Teaching Points: “Drugs in U.S. History”

Around the beginning and end of every semester (summer included), we feature syllabi, instructional materials, and instructor reflections on courses related to topics of interest to Points readers. Below, you’ll find the syllabus for “Drugs in U.S. History,” a summer course taught this year by Kyle Bridge at the University of Florida. In a few weeks, like those who came before him, he will publish a reflection on Points, thoroughly detailing the progression of the course, from planning, assigning, and evaluating student work to connecting themes developed in class to his own research. Stay tuned!

AMH 3931: Drugs in United States History

Instructor: Kyle Bridge (kbridge@ufl.edu)

Course meets: [redacted]

Office hours: [redacted]

Course objectives: Upon successful completion of this course, students will understand the complex role played by drugs in American society, beginning with the construction of drug debates and the evolving definitions of key concepts like “drug” or “addiction.” They will be able to identify and explain historical contexts of drug use, to critically analyze cultures of control that have developed around different substances (including in the criminal justice system but also the addiction treatment field), and to articulate and assess challenges to those cultures through measures including drug legalization, medicalization, and harm reduction. Continue reading →

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Hot Take: Dr. Oz Defends Medical Marijuana on “Fox & Friends”

Anyone tuning in to Fox & Friends this week was treated to an awkward moment courtesy of Dr. Oz, when he went off-script after plugging his upcoming interview with Ivanka Trump and launched into an impassioned defense of medical marijuana.

“Can I ask you one thing? I talked about the opioid epidemic, but the real story is the hypocrisy around medical marijuana. And just really quickly, medical marijuana – people think it’s a gateway drug to narcotics but it may be the exit drug to get us out of the narcotic epidemic. But we’re not allowed, we’re not allowed to study it, because it’s a schedule I drug. And personally, I believe it could help.”

“Wow,” co-host Steve Doocy intoned, visibly tense. “Hadn’t heard that before.” He reminded viewers to watch Oz’s show and cut to commercial break, clearly wishing the cardiologist had taken co-host Brian Kilmeade’s cue to end the segment twenty seconds prior. Continue reading →

Big Nicotine, Part II: Addiction and the “Cult of Pharmacology”

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to lower the nicotine content of cigarettes to, ideally, “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. Public health advocates celebrated the decision; on the other hand, Big Tobacco investors began dumping shares at the prospect of supplying an ever-more-elastic demand.

Cigarette critics and capitalists alike belong to what Richard DeGrandpre calls the “cult of pharmacology,” a system of belief that dominates American drug discourse. Rooted in modernist faith in understanding the world through scientific approach, by the early twentieth century many considered drug experience to be a straightforward process of brain and body chemistry, without regard for concepts we might recognize today as set and setting. Historically contingent forces divide drugs into “angel” and “demon” categories, but their effects are similarly reduced to biological mechanism: “‘soul’ was reinterpreted as ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit’ was reinterpreted as ‘biochemistry.’”

But cults are given to blind faith, so it is worth considering the extent to which substances are to blame for problem use. Continue reading →

Episode 6 of Pointscast Now Available!

On the latest episode of Pointscast, the first, best, and only podcast of the Points blog, hosts Alex Tepperman and Kyle Bridge offer their thoughts on the ways domestic and international drug use are portrayed in American media. But first, for months listeners have been submitting questions for our expert Q&A series. Kyle opens the episode by asking Bob Beach (blbeach@suny.edu), a doctoral candidate at SUNY Albany and frequent Points contributor who studies cannabis use and policy before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, a simple question from a curious listener: why is weed illegal?

Be sure to check out the Pointscast Twitter and Facebook pages and listen to other episodes on Soundcloud! If you have questions for our Q&A series or general comments on the podcast, please email us at pointscast@gmail.com

Donald Trump on Drugs: Election 2016, Part I

In response to Donald Trump’s sniffly debate performances over the last month-and-a-half of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Twittersphere erupted in wild speculation that the alleged billionaire had prepared with lines other than his taking points. “Notice Trump sniffling all the time. Coke user?” ventured Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, one-time presidential candidate, and, not incidentally, licensed medical doctor. Others consulted drug authorities, of a sort. Self-described cocaine “expert” Carrie Fisher told a curious fan that she “ABSOLUTEY” thought Trump appeared like a “coke head.”

Dean’s jab, relatively on par with some of Trump’s own supposed zingers, was immediately scrutinized and dismissed by commentators. But it is curious that drugs have only sporadically entered the national conversation when, in recent years, opioid overdoses – usually in combination with other substances – routinely kill about 1,000 Americans a month. Moreover, four states are voting on medical marijuana and five, including the hugely influential California, may fully legalize.

While Trump probably doesn’t toot key bumps before going onstage, it is worth considering in a serious way what a potential future commander-in-chief believes about an issue near and dear to Points readers: drug policy. What follows is an attempted breakdown of Trump’s position on the three key topics mentioned above. I say “attempted” because, like with most things, his often contradictory stance on drugs is characteristically hard to pin down.

Medical Marijuana

Sitting for an interview on the O’Reilly Factor in February, Trump displayed some surprising compassion for others after host Bill O’Reilly called medical marijuana a “ruse”: “But I know people that have serious problems and they did that, they really – it really does help them,” Trump professed.

He didn’t offer any clarifying details but said that he was “in favor of it a hundred percent.”

Of course, Trump would take no action for or against such an initiative at the federal level. “Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states,” he told a Reno crowd during the primaries last year.

Recreational Marijuana

Still toeing the small-federal-government line of the party that gave him its nomination, Trump similarly left recreational weed for states to decide. I think.

During a debate last summer, he opined that “[regulating marijuana] is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that.” When pressed by the moderator about states’ rights to set their own policy, he verbally shrugged: “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado – some big, big problems.” (Again, no specifics.)

Later, at the same rally he proclaimed medical a state issue, he softened his tone. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”

Notably, during the cultural hysteria of the crack epidemic, Trump supported full legalization. “We’re losing badly [bigly?] the War on Drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” When pressed about his 1990 statement last year, Trump must have misremembered. “I said it’s something that should be studied and should continue to be studied. But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now. I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something I would want to do.”

Opioid Addiction

Trump calls the problem of opioid addiction “tremendous.”

He may very well believe that his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border will stem the tide of heroin into the states, but traffickers are responding to demand cultivated domestically.

In any case, don’t expect any enlightened harm reduction rhetoric from a man who idolizes Vladimir Putin. Earlier this year, hardline Russian delegates to the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs insisted that that very term – “harm reduction” – appear nowhere in the resulting document outlining the contours of future global drug policy. Among the common treatment modalities in Russia are reportedly hypnosis, flogging, and comatose electroshock therapy. Unsurprisingly, addiction and HIV transmission through injection drug use are pressing social problems in Russia.

It remains unclear whether the experience of Trump’s own brother Freddy, who died addicted to alcohol in 1981, inspires any empathy for the plight of users. He did, however, give a second chance to at least one Miss USA accused of drug use.

I guess he’ll keep us in suspense!

Check back next week for part II of Point’s election 2016 candidate breakdown.

 

Happy (Late) Halloween from Points!

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Boo! We at Points hope everyone had a safe, fun Halloween. Today, take time to recover from holiday parties, the long walks between neighborhood houses, or the effort of taking down your spooky decorations. We’ll resume our normal posting schedule Thursday, November 3, but in the meantime, as you enjoy your treats from last night, check out our latest post on the myth of drug-laced Halloween candy. (We promise it isn’t toooooo scary!)

Trick or Treat? On Laced Candy and Other Drug Myths

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Beware… or don’t. 

This year, medical marijuana is on the ballot in my home state of Florida, and it’s likely to pass: the latest statewide poll shows 77 percent of Floridians support the proposed constitutional amendment.

But the remaining 33 percent aren’t taking this lying down. On Monday, some county sheriffs held a press conference ostensibly on Halloween safety. Instead, surrounded by costumed children for full effect, they warned citizens about the supposed risk of marijuana edibles being passed out to unsuspecting youth.

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Courtesy, Florida Sheriff’s Association

If you rolled your eyes, you’re not alone. Several news outlets immediately speculated that the press conference was an effort to rally anti-marijuana enthusiasm before election day. None of the law enforcement officials present could identify a prior case in the state, though they insisted the “threat” is real.

Florida parents likely have little to fear next Monday night, regardless of the imminent election results. Even in newly legal states, no one (well, no child) found a “Pot Tart” or “Zonka Bar” in their Halloween haul last year. (And, when you think about it, how many people were handing out chocolate liquor cordials before then?) Plus, the idea of adulterated candy is nothing new. Snopes identified variants of this trope, including poisoned, razor-containing, or intoxicating children’s confections, going back decades. Only a few spuriously related incidences have ever been documented, and those have little or no connection to the actual goings-on of the holiday.

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But drug myths like laced Halloween candy can be read as classic examples of folklore, or what scholars call cultural sets of beliefs shared to rationalize complex, unknown, or unknowable phenomenon. And folklorists will tell you these kinds of urban legends aren’t just for debunking. In her book on rumor in African American culture, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Black folklorist Patricia Turner related that these claims are often not representative of “typical” beliefs. Instead, they offer novel insights into “pattern[s] of thought” through “an under-studied folk tradition.”

Folklorists like Turner, Gary Alan Fine, and Jan Harold Brunvand have for decades implored us, not to question the “objective” “truth” of these ideas, but to analyze what anxieties they reveal within their constituencies. It doesn’t necessarily matter if, as some profess, the CIA introduced crack to American cities, or methadone causes cancer, or suburban stoners would divvy up their stash with neighborhood kids. But those repeated ideas, true or false, sincere or not, have real implications.

What anxieties can you identify in this case, and in our mythic drug discourse more broadly?