Teaching Points: Reflecting on a Learner-Centered Approach to Teaching “Drugs and Trade”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Matthew June. Enjoy!

One student began the class with some knowledge of “purple drank” from her favorite hip-hop music. By the end of the course, that interest had developed into a detailed analysis of how the particular history of the Houston music scene, the rise of “managed care” health insurance, the aftermath of the 1980s crack crisis and war on drugs, and the process of media modeling all fueled the rise and fall of this fad.

Another student began the course with some concerns because he had never written an historical research paper. But a passage about the environmental consequences of colonial drug farming in a class reading sparked his interests as an Environmental Sciences major. Through multiple assignments developing those interests, we were also able to ground them in historical methods. The end result was an interesting study of past concerns about farming psychoactive substance and how they have been reflected and heightened in recent marijuana legalization policies.

L'absinthe

L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas, 1876

One History major wanted to know more about absinthe. Through some preliminary research, he discovered that the federal government banned importation of the drink four years before Prohibition. Performing primary and secondary source research worthy of graduate study, this student presented a fascinating argument about absinthe’s consequential cultural shift from “drink” to “drug” and its sources in developments such as the rise of medical professionalization and dominant cultural fears of the foreign other. He also taught me that, as a drug, the ban on absinthe’s importation was actually overseen by the Bureau of Chemistry, predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration – a subject of my own research.

These projects – and the many other successful student papers – all reveal the vast potential of learner-centered teaching and course design. And the history of “drugs and trade” is one of numerous frameworks for such a design.

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“From Whence It Came”: Rethinking the Federal Role When Discussing the War on Drugs

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew June, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. June’s current work studies the sources of federal power to prosecute national drug laws.

The United States has a massive prison problem. As more attention has been drawn to this stark reality, it has become equally clear that there are no simple solutions or easy explanations. Nonetheless, while many have cited the “war on drugs,” others have dismissed this as too small a part in the larger problem. Last summer a Washington Post Op-Ed argued, “ending the war on drugs would not end mass incarceration.” Taking these back of the envelope calculations a step further, Slate highlighted how reforming the federal system wouldn’t help the country’s 1.3 million state prisoners. This proposition has again come to the fore in debates over Hillary Clinton’s responsibility for the rise of mass incarceration. Arguing against such a conclusion, German Lopez of Vox recently insisted, “Federal policy is not the cause of mass incarceration” because “federal prisons house only 13 percent of the overall prison population.”

June 1

As there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” there are many ways to look at these numbers – especially the fact that over half of all federal prisoners are there for drug charges. While it is reasonable to note how this is only a small step for criminal justice reform, changes in federal drug sentencing could benefit nearly 1 out of 20 people under some form of local, state, or national supervision. Put another way, releasing every federal drug offender might not bring us out of the top spot for world incarceration rates, but even a five percent dent in our overall numbers cannot be dismissed. Just ask my students if they wouldn’t mind dropping from an “A-” to a “B+” and you will get a pretty good sense of how just a slim percent difference can seem mighty important to those directly affected. But this somewhat flippant re-examination of the statistics only belies a small sliver of the overall federal role in the “war on drugs” and its impact on mass incarceration. The 105,000 men and women behind bars for federal drug charges are just the most visible part of the federal role in the national “war on drugs.” And the causes and consequences of that role demand ongoing attention from scholars and others.

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Teaching Points: Using “Drugs and Trade” to Teach and Research American History

This winter I have the pleasure of teaching an upper-level history seminar on “Drugs and Trade in American History.” Working with fourteen undergraduates, I am using the opportunity to apply some principles of learner-centered teaching. In doing so, I hope to take a popular buzzword in teaching philosophies and faculty meetings from the realm of jargon and put it into actual practice. I believe the process of completing an original research project – the course’s primary objective – will prompt students to follow their own path into this history and engage with the themes and topics about which they are most passionate, encouraging the kind of deep learning not always possible in classes driven by content alone. I am also convinced a focus on the history of psychoactive substances – from heroin and cocaine to tobacco and alcohol – can be used to highlight general trends in U.S. history, helping students contextualize information and construct broader frameworks for understanding.

GHWB crack

President George H.W. Bush holding a bag of crack cocaine (1989)

While elements of my course may be unfamiliar, the obstacles it faces should not be surprising. First and foremost, if we expect students to succeed with an original research project, they need the proper instruction and sufficient time to complete the task. Students also need a starting point for their own explorations. We cannot forgo content completely, as it is needed to spark interests, provide context, and form research questions. (Not to mention, we are still in the business of communicating important information about the past.) Attempting to give both objectives sufficient in-class attention, however, can require some tricky balancing acts – a problem compounded by the particulars of my university’s ten-week quarter system.

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“It was a Riot” – Berkeley, the FDA’s Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, and the Progressive Origins of Modern Drug Policing

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Matt June. Enjoy!

From Telegraph Avenue to the steps of Sproul Hall, it was quite a scene in Berkeley, California in the spring of 1966. “That was right in the middle of the free speech movement,” recalled former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Inspector Frank Flaherty, “and the daily riots they had there, all the upset… real interesting time.” Another FDA man, Ed Wilkens remembered being immersed in “the hippie era.” He could still picture walking to lunch on “the main thoroughfare [and] there’d be, you know, ‘Legalize Abortion,’ ‘Legalize Marijuana.’” Joking, “it was Disney Land out there,” Wilkens concluded. “It was a riot.” Despite their own memories of this historic drama, Flaherty and Wilkens’ troupe of actors have often been forgotten or miscast. Nonetheless, their role in and around campus helped set the stage for the content and consequences of our contemporary drug policies.

Charter Day Protest against Vietnam War, Berkeley 1966 (copyright Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune)

Charter Day Protest against Vietnam War, Berkeley 1966 (copyright Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune)

In February 1966, the Food and Drug Administration prepared to launch its new Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) – designed to combat the problem of drug abuse with the first strict federal controls over amphetamines, barbiturates and hallucinogens. Prepping their new agents to investigate the illegal manufacture and distribution of those “dangerous drugs,” officials chose the University of California’s School of Criminology as the location for their training programs. This was a natural choice, though not for the reasons one might first suspect.

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Oscar Hopefuls Contending with Drug War History

(Editor’s Note: Today’s post is brought to you by our contributing editor Matthew June.)

For your consideration… Oscar contenders are hitting theaters, awards season is coming, and more films than you might realize have ties to the history of U.S. drug policy. Although the film barely shows any trafficking and rarely even mentions drugs, the context of Sicario will be obvious to most viewers. Hyper-realistic, violent, and morally ambiguous, the film plumbs the depths of our failed drug war and its devastating consequences for the U.S.-Mexico border region. Without much hope for a viable solution, the film also offers no explanation for why the U.S. finds itself in this position.

Sicario Poster (Lionsgate Motion Pictures) & Bridge of Spies Poster (DreamWorks Pictures)

Sicario Poster (Lionsgate Motion Pictures) & Bridge of Spies Poster (DreamWorks Pictures)

Next on the docket for Academy voters, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies arrives in theaters this weekend. At first glance, the latest starring vehicle for Tom Hanks might seem like the antithesis of Sicario. It is a period-piece drama with a moral protagonist helping Cold War America retrieve one of its heroes. Bridge of Spies is based on the life of former Nuremburg attorney, James B. Donovan (Hanks), who successfully negotiated the release of Captain Francis Gary Powers when the Soviet Union shot down his U-2 spy plane. After this mission – and the focus of Spielberg’s film – ended, however, Donovan took on another assignment that gave him an important supporting role in the development of federal drug policy. Exploring that overlooked history, in turn, offers another vantage for surveying the blighted backdrop of Sicario.

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The Death of Marilyn Monroe and the Birth of “Drug Abuse”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Matthew June, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University. You can follow him on Twitter @Users_Abusers.

For the past four decades, the concept of “drug abuse” has been the foundation of American drug policy. As many drug researchers know, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.drugabuse.gov) provides the scholarly basis for national drug programs. Since 1970, government assessments of potential for abuse have determined the legal status of all drugs. Focused on declarations of “war” against drugs, we have often failed to appreciate how this concept of drug abuse is neither timeless nor politically neutral. In fact, the idea was rarely used before the early 1960s and owes its sudden popularity to a confluence of events surrounding President John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1962 – including the suspicious death of Marilyn Monroe from an overdose of barbiturates that same year, on August 5.

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