No Elephant in the Room? The ADHS at AHA in NYC, and the end(!)(?) of the War on Drugs

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

The Alcohol and Drugs History Society was represented last week at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in a set of five fascinating panels, headlined by a wonderful discussion after lunch on Saturday on Capitalism and Addiction, but overall covering topics from pop culture to tea/coffee houses, from songs to theater to art, from India and Pakistan to Paris to New York, the very city in which we gathered.

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It was a déjà vu moment, I had been there before. Standing on the corner of 53nd and 6th in front of the New York Hilton, watching the parade of red-lanyard clad historians making their way to panels, and I knew I’d seen this before, but it wasn’t quite the same. In 2015, the last time the AHA was in New York, I reviewed ADHS panels for Points. The 2015 set of ADHS-affiliated panels featured many of the same scholars as 2020, but the point of view seems to have shifted. In 2015, the panels were heavily focused on “illegal” drugs and honed in on critiques of the War on Drugs. In 2020, I’m not sure the phrase “War on Drugs” was ever uttered. The elephant in the room (one of the 2015 panel titles), was no longer in the room.

What has changed? In the five years since that last review, the US has continued the process of introducing ten new state-level legalization regimes, and the medicinal cannabis market (including the CBD boom) has expanded. The opioid epidemic is still on-going, and the debates over solutions to that crisis are continuing, but we aren’t in a dramatically different place than we were in 2015. Two panels did shed light on recent contexts to emphasize how historical (and public health) approaches to drug issues complicate our understanding of how psychoactive drugs (and other addictive behaviors) shape and are shaped by political and economic structures, but the focus on the impact of restrictive regulation was not a major concern of the presenters this time. 

I participated in the first of our five panels on Friday afternoon. Along with Renee Johnson and Robert Stephens, we discussed the complex issues surrounding marijuana legalization. The panel sounded a rather pessimistic note on the ongoing saga of marijuana legalization citing the tremendous gap between the tools available in a capitalist marketplace to exploit the limbic potential of cannabis, and those available in public health to assess the impact of any number of drug policy changes from legalization to the proliferation of vaping, edibles, and CBD products.

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In the Capitalism and Addiction panel, the discussion about that relationship continued in a much broader context. Lucas Richert gave us a revealing look into the Pharmacy, connecting the rise of retail pharmacies to the proliferation of addictive substances from tobacco to alcohol and sugar. David Courtwright gave us insight on the structural aspects of this relationship noting the self-reinforcing processes that tie addicting substances (and addicting activities) into systems of global capitalism. Claire Clark’s presentation put an exclamation point on the panel’s argument by tracing the evolution of “Big Rehab” from its abortive emergence within the New Deal and Great Society state, to its re-organization and rapid expansion in the private sector via Reagan’s deregulatory spree in the 80s.

While less overtly pessimistic than the first panel, these papers revealed a similarly dire picture of how economic systems are undermining public health by exploiting the biological processes of addiction in the pursuit of profit. In both of these panels, the “War on Drugs” barely figured into the discussion. It was still there, to be sure, as discussion occasionally drifted into the impact of criminality on these issues, but the scholars were content to concede the end of the “war” and were focused on looking to the “post-war” future.

The other panels celebrated the past, and the influence of psychoactive substances (often far in the margins of these discussions) on political, economic, social, and cultural history. On Saturday morning, John Strong, Stephen Sanfilippo, and Thomas Balcerski presented scholarship on the role of alcohol in the early republic. In their papers, alcohol functioned as an important pivot point around which issues of labor in the 18th century Long Island whaling industry, civilizational discourse in sailor songs and poems, and the fledgling efforts of congressional temperance associations, revolved. 

The last two panels examined the role of sociability space in challenging various modes of state and imperial authority. Bradley Kadel and Jacek Blaszkiewicz, on Saturday afternoon, looked at this process in mid 19th century Irish Pubs and in Haussman-era Paris cabarets, while the last ADHS panel saw Samina Iqbal, Bhaswati Bhattacharya, and Kristin Plys weave the story of Indian/Pakistani coffee and tea houses, and their shifting influence on South Asian culture and politics from the 1930s through partition in 1947, and into the era of the US-backed Xia military dictatorship in the 1980s.

The sense that the ADHS panels at the annual meeting lacked our “War on Drugs” elephant in the room, to me at least, was palpable. And while an unscientific sampling of five panels among dozens of drug related scholarly panels at various academic and non-academic conferences over the past five years isn’t going to reveal anything about the state of the field, it does seem that drug historians are operating in a social and cultural environment much more tolerant of drugs and drug use. While our panels in 2015 seemed to be insisting that drug history can and should be considered separately from the history of criminality and the “War on Drugs,” the 2020 panelists appear to be shorn of that analytically oppressive yolk, opening new possibilities that I’m sure we’re all looking forward to discussing at future conferences.