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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.

Defunding the (Drug) Police

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

Defunding the police triumphed at the polls, even if we do not call it that. And it was bipartisan. By defunding, I mean Washington D.C. voting to decriminalize psilocybin, Oregon voters approving two landmark reform measures—Measure 109, which legalized psilocybin therapies, and Measure 110, decriminalizing personal possession of all drugs–as well as the four states that legalize recreational cannabis (New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana, along with Mississippi which passed medical cannabis). These are significant reforms and reveal a couple of things.

First, the Oregon measure recognizes a fundamental reality in American life: drug use is already decriminalized and legal for wealthy people. Second, there is no separation between recreational and medical drug use, other than more affluent, whiter segments of the population receive prescriptions from doctors, and poor people do not. Finally, one interpretation is that voters are coming to understand arresting people for drug possession does not help individuals, improve public safety, or provide obvious benefits to anyone. Instead, it controls poor people in a society that, unlike its peer nations, fails to provide essential services, whether it is healthcare, housing, medical care, paid leave. The only service the poor receive comes through the criminal punishment system. Let’s touch on all these points.

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Pot on Television: A Break from Election Anxiety

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 needed to be done. After an election day [week] spent trying to avoid the inane punditry on cable news (by endlessly refreshing news sites and counting the number of different ways CNN.com tried to headline Joe Biden’s impending electoral victory), I decided to take a break and binge-watch a few recently released cannabis-themed shows I had planned on reviewing for Points in the coming months.

As someone who isn’t a culinary expert (but has 12 years’ of foodservice background), isn’t a particularly avid watcher of food shows (though I’m still obsessed with Alton Brown’s Good Eats), nor is a television critic (though an avid fan of the small-screen), what follows is my review of Vice TV’s Bong Appétit (2016-2017) and its third season re-boot Bong Appétit: Cook-Off (2019), alongside a brief introduction to the Netflix shows Cooked on High (2018) and Netflix’s Cooked with Cannabis (2020).

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Joe Biden and Drug Control: A More Complete Picture (Part 3—the Late ’80s)

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 month.

Now that Joe Biden has been duly elected president, I want to continue exploring his drug control activities where I left off last month. Although it takes me further and further from my chronological comfort zone as a historian, I have really appreciated the opportunity that writing for Points has presented me to learn some basic stuff about the “decade of greed.” To that end, I watched The Last Narc, an Amazon series about the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Mexican-American DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in February 1985. I know very little about this incident, but I had seen so many references to it in primary and secondary sources that I figured it had to be a defining event in the history of the drug wars. 

The new documentary went something like this (spoiler alert … ?). Part 1: The traffickers involved were selfish, brutal, and strung out; but Mexican officials at the highest level also were complicit in the wildly profitable and violent drug trade. Part 2: Cartel commanders definitely beat Camarena to death slowly while he begged for his life. Part 3: Wait, CIA agent Félix Rodríguez also beat and questioned Camarena, who probably knew too much about the U.S.-run Contra training camp in Central America secretly funded by Mexican cartels running South American cocaine into the United States. Part 4: An unidentified DEA agent also assisted in planning the abduction; looks like Camarena was betrayed by his own government. 

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Drugs and Digitization: Investigating Opiate Addiction in the U.S. Civil War Era in the Age of Mass Digitization

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Jonathan S. Jones is the inaugural Postdoctoral Scholar in Civil War History at Penn State’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center in 2020-21, where he is currently preparing a book manuscript on opiate addiction in the Civil War era for publication. The project is derived from his dissertation on the same topic, defended at Binghamton University in June 2020. Jonathan’s recent publications include an article in The Journal of the Civil War Era’s June 2020 issue titled “Opium Slavery: Civil War Veterans and Opiate Addiction.” After Penn State, Jonathan will be joining the Department of History at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) as an Assistant Professor starting in August 2021. Connect with Jonathan on Twitter at @_jonathansjones or at jonathansjones.net

In the American Civil War’s wake, thousands of veterans became “enslaved” to morphine, opium, and laudanum. These powerful and addictive medicines were used in nineteenth-century America to dull the pain of amputations, suppress diarrheal sicknesses, and help the war-weary cope with anxiety and depression. In fact, opiates were among Civil War America’s most widely prescribed medicines, and medical authorities considered them to be the most “indispensable drug[s] on the battlefield—important to the surgeon, as gunpowder to the ordnance.” Surgeons doled out opiates heavily to injured and sick soldiers. Without any real regulations on narcotics until the Progressive Era, many veterans simply kept on purchasing and consuming opiates after leaving the army.

But as Americans, then as now, widely recognized, opiate medicines have an unfortunate downside. Veterans who took the drugs for too long risked becoming addicted, with severe personal consequences. Men who developed addictions were widely condemned as “slaves” to opium and morphine, a common contemporary descriptor for opiate addiction that echoed the temperance and racial rhetoric of the day. As one Union veteran put it, after falling sick during the war, he soon became “a slave to the Habit of using Morphine, with not a ray of hope of ever being emancipated.”

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Beyond the Quarantine Effect: The Multiple Dimensions of Cannabis in the COVID-19 Pandemic

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.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, millions of people already used cannabis drugs to help relieve depression, anxiety, and boredom. It should be no surprise, then, that cannabis sales are exploding during a pandemic that has forced us all to stay home, stay away from each other, and, if we’re being honest, stay anxious about an uncertain future. But as with most stories about the cannabis plant, there’s more to it than that. Just as it has helped people cope with the realities of COVID-19, cannabis might actually be useful in fighting the disease itself, and trends during the pandemic are working against the black market that has been a bogeyman for the politics of legalization.

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Bruce Bagley: Diving Too Deep into Primary Sources

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canadian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.

Unlike the posts we’ve published over the last few weeks, this one is not political. We could all use a distraction while we wait for the results tonight. Nonetheless, today is election day, and if you haven’t already, VOTE!

During his career as a professor of International Studies at the University of Miami, Dr. Bruce Bagley dove deep into the primary sources, researching the dynamics of drug trafficking and organized crime in the Americas–so deep that in June of 2020 he pleaded guilty to money laundering. According to Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Dr. Bagley used bank accounts in his name as well as a Florida bank account for a shell company he created in order to launder over $2 million from “proceeds of a Venezuelan bribery and corruption scheme into the United States.” Dr. Bagley, said Berman, went from researching and writing about organized crime and narcotics trafficking to actually “committing the crimes.” Incredible, but true.

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The kids are going to be alright. Maybe: The (very) complicated portrayal of drug addiction in “Euphoria”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In the opening scene of the first episode of HBO’s controversial series Euphoria (2019), Rue (Zendaya), the show’s omniscient, unreliable narrator, recalls the last time she felt safe. “I was once happy, content, sloshing around in my own primordial pool,” she laconically claims. “Then one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed over and over by the cruel cervix of my mother . . . I put up a good fight, but I lost for the first time—but not the last.” Reluctantly thrust into an anxious post-9/11 world, Rue laments being crushed yet again by more circumstances even further beyond her control, coming of age in the shadow of a financial recession and the omnipresent threat of school shootings. As a toddler she was diagnosed with numerous mental disorders, her inner turmoil seemingly reflecting the instability of the era: ADHD, OCD, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder. A cornucopia of drugs was prescribed to address a problem that baffled experts, priming her for drug abuse well before she clandestinely discovered the tranquility provided by her dying father’s pain medications. Due to this bewildering amount of pharmaceuticals, Rue mournfully confesses to not remembering much of anything about her early adolescence other than “that the world moved fast and my brain moved slow.”

The only way to deal with the unwanted burden of navigating her tumultuous world, she informs viewers in a monotone voiceover, is to numb oneself to its reality, to render oneself incapable of caring so as not to hurt by creating a state of unfeeling. And opiates provided just the kind of emotional refuge she needed to escape from what she considered a broken society for which no one had prepared her. “I just showed up one day without a map or a compass, or to be honest, anyone capable of giving one iota of good fucking advice. And I know it all may seem sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system. Nor did I fuck it up.” In Rue’s mind, recreational drug use was a perfectly acceptable response to having to cope with the sick reality imposed upon her, Oxycodone offering a means to, at the very least, get by, to survive another day, to “outrun,” as she put it, “your anxiety.” It is a kind of agency, albeit a sad and ultimately destructive kind, for reclaiming control in a social order that afforded her none. “I found a way to live,” she asserts. “Will it kill me? I dunno.”

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Don’t forget to go home: Rainald Goetz’s “Rave”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from 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 is currently a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde. 

“Meet girls. Take drugs. Listen to music.” These three short sentences function as the plot summary and the marketing blurb for Rainald Goetz’s 1998 novel Rave, newly translated into English by Adrian Nathan West. The “girls” are young, the “drugs” are strong, and the “music” is pounding. That much we know, but little else is clear. “Autofiction” before Karl Ove Knausgård or Rachel Cusk, Goetz’s protagonist “Rainald” drifts from club to industry shin-dig to Balearic island and back again, chugging beers, popping pills and chatting nonsense along the way.

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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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