Rumor and Libel: Regulating Cannabis in the Panama Canal Zone, 1914-1935.

Nelson Rounsevell

Nelson Rounsevell

On October 2, 1935, in the midst of Reefer Madness, Nelson Rounsevell was convicted of a single libel charge in a Panama Canal Zone District Court. Rounsevell, editor of the bilingual Panama American had published a series of editorials in the summer of 1935 alleging that Colonel James V. Heidt and Major General Harold B. Fiske were running a “suicide post” at Ft. Clayton, after reports surfaced of four suicides in six weeks at the fort. In one editorial, Rounsevell referred to Heidt as, “the Simon Legree of the zone, [relentlessly] driving his men by day and [ignoring] marihuana smoking by night.”

While the story seems have all the trappings of reefer madness discourse, his conviction on libel charges might seem curious. Surely, if Harry Anslinger had been involved, he may have led the charge against Heidt and Fiske himself. In fact, Rounsevell was indicted on five separate charges of libel during this episode and was only convicted on a single charge. I suggest that understanding the Rounsevell libel case involves understanding the evolution of marjiuana regulations in the Canal Zone that predate the conflicts of reefer madness in the U.S. Soldiers overworked, bored, and isolated had been using marijuana as a solution-seeking activity to pass time and cope with the tremendous stress and isolation of military life in the Canal Zone. Rounsevell’s error was not reporting marijuana use, it was misunderstanding the motivations for use. Marijuana use did not cause the suicides, but the factors that did were factors that also influenced an individuals use of marijuana. Continue reading →

Highlighting Race, Ignoring Motive: Science, Subjectivity, and Walter Bromberg at Bellevue

Bellevue

Bromberg’s Laboratory

The year 1934 was a turning point for cannabis in the U.S. This was the year that Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics turned its attention toward the marijuana menace, thus inaugurating the reefer madness era. That same year, Dr. Walter Bromberg, senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, published the first in a series of articles about his examinations of cannabis users in New York. The article, entitled “Marihuana Intoxication” appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Historians have pointed to Bromberg’s work as a direct challenge to the FBN’s narrative of the marijuana menace during this period. His general conclusions seem to affirm this characterization, especially in terms of the extent and impact of use. For example, in the ’34 article, Bromberg describes a survey of felony convicts in Manhattan in which only seven smoked the drug regularly, and none of their crimes were committed as a result of, during or after, marijuana intoxication. By 1939, Bromberg was able to link the misinformation directly to the propagandistic efforts of various public institutions, even forcing Anslinger to respond personally. Continue reading →

Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Nancy Campbell

howie_bwEditor’s Note: On April 25, 1953, Howard S. Becker, a graduate of the University of Chicago’s famed School of Sociology, presented a paper at the meeting of the Midwest Sociological Association to a room of about a dozen people. It was based on fifty interviews with marijuana smokers and his “irregular and unplanned observation” of their habits, all of this taking place in his “social laboratory” of Chicago. If the confused questions he received afterward were any indication, what Becker sought to explain was stunningly avant-garde: at the core of his paper was a new conception of how and why marijuana smokers got high. As he explains in the new preface to his 1953 book Becoming a Marihuana User“I liked the idea of understanding the characteristic ‘getting high’ experience not as an unmediated pharmacologically induced event, but rather as the result of users’ interpretations of those effects.” This emphasis on ideas that few, if any, sociologists were discussing at the time – personal experience with drug use and individual users’ interpretations of its effects – meant that Becker was talking about things like peer influence and “set and setting” over a decade before Timothy Leary discussed the concept in reference to LSD.

Marijuana was a quiet drug in 1953. It was smoked, and by “many people,” as Becker wrote, but it wasn’t “a Social Evil which deserved a place in the ‘Social Problems’ course every sociology department taught.” Instead, “relatively few people used marijuana and they didn’t make a lot of trouble, so despite the efforts of some authorities, no public was crying out to get rid of the practice.”

So how did the young graduate, who landed a research position on the staff of the Chicago Narcotics Survey, come to write an essay that shaped much of the drug scholarship to come? Mostly by hanging out in jazz clubs as a teen.

Becker BecomingAs Nancy Campbell, the first scholar to participate in our new, six-part roundtable discussing the rerelease of Becker’s 1953 text, will show, it was Becker’s early experiences playing piano in jazz and strip clubs in World War II-era Chicago that exposed him to the world of “deviants” and outsiders who became the primary research subjects of his long and influential career. Better known for his 1963 study Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Becker’s first book is finding renewed relevance and acclaim today, as the University of Chicago rereleases it with a smart new cover and streamlined design. Praising the prescience of his “wise words,” Andrew Weil said that Becker’s work long ago “pointed the way toward a more enlightened, rational view of cannabis.”

Becker argued that most marijuana smokers were students of the drug long before they became “social deviants” or consistent smokers. They had to be brought into the community by other, seasoned drug users, who showed them how consumption was done. The first session was invariably a disappointment: smokers didn’t feel any effect because, as Becker put it, “you had to learn to be high.” That meant piecing together a narrative to understand the experience, and then wanting to experience that sensation time and again. After talking with fifty regular smokers, Becker identified the three steps that needed to be taken in order to become a marijuana user:

1.) Learn how to smoke in a way that produces real effects

2.) Recognize the effects and connect them back to the drug’s use

3.) Learn to enjoy these effects, and actively seek out recreating them

From teacher to student, marijuana spread across the country in the 1960s, and Becker saw this kind of shared knowledge creating a legitimate “drug culture,” with experienced smokers bringing new users into the fold. With more people learning how to “properly” use the drug, Becker watched the incidence of unpleasant drug experiences diminish, as remedies were proposed for experiences that remained unsound, and as fears of police intervention were minimized. (Well, for some; several of our panelists will discuss this idea later on).

In a celebration of his work, Points has gathered together five of the most prominent voices in the field of drug studies to comment on this rerelease and the lasting importance of Becker’s work. Ranging from examinations of the book through the lenses of race relations to modern policy recommendations, our five contributors – Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart – have each written a short essay on what Becker’s six-decade-old paper means to them, and where they see its applications today. Their contributions will be run every Tuesday from now through October, with the final contribution coming from Howard Becker himself. We are thrilled and grateful to host such a conversation.

In our first contribution, Nancy Campbell, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, remembers an interview she conducted with Becker in 2005, along with her current thoughts on the lasting importance of his work.

Continue reading →