The subject of today’s Points Interview is Dr. Ingrid Walker, discussing her new book, High: Drugs, Desire, and a Nation of Users (University of Washington Press, 2017). She has written and presented at length on the topic, including at a 2013 TEDx event. Follow her on Twitter.
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
If I ask you to picture a drug user, chances are that you won’t envision yourself. But nearly everyone is a psychoactive drug user. If you start your day with coffee or tea, if you enjoy drinking in this bar, or if you use psychotherapeutics–antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds–you are a drug user. The question is, why don’t we see ourselves as users? Because some drugs are so socially accepted that they are invisible. And other drugs have been vilified to the point of monstrosity.
People in the United States have been bombarded with stories about good drugs and bad drugs, from Prozac to bath salts. But that distinction is cultural—we made it up. It reflects assumptions that are not based in science, social science, or even personal experience. In High I tell the story about how and why we have come to these misconceptions. My book traces the cultural context of how we got here, to a place that so misunderstands drugs and users. It also proposes what we can do to change this.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
I am a cultural studies scholar so my work observes cultural patterns and examines the systems that create them and their effect. High takes a view across three main cultural areas that have informed our misunderstandings about drugs and users over the last 30 years and considers how they work together. I interrogate the effects of prohibition and criminalization; medicalization’s double edge of pharmacological drug solutions and addiction; popular culture, media, and advertising’s reinforcement of divergent user stories, and the one issue that we don’t engage in our drug policy or public health: pleasure. It’s this cross-disciplinary look that, I think, makes the book accessible to a variety of readers. While academics will be familiar with the research in their area of expertise, I’ve found they also learn things from other chapters. But High works with a well-supported foundation of research that academics and other professional readers will recognize.
Specific to history, I trace some parallels that I haven’t read much about in historical circles, including the parallel of anti-drug media campaigns and the lifting of limits on pharmaceutical drug advertising in the 90’s. These media narratives work hand in hand with key policy decisions and a development of psychotherapeutics in health care. These are some of the reasons we have such powerful and uniformed images of drug users. The misinformation conveyed in this media has a powerful hold over the American imaginary.
One of the important aspects of the book, for me, is the “Vox” narratives. These are a dozen user narratives that really upend some of our thinking about drugs and users. That first-person experience gives depth and humanity to this study. But the last chapter of the book is, for me, the key to rethinking drug policy and reframing addiction. It builds on data that shows that fewer than 10% of users of all drugs suffer substance abuse disorder (with the exception of cigarettes, which has a much higher statistic). If 90+% of users of all drugs are self-regulating, then we should be thinking about why and how they use drugs. The dominant answer? Pleasure. It is our unwillingness to engage users about pleasure and their other reasons for using that leads to bad policy, poor public health practices, and disasters like the current opiate crisis.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
While I knew that the vast majority of drug users of all psychoactive drugs do not struggle with addiction, I was stunned by the numbers. Bear in mind I started this book 5 years ago, when few people in the US were talking about self-regulating drug use. Now, in international and national conferences I hear more of that. But, still, I find that some drug researchers approach drugs with very little first-hand experience. So, in many ways, they are operating with the same problematic narratives that have made Americans think that most users of heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine are addicts.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
My next quest is to do more ethnographic work with self-regulating drug users. In a culture of criminalization, this is pretty difficult. It’s hard to get people to admit their illegal habits. That was the impetus for the book: 15 years ago I recognized that our cultural thinking about drug users was really misguided. But the question was: how do we unsilence users? There are attempts to do this anonymously like the Global Drug Survey or My Drug Story. Something I know from my own user experiences is that drug friend networks are places of powerful trust. So I hope to be able to find ways to speak more directly to drug users about their choices, use practices, and experiences.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is probably too busy covering most of west Africa for NPR. But honestly, she’s got the best voice in radio. I love how she closes her by-line with “Dakarrrr.” It’s like a challenge.
As much as I’d wish for the actor’s voice to have that gravitas, to cover the book you’d need a major narrator and a dozen side voice. So maybe an animation voice actor, like Kristen Schaal (Louise on Bob’s Burgers). Or maybe Ellen McLain. She’s the voice of GlaDOS in Portal. Hmm. Do you think Meryl Streep is available?