The Points Interview: Chris S. Duvall

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome Chris S. Duvall, an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of New Mexico and the author of Cannabis (University of Chicago, 2015).

  Book_Cover#2Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

It’s a world history of the plant genus Cannabis, which is the most widespread crop.  The events that enabled cannabis to colonize the world from its evolutionary origins in Central Asia include many of humanity’s most notable migrations.  Nowadays, people mostly think of ‘cannabis’ as meaning ‘marijuana’, but the plant has meant many things to many people.  It has been bred to produce fiber, oilseeds, and drugs.  In the West, cannabis was most valuable historically as the source of hemp, used to make ropes and sailcloth during the Age of Sail.  Its value sank to almost nothing by the early 1900s, when sails no longer powered commercial shipping.  When Europeans first encountered drug cannabis in Asia and Africa in the 1500s, they saw this as an unfamiliar, wasteful use of a familiar, valuable plant.  Unfortunately, this perception resonated with European colonialist views of the world, and cannabis drug use entered negative stereotypes about non-Europeans—even though Europeans have used the drug since they first encountered it.  Layered upon these stereotypes was the reality that most cannabis drug users were members of low labor classes.  For centuries this use was tolerated, but in the early 1900s, authorities increasingly saw drug cannabis as a problem.  Since hemp had lost nearly all value, cannabis drug control laws had minimal economic consequences to 20th-century authorities.  The laws that emerged were biased against the poor and people of color, and current drug-law enforcement maintains these biases.  The history I tell in the book challenges widespread ideas about the plant’s past, because most cannabis world histories have been light on research and heavy on political advocacy for or against prohibition.

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

I think perhaps that it provides an account of the plant’s cosmopolitan distribution based on physical geography, plant biology, linguistics, sociology, pharmacology, science studies, and history.  I’m a geographer, so my approach is different from many historians.  My strongest influences in writing the book were post-colonial scholars like Judith Carney, Londa Schiebinger, and James Blaut, alongside drugs historians like James Mills, Isaac Campos, and David Courtwright.  My past research has focused on understanding people–plant interactions from multiple disciplinary perspectives, not just drug plants in history.  I think my interdisciplinary approach helps bring new ideas into the discussions of drug historians.

So what new ideas might the book bring?  Three come to mind.  First, there has been really important research in plant genetics recently that clarifies the evolutionary history of cannabis.  This work shows that there are two cryptic species that people were unable to differentiate except through drug use until the 1960s.  Recognizing the genetic basis of psychoactivity and the plant’s evolutionary geography is helpful for understanding why cannabis drug use has often signified cultural difference, not plant diversity, in Western thought.  Second, in African Studies several works in the past two decades have shown that societies around the Atlantic bear clear cultural inheritances from Africa, despite past, Eurocentric historiography.  I argue that many cannabis drug cultures around the Atlantic are fundamentally African in terms of language and technology (that is, paraphernalia—the bong is a pre-Columbian African invention).  This is the topic on which I continue to do research.  Third, and really important in considering marijuana’s African past, is the book’s emphasis on social context, not cultural heritage, in determining drug use.  African cannabis knowledge is widespread because the plant entered the Atlantic primarily through western Central Africa, and because African-descent peoples have demographically dominated labor underclasses for centuries as a consequence of slavery, colonialism, and racism.  Nonetheless, poor, hard laborers from all continents—slaves, sailors, sex workers, low-ranking soldiers, prisoners—have been the drug’s main users for centuries.  World histories of cannabis have tended to mask this because they have dwelled upon more charismatic episodes—ancient religious uses in South Asia, 19th-century European pharmacology, and the marijuana boom amongst middle-class people in the Global North since the 1960s.

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Recent News Round-Up: Hoarders Edition

A few months ago, I was packing for my fifth move since 2008. I emptied every closet, box, and drawer. With every move, I’d shed belongings— a full twelve boxes of books in move number four— so why, I wondered, am I still knee-deep in useless things?

The answer was that, in true academic fashion, I’d redefined “useless.”  Turns out “keep,” “store,” and “toss” are unstable categories: I classified our household belongings entirely differently after reading the New York Times article on Marie Kondo, a home organization expert with a devoted global following.

Kondo has a best-selling book and a robust media presence, but her most famous piece of advice could be summed up in a tweet: Touch every item you own; if something doesn’t “spark joy,” discard it. I applied this method to my packing process, and a lot of things I’d been storing went out the door. (I also made a few personal archival discoveries— see below).

My "Just Say No" buttons from elementary school. Joy!

My “Just Say No” buttons from elementary school. Joy!

The process got me thinking about Americans’ warped relationship with material possessions, an entanglement that has grown more dysfunctional over the past several decades. Even as the middle class flounders, easy credit, cheap foreign labor, and larger home sizes have made it easier than ever for the average American to acquire far more possessions than he needs or can use. Since excessive, compulsive consumption factors into most definitions of addiction, it’s unsurprising that Americans’ increasingly acquisitive habits have led to cultural anxieties about purchasing (and hoarding) behavior.

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Write for Points!

Points Readers,

If you’ve thought about jumping into the frying pan (so to speak), now’s your chance. We’re ready to mix things up on Points’s masthead, and we’re looking for a few new contributors.

But first, a bit about us: Points produces informed and accessible reflections on the history of alcohol and drugs, the web of policy surrounding them, and their place in popular culture.

In the past year, we’ve explained why marijuana is illegal, coined the term “damp feminism“, braved the comments sections of addiction-related news stories, resurrected the fight over drug-related movie ratings in the Reagan Era, explored the role alcohol and drugs played on the battlefields of World War I, asked what the Acid Rescue Squad can teach today’s health educators, made a few surprising findings in Harry J. Anslinger’s gore file, re-read the Black Panther pamphlet Capitalism+Dope= Genocide, and discovered that the urban Drug War of the 1970s and 1980s played out differently in one North Florida city.

We’re looking for fresh voices and pieces to add to that list. We’re especially interested in expanding our roster to include bloggers who work on areas outside the US and in fields closely related to the history of alcohol and drugs (e.g. sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, criminology, bioethics, public health, etc.). Interested in adding your perspective? Just email Claire Clark ( and Emily Dufton ( Introduce yourself and pitch ideas for two pieces you’d like to publish with Points.


The Editors

The Points Interview: Elaine Carey

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcome back former editor Elaine Carey (you can read Carey’s previous posts here). Carey is Associate Professor and Department Chair of History at St. Johns University. Here, she discusses her latest book, Women Drug Traffickers: Mules, Bosses, and Organized Crime (University of New Mexico Press, 2014).

screenshot_1248Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Growing up in Florida during President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, I became familiar with multiple dope stories, both formal and informal. I followed the news about the Miami drug wars, and I noticed that men and women were involved in drug trafficking.

From living outside the United States for much of my childhood, I learned that women dominate the informal or secondary market.  They are street vendors, maids, nannies, and prostitutes; they work off the books. Combined with those observations, women’s and gender history teaches us to ask different questions of the historical evidence. Beginning in the 1990s, I read much of the literature on drug trafficking, and I was struck by the absence of women.  Women were rarely mentioned, and they were never identified as partners or bosses.  If they were identified, they were lovers, or they were perceived as unreliable in the trade.   My starting question was: If women dominate the informal labor market, why aren’t they involved in drug trafficking?

In 1997, I stumbled on the newspaper coverage of Lola la Chata, a Mexico City drug dealer and crime boss who controlled much of the city’s heroin trade, and I noted her longevity and success. I sought other women who were bosses.  Guess what?  There were many, far more than in my book. I found women bosses in the US, Canada, Mexico and many other parts of the world. They worked with their lovers, husbands, fathers, and sons. Or they built their own criminal networks that employed their children, lovers, or other family members.  Until recently, scholars and policing agents either ignored or downplayed the role of women in those partnerships and organizations, which, I think, contributed to women’s career longevity.

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

While most scholars acknowledge women in the drug trade, I think many considered them mostly as addicts or low-level workers such as mules.  The history of drug trafficking demonstrates that women have parallel experiences to men.  Like the majority of men, they are addicts and low-level workers, but they are also dealers, partners, bosses, financiers, and traffickers.  Those who rise to the top are exceptional, whether men or women. Women’s historical involvement in the drug trade complicates the metanarratives of crime, vice, and policing, but also women’s and gender history.  I think the case studies allow the reader to consider how women intersect to global or local illicit markets, and I think the work leads to other questions that might be pursued by other scholars.  For example, what is the role of women in money laundering?

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The Points Interview: Tom Shroder

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is pleased to welcome Tom Shroder, editor and author of the recently released book Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal (Blue Rider Press, 2014). Acid Test covers the history of psychedelic drug research from the 1950s through the present.

Acid TestDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
You probably thought that LSD, Ecstasy and magic mushrooms were first and foremost drugs of abuse. In fact, from the discovery of LSD in the late 1940s until the advent of Tim Leary in the mid-1960s, psychedelics were considered to be a revolution in psychiatry, showing the ability to alleviate or even cure a wide range of chronic, treatment-resistant conditions — from anxiety and depression to drug, alcohol and tobacco addiction, to what would become known as PTSD. They even showed promise in dramatically alleviating garden-variety neuroses and anxieties among otherwise healthy people, as well as in marital and family counseling, and even in dealing with autism. LSD did this not as a part of a long term drug program, but through dramatic, often transcendent experiences while taking the drug from a handful of times to even a single time. Full-blown, life-changing mystical experiences were not uncommon. And though there were some risks — acute attacks of anxiety that, if mismanaged, could lead to hospitalization and rarely psychotic breaks or even suicide attempts — studies of thousands of cases where the drugs were administered in controlled settings by medical professionals demonstrated a remarkable degree of safety and efficacy. All that ended abruptly when psychedelics got caught up in the counter-culture and authorities reacted with a throw the baby out with the bathwater response — effectively shutting down all research for 30 years, while abuse of the drugs continued largely unchecked.


Acid Test uses that oft-forgotten history as background. The foreground is the story of those who struggled against absurd odds to bring this research back to the mainstream of science, succeeding remarkably and now on the verge of the final stage of making these treatments legal once again at a time when half a million US veterans have returned from a decade of war with severe, crippling PTSD, for which the existing treatments are far too likely to fail. This story is told as a completely factual novel, a multi-decade epic, with three major characters: Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who has been fighting government prohibition of psychedelics for more than thirty years; Michael Mithoefer, a former emergency room physician, now a psychiatrist at the forefront of psychedelic therapy research; and his patient Nicholas Blackston, a former Marine who has suffered unfathomable mental anguish from the effects of brutal combat experiences in Iraq. All three men are passionate, relatable people; each flawed, each resilient, and each eccentric, yet very familiar and very human.

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Call for Papers: Special Journal Issue on Intoxication

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points contributors Ingrid Walker and Alexine Fleck are editing a special issue of NANO (New American Notes Online) with the theme Intoxication. Their call for papers is below. Get in touch before June 1, 2015!

Intoxication is the red-headed stepchild of social and academic discourse about psychoactive substance use. Whether framed as use, misuse, or abuse, intoxication reveals dangerous human desires for social disengagement, escape, or pleasure. Even as we experience and pursue what Lee Stringer refers to as “sprees of abandon,” our acts of intoxication are fraught with social tensions related to harm to the self, others, and the community. By linking intoxication with outcomes such as addiction, disease, incarceration, and death, we rarely look at intoxication as a valuable end in itself. Yet intoxication offers a tantalizing paradox: what looks like chaos, insanity, or simply a waste of time from the outside can feel like order, transcendence, or inspiration from the inside. The etymological origins of the term itself reflect the blurred boundaries between poison and elixir. As a point between experience and perception, interiority and exteriority, pleasure and pain, and acceptance and censure, intoxication is not simply a false consciousness to be discarded.

This issue of NANO seeks to move critical attention beyond one-dimensional discourses that frame intoxication in terms of criminality, disease, or excessive indulgence. NANO’s guest editors hope to inspire a multi- and interdisciplinary conversation about the possibilities and realities of intoxication that have been less explored in academic and public discourse. Further, we invite contributions that uncouple intoxication from what has been an almost-essentialist relationship with addiction. In particular, we seek contributions that examine or theorize intoxication from new or unusual perspectives.

In a period of decriminalization and changing public policy, how might we re-conceptualize intoxication to better understand its attraction, value, and expressions? What are the critical aspects of intoxication overlooked in the social construction of these experiences? What might we discover about intoxication if it were understood as a performance, an embodiment of subjectivity, or a sanctioned way of transcending social boundaries?

In this special issue, we seek critical reflections or multimodal notes (up to 3,500 words) that sketch new ways of understanding intoxication. Topics may include, but are not limited to, intoxication as:

  • social or political activity
  • spiritual ecstasy
  • cultural expression
  • transgression
  • intentional hedonism
  • self-medication
  • consumerism
  • love
  • protest
  • truth-seeking
  • therapy

Direct questions to the Special Issue co-editors: Alexine Fleck and Ingrid Walker For questions about video, audio, or image usage, please contact NANO: NANO uses modified MLA (Modern Language Association) formatting and style.

Submission style guidelines:

Keywords: Each author is asked to submit 5 keywords to accompany their submission.

Schedule: Deadlines concerning the special issue to be published in NANO:

  • June 1, 2015: Submission deadline
  • September 2015: Comments and peer review complete
  • October 2015: Pre-production

We look forward to receiving your contributions.

Escape from Custody: A Classic Book and a New Collection

Alcohol and drugs historians have long lamented the archival limitations of studying past substance users. Substance users typically enter the historical record through retrospective oral histories, the archives of hospitals or prisons, or popular books and media. All these sources have shortcomings: oral histories are riddled with the errors of human memory, institutional archives are usually limited to clinical and criminal records, and popular culture is distorted by sensationalism or artistry. As Bob Beach, Miriam Kingsberg, and Joe Gabriel have argued on Points’ pages, finding the “user’s perspective” is historically difficult.

I’d like to introduce researchers to another point of access to the past: Robert Straus’s Escape from Custody: A Study of Alcoholism as Reflected in the Life Record of a Homeless Man (Harper & Row, 1974), a classic text that offers a uniquely detailed portrait of one man’s chronic alcohol use in mid-twentieth century America.

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