“Drugs Cause Paranoid Reading and Writing”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Sean A. Witters, Ph.D., a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Vermont. His current book project, Using Addict, looks at the evolving language of addiction, tracing the images and stories of drug use and dependency that flow through literature, film, medicine, and culture from the 19th century to the present. In this post, he responds to Alex Berenson’s recent book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, about which Points hosted a roundtable in January.

“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” 

-Toni Morrison, 1993 Nobel Address

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00I recently found myself linked to a group of researchers cited in The Guardian in Jamiles Lartey’s article on an open letter that criticizes the controversial claims about cannabis, mental health, and violence in Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. Alex Berenson’s response in the article is marked by the same paranoiac construction of truth that shapes his book and its unfortunate impact on the public discussion on drugs, addiction, mental health, incarceration, and harm reduction. Berenson insists, “Physicians know the truth.” Without regard for his own credentials, he rejects the expertise of the signators, privileging medical degrees over doctorates in epidemiology, biochemistry, criminology, sociology, psychology, history, and neuroscience and ignoring the significant role of MDs and dual degree-holders with specialties in public health. When he chooses to rely on the earned expertise of non-MDs, as he does in his first chapter, he claims interpretive pre-eminence. This is most notable in his dispute with historian Isaac Campos who has criticized Berenson’s cherry-picked use of his findings. In his response, Berenson claims that Campos doesn’t understand findings apparently hidden within his own research.[1]

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Challenging the User Paradigm: Comic Book Characters, 1937-1954

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Screenshot 2019-03-19 at 8.39.15 AMWho is Weedy Smudgeon? He makes a quick appearance in Ghost Rider #8 (August 1952) trying to kill Rex Fury. We don’t learn much about him except that he robs graves for the local undertaker, and he uses “loco weeds.” It’s probably true that a character actually named Weedy Smudgeon needs no back story, but what about a character named Jeff Dean?

In a prior post, I’ve examined popular culture (jazz), as a unique perspective on the potential motives of marijuana users through the mundane lyrical descriptions of users in jazz songs. I’ve suggested that Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” represents a narrow but perhaps authentic representation of use in poor urban communities. Comic books are certainly different sources than jazz songs. Their creators are far less prominent than the characters they create and the audience for comic books (young boys and girls) are much less connected to the creation of the cultural form than audiences in jazz clubs, and, at least theoretically, to the environments and situations described in its pages.

However, the representations in the comic books do present a range of possibilities for users that go well beyond the addict or non-addict binary that was popular at the time. It also suggests that complex understandings about use pre-date the era of official tolerance of marijuana in the mid ’60s into the mid ’70s. It is also worth mentioning here that at least some official attention was paid to representations in comic books by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which looked into problematic representations of sex, violence, and, to some degree, drug use therein.

Starting from the binary of user v. non-user, the handful of comic book stories that I’ve been able to read make several distinctions between the two categories. Users are either natural users like Weedy Smudgeon (where use is their character) or unnatural users (where use intervenes and changes a character). The former group, in the sample I viewed, were almost exclusively ethnic others. The latter group were almost exclusively young (white) adult men and women, and their use results in (generally) two possible outcomes: a descent into addiction with dire consequences (jail or death), or redemption where a user corrects his/her behavior to either become a hero himself (if they are male), or a cautionary storyteller (if they are female).

“Non-user” is a much more slippery category, and indeed, the function of non-users in these stories becomes clear only as exceptions that prove the rule. One subcategory of non-users is “good guys” (title heroes, family members, and law enforcement), and the other is “bad guys” (the organized criminal rackets that import, distribute, and sell the drug). Good guys don’t use for obvious classic-era comic book reasons, but the rackets don’t use precisely because they know the dangers the plant poses, particularly the addiction (and thus profit) potential of marijuana, and after the mid 1940s, of marijuana-to-heroin.

But they were also well aware of the specific dangers of the drug that they deal in. This is demonstrated by two examples of the rackets specifically using the drug to get innocent victims to do their bidding. In 1941, The Dart’s sidekick Andy (figure 2) and Plastic Man (figure 3) are plied with marijuana in this fashion. The rackets themselves do not use. In fact, when a naïve drug runner wonders aloud what all the fuss was about, he was physically attacked by his boss (figure 4).

The innocent user characters’ distinctions are much more blurry and, while most characters have a clear bad or good persona, there is a blurring of distinctions. Several of these innocent victims lose their innocence and either end up dead or hopelessly addicted to marijuana or heroin. The fates of these tragic innocent victims are on display during the dramatic endings of Wallace Reagan (figure 5) in “Hopped up Killer” (1941) and Howard Martin (figure 6) in “Worse than Murder” (1952).

The redemption stories hold the most interest in the context of challenging binary assumptions about use. To be sure, redemption stories are fairly standard in the comic book genre, but within the larger context of portrayals of drug use, the notion that a user could reverse the downward descent from naïve marijuana use into heroin addiction to death is significant. Also relevant here is the assumption that men and women are redeemed in different ways, the former through rehabilitation and/or heroics, but the latter only through penance.

That’s what brings us to Jeff Dean. We are introduced to Jeff during the first few frames of “The Dart and Ace” (1941) as he’s attacking his teacher Miss Tilbury. By the end of the story, Dean foils the racket and saves the day. (Figures 7 & 8) Similar experiences befall a group of young kids duped into running marijuana for a local paragon, but who turn on Mr. Cratchett and are considered for acceptance into Mr. Universe’s athletes club (figure 9), or a young Jack Winters who murdered a police officer but will get off “lightly” due to the real blame being placed in the Mexican smuggler (figure 10).

Women had fewer options for redemption, but avenues to that end did exist for female characters in these stories. Rather than re-assigning blame or transitioning from hero to villain, however, women are limited to harsh penalties that encourage these women to “tell their stories” to other young women in the first-person. For women too, their initial innocence, which unlike an uncanny number of male characters introduced to marijuana by a peddler at a party because they left their pack of cigarettes in the car (and the peddler offered on of his), was tied directly to un-womanly ambition and romantic agency. Gloria Welsh’s desire to pursue a career in Hollywood ensnares her whole family (figure 11). Her younger brother Frankie, who was running shipments to clients, was killed when the delivery business introduced him to marijuana use and he descended into addiction. She “told her story” in “I was a Racket Girl” (1949).

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Other women spiral into the cycle of addiction through ill-advised relationships with men. Both Claire (“My Scandelous Affair,” 1954) and Louise (“I Was a Musician’s Girl,” 1954) get addicted to marijuana as a consequence of choosing the “wrong” of two men to pursue. By the end of both stories, the women had been reunited with the “correct” man and are miraculously fine (but still hope to prevent this in other young girls by telling their stories).

Given the limits of comic books as representational sources, the spectrum of use that appears in a selection of comic book stories collected between the 1930s and ’50s presents a subtle challenge of conventional descriptions of users circulated in law-making and law-enforcement circles during that time, all of whom tended to characterize users more like Mr. Smudgeon (at least, as conventional wisdom goes, until the 1960s) than like Jeff Dean or Gloria Welsh.

Points Interview: Lucas Richert

Today’s Points Interview features Dr. Lucas Richert, George Urdang Chair in the History of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of the newly-released Strange Trips: Science, Culture, and the Regulation of Drugs (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). Richert is also a co-editor of the ADHS’s official journal, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

Screenshot 2019-03-13 08.55.24Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Strange Trips is about “dangerous drugs and magic bullets,” terms that many of us have heard and used. The book investigates how and why these labels (may) change over time. Drugs and pharmaceuticals are far from fixed entities that exist in hermetically sealed bubbles! So I use a number of substances (such as heroin, LSD, cannabis, and others) to challenge the idea that scientific and medical understandings alone determine perceptions of drugs in the modern era. And I make the case that a complex negotiation is happening between medico-scientific knowledge and culture.

In 2019, I feel like we’re operating in an environment where drug policies and regulations are more fluid than ever before. At least as far as I can remember. Strange Trips offers a background for discussions surrounding medical cannabis or the opioid crisis in the present.

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

I don’t narrate a linear history of a single substance. Instead, I spotlight several different drugs and put them in dialogue with each other. I definitely enjoy singular biographies of substances or pharmaceuticals, don’t get me wrong. But I reckon that blended analyses will be of value to the historiography as well.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The character studies. The subtler moments. The finer details. Also: playing with the content and the form of an academic book.  Y’know, we have to take pleasure in the writing process.

Another thing I find intriguing about the book at this moment is the evolution: what was cut and why. Where (and who) I was when I started, versus where (and who) I am now. Silly, but true.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

For sure. There are always more avenues to explore. I look forward to seeing the results of various ongoing projects out there: pharmaceuticals and sexual politics (think LSD and conversion therapy); so-called lifestyle drugs; and stimulant use in Asia. I try and keep my finger on the pulse. This might also be a useful opportunity to invite submissions to Social History of Alcohol and Drugs: An Interdisciplinary Journal, which just moved to the University of Chicago Press.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

That’s a difficult one to answer. For the English language version, I’ll pick two: Dame Judi Dench and Peter Capaldi. I’d have to think more carefully about other languages.

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David Herzberg, Nancy Campbell, and Lucas Richert (L-R), the co-editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs journal

Nuance-Trolls and Bad-Faith Policy Debates

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

How do you make someone reluctant about supporting a policy? One strategy is to suggest people with clear answers do not appreciate just how complicated, complex, multifaceted—and my favorite — “nuanced” the situation really is. No one wants to view themselves as unsophisticated or unrefined and this plays on that insecurity. Unfortunately, major news outlets embraced this strategy, for some reason, and one can only speculate about motive.

What am I talking about? These constant nuance arguments. You’ve probably read them: the ones that muddy the waters but don’t seem to say anything. There’s even a term for it. It’s nuance-trolling; not the best term, but it works. Nuance-trolling is constructing a debate by evading and relying on rhetorical filibustering; it turns complexity into a virtue, a fetish for its own sake. Sociologist Kieran Healy of Duke University summed it up in his article “Fuck Nuance,” arguing that nuance, or rather what he called “actually existing nuance,” a pillar of academia and mainstream discourse, “is what one does when faced with a question for which one does not yet have a compelling or interesting answer. Thinking up compelling or interesting ideas is difficult, so it is often easier to embrace complexity than to cut through it.” In his essay, he writes about “nuance traps.” One is “the nuance of the fine-grain [ed],” an “empirical description… masquerading as increased accuracy.”

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Points Bookshelf: “Never Enough” by Judith Grisel

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment of the Points Bookshelf, in which we review books about drugs, alcohol, history–and maybe even a combination of all three. We open with a review of Judith Grisel’s new book “Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction,” which was released last month. 

If you’re interested in reviewing a book for Points, get in touch! You can reach editor Emily Dufton at emily.dufton (a) gmail.com

Screenshot 2019-03-07 at 9.02.18 AMSometimes it’s nice to consult an expert.

I first heard Judith Grisel on Fresh Air. Her interview with Terry Gross was fascinating. She has a PhD in behavioral neuroscience and psychology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and she spent a good part of her early life addicted to numerous substances, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and more. Now drug-free for over thirty years, she is a professor of psychology at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Her approach to the difficult subject of addiction is thus colored by all of her experiences. Because of her years as someone who had an unhealthy romance with numerous intoxicants (the title comes from a statement a friend made to her in a seedy hotel room in Miami as they snorted up as much cocaine as they physically could; there would “never be enough cocaine” for Grisel, her friend said, and when she realized the truth in this statement, it was a turning point in her life and career), she’s aware of the havoc addiction can wreak in individuals’, families’ and communities’ lives. As a neuroscientist and psychologist who has spent decades studying how the brain reacts to, and adapts to, intoxicant use, she’s also adept at explaining the biological and neurological underpinnings of this issue.

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Treatment, as it exists, is treatment for the few

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

Screenshot 2019-02-28 at 8.18.24 AM

If you look at recent coverage of opioid epidemic, media outlets admit that in the past they added gasoline to the fire during the “crack epidemic” and want to apologize for those mistakes. The New York Times editorial board gave a belated “whoopsie-daisy” for feeding the American people a steady diet of bad science and race-baiting incitement several decades ago. In their mea culpa they wrote:

“Today, with some notable exceptions, the nation is reacting to the opioid epidemic by humanizing people with addictions — depicting them not as hopeless junkies, but as people battling substance use disorders — while describing the crisis as a public health emergency. That depth of sympathy for a group of people who are overwhelmingly white was nowhere to be seen during the 1980s and 90s, when a cheap, smokable form of cocaine known as crack was ravaging black communities across the country.”

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Hemp and Heritage in France

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. 

Screenshot 2019-02-20 20.37.21On 5 February 2019, growers, manufacturers, and distributers of “chanvre industriel,” or hemp, from across the globe met in Paris for the “AllHemp – Congrès international du chanvre,” the first international conference of its kind held on French soil. Organized by the French hemp-growers union, InterChanvre, the conference assembled industry professionals and researchers in France, the current epicenter of European hemp cultivation, to “bring notoriety to the industry and to this virtuous plant in terms of the economy and eco-responsibility.” In 2016 just over 1,400 French farmers cultivated over half of the EU’s total hectarage of hemp, nearly 17,000 ha of 33,000 ha, which was three times the amount of hemp cultivated in the United States during the same year.[1] The French farmers and manufacturers of InterChanvre thus organized the conference both to highlight France’s domestic hemp farming and promote hemp-based products, such as building materials, plastics, textiles, cosmetics, oils, and dietary supplements, on the international market.[2]

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