Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Nancy Campbell

howie_bwEditor’s Note: On April 25, 1953, Howard S. Becker, a graduate of the University of Chicago’s famed School of Sociology, presented a paper at the meeting of the Midwest Sociological Association to a room of about a dozen people. It was based on fifty interviews with marijuana smokers and his “irregular and unplanned observation” of their habits, all of this taking place in his “social laboratory” of Chicago. If the confused questions he received afterward were any indication, what Becker sought to explain was stunningly avant-garde: at the core of his paper was a new conception of how and why marijuana smokers got high. As he explains in the new preface to his 1953 book Becoming a Marihuana User“I liked the idea of understanding the characteristic ‘getting high’ experience not as an unmediated pharmacologically induced event, but rather as the result of users’ interpretations of those effects.” This emphasis on ideas that few, if any, sociologists were discussing at the time – personal experience with drug use and individual users’ interpretations of its effects – meant that Becker was talking about things like peer influence and “set and setting” over a decade before Timothy Leary discussed the concept in reference to LSD.

Marijuana was a quiet drug in 1953. It was smoked, and by “many people,” as Becker wrote, but it wasn’t “a Social Evil which deserved a place in the ‘Social Problems’ course every sociology department taught.” Instead, “relatively few people used marijuana and they didn’t make a lot of trouble, so despite the efforts of some authorities, no public was crying out to get rid of the practice.”

So how did the young graduate, who landed a research position on the staff of the Chicago Narcotics Survey, come to write an essay that shaped much of the drug scholarship to come? Mostly by hanging out in jazz clubs as a teen.

Becker BecomingAs Nancy Campbell, the first scholar to participate in our new, six-part roundtable discussing the rerelease of Becker’s 1953 text, will show, it was Becker’s early experiences playing piano in jazz and strip clubs in World War II-era Chicago that exposed him to the world of “deviants” and outsiders who became the primary research subjects of his long and influential career. Better known for his 1963 study Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Becker’s first book is finding renewed relevance and acclaim today, as the University of Chicago rereleases it with a smart new cover and streamlined design. Praising the prescience of his “wise words,” Andrew Weil said that Becker’s work long ago “pointed the way toward a more enlightened, rational view of cannabis.”

Becker argued that most marijuana smokers were students of the drug long before they became “social deviants” or consistent smokers. They had to be brought into the community by other, seasoned drug users, who showed them how consumption was done. The first session was invariably a disappointment: smokers didn’t feel any effect because, as Becker put it, “you had to learn to be high.” That meant piecing together a narrative to understand the experience, and then wanting to experience that sensation time and again. After talking with fifty regular smokers, Becker identified the three steps that needed to be taken in order to become a marijuana user:

1.) Learn how to smoke in a way that produces real effects

2.) Recognize the effects and connect them back to the drug’s use

3.) Learn to enjoy these effects, and actively seek out recreating them

From teacher to student, marijuana spread across the country in the 1960s, and Becker saw this kind of shared knowledge creating a legitimate “drug culture,” with experienced smokers bringing new users into the fold. With more people learning how to “properly” use the drug, Becker watched the incidence of unpleasant drug experiences diminish, as remedies were proposed for experiences that remained unsound, and as fears of police intervention were minimized. (Well, for some; several of our panelists will discuss this idea later on).

In a celebration of his work, Points has gathered together five of the most prominent voices in the field of drug studies to comment on this rerelease and the lasting importance of Becker’s work. Ranging from examinations of the book through the lenses of race relations to modern policy recommendations, our five contributors – Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart – have each written a short essay on what Becker’s six-decade-old paper means to them, and where they see its applications today. Their contributions will be run every Tuesday from now through October, with the final contribution coming from Howard Becker himself. We are thrilled and grateful to host such a conversation.

In our first contribution, Nancy Campbell, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, remembers an interview she conducted with Becker in 2005, along with her current thoughts on the lasting importance of his work.

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The Forgotten Drug War: Dorothy Sullivan, Informant (Chicago, 1941)

“There was not the least sign of social disorder in 1942”

—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaking at the 100 Years of Heroin Conference, Yale University, 1998

Screenshot 2015-08-27 09.27.33Dorothy Sullivan was an informant for the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. On Tuesday, January 22, 1942, she was scheduled to testify in federal court in support of the government’s case against two men charged with heroin sales. She never made it to court. Instead, she fell, screaming and on fire, from eighth floor of a South Dearborn office building. Passers-by described looking up when they heard screams, and seeing what looked like a “flaming bundle of rags” plunging to the street. Dorothy Sullivan was killed instantly when she hit the ground, just one of an uncounted number of narcotics informants to meet a violent end over the course of the war on drugs. Their stories are rarely told.


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Alcoholism in Communist Yugoslavia


(Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Mat Savelli, a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.)

Yugoslavia had a problem with alcoholism.

Or at the very least, that’s what the country’s psychiatrists generally thought. During the Communist era (from the end of the WWII through to the country’s collapse in 1991), leading Yugoslav physicians routinely warned about the population’s rapid descent into widespread alcoholism.

Year after year, the statistics on drinking seemed to grow. Yugoslavs were consuming more and were beginning to drink heavily at a younger age. Even more problematically, excessive drinking seemed to be spreading to new populations, with women and the country’s substantial Muslim population increasingly taking to booze.

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Public Disservice

Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.

If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white cameronsuburban youth—potential victims. A litany of mainstream white celebrities offer their voices to variations of the same message; beware or the dangerous pusher and “just say no.” Kirk Cameron willisadvises youth, “Come on, say no to drugs.” Bruce Willis also invokes the “just say no” tagline in his PSA, reminding children sternly to “be the boss” and make their own decisions. In the same year (1987), Willis seagramsappeared in a series of advertisements for Seagram’s Liquor clad in a white Miami Vice suit with multiple women on his arms. The tagline of the Seagram’s advertisement: “This is where the fun starts.”

In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of peewee.cocaine and it can kill you. So every time you use it you can risk dying. Doing it with crack isn’t just wrong, it could be dead wrong.” Before he took to talking to chairs in public, Clint Eastwood also joined the fray as he channeled his best Dirty Harry. “You see this cute little vial here, that’s eastwood.crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form. It can kill you.” As with a series of PSA’s geared against crack, the postscript of the spot reads “Don’t even try it. The thrill can kill.” Brat Packer Ally Sheedy appeared in the same line of ads reminding Breakfast Club fans again “crack kills.” Other ads feature an undertaker and a businessman’s funeral, purportedly all casualties of crack.  This myth marred the period, advanced most prominently by the overdose of basketball star Len Bias. Unfortunately, Bias was hardly a first-time user, nor did he overdose on crack, but rather, high-grade cocaine.Read More »

Legal Marijuana – Now and Then

Former member of 98 Degrees Nick Lachay supports Responsible Ohio
Former member of 98 Degrees Nick Lachey supports Responsible Ohio

(Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Adam Rathge. Enjoy!)

As of last week the political group known as ResponsibleOhio successfully secured enough signatures to put their controversial marijuana legalization measure on the state’s November ballot. In the coming months voters in the state (like me) will surely be subjected to campaigning from both supporters and detractors. Regardless of position, almost everyone agrees that the proposed Ohio measure is different from those already passed in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Supporters will argue that is a good thing. They suggest the ResponsibleOhio plan is better than the current prohibition regime, that it will raise millions in tax revenue, and that limiting production to ten highly controlled grow operations will allow them to amply supply the market while ensuring less marijuana leaks into black markets or across state lines. Detractors will continue to assert that ResponsibleOhio’s plan will enshrine a constitutional cartel (or monopoly) on marijuana that benefits only its group of wealthy supporters, while allowing them to restrict the market and price to their control with limited regard to public health and safety. What we are highly unlikely to see in this debate, however, is a  look at historical cannabis regulations in the United States prior its federal prohibition in 1937. This is unfortunate, since there are perhaps some very interesting lessons to be learned from a period in which cannabis was generally legal but often restricted.

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The Forgotten Drug War: Unknown Malaria Victim (New Orleans, 1932)

“The real war will never get in the books”–Walt Whitman, 1875

On October 31, 1932, Charity Hospital in New Orleans admitted a comatose man, diagnosed with malaria and thought to be an opiate addict. The patient deserted the hospital after being revived. Two days later, he was once again brought to Charity hospital, again in a coma. He died the following day. Over the course of the next month, five more Charity Hospital patients, all injecting drug users, died of malaria. Over the course of the following year, a total of 48 injecting drug users were admitted to the same hospital with diagnoses of malaria, 10 of whom died.


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Fiction Points: David Dellecese

DavidDDavid Dellecese is the writer and co-creator (with illustrator Andrew Cieslinski) of the comic-book series Holidaze, about a bar at which a cast of holiday and other mythical icons imbibes and unwinds. Holidaze has earned praise from fellow comic writers such as Todd Dezago and blogs including Bleeding Cool, Comic Crusaders, Panels on Pages, and Pipedream Comics. In addition to his work on Holidaze, Dellecese writes the blogs The Dorky Daddy and All-Star Comics Review. He is an award-winning print, broadcast, and online journalist and screenwriter, and his filmmaking was recognized by the mayoral proclamation that turned October 7, 2006 into “David Dellecese, Filmmaker Day” in the CIty of Utica, New York 

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

With that kind of lineup at the bar, I’d think we were already IN the comic.

But if they asked, I’d tell them I write a comic book series about what holiday and mythical icons like Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy do when they punch out at the end of the day, which usually involves commiserating over drinks at their favorite bar, Holidaze, and getting into some type of trouble.

The cast of Dellecese's Holidaze.
The cast of Holidaze.

I’d also be sure to tell them that it began as a digital comic available online and on mobile devices through Amazon Kindle or the comic service comiXology, and I’d be especially sure to tell them that we have a 142 page print collection of Holidaze hitting Amazon in…I believe, the Fall. Because I’m told that penguin has money to spend and those two nuns like to let their habits down and have a few laughs now and then. Read More »

The Intoxication Cure: Sickness, Sadness, and the Self-Medication Hypothesis

wine laced with marijuana. I'd need a cup of coffee after that.
Wine laced with marijuana. I’d need a cup of coffee after that.

When we use a drug off label because it makes us feel good and we are tired of feeling bad, or calm nerves with a glass of wine, or have an extra shot of espresso to get through a long day, we are self-medicating. “I’d better figure out where to score some pot,” my friend said before beginning her treatment for breast cancer. People self medicate. Obviously.

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Fiction Points: Kevin Maloney

                 Author Kevin Maloney

Kevin Maloney is the author of the novel Cult of Loretta (2015), which centers on a fictional drug that blends the eye-opening properties of psychedelics with the depressant effects of heroin–and stranger elements sprung from its creator’s imagination. An excerpt from Cult of Loretta appeared at Vol. 1 Brooklyn in June. Maloney’s short stories have been selected for publication in such venues as Hobart, PANK, Monkeybicycle, and Pamplemousse, among others. A graduate of Johnson State College with a resume that includes stints in teddy bear sales, teaching, apprentice electricianship, organic farming, and more, Maloney now works as a web developer when not writing. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his partner and daughter. 

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’d say I’m a fiction writer working in the dark comic tradition of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. If the nuns and penguin weren’t familiar with those writers, I’d say that I write humorous stories about the wonders and horrors of being alive.

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

In my novella Cult of Loretta, the majority of the characters become addicted to a fictional drug called “screw.” The drug is an amalgam of substances, incorporating the otherworldly hallucinations of DMT with the addictive/destructive aspects of heroin. Specifically, screw makes its users believe they’re inside of their mothers’ vaginas, about to be reborn as butterflies. I utilized a fictional drug because I wanted it to serve fantastical literary purposes, not document an actual substance.Read More »

Toxicology, Conspiracy, and History

After John Crawford, III, was shot dead in a suburban Ohio Wal-Mart by police who mistook a toy gun he was holding for a real one, the Montgomery County coroner’s office received his body for post-mortem examination. The coroner also received the body of Angela Williams, a 37-year-old white woman who had been shopping at Wal-Mart at the time of the shooting, and who suffered a heart attack while fleeing the scene and died hours later. Autopsies performed on these two victims of accidental homicide included routine toxicological tests we might logically expect to be identical. Yet, according to the reports, “B Service” testing for alcohol and illicit drugs was requested for Crawford, while “A Service” was requested for Williams.

At the Montgomery County coroner’s office, both A and B Services include a simple test for the presence of alcohol and a type of screening, known by its acronym ELISA, for drugs of abuse. (This method is unsophisticated enough to be available in an affordable home drug-testing kit.) However, the B Service package requested for Crawford also included the more sensitive and pricey test for “basic drugs” by GC/MS, a technique known as the gold standard in toxicology. GC/MS is commonly employed to confirm the presence of cannabinoids after a positive ELISA result, and to quantify estimated levels in the blood. Crawford tested positive for THC, which was confirmed by GC/MS to be at levels consistent with recent use of marijuana in a living person. For good measure, the county also confirmed this positive finding with a urine test.

Even though B Service is a more time-consuming set of tests, and in spite of the fact that Crawford and Williams were killed on the same day, Crawford’s report was completed and signed by the deputy coroner more than two weeks before Williams’. Crawford’s report was almost certainly considered during the secret proceedings of the grand jury that declined to indict Crawford’s shooter, Beavercreek Police Officer Sean Williams. When Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine released Crawford’s toxicology report to the public the day after this decision, the Dayton Daily News led its article with the finding that Crawford had marijuana in his system at the time of the shooting. Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger told the News that Crawford had used marijuana in the past several hours before his death, calling it “acute use, that is recent, (within) hours.”


John Crawford, III

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