China’s Drug War, Part I: The Mekong Incident

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CCTV interview prior to execution. Caption: “Their pain (referring to the mothers of the dead bargemen) is the same as mine.”

On February 28, 2013, the People’s Republic of China executed the Myanmese (Burmese) drug trafficker, Naw Kham (Ch. Nuo Kang 糯康, Th. Jai Norkham), and three associates for the 2011 murder of thirteen Chinese boatmen.[1] What was notable about this particular capital case was the preceding live broadcast where cameras followed Naw Kham in his last hours until moments before his execution by lethal injection.

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Xinmin.cn 湄公河惨案主犯糯康等四人在云南执行死刑 March 1, 2013

The state media CCTV footage, excerpts of which are available online, can seem slightly surreal. A little before his execution, the prisoner is shown in what looks like an office waiting room surrounded by fruit and snacks as if he were a guest. However, he is shown seated, facing what seems to be a large pink vomit bucket—an aberrant reminder of his impending fate. In the aftermath of the broadcasts, several human rights organizations as well as Chinese netizens criticized the state’s handling of this execution.

Although the human rights and capital punishment aspects of this case have been the objects of critical scrutiny, the international relations and substance policy issues have received far less attention in the media. The execution of four foreign traffickers, as well as the unprecedented multinational manhunt leading up to their arrest arguably represents the culmination of a ramped up Chinese war on drugs that is being waged domestically and, increasingly, internationally.

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Of Mugshots and Meth or, the Horror of the REAL

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No artistry or fried eggs now; just the REAL truth. Those eggs look pretty good now, don’t they?

In an attempt to garner publicity for its services, Rehabs.com published an infographic entitled “The Horror of Methamphetamines.” It is, indeed, a horrifying spectacle, a “sobering depiction of REAL individuals who’ve fallen victim to the temptation of drug use.” We know what we are seeing is “REAL” because all the photos are mugshots. The dispassion of the mugshot, the idea that nothing is staged here, no one is posing or even thinking about an audience, is what lends legitimacy to the project.

The face at the top of the infographic serves an explicitly educational purpose, with information boxes explaining how meth can cause acne, tooth decay, and weight loss. The other photos are just sequenced in chronological order. Explanations are not really necessary; the images clearly show that meth turns young people into zombies.

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Breaking Blog

Editor’s Note: We here at Points are happy to welcome back guest blogger Ross Aikins, a self-proclaimed sports-nerd, journalist, teacher, and postdoctoral fellow at the National Development and Research Institutes in New York City.  A recent PhD from UCLA’s School of Education, Ross blogs at www.yourblogondrugs.com. Today, he provides us with a meditation on one of television’s great drug-related programs, Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad might be the greatest TV show ever about drugs.  And it’s about to end[1].

For those not familiar, Breaking Bad is an exceptionally high-quality AMC drama about a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who, after discovering that he has terminal cancer, resorts to cooking meth in order to provide for his family’s future.  His (literal) partner in crime is Jesse Pinkman, a former student of Walter’s and amateur meth-maker.  Needless to say, the story gets complicated from there. You can read a fuller synopsis here.

What you need to know about Breaking Bad is that it is a critical hit, having won Emmys to date.  It’s days are numbered, though, as it’s just entered the halfway mark of its fifth and final season that concludes next year[2].

Drugs, meet television. Television, drugs.

Now read that completely loaded first sentence again and consider the pedantic lunacy of what I’m about to argue.  What does it mean to be a qualitatively “great” show?  And what makes a show “about drugs” anyway?  Granted, these are hopelessly subjective classifications, but this is a drug history blog. For the sake of argument, let’s consider the entire history of television within our purview.  I’ll respond to those two questions in reverse order.

  1. A show is “about drugs” either if its central plot revolves around drugs or if the main characters are addicts, dealers, cops, an anthropomorphic pothead talking towel[3], or otherwise primarily involved in the drug trade.

A good “about drugs” litmus test would be if somebody who had never seen a particular show were to ask an ardent fan “what’s that show about?”  The first words in any credible response would have to include “drugs.”  Lots of people love Sons of Anarchy, where drugs are a recurrent theme.  But SOA fails that test since it is primarily about “biker gangs.”  Similarly, The Sopranos is about a mafia family.

This is Jessie Spano on drugs. She’s so excited…

A show is also not “about drugs” if drugs or addiction are only an occasional subplot or multi-episode arc.  For example, just because Jessie Spano was hooked on pep pills and The Pointer Sisters does not make “Saved By the Bell” a show about drugs.  Same goes for the time Roger Sterling dropped acid[4], or the time Homer Simpson ate a hallucinogenic chili pepperRead More »

Points Personnel: In Case You Were Wondering…

Inside Higher Ed yesterday carried a follow-up to the man-bites-dog story of Stephen Kinzey, a Cal State San Bernadino Professor of Kinesiology, who, in his spare time, led a motorcycle gang called the Devil’s Diciples [sic] and is wanted in connection with a methamphetamine ring that they operate in Southern California.  (The LA Times broke the story last week.)

Prof. Kinzey and Gang Accoutrements Seized in Office Hours Raid (photo: LA Times)

To address the mind-boggling question of how a tenured faculty member could have the time to head up a major criminal organization given the burdens of teaching, research, and service, Inside Higher Ed consulted Professor Tom Barker of Eastern Kentucky State University, an expert on motorcycle gang culture.  The gist of Barker’s comments: basically, it wouldn’t be too hard.

One item of interest to Points readers, however, deserves further comment.  Barker noted that he knew of two other members of the professoriate who were also members of “outlaw motorcycle gangs,” but refused to divulge their identity.  For the record, folks, Points co-managing editors Joe Spillane and Trysh Travis may enjoy the occasional charity rally, but they are not now, nor have they ever been members of a biker gang.

Points Editors Spillane (l) and Travis (r): "Looking for guest bloggers/And whatever comes our way..."

Stay vertical, y’all.

The Points Interview: Nick Reding

One of the facts of life for a historian of drugs in the modern United States is that you’ll frequently be asked if you’ve read the latest best-seller on contemporary drug issues.  That was certainly the case when the subject of Points Interview number ten–Nick Reding’s Methland (Bloomsbury, 2009)–first appeared on the best-seller lists.  A new paperback edition of the book was released May 25, and we’re able to mark the occasion with the Points Interview.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand. 

Methland is about three years in the life of a small Iowa town with a bad methamphetamine problem. To tell the story, it follows the lives of the mayor, the town doctor, the prosecutor, a meth addict, and a trafficker. It’s about where the meth comes from and what it does, but it’s also about the way the town fights back, along with the personal ups and downs of the principal characters.

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

One thing people talk to me about a lot is the book’s emphasis on larger social and economic vectors as prime movers in the characters’ addictions as they’re portrayed in Methland. This wouldn’t be any news to drug and alcohol historians. But what might be of interest is the origin of these vectors as they pertain to the town of Oelwein, Iowa, which are largely changes in the American food production business, the pharmaceutical industry, and immigration patterns. Read More »

Meth and Moral Panics, Part Three

Meth and Moral Panics, Part One and Part Two led us to the question of whether and how we ought to arbitrate the real in assessing the ‘disproportionate response’ that moral panics require. In this post, we’ll look at efforts to do just this with respect to methamphetamine in the contemporary United States, and conclude with three suggestions for refashioning the relationship of moral panic studies to actual behavior.

An abundance of published works tie the methamphetamine response to the moral panic concept, most often in studies that don’t really fit the framework (see my earlier post for more on this). Travis Linnemann’s fascinating examination of the gendered reporting of methamphetamine in the Midwest is a good example; in the end, he’s not really all that interested in arbitrating the real. Consider his observation when discussing media portraits of a masculine/feminine dichotomy of work within the methamphetamine trade: “it is not clear whether this division of labor is entirely constructed by the media or if the data depict actual differences in duties. Regardless, the mediated depictions illustrate perceived differences in duties.” (1) Likewise, the sophisticated study of Canadian media by Susan Boyd and Connie I. Carter invokes the drug panic concept, but largely confines itself to the general observation that media coverage avoids and even forecloses “discussion of the broader social, cultural, and economic factors that affect users’ lives, including lack of housing, healthcare, and meaningful employment opportunities.” (2) Jack Shafer, writing Slate‘s Press Box column, has presented some of the best journalistic accounts of error and disproportion, here and here and here—hectoring, at times even begging, his colleagues to take a more careful, evidence-based approach to their reporting of the methamphetamine problem.

The academic study that most explicitly searches for the gap between moral panic and objective reality is Robert R. Weidner’s “Methamphetamine in Three Small Midwestern Cities: Evidence of a Moral Panic,” from the September, 2009 issue of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Weidner correctly observes that all of this moral panic talk would appear to demand some effort at sorting out the gap between meth panic and meth reality, and that doing so is no easy task (indeed, Weidner cites the work of several scholars who have made the case that the quest to find disproportion “is so laden with ontological and methodological difficulties as to render it virtually useless as an analytical guiding light.”). (4)

Weidner’s study “examined the existence of disproportionality” by comparing media coverage of meth relative to other illegal drugs with the prevalence of treatment admissions for meth relative to other illegal drugs in three cities (Bismarck, North Dakota; Springfield, Illinois; Topeka, Kansas). Media coverage data came from newspaper articles. Prevalence of treatment admissions came from the Treatment Episode Data Set [TEDS], “the only national-level information on the prevalence of substance abuse that is disaggregated for hundreds of MSAs.” Unfortunately, the TEDS data has one absurdly distorting quality—marijuana “treatment” cases overwhelm the data set. Nearly HALF (48%) of all treatment cases during the entire period for all three cities combined were for marijuana, mostly cases in which defendants were “diverted” from the criminal justice system into “treatment.” If coverage of marijuana was not correspondingly high in newspaper accounts (and it wasn’t), one is more inclined to praise editors for sound judgment than to attribute moral panic! By the numbers, the rest of the “real” data is similarly problematic–meth lab seizures and state-level drug self-reports. In the end, Weidner finds his moral panic with criticisms of “drug-scare” rhetoric (the use of terms like “epidemic” “plague” and “scourge”) and claims of addictiveness. A noble effort, but a dispiriting result in the quest to locate disproportion.

So, what do we do now? Discard the moral panic concept? Read More »

Meth and Moral Panics, Part One

Today, I’m posting the first in a short series on the concept of “moral panic” and its utility for those of us who write and think about the history of drugs and alcohol. I’ve been promising this series to co-managing editor Trysh Travis (and to my students) for some time, so I’m glad to get things underway.

While there’s been no “moral panic” tag here at the Points blog (until today), there’s no shortage of references to it here, either. You can find Trysh Travis dropping the phrase here and here. In keeping with the spirit of Trysh’s posts, I thought I’d use the history of methampetamine (and its place within the moral panic literature) as the focusing point of this series.

Let’s go back, for a moment, to 1990. Early in my graduate career, I was just beginning my long engagement with drugs history when I ran across an article in the February 8, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. On the cover, right alongside a photo of the old-even-then Paul McCartney, was the lead: “The Ice Age: A New Drug Epidemic Threatens America.” The actual article, written by contributing editor Mike Sager, was scarcely less scary and foreboding than the words on the cover. Effectively, Sager was warning readers in “The Ice Age” that an epidemic of smokable crystal methamphetamine use was on its way from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland, soon to surpass heroin and cocaine as the nation’s major drug problem. I confess to having found Sager’s article compelling reading—the gritty realism of his style as a Rolling Stone contributing editor during these years was and is of the sort you can see in much greater detail in a collection of his work entitled Scary Monsters and Super Freaks: Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Murder. At about the same time, Sager spelled out the central claim in the Chicago Sun-Times: “The Age of Ice is a new era in drug abuse” and ground zero for this new age was Hawaii, “where use of the drug has recently been declared ‘epidemic.’”

Sager wasn’t the only one working the ice beat in late 1989 and early 1990. A substantial volume of news stories and longer article appeared in the local and national press, most echoing the basic tone of Sager’s warning piece. Indeed, Sager and his fellow journalists were hardly the only ones at this party–the story had grown from a big issue in Hawaiian local politics to the national political stage. Less then one month before Sager’s article appeared in Rolling Stone, ice was the subject of a Congressional hearing “Drug Crisis in Hawaii” [Drug crisis in Hawaii : hearing before the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, second session, January 13, 1990]. Indeed, the phrase “ice age” was borrowed by Sager from the ongoing political conversation–the phrase had been employed multiple times to describe the looming crisis.

While I was credulously absorbing Sager’s tale of drug menace, historian Phillip Jenkins was taking a different and more critical approach to this and other writings on the subject. What happened next? I’ll let Jenkins tell the rest of the story, which shows me to have been pretty gullible, and Jenkins fairly savvy: Read More »