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Starting Points

Points (n.) 1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.

Drug Reform in a Biden Administration?

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

In August, the DNC Convention depicted Joe Biden as “Uncle Joe,” an empathetic figure who faced adversity, experienced personal tragedy and is generally kind of a goofball, an elderly gentleman telling rambling stories about how movie popcorn tasted better in the 1950s. In late September—in another moment of empathy—the only part of the presidential debate that received positive press coverage came when the former Vice President defended his son and said, “My son, like a lot of people at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaking it. He’s fixed it. He’s working on it. And I’m proud of him; I’m proud of my son.” Jonathan Reiss, writing for Rolling Stone, was one among many in the press who thought this moment might potentially signal a sea change for drug policy:

“Having the son of the president represent the recovery community is a new paradigm. This wouldn’t be the president’s distant kin quietly slipping into a million-dollar rehab for 28 days. This would be the president’s son acknowledging that he is in recovery, that he has smoked crack and come out the other end of that indelibly narrow glass tunnel. Merely acknowledging the problem is profoundly meaningful — the first of the twelve steps.

“Addiction is a realm where reform often comes from those who have been through it. If Hunter continues to wear the label of ‘addict’ without shame, lending his experience and the experience of others in recovery to pertinent policy discussions, this could be a ray of optimism during bleak times for those in recovery. Especially now, when so many people are confronting one of the bleakest times in modern history.”

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Joe Biden and Drug Control: A More Complete Picture (Part 2—the 1980s)

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC). She continues the series on Joe Biden’s drug policy she started last week.

It was an election year—1980—but Senator Joe Biden was not up for reelection. His interest and expertise in drug policy were sharper than ever, and his membership on the Foreign Relations and  Judiciary committees (where he chaired subcommittees on European affairs and criminal justice) enabled him to pursue the drugs issue from both the international/supply side and the domestic/demand side. 

Biden had been immersed in international Cold War politics while working on agreements with the Soviet Union and others to curb the nuclear arms race (the SALT treaties). At the same time, he accepted the duty of oversight of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) starting in 1978, as the first experimental decade of massive federal funding for law enforcement was drawing to a close. Though setbacks would occur, the early 1980s presented Biden with a unique opportunity to create more robust federal drug control. 

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Joe Biden and Drug Control: A More Complete Picture (Part 1—the 1970s)

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC). As we prepare for the election next month, her examination of Joe Biden’s historical views on drug policy will continue next week.

Okay, here’s the deal: Joe Biden is a right-leaning moderate on drug control. Always has been. No surprise there.

However, examples of Biden’s past interest and instrumentality in drug policy are surprisingly copious. Spanning a half-century, these facts somehow seem both historical and ongoing. Progressives and libertarians must face the improbability of true policy reform from someone who has waged so much war on drugs for so very long. 

Biden consistently held three broad positions during the 1970s: (1) the harms of recreational drug use were severe and urgent, especially because drugs caused crime; (2) the United States should spend money on drug control, but wisely; and (3) cannabis was really not so bad. The first decade of Biden’s career in national politics showed him that drug control was popular with voters, but difficult to manage.

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Points Election Update

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

It almost seems, given the existence of much more pressing matters, that a Points election preview is not even worth our time. As a personal matter, I’ll take that stance explicitly at the end of all of this. But as a drug historian, writing to folks interested in drug policies, such matters are always worth some of our time. Let’s take a quick break from Trump’s COVID diagnosis, two recent debates and a cancelled third, and ongoing conflict over Trump’s SCOTUS nomination, and review some of the key drug policy issues that will figure into the 2020 election season.

Trump’s criminal justice, like much of his policy strategies, center on public relations and marketing
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America’s Weed Industry Still Has a Big Environmental Problem

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

It is admittedly difficult to begin any kind of essay in 2020, but writing about environmental issues this year is especially challenging, because there are so many ongoing calamities that I am loathe to add to the list.

However, whether they are wildfires, hurricanes, or disease, human behavior has contributed to these problems, so it is incumbent on us to keep taking stock of how our actions affect our environment.

On that note, I will again trot out the Very Tired Bad News Bear of 2020: cannabis agriculture remains a big environmental problem, and the industry’s increasing profitability means that we need to keep talking about it, even amid the year’s broader cataclysm.

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Listen to Science? Since When?

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

Every day, on television or doom-scrolling through Twitter, some Democratic Party official rails against Trump for ignoring “science” and putting the country at risk by his failure to “listen to the scientists.” It is true. Though, to be fair, Trump has never claimed to respect science or made any pretense that it would influence his policy decisions. Conversely, since the coronavirus outbreak, Biden has really hammered home the “public health” message. His campaign’s website, in a bullet point filler section, pledges that, if elected, the Biden administration will “ensure public health decisions are made by public health professions and not politicians.” Don’t take this seriously. 

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Heroines?: Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and Psychedelic Wives

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and he is currently a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde. 

Cultural historian Mike Jay wrote an article last year which asked ‘why is psychedelic culture dominated by privileged white men?’ It’s a question worth answering, and one that Erika Dyck’s recent series on women in the history of psychedelic plant medicines for the Chacruna Institute does a fine job of addressing. As Dyck points out in her introduction, one doesn’t even need to look far to find female pioneers. Many of the “great men” of psychedelics, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Alexander Shulgin, were introduced to, or aided and abetted in their use of psychoactive substances by their wives and partners. In highlighting women such as Simone De Beauvoir or Ann Shulgin, Dyck’s introduction is redolent of Kate Zambreno’s polemical essay Heroines, which rages at the silencing, exclusion and neglect of “the wives and mistresses of modernism.” All writers themselves, women such as Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles and Zelda Fitzgerald have had their work side-lined, both deliberately and negligently, by the oversize literary reputations of their male partners.

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The Points Interview: David Black

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with David Black, the author of Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD (independently published, 2020). Black lives in London and is an independent journalist and author. His previous books include The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism: Essays on History, Culture, and Dialectical Thought and 1839: The Chartist Insurrection.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD tells the story of various people who made that, beginning with the discovery of LSD’s hallucinogenic properties in 1943 by Albert Hoffman. In the late-1940s psychiatrists started using it as “psychosis-inducing drug” for schizophrenics. CIA officers investigated LSD’s potential as a weapon of mind-control and became enthusiastic trippers themselves. But the CIA and the medical establishment wanted to keep LSD out of the hands of “undesirables.” The “undesirables” included those in the new youth counterculture who challenged the official line on LSD and explored its potential for creativity and spirituality. So, in the 1960s, as LSD “escaped” into the counter-culture, the producers and distributors were forced underground.

I’ve titled the book Psychedelic Tricksters because in mythology the trickster is someone who “unwisely” defies the powers-on-high, as when Prometheus steals fire from Zeus for the benefit of humankind. The trickster’s rebellion always fails and yet is seen as necessary for the origin of civilizations, or perhaps, as in the case of psychedelics, a new beginning for a society that had lost way in war, racism and sexual oppression.

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Editorial transition at Contemporary Drug Problems

CDP changes hands this month. Kate Seear, author of Law, Drugs and the Making of Addiction: Just Habits (Routledge, 2020), and kylie valentine, Deputy Director of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and author with Suzanne Fraser of Substance and substitution: methadone subjects in liberal society (Palgrave, 2008) step into new roles as co-editors.

Following upon the editorship of Robin Room, the journal has been edited for the past decade by David Moore. The new co-editors served as associate editors and they recall, We have strong (and fond!) memories of reading articles in CDP that discuss pleasure, solidarity, and new possibilities; as well as articles that focus our anger and concern for systemic inequality and worldwide injustices experienced by people who use drugs. We think CDP is also a unique journal, given its concern for theoretical and empirical work, and will maintain those elements of the journal’s focus.  

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Points Roundtable: “American Rehab” from Reveal

In July, Reveal, the broadcast channel of the Center for Investigative Reporting, released its eight-part series American Rehab, which centered on an investigation into the drug treatment program Cenikor and the group’s emphasis on “work therapy.” Examining how Cenikor was able to transform “tens of thousands of people into an unpaid, shadow workforce,” Reveal traced Cenikor’s development, struggles, and ultimate success as it placed “patients” into difficult, and often dangerous, jobs across Texas and Louisiana, keeping the money these workers earned and providing little else in terms of actual therapy or rehabilitation. Led by reporters Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski and Ike Sriskandarajah, the series is based off Walter’s previous reporting on the issue, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for national reporting.

American Rehab’s early episodes deal extensively with the history of a group that directly influenced the formation of Cenikor: Synanon. In doing so, the reporters reached out to several members of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society for advice and assistance on the history of addiction treatment. We’re really useful people to ask: roundtable participant Nancy Campbell’s book, co-authored with JP Olsen and Luke Walden, The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts outlined the history of the Lexington Narcotics Farm, where “work therapy” got its start, and panelist Claire Clark’s book The Recovery Revolution: The Battle Over Addiction Treatment in the United States deals extensively with the long and complicated history of how “therapeutic communities” like Synanon influenced addiction treatment and rehabilitation. These books, as well as Campbell, Olsen, and Walden’s series, “Lessons from the Narcotic Farm” from 2012 (click the links to see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) and contributing editor Jordan Mylet’s initial reaction to the series here, provide further details for those interested in how American drug treatment came to the disturbing point Reveal reveals. 

In response, now that the entire series is available, we decided to post a roundtable of reactions to the podcast. Participants include Nancy Campbell, professor and department head of Science & Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Erin Hatton, associate professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo and the author of Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment; Claire Clark, associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Kentucky; Jordan Mylet, doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego; and me, Emily Dufton, managing editor of Points and author of a forthcoming book about the history of medication-assisted treatment in the US. Our responses focus on the long history of work therapy in addiction treatment, the concept of coerced labor, the promotional model at the heart of many treatment programs, further reflections on Synanon, and assessments of the series’s conclusion. 

We welcome your thoughts on American Rehab and thank the reporters for bringing ADHS historians into the conversation. We hope you’ll enjoy our thoughts on American Rehab, and that you’ll listen to this important and informative podcast. 

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