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 →

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Proving Cannabis – A History of Nineteenth Century Medical Marijuana

“During the month of September, 1862, I took Cannabis on various occasions,” confessed Dr. W. A. D. Pierce in the pages of American Journal of Homoeopathic Materia Medica and Record of Medical Science nearly a decade later. He did so “with the purpose of gaining, through the intoxicating influence of the drug, an insight into the phenomena of Somnambulism, Delirium and Mania, in connection with my researches in Psychology.” Pierce was not alone. Following the formal introduction of cannabis to American medicine in 1840, medical journals were filled with pages and articles recounting the self-administration and experimentation of physicians and their patients. Indeed, while autobiographical accounts of drug use like De Qunicy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean often garner the most attention on the matter, medical doctors were often experimenters themselves – especially when it came to cannabis.

Personal experimentation with cannabis, like this one from Dr. Pierce, was common among physicians in the late nineteenth century.

Personal experimentation with cannabis, like this one from Dr. Pierce, was common among physicians in the late nineteenth century.

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Presenting Terada Shin: The Life History of a Female Drug User in Prewar Japan

Editor’s Note: Today, Points features a guest post by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History. (University of California Press, 2013). You can read the Points interview about the book here).

For historians of drugs, user perspectives are often frustratingly difficult to capture. Narcotics consumers generally leave behind few records in their own voice, forcing scholars to rely on the (frequently biased) perceptions of those who come into contact with them: law enforcement, doctors, social scientists, policymakers, etc. In the course of my research on narcotics in Japan and its empire from the 1850s through the 1950s, each of these groups provided critical information. My search for user-authored narratives, however, proved fruitless until virtually the last moment. In 2011, as I was preparing the penultimate draft of my book manuscript, I learned that a collection of documents, formerly inaccessible to scholars due to their poor condition, had been digitized and made available by the National Diet Library in Tokyo. To my delight, I found materials on the Drug Addiction Relief Association [Mayaku Kyūgokai], founded in 1933 as Japan’s first domestic facility for treating narcotics dependence. These sources not only enhanced my understanding of the history of addiction medicine, but also included about twenty life stories by patients, as recorded by doctors at the clinic in the mid-1930s.

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Terada Shin (right) with Y. Masa (a fellow patient at the Narcotic Addiction Relief Association)

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