This past semester, I taught a course called Altered States: Drugs and Alcohol in America at the University at Albany, SUNY. It was my third version of the course. I had the unique opportunity to design two courses from scratch during my first adjunct gig at Utica College in 2010 and 2011. In addition to the drug course, I also designed a survey-level course on sports in US history. Professionally, this trial-by-fire was enormously beneficial and intensely productive, but for better or for (far) worse, my initial test subjects had to suffer through some serious inexperience as I fumbled through course design, reading lists (painfully long ones…), and lectures. I had wanted to hit every major vein in the field (so to speak) and did it without adequate attention to the broader historical context.
So this spring, I decided to stick with the basics. Rather than point out how drug histories stick out of the general narrative of American history, I wanted to make an argument that the histories of a myriad of psychoactive substances can help us better understand some important trends in the history of the United States. Through my doctoral coursework and achievement of candidacy, I came to this section with a much firmer grasp of the historiographical arguments in the field. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Marco Ramos and Tess Lanzarotta. Ramos is an MD/Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science and Medicine program at Yale University focusing on the production and circulation of scientific knowledge during the Cold War in the global south. Lanzarotta is a Ph.D. candidate in the same department focusing on the ways that contemporary interactions between biomedical researchers and indigenous populations are shaped by their historical antecedents. Together, Ramos and Lanzarotta are teaching a course on the history of drugs in the twentieth century and we’ve invited them to contribute to our “Teaching Points” series. Enjoy!
The idea for our course on the history of drugs developed out of a conversation a few years ago concerning the medical management of opiate addiction in our community of New Haven, CT. We are both graduate students in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University, and Marco is also a medical student at Yale School of Medicine. Having recently completed a clinical rotation at the hospital, Marco reflected on the patient-blaming and suspicion that often accompanies discussions of opiate prescription among physicians. During his rotation, he heard physicians and residents bemoan their patients who requested, and often demanded, opiate prescriptions. He watched as physicians speculated about whether patients were “feigning” their pain to acquire drugs and realized that physicians made judgments about who should receive opiate prescriptions based on imperfect, biased assumptions about what “addicts” looked like racially and economically. Given the large body of medical evidence that demonstrates addiction is not a matter of voluntary choice or individual responsibility, Marco wondered why physicians continued to blame and shame patients for their struggles with addiction.
Tess pointed to the utility of history in understanding opiate addiction in the United States today. She discussed the pharmaceutical companies’ role in this story, as the industry downplayed the addictiveness of opiates and encouraged their widespread use for profit in the medical community throughout the 1980s and 90s. A long history of inadequate consumer protections from the Food and Drug Administration did not safeguard patients from the rapid circulation of this dangerous class of drugs during this period. Though the pharmaceutical industry and a weak federal regulatory body were largely to blame for the growing incidence of opiate addiction across the country, drug enforcement held individual patients responsible for their addictions.
As the conversation progressed, we began to reflect on the importance of history for understanding dilemmas — like opiate addiction — presented by drugs today. We imagined a course that would focus on the history of drugs as a way of generating “useful pasts” that could inform how our students thought about drugs and drug policy in the present. As our thinking evolved, we drafted an application to co-teach a course that centered on the categorization of drugs across the twentieth century. Rather than using drugs as a lens to understand social, cultural, legal, or political history in the Unites States, we hoped to use history to reflect on drug categories themselves. We were interested in how lines dividing chemically active substances into categories and classes, such as illicit and licit or medical and recreational, have shifted across the twentieth century. Historically shifting boundaries between drugs have hinged upon changing cultural norms surrounding the characterization of “use” versus “abuse,” the prescribed treatments or punishments for drug users, and the labelling of drug use as an individual or social problem. Such beliefs continue to be wrapped up in socially-mediated understandings of identity — along ethnic, racial, gender, class, and religious lines — and in opposing ideologies of health and governance.
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Today, Alex Tepperman and Kyle Bridge bring you the second installment of the new podcast from Points.
On the second episode of Pointscast:
* Kyle and Alex open with a discussion of Bernie Sanders’s proposals for far more lenient drug re-classification, including a near-decriminalization of marijuana.
* They then shift their focus to Maine Governor Paul LePage, discussing how the continued rhetoric about black drug dealers and white victims speaks to the role of racism in the nation’s drug war as it exists today.
* Later, Kyle interviews Points contributing editor Adam Rathge, whose PhD research at Boston College looks at the century-long road to federal marijuana prohibition in the United States.
* Finally, Alex tells Kyle about former pro wrestler and current yogi Diamond Dallas Page, whose work in drug counseling and life coaching has had mixed success in saving the lives of fellow grapplers.
Enjoy! And you can let Alex and Kyle know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Points is incredibly excited to announce that our assistant managing editor Kyle Bridge and Alex Tepperman, PhD candidate in history at the University of Florida, have launched a new podcast called, naturally, Pointscast.
Deputing here is the first episode, which discusses drugs and alcohol in the news, and features interviews and some really excellent sound effects.
You can reach Alex and Kyle at email@example.com if you have any questions or comments, or if you want to be featured on a future episode.
And, after you’ve tuned in, let us know what you think! Hopefully we’ll have many more episodes of Pointscast to come.
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.
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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There are about a half-dozen Little Free Libraries in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood, where the “take a book, leave a book” ethos lives in elaborate little houses that people post in their front lawns. I love them, and examine each one closely as I pass by on the dog’s daily walks. It’s always interesting to see what shows up, which books languish for days or weeks, and which books call out to me, begging to be brought home.
A few weeks ago, while Bruno investigated some nearby grass, I came across a tattered paperback in the Little Free Library near an elementary school. Its cover was folded and its spine repeatedly creased, to the point where it was almost difficult to read the title. It was obviously, at one point at least, a well-loved book. But it was the title that stopped me and forced me to slip the book into my pocket: Eating Right to Live Sober, by Katherine Ketcham and L. Ann Mueller, M.D.
Eating Right to live Sober was published in 1983, during a moment that James R. Milam, Ph.D., author of Under the Influence (co-written with Ketcham) and cofounder of Milam Recovery Center, called a “turning point in the history of alcoholism.” It was in the early 1980s that Milam saw alcoholism shedding its skin as a purely psychiatric disease, when it was beginning to be understood as a mental and physical condition. This meant that new treatments, ones that were more holistically attuned, were necessary to treat its expanding definition. “Everyone who understands alcoholism as a disease also needs to know what to do about it,” Milam explained in his introduction. Ketcham and Mueller’s book was “valid core material to build on.”
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(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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