The Pharmacological Era

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a history PhD student at Southern Illinois University.

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Stanton Peele

Psychologist Stanton Peele refers to the time we’re living in as a “pharmacological era,” one where “drug use, both approved and unapproved, is widespread, almost universal.” Currently, it’s dealt with through regulation and prohibition. Dr. Peele argues: “Instead, we need to accept drug use as socially and psychologically regulatable behavior to be incorporated into modern life.”

In some ways, we’re already there. It’s near universal, just two-tiered. A Vice News headline summed it up perfectly: “America’s Rich and Powerful have permission slips to get high.” We don’t have to look far to see these inequities in action. Recently, Elon Musk—of Tesla fame—smoked a blunt on the Joe Rogan Experience. Had it been a Tesla employee, they would’ve been fired. Ivy League students swallow smart pills to study just like their future selves, the businessmen burning the midnight oil. And a white woman popping a Xanax found in the seabed of her Hermès bag, totally normal too. But a black man smoking a joint—whoa, wait a minute, that’s unacceptable. So, yeah, like I said universal but two-tiered—same dynamic in Washington. Recall Dr. Ronnie Jackson, Trump’s (failed) nominee for Veteran Affairs Secretary. Apart from his stunning lack of qualifications and experience, we learned during his time as Physician to the President he regularly doled out Schedule II drugs for recreational purposes. As Politico reported:

Nearly a dozen current and former officials — including some who were treated by Jackson while working in the Obama White House — say Jackson is being unfairly labeled as a “candy man” and that casual use of some prescription drugs is an established fact of life at the highest echelons of government. “Not everyone wants it. But anyone who does gets it,” said a former Trump administration official who traveled extensively with Jackson and the president.

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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. Continue reading →