Teaching Points: “The History of Drugs in Twentieth-Century America”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Marco Ramos and Tess Lanzarotta. Ramos is an MD/Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science and Medicine program at Yale University focusing on the production and circulation of scientific knowledge during the Cold War in the global south. Lanzarotta is a Ph.D. candidate in the same department focusing on the ways that contemporary interactions between biomedical researchers and indigenous populations are shaped by their historical antecedents. This summer, Ramos and Lanzarotta taught a course on the history of drugs in the twentieth century and we’ve invited them to contribute to our “Teaching Points” series. Enjoy! 

Over the course of five weeks this summer, we co-taught a course on “The History of Drugs in Twentieth-Century America.” As discussed in our earlier post, we decided to focus the course around historical processes of drug categorization, rather than on a single drug or class of drugs. We hoped that this approach would draw undergraduate students’ attention to the ways that systems of drug classification are and have been shaped by their historical contexts. In particular, we felt it was crucial to emphasize the ways that drug categories affect and are affected by the people who use and regulate drugs.

Part of the impetus for the course was our own sense that historical analysis makes a particularly useful tool for understanding contemporary dilemmas surrounding drug use and drug policy. Bearing that in mind, we structured our classroom discussions and course assignments to encourage students to draw lessons from the past and bring them to bear on the present. The class was a seminar format with sessions running for three hours, twice each week; we tried to break up this rather long classroom time by delivering short lectures, showing documentaries and television episodes, visiting the Yale Medical Historical Library and Yale Art Gallery, and by bringing in guest speakers who could share their perspectives and expertise.

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Teaching Points: Opium, Empire, and State in Asia

Today’s post is from Dr. Bruce Erickson. He is currently the chair of the department of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

In recent years I have included in my rotation two courses that begin with the narcotics trade, “Coca, Culture, and Politics in Latin America” and “Opium, Empire, and State in Asia.” These two classes began life as one that tried to combine “Wars on Drugs” with Wars of Drugs,” so really they were and are less about drugs themselves than about the politics of drugs. Or better, they use the study of narcotics to explore larger histories. In their conception my classes are simply a commodity chain approach to studying and teaching history. What differentiates coca, opium, and their derivatives from other commodities goes beyond their effects to their inconsistent and shifting legal status, the social consequences of their introduction, and their social, political, and economic importance at particular times and places.Read More »

Teaching Points: Surveying United States’ History of Drugs and Alcohol

This past semester, I taught a course called Altered States: Drugs and Alcohol in America at the University at Albany, SUNY. It was my third version of the course. I had the unique opportunity to design two courses from scratch during my first adjunct gig at Utica College in 2010 and 2011. In addition to the drug course, I also designed a survey-level course on sports in US history. Professionally, this trial-by-fire was enormously beneficial and intensely productive, but for better or for (far) worse, my initial test subjects had to suffer through some serious inexperience as I fumbled through course design, reading lists (painfully long ones…), and lectures. I had wanted to hit every major vein in the field (so to speak) and did it without adequate attention to the broader historical context.

So this spring, I decided to stick with the basics. Rather than point out how drug histories stick out of the general narrative of American history, I wanted to make an argument that the histories of a myriad of psychoactive substances can help us better understand some important trends in the history of the United States. Through my doctoral coursework and achievement of candidacy, I came to this section with a much firmer grasp of the historiographical arguments in the field.Read More »

The Role of Drug History in Interdisciplinary Study

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Leanne Horinko, the interim director of the office of graduate admissions at Drew University’s Casperson School of Graduate Studies. Enjoy!

As academic history continues to expand, incorporating interdisciplinarity and meeting the needs of public history, areas of history previously overlooked by scholars are becoming new spaces for exploration. Counter-cultural history is no exception. Scholarly inquiry of these new interdisciplinary subjects can lead to interesting challenges in understanding the subject matter without sacrificing academic rigor. Those interested in contributing original research to interdisciplinary fields like counter-cultural history or alcohol and drug history can find themselves neck deep in historiography from multiple fields and trying to piece together a framework for their work. These challenges are perhaps best illustrated in my own research.

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Teaching Points: Reflecting on a Learner-Centered Approach to Teaching “Drugs and Trade”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Matthew June. Enjoy!

One student began the class with some knowledge of “purple drank” from her favorite hip-hop music. By the end of the course, that interest had developed into a detailed analysis of how the particular history of the Houston music scene, the rise of “managed care” health insurance, the aftermath of the 1980s crack crisis and war on drugs, and the process of media modeling all fueled the rise and fall of this fad.

Another student began the course with some concerns because he had never written an historical research paper. But a passage about the environmental consequences of colonial drug farming in a class reading sparked his interests as an Environmental Sciences major. Through multiple assignments developing those interests, we were also able to ground them in historical methods. The end result was an interesting study of past concerns about farming psychoactive substance and how they have been reflected and heightened in recent marijuana legalization policies.

L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas, 1876

One History major wanted to know more about absinthe. Through some preliminary research, he discovered that the federal government banned importation of the drink four years before Prohibition. Performing primary and secondary source research worthy of graduate study, this student presented a fascinating argument about absinthe’s consequential cultural shift from “drink” to “drug” and its sources in developments such as the rise of medical professionalization and dominant cultural fears of the foreign other. He also taught me that, as a drug, the ban on absinthe’s importation was actually overseen by the Bureau of Chemistry, predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration – a subject of my own research.

These projects – and the many other successful student papers – all reveal the vast potential of learner-centered teaching and course design. And the history of “drugs and trade” is one of numerous frameworks for such a design.

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Teaching Points: Using “Drugs and Trade” to Teach and Research American History

This winter I have the pleasure of teaching an upper-level history seminar on “Drugs and Trade in American History.” Working with fourteen undergraduates, I am using the opportunity to apply some principles of learner-centered teaching. In doing so, I hope to take a popular buzzword in teaching philosophies and faculty meetings from the realm of jargon and put it into actual practice. I believe the process of completing an original research project – the course’s primary objective – will prompt students to follow their own path into this history and engage with the themes and topics about which they are most passionate, encouraging the kind of deep learning not always possible in classes driven by content alone. I am also convinced a focus on the history of psychoactive substances – from heroin and cocaine to tobacco and alcohol – can be used to highlight general trends in U.S. history, helping students contextualize information and construct broader frameworks for understanding.

GHWB crack
President George H.W. Bush holding a bag of crack cocaine (1989)

While elements of my course may be unfamiliar, the obstacles it faces should not be surprising. First and foremost, if we expect students to succeed with an original research project, they need the proper instruction and sufficient time to complete the task. Students also need a starting point for their own explorations. We cannot forgo content completely, as it is needed to spark interests, provide context, and form research questions. (Not to mention, we are still in the business of communicating important information about the past.) Attempting to give both objectives sufficient in-class attention, however, can require some tricky balancing acts – a problem compounded by the particulars of my university’s ten-week quarter system.

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Teaching Points- Tom Roberts on “Psychedelic Studies”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest author is Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D, an Emeritus Professor in the Honors Program at Northern Illinois University. He is author of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind, co-editor of Psychedelic Medicine and editor of Spiritual Growth with Entheogens. His website is: niu.academia.edu/ThomasRoberts. Below, he reflects on the history and purpose of his course in Psychedelic Studies, one of the first to be offered in the U.S.

“Psychedelics!? You mean they let you teach a course about psychedelics? I wish I could at _____.”

“Well,” I thought, “ now that I’ve started teaching a university course about psychedelics, the ice is broken. Professors in other colleges and universities can start theirs too.”  So I thought in 1981. Naïve optimism can be a great asset. For the next 30 years almost nothing happened except at some specialized graduate programs near San Francisco.

In 1980’s, there wasn’t much new research on psychedelics. The War on Drugs was in full swing with DARE, “Just Say “No’”, and a lock-em-up attitude. “This is your brain on drugs” aired in 1987.  As Nancy Reagan said, “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare.” This wasn’t an auspicious time to teach a psychedelics course, and my optimism about other professors following suit was wildly optimistic.

Now, however, things are beginning to pick up. NYU Langone Medical School –  Bellevue Hospital has a course for medical students that’s open to others too, and at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health, Dr. Nicholas Cozzi includes a psychedelics unit in his Integrated Neuroscience course. Two undergraduate courses are going now, at last. The College of DuPage, a community college west of Chicago, has Psychedelic Mindview, which is mostly oriented toward both mental health professionals and the general student body. Best of all, the University of Pennsylvania Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Department, for the first time in the fall of 2014, offers Drug Wars: The Influence of Psychoactive Rhetoric.

History of the course

The exact origins of my course are lost in the mists of history and the fog of my memory. I know that in the early and mid-1970s, I offered a special topics course on transpersonal psychology. This was probably in the wake of a conference I organized in 1973 that looked at consciousness and transpersonal psychology, including psychedelics. I know that when Stanislav Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Psychotherapy was published, the class took turns reading chapters from my copy and discussing them in class.  That was 1975.

Realms of the Human Unconscious (1976 edition). Via amazon.com
Realms of the Human Unconscious (Via amazon.com)

By 1981, the transpersonal special topics course became focused on psychedelics and took on the name Psychedelic Research. The first time I taught it — in fact, for its first two decades—I offered it as one of those one-shot special topics courses that are commonly titled “Special Topics in X”, “Selected Readings in X,” or “Advanced Study of X.” This didn’t require approval beyond an OK from my faculty chairperson. Fortunately, I was in the Educational Psychology Faculty of a College of Education. Unlike some departments in the liberal arts and sciences (which guard their intellectual boarders jealously) and others that restrict research only to an approved paradigm or two, colleges of education are singularly open-minded. A common College of Ed attitude is, “If it works, or even might work, let’s take a look at it.”

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“This Is Your Brain on Drugs”: Teaching Drug History

About midway through the semester last fall my department asked me if I wanted to teach my own course in the spring. My dissertation was basically complete and, since I wasn’t going on the academic job market this year, I felt that I had the time to dedicate to what I knew would be a fairly demanding task.

Prepare to Learn(Be prepared. Be very prepared.)

I also knew what I wanted to teach. After writing a 450-page dissertation on the shifting nature of marijuana laws in the 1970s and ‘80s and the role that social activism played in catalyzing these changes, I knew that I wanted to teach a course about the history of drug use and anti-drug activism in the United States – the good, the bad, and the ugly of all of it.

There’s not a lot of guidance out there on how to teach this material. There are endless websites, articles and programs on teaching children and young adults how to avoid drug use, detailing the dangers and pitfalls of addiction, but there are very few unbiased, historical resources that talk about the nature of American drug laws or the influence of drug use and anti-drug activism on our culture. For the most part, discussions of drug use and the ongoing drug war are relegated to criminal justice programs or are taught by the few dedicated drug historians who have made this subject an integral part of their careers. This meant I was pretty much going it alone, piecing together a syllabus with what I hoped would be sufficient depth and scope from the materials I had come across in my own research, or those I had noticed and appreciated in the past.

The novelty of starting afresh was thrilling. Basically, I had no rules, no “pedagogical methodology” of which to speak. I wanted only to present the most informative, widest-ranging survey of American drug history possible, with cultural resources like films, music, and even museum exhibits added to the mix. Being located in Washington, D.C., was particularly helpful since I could send my students to the DEA museum for their final paper’s critique, and since I was teaching in the American Studies department, they naturally expected the course to be interdisciplinary. We would read chapters from Martin Torgoff’s Can’t Find My Way Home, articles on marijuana legalization from the New Yorker, and watch films like Dazed and Confused or Winter’s Bone, often all in the same week. My students had a great time. So did I.

But what was particularly telling was how recent, and therefore how insufficiently understood, much of our modern history about drug use is. The early years are fairly simple: opiate abuse in the nineteenth century, the effects of Progressivism on pharmaceutical sales, the Anslinger era and hippies and Nixon. The story followed a common theme: Americans would use a drug, often in vast numbers. This drug use would then become problematic. Increased anti-drug enforcement would result. QED.

We took David Musto’s theory as our guide. Musto, the Yale historian who died in 2010, had argued as early as 1973 that American drug use occurred in cycles, and that the pendulum of public thought was constantly swinging between the poles of widespread acceptance and vilification. And history, for many decades, held this as true: marijuana, for example, was so popular it was decriminalized in a dozen states between 1973 and 1978, before skyrocketing rates of adolescent use turned public approval around and the drug was the demonized staple of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program.

david musto(The man, the myth, the legend: David Musto, 1936-2010)

But this model no longer holds so fast. After I taught them about the parent movement and the Reagan administration’s punitive turn in the war on drugs, we entered into terra incognita, the unknown land of the recent past. Sure, we talked about Woodstock ’94, “I didn’t inhale,” and medical marijuana. We discussed Prozac and the long history of mood-altering drugs. And, naturally, we talked about ADHD medications and meth. But once you get into the late ‘90s and 2000s, the natural line of drug history that developed so smoothly in decades past is interrupted, often jarringly, but how strange our nation’s relationship with drugs is today. With medical marijuana approved in 21 states and D.C., with two states legalizing its sale, and with doctors testing the use of psychedelics like mushrooms and LSD for those suffering from PTSD, the pendulum between approval and condemnation is no longer so clear. We’re in limbo these days, and that’s hard to teach.

Additionally, we had to talk about the racial ramifications of the drug war, a topic that has recently become disturbing clear. We read two chapters from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and my students were both intrigued by and unsurprised by Alexander’s claims. That the drug war is racist, that it targets non-white men, and that it can be seen as the most recent iteration in a long line of racial oppression were not new ideas for my students, nor were they in any way controversial. Instead, they were taken as a simple truth, and one that pushed many of my students to argue – rather eloquently, I thought – that simply legalizing marijuana or decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs will not stop the racial targeting of non-white men. No longer incarcerating people for mild drug offenses would be a good start, but it would treat a symptom of larger forms of structural inequality, not the disease itself.

In our last week together, I asked my students what I forgot. What drugs didn’t I talk about enough, if I talked about them at all? How could I improve the course if I were to teach it again? Their answers were great. They wanted to know more about the history of drug abuse on college campuses, in order to understand why so many of their fellow students were abusing speed, cocaine, ADHD medications, molly and alcohol. Celebrity drug culture could fill at least a lecture or two. And what about the abuse of “alternative drugs” – Krokodil, bath salts, poppers, Robotripping, sizzurp, drinking Purell, and beezing? They also wanted to watch episodes of Cops and Intervention.

Teaching drug history was one of the most satisfying and entertaining things I’ve done in grad school, and it seemed like my students enjoyed it as well. Any thoughts on your own experience in teaching drug history, or things you think I should include for the next time? You can see my syllabus on my website.

DUIA Class(Teach Your Children Well: Drug Use in America After 1945 at George Washington University, Spring 2014)



Revising Drug History on the Web (or, what’s up with Vincent Dole’s Wikipedia page?)

When I taught high school a little less than a decade ago, we teachers generally regarded Wikipedia as a kind of academic quackery. The site supposedly lured our stressed, overscheduled prep students by allowing them to tap an up-to-date—but intellectually suspect— knowledge base with just a few keystrokes. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched the open-source encyclopedia project in 2001, and its rapidly evolving entries vexed research teachers. We were still teaching the Robert Caro Writing Process, notecards and all.

Caro with his master outline for “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” (Martine Fougeron/Getty for The New York Times)


But Wikipedia, as it turned out, developed its own orthodoxy; its accuracy now rivals traditional online encyclopedias like Britannica. Even so, the site has faced objections regarding its hostility to academic specialists and primary sources, and the apparent bias arising from its masculine editorial culture. Yet the critical response from academia has softened from one of rejection—a tough stance to maintain when a site gets some 500 million visitors a month—to reform. Feminist edit-a-thons, class projects to improve wiki entries, and Harvard’s recent job advertisement for a Wikipedian-in-residence all indicate that scholars have decided to take responsibility for shaping content on the widely read site.

We could take the same initiative with drug and alcohol history resources. And we try: Points compiles a list of approved online resources, and a good amount of our daily traffic is driven by historically motivated Google queries.

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Call for Authors — Alcohol: Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives

SAGE Reference is seeking authors for some of the 550 entries in a new work entitled Alcohol: Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives, which seeks to go beyond the United States and beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to examine alcohol as a cultural and social phenomenon dating to the earliest days of humankind. This comprehensive project, edited by Scott C. Martin of Bowling Green State University, will be marketed to academic and public libraries as a printed book and as a digital product available to students via the library’s electronic services. Assignments are being made with a deadline of August 16, 2013. For a list of available articles and submission guidelines, contact Joseph Golson at alcohol@golsonmedia.com, providing your CV or a brief summary of your academic/publishing credentials in related disciplines.