How the Drug User Became a Junkie

Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation examines the emergence of addiction recovery communes in post-World War II United States, and centers the political activism of self-identified ex-addicts in the national struggles over the possibilities and boundaries of radical participatory democracy in the long 1960s. Welcome to Points, Jordan!

Screenshot 2019-10-10 at 8.36.11 AMFour years before William Burroughs’ Junkie was published, Norma Lee Browning, a reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune, described how a middle-aged housewife had gone from a “pretty woman” to “an old time incurable junkie.”[1] Browning’s casual use of “junkie” reflects her mainstream audience’s likely familiarity with the term, whose usage in popular media to describe drug addicts (to use another loaded term) had skyrocketed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The term was a type of shorthand for inevitable physical and moral devastation. To be a “junkie” or involved in “dope peddling” was to “descend into unimaginable levels of baseness” before death, if she was “unable to break the hold of drugs.”[2] Today, the word has the connotation of a slur, a dehumanizing epithet that paints a person as wild and dangerous. 

Yet a look at the term’s genealogy, along with its close associate, “dope,” reveals surprising conceptual and practical links to an industrializing Gilded Age and Progressive United States, a time when the most familiar “junkie” was the “junk man” who worked in the flourishing trade of old and discarded items, as American consumers and producers piled up more trash than ever before. Traces of this lineage appear even today, like in the character Bubbles from the famous HBO show The Wire, depicted as a “junkie” in both senses. 

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Points Bookshelf: “Ten Drugs” by Thomas Hager

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. As part of our Points Bookshelf series, he reviews Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine (Abrams Press, 2019), and breaks his findings down into a few major takeaways.

 

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Drug policy historians, academics and the press more generally often present drug use as though it were a marginal activity. We can fault a lot of this confusion on the arbitrary distinctions that are commonly made, starting with categories like legal and illegal use, which are then further subdivided and sliced into even more granular classifications.

Thomas Hager’s Ten Drugs whose focus is on prescription “medications,” opens the book by highlighting drugs’ ubiquity in American life: “More than half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug on a regular basis, and most of those who fall into that group take more than one (somewhere between four and twelve prescriptions per person per year, depending on which study you look at). One expert estimates that Americans takes an average of ten pills per person per day. Add in nonprescription drugs—over-the-counter vitamins, cold and flu remedies, aspirin, and other supplements—and run the numbers: Let’s say a low-ball estimate of two pills per day per American over an average of seventy-eight plus years of life. The total outcome comes to somewhere more than 50,000 pills, on average, in the average American’s lifetime. And there’s a good chance it’s a lot more. Americans constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s population but spend more than 50 percent of the money that flows into the world’s drug companies. And that’s not even counting illegal drugs.”

Once you throw in recreational and illegal drugs, this leaves no segment of society untouched. These figures could be interpreted as troubling, as our society grows ever reliant on psychological crutches to get through the day. Of course, while that’s partially true, there are also serious issues that have been left unresolved, to say nothing of the precarious state millions wake up to. Setting that aside, the larger point is our discourse is divorced from this underlying reality.  

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Challenging the User Paradigm: Comic Book Characters, 1937-1954

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Screenshot 2019-03-19 at 8.39.15 AMWho is Weedy Smudgeon? He makes a quick appearance in Ghost Rider #8 (August 1952) trying to kill Rex Fury. We don’t learn much about him except that he robs graves for the local undertaker, and he uses “loco weeds.” It’s probably true that a character actually named Weedy Smudgeon needs no back story, but what about a character named Jeff Dean?

In a prior post, I’ve examined popular culture (jazz), as a unique perspective on the potential motives of marijuana users through the mundane lyrical descriptions of users in jazz songs. I’ve suggested that Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” represents a narrow but perhaps authentic representation of use in poor urban communities. Comic books are certainly different sources than jazz songs. Their creators are far less prominent than the characters they create and the audience for comic books (young boys and girls) are much less connected to the creation of the cultural form than audiences in jazz clubs, and, at least theoretically, to the environments and situations described in its pages.

However, the representations in the comic books do present a range of possibilities for users that go well beyond the addict or non-addict binary that was popular at the time. It also suggests that complex understandings about use pre-date the era of official tolerance of marijuana in the mid ’60s into the mid ’70s. It is also worth mentioning here that at least some official attention was paid to representations in comic books by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which looked into problematic representations of sex, violence, and, to some degree, drug use therein.

Starting from the binary of user v. non-user, the handful of comic book stories that I’ve been able to read make several distinctions between the two categories. Users are either natural users like Weedy Smudgeon (where use is their character) or unnatural users (where use intervenes and changes a character). The former group, in the sample I viewed, were almost exclusively ethnic others. The latter group were almost exclusively young (white) adult men and women, and their use results in (generally) two possible outcomes: a descent into addiction with dire consequences (jail or death), or redemption where a user corrects his/her behavior to either become a hero himself (if they are male), or a cautionary storyteller (if they are female).

“Non-user” is a much more slippery category, and indeed, the function of non-users in these stories becomes clear only as exceptions that prove the rule. One subcategory of non-users is “good guys” (title heroes, family members, and law enforcement), and the other is “bad guys” (the organized criminal rackets that import, distribute, and sell the drug). Good guys don’t use for obvious classic-era comic book reasons, but the rackets don’t use precisely because they know the dangers the plant poses, particularly the addiction (and thus profit) potential of marijuana, and after the mid 1940s, of marijuana-to-heroin.

But they were also well aware of the specific dangers of the drug that they deal in. This is demonstrated by two examples of the rackets specifically using the drug to get innocent victims to do their bidding. In 1941, The Dart’s sidekick Andy (figure 2) and Plastic Man (figure 3) are plied with marijuana in this fashion. The rackets themselves do not use. In fact, when a naïve drug runner wonders aloud what all the fuss was about, he was physically attacked by his boss (figure 4).

The innocent user characters’ distinctions are much more blurry and, while most characters have a clear bad or good persona, there is a blurring of distinctions. Several of these innocent victims lose their innocence and either end up dead or hopelessly addicted to marijuana or heroin. The fates of these tragic innocent victims are on display during the dramatic endings of Wallace Reagan (figure 5) in “Hopped up Killer” (1941) and Howard Martin (figure 6) in “Worse than Murder” (1952).

The redemption stories hold the most interest in the context of challenging binary assumptions about use. To be sure, redemption stories are fairly standard in the comic book genre, but within the larger context of portrayals of drug use, the notion that a user could reverse the downward descent from naïve marijuana use into heroin addiction to death is significant. Also relevant here is the assumption that men and women are redeemed in different ways, the former through rehabilitation and/or heroics, but the latter only through penance.

That’s what brings us to Jeff Dean. We are introduced to Jeff during the first few frames of “The Dart and Ace” (1941) as he’s attacking his teacher Miss Tilbury. By the end of the story, Dean foils the racket and saves the day. (Figures 7 & 8) Similar experiences befall a group of young kids duped into running marijuana for a local paragon, but who turn on Mr. Cratchett and are considered for acceptance into Mr. Universe’s athletes club (figure 9), or a young Jack Winters who murdered a police officer but will get off “lightly” due to the real blame being placed in the Mexican smuggler (figure 10).

Women had fewer options for redemption, but avenues to that end did exist for female characters in these stories. Rather than re-assigning blame or transitioning from hero to villain, however, women are limited to harsh penalties that encourage these women to “tell their stories” to other young women in the first-person. For women too, their initial innocence, which unlike an uncanny number of male characters introduced to marijuana by a peddler at a party because they left their pack of cigarettes in the car (and the peddler offered on of his), was tied directly to un-womanly ambition and romantic agency. Gloria Welsh’s desire to pursue a career in Hollywood ensnares her whole family (figure 11). Her younger brother Frankie, who was running shipments to clients, was killed when the delivery business introduced him to marijuana use and he descended into addiction. She “told her story” in “I was a Racket Girl” (1949).

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Other women spiral into the cycle of addiction through ill-advised relationships with men. Both Claire (“My Scandelous Affair,” 1954) and Louise (“I Was a Musician’s Girl,” 1954) get addicted to marijuana as a consequence of choosing the “wrong” of two men to pursue. By the end of both stories, the women had been reunited with the “correct” man and are miraculously fine (but still hope to prevent this in other young girls by telling their stories).

Given the limits of comic books as representational sources, the spectrum of use that appears in a selection of comic book stories collected between the 1930s and ’50s presents a subtle challenge of conventional descriptions of users circulated in law-making and law-enforcement circles during that time, all of whom tended to characterize users more like Mr. Smudgeon (at least, as conventional wisdom goes, until the 1960s) than like Jeff Dean or Gloria Welsh.

The State of the Art: The Malcolms’ Examination of Straight, Incorporated, Part 3

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part series from Marcus Chatfield, a regular contributor to Points. Here he continues his examination of Straight, Inc., the controversial adolescent drug treatment program that existed from 1976 to 1993. 

Beginning in 1976, the original design of Straight’s milieu was a slightly modified version of The Seed Inc., a program whose methods were also compared to “brainwashing” in the Congressional report, Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification (1974). Specific details about the origins of the actual design of The Seed program are elusive; it was one of many programs initiated in the late 1960s that implemented an array of group methods attributed to those developed by adult members of the therapeutic community, Synanon, founded in 1957 for the treatment of heroin addiction.

But the controversy over “brainwashing” in adolescent reform programs is older than any of the programs that grew out of Synanon; it seems to have started in 1962, over concerns about the Provo Experiment in Delinquency Rehabilitation at the Pinehills Center in Utah County, Utah. According to authors LaMar Empey and Maynard Erickson in their book, The Provo Experiment (1972), in November, 1962, at least one county commissioner had voiced concerns about public funding for the program because it seemed similar to “communist brainwashing.”

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The 30th Anniversary of Len Bias’s Death

LenBiasThis may be hard to believe, but June 19th will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Len Bias. The University of Maryland all-star and first-round pick for the Boston Celtics died two days after the NBA draft after overdosing on powder cocaine. His death was partially responsible for the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which in many ways set the tone for the excessively punitive drug war to come.

I was recently contacted by Tom Bonanno, editor of the website Celtics Life, who wanted to run segments of a blog post I wrote last September about visiting Bias’s grave in Suitland, Maryland. Bonanno’s post did a nice job of comparing my description of Bias’s small, quiet and frankly neglected grave with some of the flashier and more extravagant graves of other Celtics players who have passed. The differences between the graves – their size, their upkeep, their obvious visitors – is striking, and I think it speaks to what happens when we lose someone before their peak, when we’ve only seen glimmers of what they were truly capable of. Bias was an incredibly talented college player, but he died before playing a single NBA game, and his death was clearly tainted by its association with an illegal drug.

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Teaching Points: Surveying United States’ History of Drugs and Alcohol

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 →

The Role of Drug History in Interdisciplinary Study

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Leanne Horinko, the interim director of the office of graduate admissions at Drew University’s Casperson School of Graduate Studies. Enjoy!

As academic history continues to expand, incorporating interdisciplinarity and meeting the needs of public history, areas of history previously overlooked by scholars are becoming new spaces for exploration. Counter-cultural history is no exception. Scholarly inquiry of these new interdisciplinary subjects can lead to interesting challenges in understanding the subject matter without sacrificing academic rigor. Those interested in contributing original research to interdisciplinary fields like counter-cultural history or alcohol and drug history can find themselves neck deep in historiography from multiple fields and trying to piece together a framework for their work. These challenges are perhaps best illustrated in my own research.

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