“Doubleplusungood” – NORML’s Prisoners of War on the Front Lines of Sentencing Reform

In the early nineties, a woman from Alabama, responding to a prisoner survey conducted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) on behalf of her incarcerated husband mused, “…someday, [marijuana] will be legal. Maybe there will be a lot of non-violent people released from the Government and bac [sic] to their families.” The statement has proven remarkably prescient, as recent events surrounding both legalization and sentencing reform have shown. It is also clear that despite these promising new steps, obstacles and controversy remain.

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We’re getting there

On January 12, 2016, Wendell Callahan brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend and her two children in Columbus Ohio. The story in The Columbus Dispatch quickly informed readers that Callahan had “twice benefited” from retroactive reductions in federal sentencing guidelines. This was in reference to a 2014 decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent commission in the judiciary, to first reduce federal sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and later under intense public pressure, to make these changes retroactive.

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Tequila for the Tourists: Mexico City’s New Museum of Agave Intoxicants

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She visited the New Museum of Agave Intoxicants in December 2015. Enjoy!

In December 2015 I found myself in Mexico for a new research project. Although my work had nothing to do with intoxicants (the subject of my first book), I couldn’t resist stopping by the Museo del Mezcal y Tequila (Museum of Mescal and Tequila) one free afternoon.

In years of travel, I’ve visited many intoxicants museums. The Drug Elimination Museum of Yangon, Myanmar attempts to scare schoolchildren away from methamphetamine with graphic images of dying addicts and bloody battles between traffickers and government forces. In Thailand’s Golden Triangle, not one but two Opium Museums recount the history of the drug in Southeast Asia and China as a tale of Western oppression and spur to state-building. The Coca Museum in Cuzco, Peru seeks to replace the legal, mildly stimulating plant’s fatally tarnished image as the raw form of cocaine, with a more positive association with national culture. Free coca-filled chocolates round out the experience. (They taste terrible.)

The Museo del Mezcal y Tequila, which opened in 2010, is a different experience altogether. Like Mexico’s other famed agave museums in Cancún and Guadalajara, this institution might best be characterized as a promotional opportunity for the alcohol with the fastest-rising sales in the United States. Although tequila has long suffered from its association with shots, drunk college students, and intense hangovers, in the past decade it has followed vodka, whiskey and bourbon into the luxury sector. Reflecting increasing demand among consumers for artisanal comestibles, most growth has occurred in super-premium sales (that is, tequilas that cost more than $30 per bottle and consist of pure agave). Meanwhile, mescal, associated even more firmly with “authentic” local production, is also experiencing booming growth—in fact, many tequila brands today have begun to fear its competition.

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The facade of the Museo del Mezcal y Tequila in Mexico City

 

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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.

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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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Fiction Points: Scott McClanahan

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Scott McClanahan (credit: HTMLGiant)

Scott McClanahan is the author of the novel Hill William (2013), the nonfiction work Crapalachia: A Biography of Place (2013), and the short story collections Stories (2008), Stories II (2009), Stories V! (2011), and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012), which includes the out-of-print Stories and Stories II. He cofounded the production company and press Holler Presents with Chris Oxley, who plays beside McClanahan in the band Holler Boys. McClanahan also makes films, available online via Holler Presents. Crapalachia received positive reviews from the New York TimesThe Paris Review, Paste, and The Washington Post, among others; The Huffington Post gave Stories V! a heartfelt rave, and The Fader has called McClanahan “one of [its] favorite writers.”  He appeared on Dzanc Books’ “20 Writers to Watch: An Alternate List” list in 2010 and won Philadelphia’s third Literary Death Match in 2012. He lives in West Virginia with his wife, the writer Juliet Escoria, who has also been featured on Points.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

First, I’d never introduce myself as a writer, but I’d probably ask them about being a nun or a penguin. That seems a hell of a lot more interesting. I think if you found a penguin talking you should probably ask the talking penguin about how it learned to talk rather than babbling about your stupid writing. “Well, it’s called flash fiction Mr. Penguin because it’s really short and flashy.” Nah.Read More »

#KEITHJACKSONMATTERS: The Kid That Sold Crack To The President

crack address. kennebunkport.On September 1, 1989 two disparate worlds within the same nation briefly overlapped. Then President George H.W. Bush and his speechwriters mulled over what would be the new leaders first address to the nation while vacationing at the Bush compound in affluent Kennebunkport, MA.  Far removed from the shores of Kennebunkport, in the shadows of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, 18 year-old Keith Timothy Jackson toiled in the District crack trade, chasing his iteration of the american dream.  As Bush and his operatives searched for a tool to dramatize a forthcoming speech on the nation’s drug control strategy, they stumbled on just the right “prop,” local Spingarn High School senior, Keith Jackson.  crack address. spingarn

In his own admission of events, Bush concedes the “first Oval Office address for a President is a big deal.”  Bush wanted to set the tone for his administration, one avowedly rooted in promises of law and order, stability, and the security of a CIA past. According to Bush, the 2.4 ounce bag of crack cocaine that he would hold before the nation–one purchased in a drug sting involving Jackson–was the “perfect prop.”  A closer look suggests that the crack in question was not the only politically useful prop at the drug war’s disposal.  While Bush only managed to hold up that plastic bag by the nape, he may well have been holding up Jackson, and countless underclass youth like him before the nation.  In addition to Jackson and those that fit the drug courier profile, the neighborhoods in which they resided also became bush crack address.useful background noise in the broader chorus of the crack scourge.

The message of the address was clear.  Crack had already eaten up the rotten core of cities nationwide and threatened to do the same to more prized and affluent neighborhoods absent swift, aggressive government action.  Jackson, the drugs he purveyed, and the communities that harbored youth like him were the threat to be punished and controlled.  To drive this point home, Bush and his handlers wanted to send the message that crack was being bought and sold anywhere.  Given that this was far from the case in reality, the DOJ and DEA were asked to manufacture a reality in which crack cocaine was sold “near the White House.”  Enter unwitting local youth and disposable citizen Keith Jackson.  In the words of one White House aide, Bush “liked the prop” because it “drove the point home.”  The dramatic prop would show how the crack trade had spread to even the President’s own neighborhood, even if it really hadn’t.  Read More »

Fiction Points: Elissa Washuta

elissawashutapicElissa Washuta is the author of Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control (2015) and My Body is a Book of Rules (2014), the latter of which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Washuta has received fellowships and awards from Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Her essays have appeared in Buzzfeed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Literary HubSalon, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and teaches nonfiction in the Institute for American Indian Arts’ MFA program, where she is also the faculty advisor for Mud City Journal. Additionally, she serves as the undergraduate advisor for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, from which she earned her MFA. She lives outside Seattle.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Differently than I would answer almost anyone else, probably, because my first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is about sex, (psych) drugs, violence, alcohol, Indigenous identity, and the nuns who tried to teach me how to live. I might whisper to the penguin that I still have all the issues of Cosmopolitan from December 2007 to May 2011 that I used to create a quote-comparison of the magazine’s sex tips and text from The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Prescribing Information,” one of the chapters in My Body Is a Book of Rules, takes the form of a list of the prescription drugs for bipolar disorder I used and, occasionally, abused between 2006 and 2009. The voice is inspired by that of the information pharmacies dispense alongside prescription drugs. Throughout the book, I write about the effects—helpful and harmful—of those drugs, including Seroquel, Abilify, Xanax, Ativan, and lithium.Read More »

Fiction Points: Elizabeth Ellen

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Elizabeth Ellen reads from Fast Machine

Elizabeth Ellen is a writer and editor who resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is the author of the story collections Before You She was a Pit Bull (2006) and Fast Machine (2012), an assemblage of her best work from the last decade. A chapbook of her flash fiction, entitled Sixteen Miles Outside of Phoenix, appears in Rose Metal Press’ A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (2008), and Ellen released a poetry collection, Bridget Fonda, in 2015. Her short story “Teen Culture” won a Pushcart Prize in 2012, and her work has been published online or in print by American Short FictionBOMBHTMLGiant, The GuardianLazy Fascist ReviewMcSweeney’s, MuuMuu House, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn among other venues. Ellen also co-edits the journal Hobart and oversees its book division, Short Flight/Long Drive Books.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I tell them the same thing I tell everyone who asks that question: myself. Because I’m a narcissist and solipsistic. And the two nuns and the penguin don’t interest me half as much as I interest myself. LOL. Though I can’t imagine telling anyone in a bar I’m a writer. Read More »

Heroin: The Great Lie

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest blogger Liz Greene. Greene is a dog-loving, beard-envying history nerd from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch up with her latest misadventures on Instant Lo or follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene.

Like so many of our modern “wonder drugs”, heroin was born of necessity. Unfortunately, the promise of a non-habit forming solution to morphine addiction turned out to be false, and a new national dependence was formed. This is the story of heroin.

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In the 1800’s, opium use had taken a toll on the country. With doctors prescribing opium and its derivatives for everything from coughing to “women’s troubles,” many patients had become addicted to the much used cure-all, leaving doctors and pharmacists scrambling for an alternative.

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Fiction Points: Mira Gonzalez

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Mira  Gonzalez (credit: her Tumblr)

Mira Gonzalez is the author of the poetry collection i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together (2013) and Selected Tweets (2015), a collaborative double-book with recent Fiction Points interviewee Tao Lin. Her work has appeared in Vice, Hobart, MuuMuu House, The Quietus, and elsewhere. Gonzalez’s poems, tweets, essays, and musings are also available for your reading pleasure on her Tumblr page, at Thought Catalog, and in the two drug-infused columns she writes for Broadly. In 2014, i will never be beautiful enough… made the shortlist for the Believer Poetry Award; Flavorwire named Gonzalez among its “23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013,” and her book has been reviewed by The RumpusNylon, Vice, and other publications. Gonzalez lives in Brooklyn and hails from Los Angeles.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I would probably be too confused by the penguin in a bar and concerned that my writing would offend the nuns to even tell them my name. I get worried about offending people. I want everybody to like me.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
I mean, if drugs and alcohol are what they find most interesting then I guess they would be most interested in my drug and alcohol use, particularly my use of less common drugs such as DMT. Or, I guess what I’m saying is that if I were an alcohol and drug historian, I would be most interested in less common, particularly psychedelic drugs, such as DMT.

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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.”

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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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