“This Is Your Brain on Drugs”: Teaching Drug History

About midway through the semester last fall my department asked me if I wanted to teach my own course in the spring. My dissertation was basically complete and, since I wasn’t going on the academic job market this year, I felt that I had the time to dedicate to what I knew would be a fairly demanding task.

Prepare to Learn(Be prepared. Be very prepared.)

I also knew what I wanted to teach. After writing a 450-page dissertation on the shifting nature of marijuana laws in the 1970s and ‘80s and the role that social activism played in catalyzing these changes, I knew that I wanted to teach a course about the history of drug use and anti-drug activism in the United States – the good, the bad, and the ugly of all of it.

There’s not a lot of guidance out there on how to teach this material. There are endless websites, articles and programs on teaching children and young adults how to avoid drug use, detailing the dangers and pitfalls of addiction, but there are very few unbiased, historical resources that talk about the nature of American drug laws or the influence of drug use and anti-drug activism on our culture. For the most part, discussions of drug use and the ongoing drug war are relegated to criminal justice programs or are taught by the few dedicated drug historians who have made this subject an integral part of their careers. This meant I was pretty much going it alone, piecing together a syllabus with what I hoped would be sufficient depth and scope from the materials I had come across in my own research, or those I had noticed and appreciated in the past.

The novelty of starting afresh was thrilling. Basically, I had no rules, no “pedagogical methodology” of which to speak. I wanted only to present the most informative, widest-ranging survey of American drug history possible, with cultural resources like films, music, and even museum exhibits added to the mix. Being located in Washington, D.C., was particularly helpful since I could send my students to the DEA museum for their final paper’s critique, and since I was teaching in the American Studies department, they naturally expected the course to be interdisciplinary. We would read chapters from Martin Torgoff’s Can’t Find My Way Home, articles on marijuana legalization from the New Yorker, and watch films like Dazed and Confused or Winter’s Bone, often all in the same week. My students had a great time. So did I.

But what was particularly telling was how recent, and therefore how insufficiently understood, much of our modern history about drug use is. The early years are fairly simple: opiate abuse in the nineteenth century, the effects of Progressivism on pharmaceutical sales, the Anslinger era and hippies and Nixon. The story followed a common theme: Americans would use a drug, often in vast numbers. This drug use would then become problematic. Increased anti-drug enforcement would result. QED.

We took David Musto’s theory as our guide. Musto, the Yale historian who died in 2010, had argued as early as 1973 that American drug use occurred in cycles, and that the pendulum of public thought was constantly swinging between the poles of widespread acceptance and vilification. And history, for many decades, held this as true: marijuana, for example, was so popular it was decriminalized in a dozen states between 1973 and 1978, before skyrocketing rates of adolescent use turned public approval around and the drug was the demonized staple of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program.

david musto(The man, the myth, the legend: David Musto, 1936-2010)

But this model no longer holds so fast. After I taught them about the parent movement and the Reagan administration’s punitive turn in the war on drugs, we entered into terra incognita, the unknown land of the recent past. Sure, we talked about Woodstock ’94, “I didn’t inhale,” and medical marijuana. We discussed Prozac and the long history of mood-altering drugs. And, naturally, we talked about ADHD medications and meth. But once you get into the late ‘90s and 2000s, the natural line of drug history that developed so smoothly in decades past is interrupted, often jarringly, but how strange our nation’s relationship with drugs is today. With medical marijuana approved in 21 states and D.C., with two states legalizing its sale, and with doctors testing the use of psychedelics like mushrooms and LSD for those suffering from PTSD, the pendulum between approval and condemnation is no longer so clear. We’re in limbo these days, and that’s hard to teach.

Additionally, we had to talk about the racial ramifications of the drug war, a topic that has recently become disturbing clear. We read two chapters from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and my students were both intrigued by and unsurprised by Alexander’s claims. That the drug war is racist, that it targets non-white men, and that it can be seen as the most recent iteration in a long line of racial oppression were not new ideas for my students, nor were they in any way controversial. Instead, they were taken as a simple truth, and one that pushed many of my students to argue – rather eloquently, I thought – that simply legalizing marijuana or decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs will not stop the racial targeting of non-white men. No longer incarcerating people for mild drug offenses would be a good start, but it would treat a symptom of larger forms of structural inequality, not the disease itself.

In our last week together, I asked my students what I forgot. What drugs didn’t I talk about enough, if I talked about them at all? How could I improve the course if I were to teach it again? Their answers were great. They wanted to know more about the history of drug abuse on college campuses, in order to understand why so many of their fellow students were abusing speed, cocaine, ADHD medications, molly and alcohol. Celebrity drug culture could fill at least a lecture or two. And what about the abuse of “alternative drugs” – Krokodil, bath salts, poppers, Robotripping, sizzurp, drinking Purell, and beezing? They also wanted to watch episodes of Cops and Intervention.

Teaching drug history was one of the most satisfying and entertaining things I’ve done in grad school, and it seemed like my students enjoyed it as well. Any thoughts on your own experience in teaching drug history, or things you think I should include for the next time? You can see my syllabus on my website.

DUIA Class(Teach Your Children Well: Drug Use in America After 1945 at George Washington University, Spring 2014)



The Points Interview — Todd Meyers

Editor’s note: Points welcomes Todd Meyers, a medical anthropologist at Wayne State University, to discuss his new book, The Clinic and Elsewhere: Addiction, Adolescents, and the Afterlife of Therapy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013).

meyers front cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The book tells the story of a small group of teenagers (some quite young) who abuse opiates (heroin, prescription painkillers) as well as other drugs, and what drug dependency treatment was like for them. I met most of them during their time at a residential drug treatment center in Baltimore – a treatment center that, oddly enough, was once a monastery. I was fool enough to attempt following them around for long periods of time to gain an appreciation of how addiction and treatment ­took shape in their lives – how these two “modes” (drug dependency and its treatment) blur in unexpected ways. And that’s really one of the key arguments of the book – that clinical activities and thought reach into this thing we call “the social” and vice versa, thus the title of the book, The Clinic and Elsewhere. All of the kids I followed were treated with a relatively new pharmaceutical therapy (buprenorphine) for withdrawal and replacement therapy, and I followed that treatment process through their time in residential care and back into their homes or other institutional environments. The book is simultaneously about the new pharmaceutical therapy itself – tracing its development and approval as a new treatment modality. The book is a bit theoretical (what are the experiential dimensions of therapeutics? of patienthood? of success and failure of medical intervention? of concern? etc.) and a bit straight storytelling (that is to say, it’s ethnographic, through I’m becoming less and less satisfied with the salience of ethnography as both the technology and product of fieldwork). I attempted, at times clumsily, to make sense of treatment and addiction alongside these kids and their families as they themselves struggled with its meaning.

That’s probably what I’d say.  But in full disclosure, the last time I had a conversation with a bartender it began with hearing how he makes his own bitters from plants in his hydroponic garden and ended with him describing his thesis project (something about lactose fermentation and legal aspects of local food production), so I don’t think the book would be much of a stretch.  In fact, that’s part of my effort – to present work in conceptual terms that is not completely foreign to a broad readership (though not to water things down by any means, keeping with the bartender analogy) – and at the same time I have tried to write against the anticipated trope of marginality. That last part is probably the hardest to convey convincingly. The book is not a series of reworked scenes from The Wire but instead attempts to demonstrate the slow, at times banal, at other times brutal ways in which both addiction and treatment take hold within the domain of individual experience (contrasting a perspective where treatment neutralizes addiction uniformly, or that the experience of treatment is largely unvaried).    Read More »

The Long, Proud Tradition of the Fourth of July Buzzkill

Celebratory drinking has fueled Fourth of July festivity from its inception in the years following 1776, when double rum-rations for the troops, endless toasts at formal dinners, and makeshift booze-stalls at public gatherings became norms. And it was not long before high-minded patriots began to worry over the excesses of republican revelry. Before the Fourth of July oration itself became well established, there emerged within and alongside it a recognizable (if unnamed) theme in Independence Day rhetoric: the identification of that very day’s public drunkenness with whatever was ailing the republic.

All was not well in this republic.
All was not well in 1837.

Over the years, Independence Day jeremiads have taken numerous forms, from grim warnings about public health and morals, to wry satire of overzealous exceptionalism, to the ferocious indictment of national shortcomings. Many have focused on intoxication as the essential expression of decay, of hypocrisy, even of delusion.

Complaints begin with the sheer recklessness of the traditional program of events. Read More »

The Points Interview — William Garriott and Eugene Raikhel

Editor’s Note:  Eugene Raikhel and William Garriott, editors of a just-out collection of ethnographic essays titled Addiction Trajectories (Duke University Press, 2013), share their views in response to the Points’ interview’s probes. 

addiction-trajectories-cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

William Garriott (WG) and Eugene Raikhel (ER):  In Addiction Trajectories we wanted to introduce readers to current anthropological work on addiction, and to propose a conceptual theme which we think unifies much of this new research.  So the book does both of these things.  First, it presents several ethnographic case studies of addiction in contemporary settings ranging from Puerto Rico to Russia, to southern France, to West Virginia, to Las Vegas.  Second, it proposes the concept of addiction trajectories as a framework for understanding these particular cases.  We highlight three particular addiction trajectories: epistemic or knowledge trajectories, therapeutic trajectories, and experiential and experimental trajectories.  These terms capture three key elements of addiction:  the ongoing debate over what, exactly, addiction is; the myriad treatments available for addiction; and the experience of addiction. The term “trajectories” is meant to draw attention both to the different kinds of movement we see taking place in each of these dimensions (change over time, but also movement across social and geographic space) as well as the open-endedness of this movement.

Eugene Raikhel
Eugene Raikhel

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book? 

WG:  I hope they will appreciate the authors’ efforts to show, through ethnography, how history is lived.  Each chapter in its own way shows how the past is embodied in the present.  This may be, in the case of Angela Garcia’s chapter, how a history of land dispossession in New Mexico is implicated in contemporary experiences of heroin addiction, or, in Eugene’s chapter, how the legacy of Soviet-era addiction therapeutics continues to shape treatment of addiction today. Read More »

Dispatches from London: “Under Control?” Conference

This past weekend alcohol and drug scholars across the globe descended upon London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to learn from each other about what they know best, alcohol and drugs.  The interdisciplinary conference does much to encourage scholarship across lines of disciplinary specializations, but also, the nation-state.  Below please find assorted notes from my time abroad:


Perhaps most noted for his work Andean Cocaine, Paul Gootenberg gave a keynote speech addressing the concept of blowback.  Entitled “Controlling Cocaine?  1900-2000,” Gootenberg began with what might be considered an obvious truth for drug historians—that is, that if read from an historical perspective, the term “drug control” is an oxymoron.  Throughout the 20th century, drug control often perpetuates the antithesis of control.  Drug control efforts by the United States have bred more chaos, more illicit trade, more use, and worst of all, more violence.  In supporting his claim, Gootenberg examined the ways in which United States efforts to control the global supply of cocaine produced various unintended consequences.

Originally an economic historian by trade, Gootenberg makes good use of global commodity chains to explain the story of cocaine and attempts at its control.  In framing the long history of cocaine commodity chains and blowback, Gootenberg broke down the century into several distinct phases, each with specific unintended consequences.  In the first forty years of the 20th century, particularly after 1914, the United States attempted to push anti-cocaine measures onto the international agenda.  During this period, Andean trafficking in cocaine remained relatively benign, marginal, and nonviolent.  Between 1948 and 1973, cocaine came to be increasingly criminalized as illicit networks began to shift outward from the Andean region in response to FBN attempts to crush production in the region.  A pivotal moment in cocaine commodity chain development passed in 1960 when traffickers were exiled under the Cuban Revolution.  These exiled traffickers quickly became a Pan-American Network of traffickers, thereby expanding the commodity network for cocaine traffic.  Still though, Gootenberg carefully noted, the trade remained small and fairly peaceful through 1970. Read More »

The Points Interview — Eoin Cannon

Note: Points’ managing editor, Eoin Cannon, favors us, today, with an interview on his just-out, new book, The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture  (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). BTW, Big Congratulations, Eoin!

Cannon-coverDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Sorry, barkeep, but this book is about people who ceased to need your services and then made a realllly big deal about it.  It’s about how and why people have told stories of recovery from alcoholism publicly since the late 19th century.

I focus especially on the legacies of the “drunkard’s conversion” testimonies given in urban evangelical missions and circulated widely in print from the 1880s to the 1910s. Despite their roots in old-time religion, these stories’ urban class dynamics made them compelling to those who saw the knot of poverty, ethnic difference, and vice as a modern social crisis. In personal voices and realistic slum settings, the drunkards’ conversion stories defied the irreversible fates associated with these categories. The practical understanding of salvation they offered also made such tales susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. So instead of seeing conversion stories as individualistically oriented distractions from structural injustices — as skeptical readers today might — many reformers, artists, and intellectuals in this period retold them as stories that modeled a wider social healing by the lights of a variety of social theories, from radical to reactionary. In the context of this contested discourse around the meaning of the drinker’s redemption, literary writers through the modern period told stories of alcoholism with high stakes. The drinker’s descent was a character-based crisis, but one that plumbed modern society’s perceived maladjustment and, possibly, harbored clues to its regeneration.

This programmatic approach to redemption shaped the storytelling conventions available to the budding recovery movement in the 1930s and beyond. A.A.’s pioneers subsumed the contested aspects of the form into a recognizably Depression-era revision of the self, one that understood the limitations of individualism in social as well as in spiritual terms. In mutual-aid circles, these stories could remain highly pragmatic, devoted to A.A.’s “primary purpose.” But public recovery stories since the rise of A.A. have taken the social ethic of mutual aid beyond twelve-step culture and out into the wider society. These stories often depict recovery as the solution to a social problem or even as the model of an ideal society. As such, they have tracked the progress of liberalism since the New Deal era and, I argue, helped to shape its redemptive ethos in the realm of culture. Cannon

So while we may not openly contest the meaning of the modern recovery story, preferring to accept that it simply describes how a sick person got well, the story form is so constructed as to embody foundational claims about the self and its relation to others. If we as a society don’t agree on those claims, neither will we agree on the meaning of recovery — arguably a dissensus increasingly in evidence since the 1960s.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Most interesting might be the things they are most likely to question. First, I started my pre-history of recovery narrative in the postbellum rescue missions, rather than in the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s. I placed a lot of weight on the secular implications of prevailing interpretations of mission testimonies, despite the fact that they had been preceded by an already secular movement a generation earlier. I did so because I found that the rescue mission stories were influential in mediating institutions — church homiletics, progressive reform, academic psychology, realist literature — which in turn informed the redemptive ideals and the storytelling styles more broadly associated with recovery in the 20th century. In other words, the rescue missions provided a master narrative of modern addiction storytelling. Read More »

The Return of the Crack Baby. Again.

“I think that if you say something three times out loud, people take it as fact. And also, I think there are certain ideas that people want to believe, that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those”– Claire Coles

I want to believe

A friend recently posted a Retro Report video about the crack baby myth on my facebook page with the comment, “you called this, like, a year ago.” Another friend emailed me the link and a note, “always ahead of the game, you are.” While I appreciate my friends’ propers, I should point out that people have been debunking the crack baby myth for over twenty years. The correction just can’t seem to stick. If I called anything, it’s that sad fact: we just can’t let go of the crack baby.

As I argued before, one reason why we can’t let go of this myth is that it has the structure of a conspiracy theory, one in which the conclusion is sacrosanct even if the evidence is not yet identified. We have such agile, creative minds, and we really want the crack baby to be real because it has the ring of truthiness. Just the other day, a friend tried to grok the crack baby that wasn’t and concluded that crack still did something – even if that was just to stand in for all the other awful consequences of using crack and, of course, it’s true: some of those awful consequences can have very damaging effects on a human being. I had to agree: in that way, yes, one could say that there is such a thing as a crack baby.

This is not the first time the New York Times has run a story about what it called (in 2009) “The Epidemic That Wasn’t.” A cynic might wonder if maybe debunking the myth has become almost as good a story as the crack baby him or herself, even if it does require a journalistic mea culpa. Perhaps this is a second reason for the persistence of the crack baby myth: saying there is no crack baby makes for some great copy.

The Epidemic that Wasn't
In an article about how crack babies grew up to be fine, the NYT opted for this photo and this caption: “In a 1988 photo, testing a baby addicted to cocaine.” A person could see this photo and caption and get the wrong idea. Seems the NYT couldn’t completely give up on the crack baby in 2008, either.

Read More »

Collier’s 1943 Snapshot of the First Yale Summer School of Alcohol Studies

Note: Readers are encouraged to send potential leads, sources, or thoughts relating to E.M. Jellinek’s life to Judit Ward, at jhajnal@rci.rutgers.edu, or Ron Roizen, at ronroizen@frontier.com.  With thanks in advance, from both of us.

Jellinek and YSS women students 1943“IF YOU saw an Anti-Saloon Leaguer shake the hand of a saloonkeeper,” wrote Amy Porter in the October 30, 1943 issue of Collier’s magazine, “and the two of them walk and talk together as thick as thieves, your first question might well be: Where am I? The answer would have to be: At the School of Alcohol Studies at Yale. Nowhere else, probably, has such an event taken place.”

Placed adjacent these opening sentences was the happy picture shown above, featuring E.M. Jellinek, with a coyly grateful smile, flanked by two clearly delighted Yale Summer School students, one from the temperance tradition and the other from Seagram’s. Porter’s article was titled “Wet and Dry School” – thus telegraphing from the get-go that the new institution took no position on the great alcohol controversy and cultural schism that, by 1943, had preoccupied the nation for more than a hundred years.

Such magazines as Collier’s, Look, and Life provided the photo journalism of their day. Several photos of the Yale school’s activities, faculty, and students accompanied Porter’s text — these credited to Collier’s photographer Hans Knopf-Pix. Four are reproduced in this post.

Porter’s focus on the possibility of a happy coming together — call it a national reunion — of Americans around the alcohol issue illuminated an important and yet little discussed latent function of “the new scientific approach” to alcohol that Jellinek and his Yale school colleagues proffered. Read More »

The Points Interview — Kathleen J. Frydl

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Frydl’s new book, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, is just out from Cambridge University Press. Points welcomes her timely and enlightening interview.

Frydl-book-cover 1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I tell the story of how and why the US government became “addicted” to the modern drug war, choosing prohibition and punishment over treatment and regulation. I argue that the logic behind the particular shape and targets of the drug war (including that which was not targeted) had less to do with crime or addiction, and more to do with the management of state power.

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

To be honest, probably not that much. At several points, I rely on that scholarship, but I can’t say that I actually contribute to it. For readers of this blog, it might be interesting — maybe even troubling, but hopefully stimulating — to hear the story of the drug war narrated through a different voice.  I hope it is viewed as a complement to the literature.

That said, there are some parts of the book that may be of interest. In chapter 5, I argue that methadone clinics lost support for a variety of reasons. Proponents of punishment, recovery movements, and various groups on the left imposed standard medical — as opposed to public health — criteria on maintenance: built around “a crisis followed by a cure” paradigm. This is somewhat different from the goals of harm reduction. Under this more demanding paradigm, the fact that every recovery victory could be celebrated  compensated believers for so much failure. In the public health lens, on the other hand, successful maintenance meant only less to be dismayed about. The outcomes were not so heroic and the narrative not so redemptive. Whether it was the Black Panthers or traditional recovery movements, certain advocates criticized maintenance precisely because it staved off the “crisis” which they felt was needed in order to proceed to the “cure,” whether that cure was sobriety or revolution in the inner city.

Read More »

The Points Interview — John Markert

Editor’s Note:  Hooked in Film: Substance Abuse on the Big Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2013), by John Markert, is due out in June.  Below, author Markert kindly offers his responses to the Points interview’s palatte of probing questions.

Markert-cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender would understand.

Few people have every used heroin or cocaine, yet just about everyone knows that you “shoot” heroin and roll a dollar bill to snort “a line” of powdered cocaine.  These images linger in the mind’s eye because we’ve seen people do this in the movies, even if the images are inaccurate — shooting heroin is rare today, though it continues to be the dominate route of administration depicted in contemporary film.

Movies in contemporary society are a primary way of imparting information about our social world.  We may rely more heavily on film to tell us about drugs than about other social topics since few people have first-hand knowledge about illegal drugs.  Movies, then, become a primacy source of information about who uses what kind of drug, the effect of the drug on the individual, how problematic the drug might (or might not) be in society, and what should be done about the problem, if, in fact, film frames it as a problem.

Heroin, for example, is clearly depicted in film as a deadly drug.  In film, you stick a needle in your arm and you’re as good as dead.  Film ignores the fact that many regular heroin users “chip” at their use and moderate their use depending on heroin’s availability. Film also ignores the fact that while 1.5 percent have played with heroin at some point in their lives, only 0.2 percent can be considered “regular” (past year) users, which means that many people who have experimented with heroin do not become addicts.  The deadly consequences of heroin use depicted in film, though not quite accurate, may not necessarily be a bad thing because it could discourage the casual experimenter from even considering trying heroin.Read More »