Editor’s Introduction: Because we here at Points believe that an understanding of the past is best supplemented with an eye toward the present (and the future), we offer up this weekly selection of long-form pieces on drug- and alcohol-related issues.
This past week, the British Isles have been abuzz with discussion about how best to deal with the region’s perceived binging problems. In the Guardian, Juliet Rix interviews London judge Nicholas Crichton who tells the paper that the systemic problems that lead to alcohol and drug abuse might be best handled in family court. Meanwhile, the Scottish government is using a decidedly blunter instrument to handle problem drinking, raising the cost of alcohol to 45 pence per unit. While the rest of the United Kingdom panics over alcohol abuse, however, Irish sources report significant decreases in the nation’s overall consumption of beer, wine, and spirits.
The political blogosphere has produced a substantial amount of commentary on the place of prescription drugs in the upcoming Presidential election. Yesterday, GOP Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum had a chippy exchange with a mother and daughter who were less than impressed with the Senator’s view that the pricing of life-saving drugs should be left up to the market. Cold? Perhaps. But at HuffPo, Paul Blumenthal explains that such hard-heartedness is the product of how major a player the drug lobby is in Washington.
During the first installment of our three-part interview with Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Founder and Executive Director Rick Doblin, the visionary nonprofit head explained that his organization’s “mission is to conduct scientific research into psychedelics and marijuana and their therapeutic potential, to develop them into legal prescription medicines.” Points wanted to hear from Doblin more about MAPS’ unique purpose and how Doblin and staff set about fulfilling it on a daily basis. Doblin can’t help launching into explanations of the historical context that informs that work, so we managed to get another dose of psychedelic oral history out of him, as well. We spoke further about the kinds of drugs into which MAPS is looking, their promising potential uses, and what exactly “prescription psychedelics” look like. The second installment of Points’ engaging interview with Doblin appears below.
Points:We touched briefly on MAPS works to fulfill its mission earlier, but I know there’s a lot more to be said. If the bulk of your work is researching clinical and therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs, can you talk about some of those uses?
Doblin: Well, our top priority project is MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. MDMA reduces fear: it reduces activation in the amygdala, the fear processing centers of the brain. It increases activation in the prefrontal cortex, where people put things in context, so people can tell then from now, and can overcome the fear that has blocked them from integrating the traumatic experience. We have an international series of Phase II pilot studies: In the United States we’ve completed one; in Switzerland, we’ve got one on-going; [we have one in] Israel; [and] another study in the US underway with veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. We’re trying to start a new study in the US to evaluate our female/male co-therapist team, that would include a graduate student intern as one of the two therapists. We’ve got a study in Canada, and we’re working to start a study in Jordan. We’ve got other projects in Australia and England in the early stages of development.
There have also been projects with MDMA for cancer patients with anxiety. There’s been a study at Harvard to help people deal with fearful emotions around dying. We have a study with LSD with people who are dying that we have just completed in Switzerland, the world’s first therapeutic study of LSD in about 40 years. We’ve got projects that are about to start with MDMA where we are going to put out a request for proposals for protocols for MDMA for Aspberger’s and autism. There are a lot of reports on the internet of people with Asperger’s who have done MDMA recreationally and found it to be helpful for them.Read More »
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is not your typical drug policy reform organization. Since 1986, MAPS has worked as a nonprofit pharmaceutical company to turn psychedelic drugs into prescription medicines to treat afflictions — including postraumatic stress disorder, pain, depression, and even addiction — for which conventional therapies offer little relief. The term “prescription psychedelics” may sound like something out of a 70s science fiction story — politically impossible and culturally strange — until you hear it explained in context by Rick Doblin, MAPS’ founder and executive director.
Points is pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with Doblin about his organization’s relationship to past psychedelic research efforts, its major goals and day-to-day operations (Part II), and the philosophy of addiction and recovery that informs its work (Part III). We proudly present below the first installment of a three-part interview we will showcase over the next week in celebration of MAPS’ 25th anniversary this year. Today, we’ll hear about Doblin’s thoughts on the organization’s first 25 years and MAPS’ place within the larger context of psychedelic movements past and present.
Points: Hi, Rick. We’re really glad to have you here. First, could you explain a little bit about MAPS’ work and its mission? In other words, what does MAPS do on a daily basis and what do you want that work to accomplish in a larger sense?
Rick Doblin: MAPS’ mission is to conduct scientific research into psychedelics and marijuana and their therapeutic potential, to develop them into legal prescription medicines. A lot of our work is trying to design studies, get permission for studies, raise money for studies, and then conduct them. And then our broader mission is to educate the public honestly about the risks and benefits of these drugs and to establish a network of psychedelic clinics whereby these substances would actually be administered to patients. What we’re finding is that unfortunately, because the drugs are controversial and because the drugs are illegal, there’s a lot of difficulty, particularly with marijuana, in getting permission to do the research. And though we can get permission with psychedelics, there are challenges with funding. But the most important thing to say about this is that the FDA has decided to put science before politics unlike the DEA, NIDA, or the drug czar’s office. So we have the opening, and our mission is really to try to take the fact that all drugs have risks and benefits and develop contexts whereby the benefits of psychedelics and marijuana can be taken advantage of to help people in a wide range of uses.Read More »
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s about a new drug, a killer, raging through a major American city filling ERs and morgues and leaving a trail of wrecked lives. Just a year ago heroin was the big problem, but now this new scourge accounts for three-fourths of drug busts and a third of all addicts seeking treatment. Experts are saying there’s no way the drug will stay in one city: “similar to an infectious process,” it will inevitably spread across the nation. It’s already surfaced in a handful of cities, and who knows where it will strike next.
The year is 1978, and the Talwin panic is in full swing.
Wait, you don’t remember the great Talwin terror of 1978? Maybe haven’t even heard of Talwin? Don’t feel bad. Despite the promising start, the Talwin scare never really got off the ground. There were a few headlines here and there, a TV documentary, and a day of testimony in Congress, but in the annals of anti-drug crusades it was small potatoes.
Why? 1978 was a great year for drug crusades, and this one seemed to have plenty going for it: Talwin really was causing major public health problems in Chicago; it had a hip, media-friendly street name (“T’s and Blues”); and most of its abusers were nonwhite, urban poor—classic drug-war boogeymen. More: one of the largest sources of Talwin in Chicago was a Medicaid clinic, where, Congress was told, the drug was “handed out literally like M&Ms.” The headlines could have written themselves. “Hard Working Taxpayers’ Dollars Going to Give Dope to Junkies!” And if that wasn’t enough, how about this sound bite from the Congressional hearings:
Thank you indeed! “Grandmothers are buying Talwin on the street”: does it get any better than that for an anti-drug crusader? It wasn’t supposed to end up like that for Talwin. Read More »
Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.
Happy Pills is a cultural history of Miltown, Valium, and Prozac—three of the best known, most widely used, and controversial medicines in the postwar era. It tells their medical and commercial stories, but also asks why they became so faddish and contentious, and how their fame (and infamy) influenced medical and popular ideas about consciousness and identity.
The book begins in the 1950s, when Miltown became the first “blockbuster” tranquilizer and an early icon of biological psychiatry. The drug’s celebrity was the product of several developments: intensified popular marketing of prescription drugs; increased medical and public attention to anxiety as an illness, led in part by Freudian psychiatry; and a burgeoning consumer culture primed to deliver technological wonders in the name of comfort and convenience for the middle classes.
But Miltown’s popularity didn’t sit well with everyone; in fact the prospect of eradicating anxiety made some people quite nervous. The tranquilizer and its successors quickly became embroiled in postwar gender battles and the explosive politics of the “war against drugs,” and Happy Pills traces these stories to their combined conclusion in a feminist campaign against Valium addiction in the 1970s. This was a most unusual anti-drug campaign, targeting sexism in drug companies and the medical system rather than stoking fear of addicts. It capped off a decade of challenges to the pharmaceutical industry, and was part of a broader effort by reformers to rethink the boundaries between “drugs” and “medicines.”
Happy Pills ends with a look at the emergence of Prozac and other antidepressants in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the accompanying revival of popular belief in wonder drugs. Why was this resurgence so successful when the drugs themselves turned out to be far from revolutionary? Prozac’s boosters, I argue, took new findings in brain science and used them to create a story that was as much political as it was scientific: miraculous new consumer goods now made it possible to pick and choose personalities—identities—in a utopian free market of accessorizable selfhood. However exaggerated such promises may have been, they proved a powerful cultural vehicle for pushback against feminist-era drug critics, and a fitting vision of identity and personal change for an increasingly conservative era.
Editor’s note: Contributing Editor Joe Gabriel’s fantastic “ripped-from-the-headlines” post appeared earlier this week, only to be buried by even more timely content on “The Stoned Ages.” We’ve put it at the top of the page again so it can enjoy the adulation it deserves.
I’ve been following the recent controversy over Gardasil with quite a bit of interest. As you probably know by now, the Gardasil vaccine was developed by the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Company to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most commonly spread sexually trasmitted diseases in the United States. In 2007, after it had been on the market for about a year, Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring that all sixth-grade girls in Texas receive the vaccine. (He can do that – he’s the governor of the state.) Everyone flipped out, for various reasons, and the Texas legislature passed a law revoking the order.
The whole episode was filled with drama and theatrics, but the hoopla seemed to have died down until Perry entered the presidential race. Michelle Bachman, bless her twisted heart, latched onto the issue and accused Perry of pushing the vaccine at the behest of Merck–which, as it turns out, doesn’t seem that implausible, given that his former chief of staff was once a lobbyist for the company. It looks like there may have been a lot of money involved in the decision after all, though of course it is difficult to know about such things from the outside.Read More »
Ed. Note–This post originally appeared on August 1. We removed it briefly while pursuing an opportunity to speak with Rep. Bachmann about the questions posed below. Unfortunately, the Bachmann camp did not respond to our query. We welcome readers’ insights into the candidate’s stances on these issues and urge fellow bloggers and mainstream journalists to ask Bachmann about her approach to drug policy – and pain management praxis in particular – if given the chance.
Points has been investigating the regulation and increasing criminalization of opioid pain medications in the U.S. with posts like Siobhan Reynolds‘ on DEA meddling in pain management practices, Joe Spillane‘s on historical accounts of law enforcement interference in medicine, and Kenneth Tunnell‘s look at the first OxyContin scare. Conservative political news site the Daily Caller (run by formerly bow-tied pundit Tucker Carlson) alleged in late July that Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann takes “all sorts of pills” to deal with “incapacitating” migraines. Since narcotic pain relievers are one of several tools in many a migraineur’s survival kit (as well as that of at least one president), that story got us thinking about how the congresswoman’s experience with chronic pain might affect her approach to drug policy. The response to the allegations also illuminates the way in which media discourses work to reproduce normative representations of gender and power, even when media commentators attempt to upend those discourses.
In her final guest post for Points, Siobhan Reynolds asserts that the oft-repeated claim that the War on Drugs has failed should be reassessed from the point of view of those who profit from its outcomes. Looked at from that perspective, Reynolds sees opiate regulation as central to the drug war’s astonishing success.
Drug policy reformers have rallied for an end to drug prohibition calling it a dismal failure. To my mind, however, in order to understand this thing that has taken on a life all its own and to ultimately change course, if that is possible, one has to stop looking at the drug war as a failure and instead regard it as a spectacular success. There’s no denying that drug war policies and practices have turned physicians against the interests of their patients, been wildly expensive, destroyed the criminal justice
system, and facilitated the incarceration of people in the United States to a degree that would make Stalin or the Chinese envious. People who value civil liberties above all other social goods undoubtedly consider such developments evidence of failure. But these chilling outcomes do benefit some. A mature view would necessitate that we look at who profits under drug prohibition in order to truly judge what it has become.Read More »
“Have you heard the news?” I received a flurry of emails like this from family members and friends in the hours and days after Betty Ford’s death. They know of my work on the history of alcoholic women, so it was a logical question. Of course, I was saddened to hear of her passing, and in the aftermath I have found myself grappling with questions of periodization and pondering the sense of ownership we sometimes attach to the issues and people we study. On the one hand, Ford was “outside my period” as we say in the trade, since my research has concentrated on the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century era. In fact, I was acutely uncomfortable writing about someone who was still living, and so I had relegated Ford to the epilogue of my book-in-progress. On the other hand, I have found to my surprise that I have cultivated some proprietary feelings about her as well. As a girl growing up in Michigan during the 1970s, I was aware that my mother and her friends—regardless of their formal political affiliations—admired Ford’s down-to-earth character as First Lady, believing it reflected a regional, gendered identity which they shared, that of the capable, unpretentious Midwestern woman. This image, in turn, shaped Ford’s cultural meaning as a female alcoholic and addict.
Editors’ Note: The following is the final installment in our series of reports on the biennial ADHS conference held in Buffalo. Our thanks to Michael Durfee, Nancy Campbell, Joe Gabriel, and Michelle McClellan for their earlier posts. This time, Joe Spillane tries his hand at post-conference reflection.
Licit Drug Wars
Historians of so-called “licit” drugs face a number of challenges in their work. Where does that term–licit drugs–even take us, and what does it mean? In general, of course, it means a focus on regulated-but-legal products of the pharmaceutical industry, but the boundaries of the term are pretty fuzzy. Still more challenging, it seems to me, is the task of navigating a field where contemporary thought is so dominated by two strong, competing narratives. The first I’d call the “consumer protection” narrative, in which licit drugs are generally viewed with suspicion as products of an exploitative corporate culture that dupes physicians and victimizes consumers. The liberal drug warriors, in effect. The second is what I’d call the “social control/moral panic” narrative, in which efforts to control licit drugs reflects an aggrandizing tendency of state bureaucracies to control all aspects of human behavior, and in which licit drugs (like other substances) are subject to panicked reactions by a society viewing them through the distorting lenses of race, gender, and class. Four intrepid souls made the journey on this panel.Read More »