“Mapping the Muggleheads” – Digital History, GIS, and Marijuana Historiography

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Adam Rathge, director of enrollment strategies and part-time history professor at the University of Dayton, drug scholar, and longtime friend of Points. In it, he shows how using tools like digital mapping and geocoding can shed new light on historical accounts and reveal previously hidden or misunderstood narratives–particularly useful when trying to understand controversial issues like alcohol and drugs. Enjoy!

Nearly three years ago, on January 6, 2016, I attended a session at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting entitled “Digital Publishing Initiatives: Training Humanities Scholars.” The panel was sponsored by the AHA Graduate and Early Career Committee and featured four excellent papers, one of which ultimately led me on a digital publishing journey that will finally come to fruition later this week with the forthcoming publication of “Mapping the Muggleheads: New Orleans and the Marijuana Menace, 1920–1930.”

Before elaborating on that story, however, I’d be remiss not to mention the other papers I saw that day. Adam Mandelman and Spring Greeney from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed the work of Edge Effects, a digital magazine produced by graduate students at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) at UW-Madison. Mark Sheaves from the University of Texas at Austin showed off the work of Not Even Past, a monthly publication designed “to bring great history writing to the public” (not unlike our beloved Points blog). Patrick R. Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins from the Ohio State University chronicled the monthly publications from Origins that “provided historical insight on current events that matter to the United States and to the world” (also not unlike our beloved Points blog).

While each of these online publications was impressive, my inspiration that day came from Meredith Doster of Emory University, who presented the work of Southern Spaces – a peer-reviewed, multimedia, open-access journal published by the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. As Meredith showed, Southern Spaces was dedicated to publishing research “about real and imagined spaces and places in the US South and their global connections.” Almost immediately my mind was churning with excitement. At the time, I was in the throes of writing my dissertation (“Cannabis Cures: American Medicine, Mexican Marijuana, and the Origins of the War on Weed, 1840-1937”) and was in the process of formulating a chapter that drew heavily on early twentieth-century newspaper accounts of marijuana use in New Orleans. The city’s “marijuana menace” seemed like a perfect avenue for exploring real and imaged spaces.

Immediately after the panel concluded, I approached Meredith to thank her for the presentation and discuss the idea I had for an article submission to the journal. Sparked by the panel, the project I envisioned would be derived from my dissertation research but supplemented with a database and digital map built from information found in published reports of marijuana arrests in New Orleans. My thought was to compile data about the arrests from newspaper reports such as age, race, the location of arrest, quantity seized, etc., and use it to analyze the demographic and spatial nature of the marijuana market in New Orleans during the 1920s. Meredith was receptive to the idea and encouraged me to develop it into a formal proposal to the journal. Over the months that followed, Meredith and I communicated via email as she guided me toward framing a submission that included a written article and accompanying GIS map.

As I launched into developing the project, my efforts at database compilation and geocoded mapping were quite primitive. Nonetheless, the staff at Southern Spaces was enthusiastic and incredibly helpful at every step of the way – even as Meredith’s initial involvement was transitioned over to Managing Editor Madison Elkins. It was Madison, along with Review Editor Stephanie Bryan and the rest of the editorial staff, who successfully shepherded my project through its various iterations over the past two years, helping me refine my database, utilize better mapping tools, and revise the underlying article following the peer review process. As a result, what began on Google maps and an Excel spreadsheet has been transformed by the GIS gurus at Southern Spaces into a multi-layered ArcGIS map, complete with a period map overlay of the city of New Orleans in 1919.

Screenshot 2018-10-16 at 8.07.25 AM

My initial efforts at database compilation and geocoded mapping were quite primitive.

I’m obviously thrilled with the end result and I hope the accompanying article enjoys a wide readership, but I also hope the project inspires others to imagine their existing research in new ways. More extensive use of digital publishing and GIS in the history of drugs feels long overdue. This is especially true of the drug war(s), user networks, enforcement patterns, and related areas of study. I see this as a logical extension of Joe Spillane’s recent reminder on the “importance of reconstructing user experience and developing concrete accounts of addict agency, action, and identity.”

In my research on New Orleans, the process of compiling and geocoding hundreds of arrests allowed me to move beyond previous analyses of “marijuana menace” rhetoric and challenge some fundamental, long-held historiographical arguments. Doing so while focusing on the enforcement of municipal level marijuana ordinances prior to federal regulation in 1937 also helped shed light on an understudied and often neglected period in the history of marijuana prohibition in the United States. Indeed, mapping a database of documented marijuana arrests in one of the nation’s earliest and most influential marijuana markets revealed spatial and demographic patterns that may have been lost or muted in a more traditional qualitative analysis. When combined with that analysis, however, the data revealed “both a rapid association between marijuana and crime as well as evidence for a predominately young, white user population that helped drive local concern and provided the impetus for legal prohibitions in New Orleans and beyond.”

You can find Dr. Rathge’s full article, with maps, on Southern Spaces here