The Ayahuasca Phenomenon in Historical Perspective

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest contributor Chris Elcock. Elcock is an STS postdoctoral fellow working at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris, where he is investigating the use of ayahuasca in psychedelics science. His previous work has examined the cultural history of psychedelics and his doctoral dissertation focused on the social history of LSD in New York City.

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Chris Elcock

I recently attended the third World Ayahuasca Conference, which was held in Girona, Catalonia/Spain. Ayahuasca is a brew that combines the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and a DMT-containing plant, usually of the psychotria viridis genus. While it has been used for millennia in ritual settings in the Amazon basin, it has gradually drawn the attention of scores of experimenters across the world and the biomedical sciences are also investigating its psychoactive effects. The conference attracted people from broad horizons: indigenous peoples travelling from the Amazon basin; research teams looking into the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca; anthropologists studying the uses of this fascinating substance; theologians who drink it in syncretic brands of religion; and the many who’ve had their lives changed forever. 

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“Beyond the Medicines/Drugs Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy in Johannesburg, South Africa (5-7 December 2019) – Conference Report

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore and Jamie Banks of the University of Leicester.

Twenty-one delegates from ten countries gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa from 5 to 7 December for the “Beyond the Medicines/Drug Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy” conference. Masterfully organized by Thembisa Waetjen (University of Johannesburg) and co-sponsored by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS), the Wellcome Trust, the University of Johannesburg, and the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH), the conference was held at the stunning facilities of the South Gauteng Branch of the Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa. The event also marked the latest step forward for the “Changing Minds: Psychoactive Substances in African and Asian History” project under the direction of Jim Mills (University of Strathclyde), which works to connect scholars of drugs and alcohol history in China, Africa, the UK, and beyond.

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On being cited by the Supreme Court

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Richard F. Hamm, Professor of History at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is with Michael Lewis co-editor of the forthcoming Prohibition’s Greatest Myths (LSU Press, forthcoming April 2020), which has an essay by Thomas Pegram, who is also cited in Alito’s opinion in the Tennessee case.  

So, in late June of this year, I was reading a United States Supreme Court case.  Not something unusual for me, as I am legal historian as well as a historian of alcohol policy.  Actually what I was reading was the “slip opinion” which used to be the unbound just-off –the-press opinions of the justices, available before the volume of the United States Reports in which the case would be included was compiled and printed.  Today they are available on the internet.  

The case is one that would interest readers of this blog: it is Tennessee Wine v. Thomas and it concerns how far the second clause of the 21st amendment will reach.  The readers of this blog will know that amendment’s first section repealed the 18th amendment, formally ending national alcohol prohibition in the United States.  What only a few of you know is that its second section gives states broad powers to regulate alcohol.  Based on an important pre-prohibition federal law, the 1913 Webb-Kenyon Act, it reads: “The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.”  And there as I was reading the dense prose of Justice Samuel Alito for the majority of seven justices, I came across my name and a citation to my first book, Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment (UNC Press, 1995).  It’s right there on page 14 and again on page 17, as part of the long discussion of the relationship between the federal government’s commerce power and state alcohol policy.

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Maine and its Marijuana Market

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

Back in November of 2016 the people of Maine voted in favor of a referendum that legalized medical and recreational marijuana.  The medical marijuana market took off quickly, but recreational marijuana regulatory structures slowed down the process for those interested in the Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).  It is now January 2020 and finally the state started accepting applications for recreational retailers.  

Cities across the state have now become competitors in a new and potentially lucrative market that will be up for grabs, and that will ultimately change the local economies across the state.  Like Colorado, California, Nevada, and numerous others states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana, Maine is positioning itself as a competitor in this emerging market.[1]

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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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Magic Cures and their Discontents: The Belladonna Treatment in the Early Twentieth-Century

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. 

When Bill Wilson had the “spiritual awakening” at the upscale Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York City that would inspire the founding and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, he probably didn’t know the strange, at times sinister, history of the treatment that made his transcendent experience possible.

What he received was the Towns Hospital’s version of the belladonna treatment, which had emerged as a cutting-edge addiction treatment in 1900 and became the dominant method in public and private hospitals by the 1920s. Per its name, the treatment was derived from alkaloids of the belladonna and henbane plants in the nightshade family, which had been used for millennia as poison, cosmetic enhancement, and hallucinogen. They were known to be potent, psychoactive, and potentially fatal. As the belladonna treatment (or “hyoscine cure”) spread in American medical practice, physicians and medical researchers engaged in an unwieldy process of trial and error to control the volatile qualities of the drug mixture. In practice, this meant that poor addicts and alcoholics during the first decades of the twentieth century encountered a far more dangerous version of the belladonna treatment. The course of the hyoscine cure reveals the long history of the United States’ two-tiered addiction treatment (and healthcare) system, and the at times wildly experimental character of medicine and pharmacology in the early twentieth century, the same era in which the nation’s narcotics control laws were developed.

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Self-Help Isn’t The Solution; It’s The Problem

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

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The sober curious movement (or “new sobriety”—the branding comes in a variety of flavors) is less a coherent philosophy or sound medical advice and more of a marketing campaign, hawking self-help merchandise and thousand-dollar yoga retreats, along with run-of-the-mill solipsism. It is an online phenomenon, fluent in the language of Instagram, elevated by media-types who share similar well-to-do backgrounds and sensibilities. It is hash-taggable psychobabble meant to solve cosmopolitan ennui and stay-at-home malaise. Its fans are not only upper class but also ultra-fit, photogenic 30-and-40-somethings ready-made for television. 

Scratching the surface, you discover that the day-to-day problems of sobriety-curious enthusiasts aren’t what most of us would classify as problems. And as for solutions, it features primarily simple adjustments like not carrying into adulthood the same level of alcohol consumption you did as an undergraduate. I can’t imagine the people quoted in these stories as real; they are much closer to Arrested Development or Schitt’s Creek characters. Even that comparison might be generous. 

A reporter comparing “mindful drinking” (lots of terms for the same thing) to AA’s anonymity found, “No longer is the topic of sobriety confined to discreet meetings in church halls over Styrofoam cups of lukewarm Maxwell House. For these New Abstainers, sobriety is a thing to be, yes, toasted over $15 artisanal mocktails at alcohol-free nights at chic bars around the country, or at “sober-curious” yoga retreats, or early-morning dance parties for those with no need to sleep off the previous night’s bender.”

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