The Long, Proud Tradition of the Fourth of July Buzzkill

Celebratory drinking has fueled Fourth of July festivity from its inception in the years following 1776, when double rum-rations for the troops, endless toasts at formal dinners, and makeshift booze-stalls at public gatherings became norms. And it was not long before high-minded patriots began to worry over the excesses of republican revelry. Before the Fourth of July oration itself became well established, there emerged within and alongside it a recognizable (if unnamed) theme in Independence Day rhetoric: the identification of that very day’s public drunkenness with whatever was ailing the republic.

All was not well in this republic.

All was not well in 1837.

Over the years, Independence Day jeremiads have taken numerous forms, from grim warnings about public health and morals, to wry satire of overzealous exceptionalism, to the ferocious indictment of national shortcomings. Many have focused on intoxication as the essential expression of decay, of hypocrisy, even of delusion.

Complaints begin with the sheer recklessness of the traditional program of events. Continue reading →

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David Simon on the War on Drugs and the NSA Revelations

Last week two prominent critics of the War on Drugs independently declared that their years spent witnessing the civil liberties abuses involved in enforcing drug policy left them largely unmoved by the exposure of the National Security Agency’s comprehensive, only secretly and ambiguously legal, telecom monitoring program.

David Simon and John Stossel are the most unlikely of proverbial bedfellows and, when it comes down to their actual positions, they are not really sharing a bed at all. Stossel is a libertarian who has never met a government program he couldn’t mock in the exasperated, contemptuous style he developed on ABC’s 20/20 and now plies for Fox News. He opened his piece in Reason last week with familiar rhetoric about the ways “politicians abuse us.” Simon is a former newspaper reporter and the creator of Homicide, The Corner, and most famously, The Wire. Essentially a voice of the left, in his blog entry Simon made it clear how he feels about “libertarian selfishness,” in which “there’s never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility.”

Two different kinds of reporters.

Two different kinds of reporters.

Simon’s post went much deeper than Stossel’s column, which argued mainly that the  dangers of drugs have been exaggerated. Simon blasted through the struggle that some NSA critics have had marrying world-weariness (of course they’ve been spying on us) and anger by diagnosing instead full-blown myopia on the left. The basic legal and practical framework for telecom snooping has been in place for decades, he contends. It was established not in what we knew about the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, but in the wiretaps and home-raids of the war on drugs. Its abuses are not in some imagined future dystopia, but have been in plain sight, affecting real people.

If I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue it’s because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain.  Thus far, the sum of liberal argument against the NSA program amounts to a Maginot Line of legal ignorance, borrowed libertarian selfishness and positive proof that those who fear a civil liberties apocalypse and wish to fight against such were decades late to the fields where those battles actually rage.  Shit, they’re still not in the right place.

Continue reading →

Notes from the Field as Massachusetts Does Medical Marijuana

Editor’s note: Today guest blogger and medical anthropologist Kim Sue offers her observations on how changing marijuana laws have slowly begun to impact the world of the opiate-addicted patients she studies–and the wider society’s assumptions about drugs and the reasons people use them.

I have been closely following the campaign for and roll-out of medical marijuana in Massachusetts as I conduct ongoing ethnographic fieldwork on opiate use and incarceration. Given marijuana’s prominent place in the historical, political, and cultural framings of the War on Drugs, it is critical to consider evolving legal frameworks and cultural attitudes toward the drug.

massachusetts-medical-marijuana-listening-sessions

Last fall, advocates for medical marijuana managed to get it enacted via referendum. Continue reading →

Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Amund Tallaksen

Editor’s note: Our commentary to accompany yesterday’s excerpt from Addicts Who Survived comes from Amund Tallaksen (NB: if you’ve missed any of the series, please check out the series introduction, the first excerpt, and Eric Schneider’s commentary).  Amund is a doctoral candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University, presently working on a dissertation examining drugs and drug control on post-World War Two New Orleans.  He has graciously taken some time away from the archives in Louisiana to offer these reflections on Willis Butler’s oral history. 

Shreveport, Louisiana, is a city most Americans know very little about. Close to the Texas and Arkansas borders, Shreveport is the largest urban area in northern Louisiana, the majority-Protestant and more culturally “southern” part of the state (as opposed to the majority-Catholic, geographically southern half). Americans with an interest in drug history, however, have an almost intimate knowledge of what happened in Shreveport in the early 1920s. This is largely because of one man, Willis P. Butler, who ran the narcotic dispensary in the city from 1919 to 1923, providing legal access to morphine for addicts in need. The Shreveport clinic was the longest functioning of all the narcotic clinics in the country (most of which were located in the Northeast) and when Willis P. Butler was forced to shut his operation down in 1923 it unequivocally marked the end of the clinic era.

Willis Butler, at the age of remembering

Willis Butler, at the age of remembering

The clinics were largely forgotten by mid-century, yet when methadone became increasingly available to American opiate addicts in the late 1960s, it created a renewed interest in the clinic system of the 1920s. Willis P. Butler was essentially “rediscovered” in the fall of 1971. One academic managed to get in touch with Butler in early October 1971, and the word quickly spread – the late Yale historian David F. Musto, for example, was among the earliest to get in touch with Butler, only a few weeks later. When interviewed by David Courtwright in 1978, Butler was over ninety years old and among the very few alive to tell the story of the clinics from personal experience. Butler was born in 1888, and graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1911. After finishing his degree, Butler moved to Shreveport and was elected to the role of parish (county) physician and coroner of Caddo parish, a role which included tending to the needs of addicts.

Shreveport, 1919

Shreveport, 1919

Continue reading →

Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Willis Butler’s Narrative

Editor’s note: Not every interview conducted for Addicts Who Survived was of an addict.  The work includes some fascinating oral histories of individuals with notable roles in the modern history of addiction and the drug war.  Among these, Dr. Willis Butler, who operated one of the most notable narcotic maintenance clinics opened around the time of the Harrison Act and closed soon thereafter.  We’ll have commentary to Dr. Butler’s oral history tomorrow.

WILLIS BUTLER

Willis Pollard Butler was the most celebrated and controversial of all the early clinic doctors. Born in modest circumstances in Gibsland, Louisiana, in 1888, Butler moved with his family to Shreveport in 1899, where he took a summer job as a drugstore delivery boy. (Ironically, his chores included the delivery of dram bottles of morphine to the local addicts.) He eventually worked his way through Vanderbilt Medical School, graduating in 1911. Returning home, he applied his talents as chemist and bacteriologist for the Shreveport Board of Health, until he was elected parish physician and coroner in 1916. He served in that capacity for no fewer than forty-eight years. When interviewed in 1978, he was over ninety years old.1

            Butler was above all else a superb politician. He was handsome, charming, articulate, and on a first-name basis with everyone who counted in Shreveport. That, together with the efficient and discriminating manner in which his clinic was run, assured local support and temporarily frustrated the designs of interloping federal agents.

            Although Butler’s memory was phenomenal for a man of his years, it should be borne in mind that his is only one side of the story, that the agents who hounded him and the doctors who turned on him can make no rebuttal. As Butler himself observed, “I don’t know anybody connected with it—top, bottom, or middle—still living except me.For the sake of confidentiality, the names of addicts mentioned by Butler have been changed, as have the names of those who may have violated the law.

I was health officer, medical examiner for this district, and parish physician. One day—it was the third of May, 1919—Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the state board of health, came to Shreveport. As usual, he called me, because I was representing the state board of health up in northern Louisiana. He asked me down to the hotel to make a culture of his throat—he had a sore throat. I went down there to see him and, as we walked out of the hotel, he said, “Butler, you having any problem up here with addicts?” I said, “Yes. I don’t know about particular problems, but we got a lot of them. I’m having trouble with them in jail, and there’s an awful lot of thievery and that sort of thing going on, and the police say that a lot of them are responsible.” He said, “Well, we have opened up a clinic down in New Orleans, under Dr. Marion Swords. I suggest that you come down there and see how it’s being done, because we have the approval of the government and the Treasury Department Narcotic Division. Maybe you could start the same thing up here.”

Well, I went to New Orleans. I knew Dr. Swords quite well; he was secretary-treasurer of the state board of health. He had this clinic right across from the courthouse on the corner of Conti Street; it looked like a little alley down in the French Quarter. What I saw was a bunch of derelicts coming in, and they were giving them a little vial—it looked like it might hold 15 or 20 cc. He said that they were putting morphine in there, a certain amount according to what they wanted them to start with. The next day, they would put in a little less, but the same amount of water. They were going to get them off of it by reduction. I said, “You don’t know much about addicts if you think that you can fool them as to whether they’re suffering or not.” I said I’d have nothing to do with that sort of thing at all, and I told Dr. Dowling that I did not want to assume any such responsibility. Continue reading →

North Korea’s Drug Dealing Diplomats

Editor’s note: Contributing editor Saeyoung Park files this post from on the road, following her attendance at the Association for Asian Studies annual conference in San Diego.

Earlier this month, a Washington Post blog post referred to a Chosun Ilbo article ( Kr.) which stated that North Korean diplomats stationed at an unnamed Eastern European country had each been given 20 kg of drugs to sell. Supposedly, the diplomats were ordered to remit the value of their drugs, about 300,000 USD, by early April or before the “Day of the Sun” (the April 15 DPRK holiday celebrating Kim Il Sung’s birthday). The Chosun Ilbo

A chain of signifiers.

A chain of signifiers.

one of the major right-leaning newspapers in South Korea contextualized the diplomatic drug dealing within a broader history of DPRK state-sponsored trafficking, referring to the existence of a Work Unit 39 that has purportedly been responsible for the export of “some of the best quality meth worldwide” to Chinese markets. The Washington Post blog post has drawn enough attention in the current tense phase of peninsula relations, that the official DPRK news agency, the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), has directly attacked the Washington Post and the blog post’s author, Max Fisher (see Fisher’s response).

At this point, little in the news would probably surprise readers about North Korea. And that, actually, is a problem. Continue reading →

Failed Frontlash: How Liberals Furthered the Case for Mass Incarceration

The response to the Civil Rights Movement initiated one of the most punitive interventions in United States history. Beginning with the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and onward, the state took on a new role in crime and drug control. State and federal governments revised their criminal codes, imposing mandatory minimums and effectively abolishing parole. Moreover, juveniles were now incarcerated in adult prisons, chain gangs returned—as did a malicious policy of felon disenfranchisement—all while prison rates soared, increasing six-fold between 1973 and the turn of the century.

ImageCompared to its advanced industrial counterparts, the United States imprisons at least five times more of its citizens per capita. Are we inherently more criminal than other nations? Or, do we manufacture criminality? For the most part, the United States and most other human societies across time and space have always had problems with drugs and crime. This is not unique. How the United States has chosen to combat said problem, as well as its unfortunate results, are unique. Legal scholar Jonathan Simon argues that in the United States, crime has become “a, if not the, defining problem of government.” How did we get here?

Vesla Mae Weaver’s work—particularly her use of “frontlash”—offers some important clues to understanding the punitive impulse.  Continue reading →