The Eyes of the City: Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on the Marihuana Problem in New York

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Fiorello LaGuardia

I recently attended the Urban History Association conference in Chicago, October 13-16 along with Tina Peabody and Shannon Missick, two colleagues from the University at Albany, SUNY, presenting a panel about the shifting focus of municipal resources toward (and away from) issues of trash collection, food access, and marijuana use. I examined the La Guardia Committee Report on the Marihuana Problem in New York, published in 1944. The committee was tasked with investigating the validity of public hysteria surrounding marijuana use in New York City during the so-called Reefer Madness era, which galvanized political support for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

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Harry Anslinger

The committee report stands as a clear refutation of Anslinger’s version of the marijuana threat, and though largely ignored at the time, constitutes a rallying cry for advocates of legalization today who use the report to expose the flimsy bases for the drug’s initial prohibition. The report has thus become a hot new source for historians to re-examine. In a newly published article in the Journal of Policy History, Emily Brooks discusses the disconnect between federal marijuana policy approaches and local marijuana policy approaches, centering the La Guardia report within this policy conflict. Brooks argues that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was able to exert its power to shape marijuana policy and along with an assist from the American Medical Association, to circumscribe medical and scientific inquiries into the plant despite the efforts of La Guardia and the New York Academy of Medicine to counter their power in the late 1930s.

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Gendering Reefer Madness

In their 2011 book, Gendering Addiction: The Politics of Drug Treatment in a Neurochemical World, Nancy Campbell and Elizabeth Ettorre problematize the male-centric knowledges that frame addiction research and treatment programs. They call for a more inclusive treatment strategy that does not consider the neurochemical “male brain” the baseline for recovery. According to the authors, these “epistemologies of ignorance” limit, even eliminate, the useful options available for female addicts.

In many similar ways, epistemologies of ignorance also manifest in the historical record of marijuana users in the 1930s. Perhaps “ignorance” is not quite the right term, even as its effects were just as restrictive, especially for women users in during the decade. But due to the American obsession with gender and sexual normativity during this period, both female and male users (as well as male and female anti-marijuana activists) occupied mutually exclusive discursive spaces from which two separate gendered narratives about marijuana use emerged. Reading past these stereotypes though, utilizing Michelle McClellan’s notion of “damp feminism” (here, and here), historians can make use of these highly problematic portrayals of female marijuana users from this period.

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The Films of Adrian Cowell: Opium stories from the Shan State to Hong Kong to Washington, DC (Guest Post)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcome Hannah Palin (Film Archives Specialist) and Nicolette Bromberg (Visual Materials Curator) from the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. The University of Washington has a wonderful collection of materials by the British filmmaker and journalist Adrian Cowell. Beware, alcohol and drugs historians– once you read their descriptions of the Cowell collection, you might be tempted to book your tickets to Seattle!

In January 2015, the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, received  6 pallets of materials shipped from London. They were stacked high with boxes of 16mm film, audio and videotape, photographs, newspaper clippings, transcripts and log books—covering three decades of work by British filmmaker and journalist, Adrian Cowell. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Adrian Cowell created television documentaries detailing the complex relationships between minority insurgents in a remote region of Burma and the international opium trade originating in Southeast Asia. The Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection contains Cowell’s work tracking the opium trade from its production in Burma to the addicts and dealers in Hong Kong to the drug policy makers in Washington, D.C. It includes the most extensive collection of images of the remote Burmese Shan State in the world, gathered during Cowell’s trips documenting opium merchants, opium caravans, militias, insurgents and other activities related to the opium trade. A year and half after its arrival, Special Collections’ staff, students, and volunteers are still slowly working their way through the collection of over 2000 items, most of which have never before been made public.

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords, Part Two of The Opium Series
Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords,
Part Two of The Opium Series

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The Value of Propaganda as Historical Evidence: Anslinger’s Gore File as Source Material

Editor’s Note: This week, Bob Beach follows up on an earlier post about the Harry J. Anslinger papers. Today, Bob shares some of his findings from the infamous “gore file.”

In roughly four years, between 1933 to 1937, Harry Anslinger led a policy push to marginalize and strictly regulate the use of marijuana in the United States. His victory, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, was the culmination of bureaucratic maneuvering, public lobbying, and the use of extreme, sensationalist propaganda. These facts are not in doubt.

But what of propaganda? What is it? Where does it come from? There is no doubt that propaganda can be completely fabricated. But the most effective propaganda is rooted in some form of truth: cultural anxieties, social tensions, economic hardship. Indeed, all three of these were factors during the 1930s and it seemed like each of these elements found their way into the moral panic that was reefer madness.Read More »

Escape from Custody: A Classic Book and a New Collection

Alcohol and drugs historians have long lamented the archival limitations of studying past substance users. Substance users typically enter the historical record through retrospective oral histories, the archives of hospitals or prisons, or popular books and media. All these sources have shortcomings: oral histories are riddled with the errors of human memory, institutional archives are usually limited to clinical and criminal records, and popular culture is distorted by sensationalism or artistry. As Bob Beach, Miriam Kingsberg, and Joe Gabriel have argued on Points’ pages, finding the “user’s perspective” is historically difficult.

I’d like to introduce researchers to another point of access to the past: Robert Straus’s Escape from Custody: A Study of Alcoholism as Reflected in the Life Record of a Homeless Man (Harper & Row, 1974), a classic text that offers a uniquely detailed portrait of one man’s chronic alcohol use in mid-twentieth century America.

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Reckoning with Anslinger, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gore File

Editor’s Note: This week, Bob Beach continues his discussion of evidence in the archives. This essay is based on his recent trip to the Harry J. Anslinger Papers at Penn State University.

I know he was simply doing his job, but it was a strange experience. This was not my first archive trip. But when the gentleman in charge of the Harry Anslinger papers collection at Penn State approached, by way of introduction, I couldn’t help but notice that he was sizing me up, almost like a bouncer would size up a potential nightclub patron who looked much too young. Perhaps I should have worn a tie.

In an almost accusatorial tone, he wanted to know why I was there, what I was looking for in the collection, what my motives were. He gave me a brief lecture on the importance of accurate note-taking and documentation. After a few minutes talking to him, he realized that I was a serious researcher and would not pose any threat to the collection. But he shared vague war stories about people that have been through the collection, some of whom misrepresented the collection as a whole, and some who stole documents to add to personal collections to add ammunition to what seems like a never-ending war on our first drug czar.Read More »

Parallel to the Grain? Finding Recreational Users in the Archives

For cultural historians looking into the history of drugs, one of the more frustrating obstacles to our work comes from trying to find “the people,” those who used the drugs we are studying. In studies of more recent times, scholars are able to locate individuals, interviewing them about their experiences. But for someone who studies the history of cannabis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the archives are understandably lacking in user voices. In working through this problem, I’ve begun to problematize our conception of drug user. I’d like to share my thoughts and to perhaps get a discussion going in the comments section below.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.
A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

Who uses drugs? A simple Google search of “drug users” yields a sponsored link for Unity Recovery Center, a rehab chain based in Florida. The next four results link to an assortment of informational websites on drug abuse and addiction. Finally, after the image results that, not surprisingly, feature “the faces of meth,” our search takes us to the Wikipedia article “Drug User” which defines the user as “a person who uses drugs either legally or illegally. A drug user may or may not also be a drug abuser, and may or may not have one or more drug addictions.”

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that drug users are only those folks that smoke, sniff, ingest, shoot, or otherwise consume a substance into their bodies. This is confirmed by the image that accompanies the article.Read More »

Shroomer Publications

Editor’s Note: This cross-posting is part of a series featuring items from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo collection recently acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Thanks to Alison Harris, Santo Domingo Project Manager, Gretchen Wade, and Judith Warnement of Harvard’s Botany Libraries for contributing the original post at Houghton’s Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.

What to do if you are looking for the “ultimate guide for safe mushroom picking”? Frank and Cheeri Rinaldo had the answer in 1979 with Safe-pik, a flip book of handy mushroom identification cards featuring photographs by John W. Allen. Measuring only about 2 1/2 by 4 inches it could easily fit in your pocket and deals mainly with Psilocybins, the type of mushrooms that contain a naturally occurring psychedelic compound. There is a helpful disclaimer that children should not take mushrooms, one should never trespass, and that mushrooms should be used for the purpose they were intended … mind expansion.

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Safe-pik mushroom identification cards / [Frank & Cheeri Rinaldo; photographs by John Allen]. [Seattle?]: Shroomer Publications, c1979.
Visual identification of mushrooms is hardly a new concept, as seen by the German publication Naturgeschichte des Pflanzenreiches in Bildern by Dr. Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert.

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The Book of Smoke

Editor’s Note: This cross-posting is part of a series featuring items from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo collection recently acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Thanks to rare book cataloger Ryan Wheeler for producing the original post at Houghton’s Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.

The opium dens prevalent in France and the United States during the 19th century, as well as the culture surrounding them, resulted in copious literature, such as this rarely-seen work: Le livre de la fumée, by French author, musicologist, and student of Chinese culture Louis Laloy. This treatise on opium’s use and history both domestically and in China features a preface by Claude Farrère, author of the novel Fumée d’opium. It was published in 1915 by Dorbon-Ainé in a lavish limited edition of 220 numbered copies with illustrations throughout.

Fumee-1-largeThe Santo Domingo Collection includes several of the 220 copies; the one shown here is bound in full tan morocco with gilt stamping and embroidered cloth endsheets by the French bindery Marius Michel. The binding preserves the publisher’s original wrappers, themselves sumptuously illustrated in color.

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