Forgotten Drugs of Abuse I: T’s and Blues

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  It’s about a new drug, a killer, raging through a major American city filling ERs and morgues and leaving a trail of wrecked lives.  Just a year ago heroin was the big problem, but now this new scourge accounts for three-fourths of drug busts and a third of all addicts seeking treatment.  Experts are saying there’s no way the drug will stay in one city: “similar to an infectious process,” it will inevitably spread across the nation.  It’s already surfaced in a handful of cities, and who knows where it will strike next.

Scourge of Our Cities

The year is 1978, and the Talwin panic is in full swing.

Wait, you don’t remember the great Talwin terror of 1978?  Maybe haven’t even heard of Talwin?  Don’t feel bad.  Despite the promising start, the Talwin scare never really got off the ground.  There were a few headlines here and there, a TV documentary, and a day of testimony in Congress, but in the annals of anti-drug crusades it was small potatoes.

Why?  1978 was a great year for drug crusades, and this one seemed to have plenty going for it:  Talwin really was causing major public health problems in Chicago; it had a hip, media-friendly street name (“T’s and Blues”); and most of its abusers were nonwhite, urban poor—classic drug-war boogeymen.  More:  one of the largest sources of Talwin in Chicago was a Medicaid clinic, where, Congress was told, the drug was “handed out literally like M&Ms.”  The headlines could have written themselves.  “Hard Working Taxpayers’ Dollars Going to Give Dope to Junkies!”  And if that wasn’t enough, how about this sound bite from the Congressional hearings:

Thank you indeed!  “Grandmothers are buying Talwin on the street”:  does it get any better than that for an anti-drug crusader? It wasn’t supposed to end up like that for Talwin.  Continue reading

Ask Your Doctor!

So a college student walks into a doctor’s office and they start talking meds.  The student had been deeply troubled in the past, had been acting out, drinking too much, failing classes, etc., but he had seen his life turn around after he started taking Prozac a year or so ago.  It was a miracle, he told the doctor.  But at the same time he was worried:  was the whole new him dependent on the pill?  What if he stopped taking it, or if it stopped working?  Would he lose all the wonderful new attitudes and capabilities he’d developed?  He wasn’t overly frightened, mind you, just mildly nervous.  He didn’t directly ask what to do about it, but the question still hung in the air, waiting for the doctor to advise him.

Office Hours for the Wrong Kinda Doctor

A typical moment from psychiatry’s wonder-drug era, right?  Except the doctor wasn’t an MD.  The doctor was me:  a historian with a PhD, or, as we like to say in my family, WkD—the Wrong kinda Doctor.

Two other recent examples of this kind of situation, which seems to crop up fairly often (details changed to protect privacy, as with the Prozac story above): Continue reading

The Pub, the Street, & the Medicine Cabinet: Be There or Be Square

Points is pleased to announce that the complete program for the

What, Precsely, is the Keynote About?

6th Annual International Conference on the History of Alcohol and Drugs is now available.  Hosted by SUNY Buffalo under the able stewardship of David Herzberg, the conference runs from 24-26 June and features a keynote address by Points co-managing editor Joe Spillane, “Our Own Fantastic Lodge: Drugs and Alcohol History Inside and Out.”

Drugs and alcohol on every continent except Antarctica will scrutinized in sessions on topics ranging from the contemporary drug war to historical attempts at alcohol control to pop culture representations of consumption and addiction.  Of special interest is a screening of the 2008 documentary The Narcotic Farm, which chronicles the forty-year history of the U.S. Federal Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky (1935- 1975).   Michael Bozarth and Nancy Campbell will lead discussion after the screening of this unique, central, and most bizarre institution in U.S. drug treatment and policy history.

Make Reservations Now-- Operators are Standing By

Complete logistical information, including links to the conference hotel and the various sponsoring organizations, is available along with the program at the conference websitePoints readers interested in blogging from the conference (live or otherwise) should contact Trysh Travis.

Quaalude: The one that didn’t get away?

I was talking to a 67-year old relative about Quaalude at a recent family event. (Does this sort of thing happen to you all the time too, or is it just me?) I know her to be a friendly skeptic on the subject of drugs, and she has made it clear that she never used them herself—she’s a half-glass-of-wine-sends-me-to-bed type. But apparently Quaalude was different. To my surprise, she got a gleam in her eye, something like a faraway look, and said “Now that was a good drug.” It was the only drug she’d tried, she said, and she’d only done it once, but she remembered it fondly. She would have done more drugs if they were like that.

Here’s the thing: more drugs were like that. Sleeping pills were a dime a dozen, and even if you had a preference for Quaalude, well, until 1973 Quaalude was, if not a dime a dozen, at least easy to come by, and probably not much harder for a decade or so afterward. Chances are that my relative wouldn’t have used more drugs like that, because she didn’t. And this makes sense: for all the hip and happy memories of Quaalude, it was just a sedative like the others, with the same basic set of risks and rewards. Most likely she didn’t use it for the same reason she didn’t use other drugs.

So why the nostalgia? I don’t want to stretch the point too far. You can have nostalgia about paths not taken, and people aren’t required to be logically consistent. And yet the two conflicting dimensions of her experience with Quaalude—her reality of choosing not to use it, and her memory of it as a “good drug” that she would have done more of—struck a chord. Like a few other brand name drugs, “Quaalude” has proved hardier as a cultural symbol than as a medicine. It is used to identify the cultural moment of the long 1970s, listed alongside other signifiers like wife swapping and bell-bottom jeans. It is, as the New York Post referred to it recently, a “retro” drug.

And Quaalude does truly appear to be “retro.” Some people, somewhere, are still using it, and “Quaalude ring” busts do occasionally pop up in the news. But overall use of the drug has become so minimal that it is no longer even listed on Drug Abuse Warning Network’s reports. According to the 2003-2004 SAMHSA survey, the vast majority of people who have ever tried the drug are over the age of 26. Only one out of every 25 people who have tried Quaalude are younger than that. By way of comparison, one sixth of cocaine users are under 26, along with one fifth of heroin users and one fourth of marijuana users. Clearly Quaalude’s days as hot item among drug users is long past. Yet if you use Google’s Ngram viewer to track books mentioning the drug over time, you see something interesting: references to “methaqualone” (the generic name) rose to a peak in 1980 and have been declining ever since. That’s pretty much what you’d expect. But if you search for “Quaalude” you see something different. Mentions rise continuously all the way to 2002 before declining. We’re talking about a small number of books, of course, and this is hardly definitive data, but it’s further evidence that Quaalude the symbol has outlived methaqualone the drug.

So: is this what drug-war success looks like? Continue reading