In 1963, Los Angeles County distributed through the public school system 200,000 copies of a stylishly designed, wide-format brochure printed on heavy paper. It featured illustrations by a Walt Disney artist and a dire message: Your kid might be on drugs.
Targeted at parents of teen-agers, “Darkness on Your Doorstep” used thick margins, modern typefaces, and crisp copywriting to present key information about illegal drugs. Illustrations and photographic compositions mostly depicted a young male desperately trying to cope with or escape from drug addiction. While exonerating the youthful drug user on one hand, the text urged parents to suspect and report him on the other. “Taking dope is different from other bad behavior,” it read. “Once a person becomes an addict, he can’t control his habit. His habit controls him.”
Did the Supreme Court unanimously de-escalate the drug wars last month? The optimist in me says “yes,” and the historian in me agrees.
In Timbs v. Indiana, the Court ruled that the state could not seize and forfeit the plaintiff’s Land Rover as a result of his drug conviction. While this decision alone will not end “policing for profit,” it will subject state asset-forfeiture laws to unprecedented scrutiny. Michigan and South Carolina legislators immediately introduced bills to reform asset forfeiture, for example, and district attorneys in Alabama scrambled to show how their forfeitures are already transparent and constitutional.
Note from Sarah Brady Siff: This post was written by student Cecilia Burtis
In California, the entertainment industry brought drug use to the forefront of public attention, where the constant press coverage of movie stars exposed drug abuse and trafficking in vivid detail. In the 1940s and 1950s, two female stars in particular were known for their well-publicized struggles with drugs, though they occupied very different spaces in public opinion. Judy Garland and Billie Holiday are two contrasting examples of how the drug policies of the 1940s and 1950s selectively punished forms of drug addiction that were considered more dangerous. Although both women fought long battles with drug addiction, the attention given to each, as demonstrated through the media, shows very different receptions of drug dependency.
Garland and Holiday, though traveling career paths that seldom intersected, shared a surprising number of parallels. Garland was born in 1922, Holiday in 1915. Their careers both began when they were young, and they began using drugs at early ages. They were well-known singers, although Garland was an actress as well, and they both struggled with drug and alcohol dependence. They both were checked into treatment several times, both contracted cirrhosis of the liver due to immense alcohol consumption, and both died in their mid-40s of drug-related causes.
In an article recently published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Joseph Spillane has given me some clues on how to proceed in my own work. “Inside the Fantastic Lodge” is Spillane’s consideration of the networks, identity-making and social limitations revealed in Marilyn Bishop’s narration of her days as a young white heroin user in 1950s Chicago. The Fantastic Lodge (1961) is a book-length transcript of interviews with Bishop conducted by sociologist Howard Becker. As Spillane explains, The Fantastic Lodge was a product of the mid-century rise of a sociological approach “that took the individual as the unit of analysis.”
Spillane’s reading of Bishop’s life story construes her as the center of her own universe of social networks. By describing her social world, including the actors in it and outside intrusions upon it, he creates a piece of empirical evidence that is at once specific and universal. Historians, he writes, should continue to do this type of work in spite of a historiographic current that seems to be flowing in a different direction.
Although I have always thought of my research style as inductive—proceeding from my searching and reading rather than from my big idea—I have not really attempted to closely think and write about a single drug user. But now I have a subject whose story seems to require such an approach.
He is Keeny Terán, an adolescent Mexican-American boxer and heroin user from the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. After his meteoric rise on the amateur boxing circuit in the early 1950s (Bishop’s era of heroin use), he became a target of the news media and the police over a drug habit that he described as essential to enduring the pain of boxing, but that had originally sprung from social networks in his neighborhood and possibly at the gym where he trained.
Once targeted, Terán endured a string of public humiliations. They began when he was at the height of his notoriety: recently married, a new father, and seeking to earn a greater share of boxing’s receipts. He was arrested in the locker room after winning a fight, then outed as a supposed narcotics informant (which he denied), prompting death threats against him. Soon afterward he suddenly called off a big match and disappeared, ostensibly to a rehab center. Upon his return, a reporter double-crossed him by revealing his addiction treatment in a splashy story about his “big comeback.” Soon he was again arrested and charged with selling heroin, receiving a five-year prison sentence; about a year into serving it, the media furtively covered his divorce. The moment he hit the streets on parole, the cops marked and hounded him. He did more time, wrote a memoir that might have been lost, and ended up on methadone, which he hated.
Many pieces of Terán’s story are missing and might never be recovered. In pursuit of facts and events, I have failed so far to ask questions about his relationship networks and his internal life, about struggles related to his family and his neighborhood and to the overlapping social worlds of boxing and heroin. More importantly, I have not yet even described these things.
The process of “describing to know” (as I’m calling it) seems to spring rather naturally from a sociological perspective. I noticed this fact last year when Ceci Burtis, a senior sociology major who conducted some research under my hapless guidance, submitted to me a write-up describing similarities and differences between two celebrity drug users. Her skilled process of simply describing aspects of the lives of these two women—Billie Holiday and Judy Garland—was simple and effective. For example, she gave me this comparison chart as a note:
pills: amphetamines & barbituates
heroin and marijuana
alcohol and cigarettes
alcohol and barbituates
middle class family
arrested at least three times
cirrhosis of the liver, depression, hepatitis
cirrhosis of the liver, heart and liver problems
died age 47
died age 44
general organ failure due to chronic drug use
actress at 12 years old
prostitute at 13 years old
rehab/“rest cure” four times, numerous hospitalizations
rehab three times
Marilyn, Keeny, Judy, Billie. One aspect shared by three of these lives is something Spillane describes as the “most salient” of the outside forces that can disrupt social networks and impose costs unevenly on members of those networks: the criminal justice system. Garland perhaps escaped entanglement with the law, but another disruptive force in all these cases (except personally for Marilyn, though it touched her indirectly) was the attention of the news media.
In pursuit of better history, I hope that I can begin to practice a sociological approach to writing about drug users. I also hope you will enjoy reading Ceci’s write-up about Holiday and Garland in the post that follows this one.
Newspapers are extraordinary historical sources in their sheer number and their accessibility. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of them as research on opium in the late 1800s. During this age of cheap print, high literacy rates, and early investigative journalism, much ink was spilled on the puzzling and alluring vice of opium in all its forms.
A number of reporters ventured into the verboten interiors of opium dens in San Francisco and New York to write first-person accounts, or tried it at home or among friends. Their assessments of the experience of smoking opium varied wildly: some wrote about seeing God and paradise, while others dryly concluded the drug was good for little except falling asleep.
Some journalists’ accounts of the opium use of others are stern, Progressive-spirited exposes, while some are sensational and colorful (yellow, to be exact).
But in the newspapers, this era also belonged to humorists. One of Mark Twain’s earliest pieces of reporting described the “comfortless operation” of opium smoking, whereby an experienced smoker “puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke—and the stewing and frying of the juices would well-nigh turn the stomach of a statue.”
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Enjoy!
The current so-called opioid epidemic has placed an urgent frame around drug-related policy debates in Ohio. Here, the current midterm election ballot includes Issue 1, a state constitutional amendment that would convert level 4 and 5 drug felonies—charges for possession and use of drugs—into misdemeanors, somewhat like California’s Proposition 47 in 2014. Ohio would be only the sixth state to take similar measures to reduce drug-related mass incarceration.
So Issue 1 was much on the minds and lips of panelists at “Facing Opioids: Drug Enforcement & Health Policy in Today’s Epidemic,” an Oct. 19 symposium at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. The event reminded me how little I know about current events and policies related to drug control, living, as I and many other historians do, in the past. I appreciated the chance to listen to legal experts in criminal justice and public health talk about Issue 1, drug courts, harm reduction, and other topics related to Ohio’s very high rate of overdose deaths.
Editor’s Note: Want more history about cannabis eradication in the United States? Good news – Sarah Brady Siff was interviewed during the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, and the video is available below. Enjoy!
Sarah Brady Siff – Global Histories: Cannabis from Points ADHS on Vimeo.