Editor’s Note: Between June 22 and June 25, the Alcohol and Drugs History Society organized its biennial conference in Utrecht, The Netherlands. In three day-by-day reports, some attendees will reflect upon the proceedings and their highlights. Today’s post was provided by Dr. Kelly Hacker Jones.
“On the role of Alcohol and Drugs History”
By Kelly Hacker Jones
In many ways during the recent Alcohol and Drugs History Society meeting in Utrecht, I thought of myself as a tourist. For one, this was my first visit to the Netherlands. For another, this was my first ADHS conference. As a PhD candidate in history studying health and alternative medicine, I come to the history of drugs more from the licit than the illicit side, at least as in terms of my research. The sessions I attended, therefore, were an education in the approaches, methods, and topics of concern for the field. Just as the seasoned traveler will recognize commonalities across cultures, what I observed at ADHS were shared lines of inquiry and familiar challenges.
On Saturday, I attended panels that examined drug cultures, the displaying and depiction of intoxicants, and the interrelationship between drug regulation and industry. From the papers and conversations I heard, I learned a great deal about the contexts in which various substances have been traded, taken, and regulated. A common area of inquiry I observed was that of the public’s perception of drugs. Convincing the public to think one thing or another about various substances seems to have occupied a great deal of the time, money, and effort of governments and manufacturers across eras and countries.
The keynote address by ADHS President Virginia Berridge, “Where is Alcohol and Drugs History Now?” gave an overview of the development of the field. In the last couple of decades it has gotten more diverse geographically (beyond the US and UK), chronologically (into the early modern period), and topically (substances beyond opium, cocaine, and cannabis). Professor Berridge also posed questions that have been plaguing historians across the discipline. How might we engage more across fields? And what role should historians have in the areas of policy, public health, and addiction studies? Should we strive to make a direct impact, or think of our scholarship as “seeping” into the public discourse on intoxicants, effecting indirect change?
The open forum pounced on this latter question. Where do historians fit in? Many picked up on the theme of seepage, asserting that we can best effect change indirectly through teaching and scholarship. Others stressed that scholars should take a more direct approach and try to inject nuance and context into debates, whether in policy, popular media, or in the courtroom. Yet in all arenas, the demand seems to be for uncomplicated, definitive answers. How can historians inject nuance and context when news media, policy makers, and the public seem to prefer convenient, easy-to-swallow sound bites?
I’m thinking about all of this after I’ve returned home, and I’m preparing to give a walking tour on the local history of Prohibition – a tour I’ve given dozens of times. It’s a difficult one to wrap up, as the tour meanders through sites connected to both the politics of Prohibition and to speakeasy culture. What I talk about most, however, are the attitudes influential groups and individuals had about the use and abuse of alcohol over the course of nearly a century. And I admit, I’ve been cautious in recent months about appearing to favor one side or the other in the controversies I discuss. But what I should be doing, I realize, is emphasize how the conversation about alcohol changed during this era, and what that meant for public policy. That, to me, now seems the most important lesson of Prohibition.