The Points Interview: Scott Jacques

Editor’s Note: In this installment of the Points author interview series, Georgia State University criminologist Scott Jacques discusses his new book, Code of the Suburb: Inside the World of Young Middle-Class Drug Dealers (co-authored with Richard Wright). Contact Dr. Jacques at sjacques1@gsu.edu. 

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1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

A young, white drug dealer walks into the bar and orders a drink; thinks he’s real cool. Someone runs out with his drugs and money. Dealer yells in wimpy voice, “Hey, those are mine!” Does nothing else about it. Pays for drink with parents’ credit card. Goes on to live conventional middle-class life.


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

The book explores the lives of drug dealers who, unlike their disadvantaged counterparts, rarely wind up in police reports, court records, and correctional rosters. This testifies to the importance of unofficial archives for understanding drugs, especially as they relate to crime and control.


3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

 

The cover. The baggie with little houses inside makes me laugh every time I look at it. The designer, Brian Chartier, is a genius.


4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

For the teenagers in “Peachville”, where most of the book takes place, it was easier to buy illegal drugs than tobacco or alcohol. This is because legitimate businesses only sold to of-age persons, whereas the dealers sold to anyone they knew and trusted. What I wonder, then, is whether legalizing marijuana will make it harder for youth to get high, and, in turn, make hard drug use and sales more common among them.


BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

 

Aaron Paul in the voice of Jesse Pinkman.

Teaching Points: Teaching the “So What?” in “Marijuana in American History”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Seth Blumenthal, a Lecturer at Boston University. Contact the author at sblument@bu.edu.

In 1994, the president of the Modern Language Association, Patricia Meyers Spacks, outlined the need to consider “So what?” in higher education. “We get a bad press these days … many believe that we too often devote our efforts to enterprises mattering only to ourselves,” Spacks warned.  “Our research and writing, these critics appear convinced, possess even less value than our teaching. ‘So what?’ echoes loudly around us.”[1] Spacks then suggested a solution:  “We must answer ‘So what?’ as a real rather than a rhetorical question.”  This battle cry to co-opt the critics’ “So what?” applies to disciplines across the humanities that have suffered from a shift toward more focused and vocational training in college. Specifically, while making historical narratives compelling and relevant has always motivated historians’ research and teaching, this cause has become even more urgent with on-going decreases in student enrollment in history courses.

As a lecturer in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences writing program, I have attempted to answer this call by teaching the first history course dedicated to cannabis in the United States, “Marijuana in American History.” This course attracts students from a wide array of fields in fulfillment of BU’s required two-semester writing and research sequence. For many students, especially those from disciplines outside of the humanities, taking a course that revolves around writing papers represents a trip to a foreign land. Thus, students’ dismissal of history writing as an arcane and niche enterprise reflects a wider protest that asks “So what?” in its most derisive context, analogous to its evil twin, “Who cares?” In 2007, 2.24 percent of college graduates majored in history, but only 2.02 percent in 2011.[2]  In response, historians have initiated an emphasis on a new pedagogical approach to authentic historical problems or controversies that more accurately reflect the profession’s self-directed historical inquiry to establish an argument’s significance—the “so what?”

In my own teaching, making history relevant is a two pronged strategy. First, the subject, marijuana, is a popular topic that many students (mostly male) are curious about for a variety of reasons (some better than others). This course follows three eras of marijuana politics. First we cover the major controversies surrounding the Anslingerian prohibition years in the 1930s; next, we examine the war on drugs that began in the 1960s; and finally, we research the legalization era that began in the 1990s.  The topic obviously provides a rich cultural history with a dizzying array of sources that engage students but also consider marijuana’s symbolic and political significance. For example, while reliable entertainment, comparing Reefer Madness, Easy Rider, Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High provides a fascinating window into Americans’ shifting sentiments about pot and the stoner from the 1930s to the 1980s. While the first two papers ask students to argue about the historical trends in marijuana culture, science and politics, the final assignment embraces the topic’s current controversy and asks students to develop an argument about the reason for the recent growing support for legalization. This assignment gives students free reign to choose their topics, as they write about issues such as marijuana culture and research in social media, women’s roles in the effort, the motivation for racial justice and of course the medicinal movement.

Second, this class shows history as controversy with contemporary implications rather than a list of dates and names. Students analyze political texts such as congressional testimony and Richard Nixon’s tapes to explore the complicated messages and cultural assumptions that informed our policies on drugs. Practicing these historical skills, students quickly learn that as soon as they can formulate a thesis, the “so what?” should also be included.  Why does it matter if we scapegoat the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, for passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937? What lessons should we learn from following the rise and fall of the gateway theory? What does millennials’ overwhelming support for legalization say about this generation? All of these questions push students to make the connections between their scholarly argument and its current implications. Beyond the academic pursuit of marijuana history’s larger significance, my students can feel the topic’s controversy outside the classroom.

Soon, the class picked up wider publicity and critics predictably asked why something like this should pass as “college material.” One response to an article USA Today ran on “Marijuana in American History” expressed the abhorrence that many parents shared. “As a parent of a prospective student: STRIKE 1” read one typical reaction.  “This is not something we are looking for in a future college.” As a new hire, I began to question my decision to offer the course. After checking with BU’s public relations office, however, I quickly realized that the positives greatly outweighed the negatives and they reassured me of the university’s support.  In addition, students in my class found the controversy over their course flattering. One even expressed that she felt she was actually a part of history, while another engineering student reflected in his course portfolio, “At this time I think I have far greater perspective on the marijuana issue, but really what I think I got out of this course was a greater appreciation for how the whole ‘liberal arts college’[humanities?] thing can teach you how to think about issues.”  In his paper, he argued that courses like “Marijuana in American History” are necessary, asking: “if marijuana has been legitimized in business, medicine and in politics-why not in academics?”—essentially developing a “so what?” that answered many critics who wondered “who cares”? (Or as one person protested: “And this course will prepare the student to do something?”). Despite the current hostility to the humanities, or perhaps because of it, the history of marijuana is a new and exciting field that can expand undergraduates’ notions of history’s role in changing perceptions of drugs and alcohol in society.

[1] Patricia Meyers Spacks, “Presidential Address 1994: Reality-Our Subject and Discipline,” PMLA, 110 (May, 1995), 350-357.

[2]Robert Townshend, “Data Shows a Decline in History Majors,” Perspectives, 51 (April, 2013); Mills Kelly, “A Looming Disaster for History,” April 12, 2013, edwired ; http://edwired.org/2013/04/12/a-looming-disaster-for-history/.

 

Conference Summary: “I’ve Been to Dwight,” July 14-18, 2016, Dwight, IL

Editor’s Note: This conference summary is brought to you by David Korostyshevsky, a doctoral student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. He traveled to Dwight, Illinois, in mid-July to attend the ADHS off-year “I’ve Been to Dwight” conference, and has provided this account of his time there. Thanks David!

On July 14-18, 2016, a group of international alcohol and drug historians descended upon the village of Dwight, Illinois, for an ADHS off-year conference. Conference organizers selected Dwight because 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Keeley Institute.

Founded by Leslie E. Keeley in 1879 (and operating until 1966), the Keeley Institute offered treatment options to patients with addiction, usually alcoholism, including Keeley’s Gold Cure. “I’ve Been to Dwight,” the conference title, references “a catchphrase” former Keeley Institute patients “used to explain their sobriety.”

Keeley

To make it easier to read, this summary is organized thematically. You can see the full conference program here.

I live-tweeted the conference as @rndmhistorian under the hashtag #IBTD16. Also, Janet Olson, volunteer archivist at the Frances Willard Historical Association wrote a blog post about the conference.

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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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Drug War Dissents: Robinson v. California

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Dr. David Herzberg, as associate professor of history at SUNY Buffalo and the author of Happy Pills in America (2010) and his forthcoming project The Other Drug War: A History of Prescription Drug AbuseEnjoy! 

Most American drug policy historians are familiar with the 1962 Supreme Court decision Robinson v. California, which held that addiction was an illness and not a crime. The case involved a California man sentenced to jail not for buying, possessing, or using narcotics, but for the condition of being a narcotic addict. In striking down the law, the Court declared that addiction was an illness, and that—in Justice Potter Stewart’s memorable words—“Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold.” (Stewart would probably be glad to know that at least one group of people, however small, remembers him for this quotation rather than his “I-know- it-when- I-see- it” definition of “hard-core pornography,” which he later feared would adorn his tombstone.) For historians the decision serves as a convenient marker of the broader shift away from the punitive policies of the “classic era” of narcotics control and towards more medicalized approaches to addiction.

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Of late, drug policy historians have been placing this shift under increasing scrutiny. Complementing the vast and growing literature on medicine as a form of social control, historians like Eric Schneider and Points’ own Claire Clark have begun to focus more on how medical approaches harmonized with, rather than diverged from, punitive ones. Methadone maintenance, for example, was implemented primarily as a crime control measure and was evaluated on that basis, and thus ultimately complemented rather than upended prison-based approaches. Meanwhile, therapeutic communities’ tough-love philosophies could lead to “scared straight” type tactics that, in many cases, were much harsher and farther-reaching than simple imprisonment. Historians’ increased focus on the disciplinary dimensions of medical treatment may be due, in part, to the increasing visibility and intellectual availability of “harm reduction,” which also draws parallels between medical and criminal control of drug use.

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“Doubleplusungood” – NORML’s Prisoners of War on the Front Lines of Sentencing Reform

In the early nineties, a woman from Alabama, responding to a prisoner survey conducted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) on behalf of her incarcerated husband mused, “…someday, [marijuana] will be legal. Maybe there will be a lot of non-violent people released from the Government and bac [sic] to their families.” The statement has proven remarkably prescient, as recent events surrounding both legalization and sentencing reform have shown. It is also clear that despite these promising new steps, obstacles and controversy remain.

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We’re getting there

On January 12, 2016, Wendell Callahan brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend and her two children in Columbus Ohio. The story in The Columbus Dispatch quickly informed readers that Callahan had “twice benefited” from retroactive reductions in federal sentencing guidelines. This was in reference to a 2014 decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent commission in the judiciary, to first reduce federal sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and later under intense public pressure, to make these changes retroactive.

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“From Whence It Came”: Rethinking the Federal Role When Discussing the War on Drugs

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew June, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. June’s current work studies the sources of federal power to prosecute national drug laws.

The United States has a massive prison problem. As more attention has been drawn to this stark reality, it has become equally clear that there are no simple solutions or easy explanations. Nonetheless, while many have cited the “war on drugs,” others have dismissed this as too small a part in the larger problem. Last summer a Washington Post Op-Ed argued, “ending the war on drugs would not end mass incarceration.” Taking these back of the envelope calculations a step further, Slate highlighted how reforming the federal system wouldn’t help the country’s 1.3 million state prisoners. This proposition has again come to the fore in debates over Hillary Clinton’s responsibility for the rise of mass incarceration. Arguing against such a conclusion, German Lopez of Vox recently insisted, “Federal policy is not the cause of mass incarceration” because “federal prisons house only 13 percent of the overall prison population.”

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As there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” there are many ways to look at these numbers – especially the fact that over half of all federal prisoners are there for drug charges. While it is reasonable to note how this is only a small step for criminal justice reform, changes in federal drug sentencing could benefit nearly 1 out of 20 people under some form of local, state, or national supervision. Put another way, releasing every federal drug offender might not bring us out of the top spot for world incarceration rates, but even a five percent dent in our overall numbers cannot be dismissed. Just ask my students if they wouldn’t mind dropping from an “A-” to a “B+” and you will get a pretty good sense of how just a slim percent difference can seem mighty important to those directly affected. But this somewhat flippant re-examination of the statistics only belies a small sliver of the overall federal role in the “war on drugs” and its impact on mass incarceration. The 105,000 men and women behind bars for federal drug charges are just the most visible part of the federal role in the national “war on drugs.” And the causes and consequences of that role demand ongoing attention from scholars and others.

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The Forgotten Drug War: One Million Drug Addicts (Washington, D.C., 1919)

In 1918, the Treasury Department established a Special Narcotic Committee, tasked with reviewing the scope of the drug problem in the United States. The Committee issued its final report, Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, in June of 1919. The product of a year’s worth of work by a committee which included reputable figures in the drug field, the report covered many aspects of the drug problem—but no part of the report drew more attention than the conclusion that the nation’s addict population numbered one million. To understand how that figure was obtained, we need to briefly review some very poor statistical analysis. And that’s part of the story. But the bigger story is that “one million addicts” took on a life of its own, a mythical number that long outlived the federal government’s own interest in its promulgation.

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The Forgotten Drug War: Unknown Malaria Victim (New Orleans, 1932)

“The real war will never get in the books”–Walt Whitman, 1875

On October 31, 1932, Charity Hospital in New Orleans admitted a comatose man, diagnosed with malaria and thought to be an opiate addict. The patient deserted the hospital after being revived. Two days later, he was once again brought to Charity hospital, again in a coma. He died the following day. Over the course of the next month, five more Charity Hospital patients, all injecting drug users, died of malaria. Over the course of the following year, a total of 48 injecting drug users were admitted to the same hospital with diagnoses of malaria, 10 of whom died.

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The Forgotten Drug War: Christobal Silvas Sierra (Los Angeles, 1929)

“The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”—Walt Whitman, 1875

 

As 1929’s Fourth of July celebrations wound down in Los Angeles, a teenager named Christobal Silvas Sierra—Christo, to his friends—law dying. No one saw him die in the darkness. But for an unusual sequence of events, we would not know how he had died. Frankly, we would not even remember that he had lived and died at all. But we do know how he died. And we have the power to remember him and many others like him. We should. And then we should attend to making some sense of it all in the larger history of America’s century-long drug war.Read More »