishing him luck in his new role.

I hope to return to Points, either as an editor or a writer, as soon as I’ve gotten my feet back under me. Being a member of the Points family has been an incredible ride, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Stay tuned every Tuesday and Thursday morning for more posts that make short and insightful commentary about the long and complicated history of intoxicants in the US and abroad, and feel free to contact me at with any questions, concerns, or words of advice for new parents.