Around the beginning and end of every semester (summer included), we feature syllabi, instructional materials, and instructor reflections on courses related to topics of interest to Points readers. Below, you’ll find the syllabus for “Drugs in U.S. History,” a summer course taught this year by Kyle Bridge at the University of Florida. In a few weeks, like those who came before him, he will publish a reflection on Points, thoroughly detailing the progression of the course, from planning, assigning, and evaluating student work to connecting themes developed in class to his own research. Stay tuned!
Course objectives: Upon successful completion of this course, students will understand the complex role played by drugs in American society, beginning with the construction of drug debates and the evolving definitions of key concepts like “drug” or “addiction.” They will be able to identify and explain historical contexts of drug use, to critically analyze cultures of control that have developed around different substances (including in the criminal justice system but also the addiction treatment field), and to articulate and assess challenges to those cultures through measures including drug legalization, medicalization, and harm reduction. Continue reading →
Anyone tuning in to Fox & Friends this week was treated to an awkward moment courtesy of Dr. Oz, when he went off-script after plugging his upcoming interview with Ivanka Trump and launched into an impassioned defense of medical marijuana.
“Can I ask you one thing? I talked about the opioid epidemic, but the real story is the hypocrisy around medical marijuana. And just really quickly, medical marijuana – people think it’s a gateway drug to narcotics but it may be the exit drug to get us out of the narcotic epidemic. But we’re not allowed, we’re not allowed to study it, because it’s a schedule I drug. And personally, I believe it could help.”
“Wow,” co-host Steve Doocy intoned, visibly tense. “Hadn’t heard that before.” He reminded viewers to watch Oz’s show and cut to commercial break, clearly wishing the cardiologist had taken co-host Brian Kilmeade’s cue to end the segment twenty seconds prior. Continue reading →
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to lower the nicotine content of cigarettes to, ideally, “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. Public health advocates celebrated the decision; on the other hand, Big Tobacco investors began dumping shares at the prospect of supplying an ever-more-elastic demand.
Cigarette critics and capitalists alike belong to what Richard DeGrandpre calls the “cult of pharmacology,” a system of belief that dominates American drug discourse. Rooted in modernist faith in understanding the world through scientific approach, by the early twentieth century many considered drug experience to be a straightforward process of brain and body chemistry, without regard for concepts we might recognize today as set and setting. Historically contingent forces divide drugs into “angel” and “demon” categories, but their effects are similarly reduced to biological mechanism: “‘soul’ was reinterpreted as ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit’ was reinterpreted as ‘biochemistry.’”
But cults are given to blind faith, so it is worth considering the extent to which substances are to blame for problem use. Continue reading →
On the latest episode of Pointscast, the first, best, and only podcast of the Points blog, hosts Alex Tepperman and Kyle Bridge offer their thoughts on the ways domestic and international drug use are portrayed in American media. But first, for months listeners have been submitting questions for our expert Q&A series. Kyle opens the episode by asking Bob Beach (firstname.lastname@example.org), a doctoral candidate at SUNY Albany and frequent Points contributor who studies cannabis use and policy before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, a simple question from a curious listener: why is weed illegal?
Be sure to check out the Pointscast Twitter and Facebook pages and listen to other episodes on Soundcloud! If you have questions for our Q&A series or general comments on the podcast, please email us at email@example.com
In response to Donald Trump’s sniffly debate performances over the last month-and-a-half of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Twittersphere erupted in wild speculation that the alleged billionaire had prepared with lines other than his taking points. “Notice Trump sniffling all the time. Coke user?” ventured Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, one-time presidential candidate, and, not incidentally, licensed medical doctor. Others consulted drug authorities, of a sort. Self-described cocaine “expert” Carrie Fisher told a curious fan that she “ABSOLUTEY” thought Trump appeared like a “coke head.”
While Trump probably doesn’t toot key bumps before going onstage, it is worth considering in a serious way what a potential future commander-in-chief believes about an issue near and dear to Points readers: drug policy. What follows is an attempted breakdown of Trump’s position on the three key topics mentioned above. I say “attempted” because, like with most things, his often contradictory stance on drugs is characteristically hard to pin down.
Sitting for an interview on the O’Reilly Factor in February, Trump displayed some surprising compassion for others after host Bill O’Reilly called medical marijuana a “ruse”: “But I know people that have serious problems and they did that, they really – it really does help them,” Trump professed.
He didn’t offer any clarifying details but said that he was “in favor of it a hundred percent.”
Still toeing the small-federal-government line of the party that gave him its nomination, Trump similarly left recreational weed for states to decide. I think.
During a debate last summer, he opined that “[regulating marijuana] is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that.” When pressed by the moderator about states’ rights to set their own policy, he verbally shrugged: “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado – some big, big problems.” (Again, no specifics.)
Later, at the same rally he proclaimed medical a state issue, he softened his tone. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”
Notably, during the cultural hysteria of the crack epidemic, Trump supported full legalization. “We’re losing badly [bigly?] the War on Drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” When pressed about his 1990 statement last year, Trump must have misremembered. “I said it’s something that should be studied and should continue to be studied. But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now. I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something I would want to do.”
Trump calls the problem of opioid addiction “tremendous.”
He may very well believe that his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border will stem the tide of heroin into the states, but traffickers are responding to demand cultivated domestically.
Boo! We at Points hope everyone had a safe, fun Halloween. Today, take time to recover from holiday parties, the long walks between neighborhood houses, or the effort of taking down your spooky decorations. We’ll resume our normal posting schedule Thursday, November 3, but in the meantime, as you enjoy your treats from last night, check out our latest post on the myth of drug-laced Halloween candy. (We promise it isn’t toooooo scary!)
This year, medical marijuana is on the ballot in my home state of Florida, and it’s likely to pass: the latest statewide poll shows 77 percent of Floridians support the proposed constitutional amendment.
But the remaining 33 percent aren’t taking this lying down. On Monday, some county sheriffs held a press conference ostensibly on Halloween safety. Instead, surrounded by costumed children for full effect, they warned citizens about the supposed risk of marijuana edibles being passed out to unsuspecting youth.
Courtesy, Florida Sheriff’s Association
If you rolled your eyes, you’re not alone. Several news outlets immediately speculated that the press conference was an effort to rally anti-marijuana enthusiasm before election day. None of the law enforcement officials present could identify a prior case in the state, though they insisted the “threat” is real.
Florida parents likely have little to fear next Monday night, regardless of the imminent election results. Even in newly legal states, no one (well, no child) found a “Pot Tart” or “Zonka Bar” in their Halloween haul last year. (And, when you think about it, how many people were handing out chocolate liquor cordials before then?) Plus, the idea of adulterated candy is nothing new. Snopes identified variants of this trope, including poisoned, razor-containing, or intoxicating children’s confections, going back decades. Only a few spuriously related incidences have ever been documented, and those have little or no connection to the actual goings-on of the holiday.
But drug myths like laced Halloween candy can be read as classic examples of folklore, or what scholars call cultural sets of beliefs shared to rationalize complex, unknown, or unknowable phenomenon. And folklorists will tell you these kinds of urban legends aren’t just for debunking. In her book on rumor in African American culture, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Black folklorist Patricia Turner related that these claims are often not representative of “typical” beliefs. Instead, they offer novel insights into “pattern[s] of thought” through “an under-studied folk tradition.”
Folklorists like Turner, Gary Alan Fine, and Jan Harold Brunvand have for decades implored us, not to question the “objective” “truth” of these ideas, but to analyze what anxieties they reveal within their constituencies. It doesn’t necessarily matter if, as some profess, the CIA introduced crack to American cities, or methadone causes cancer, or suburban stoners would divvy up their stash with neighborhood kids. But those repeated ideas, true or false, sincere or not, have real implications.
What anxieties can you identify in this case, and in our mythic drug discourse more broadly?
Call for papers: Alcohol and Drugs History Society conference
22-25 June 2017, Utrecht University, The Netherlands.
The twentieth century dawned with an unparalleled drive to regulate the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol and other psychoactive substances. Many countries have developed their own specific historical trajectories of substance regulation, consumption, and user cultures. This regulatory drive continued into the 21st century, where today we live once more in a period of decisive regulatory changes and discussion. For instance as can be seen in the submission of national regulations in Europe to EU directives. On the other hand, the ‘war on drugs’ is now more contested than ever before.
Global discussions have intensified concerning the consequences, feasibility, and desirability of drug prohibition. Moreover, the rise of virtual communities of substance use defies regulation within national borders.
To befit the context of this global discussion, and to stimulate comparative transnational research on substance use and regulation, the organizers of the conference would like to invite contributions addressing histories, problems and consequences of substance regulation in their wider contexts – including political, social, and cultural developments, as well as responses by and consequences for civil society, communities, and individuals.
Questions may include but are not restricted to the following:
To what extent were regulatory practices shaped and determined by national, local, or international factors?
How did user cultures and consumption develop within the context of changing regimes, for instance in specific national or urban settings?
How and why did substance use and substance regulation differ between periods and regions?
How can we explain similarities and dissimilarities between regulation of different substances (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, ‘drugs’) and their consequences, and other regulatory regimes (e.g., food, medicine, gambling, etc.).
How did legal markets and illegal economies, their impact on social, cultural and political life, and trading and trafficking patterns and routes develop in the context of changing regulation?
What was the role of media debates and public discourses on changing regulatory regimes and on their impact?
Finally, in light of the increasing availability of digitized sources the organizers are particularly interested in methodological contributions: on availability of sources in general, and on the impact of digitization of sources and the possibilities of using advanced text mining tools for transnational comparative research in alcohol and drug history in particular.
Proposals for papers (300 words and a short CV) and sessions can be send to:
As much as I try to stay up on my drug news, sometimes people scoop me. This most recently happened last month when I received an article with a fantastically understated title: “Groundbreaking Treatment could be the End of Cocaine Addiction.” It was certainly enough to make a skeptical drug historian smile (and chuckle at the layered humor of Yahoo Finance covering anything related to the stockbroker’s culturally purported substance-of-choice).
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort fulfilling every stereotype
The vaccine, named dAd5GNE, combines parts of a common cold virus with a particle molecularly similar to cocaine, triggering an immune response against both. “Once immune cells are educated to regard cocaine as the enemy,” Crystal explains, “it produces antibodies, from that moment on, against cocaine the moment the drug enters the body.” The idea is to neutralize cocaine particles before they pass the blood-brain barrier, blunting their effects. This is a key distinction among addiction medications like methadone, which partially block opioid receptors once drugs like heroin cross over.
Crystal concedes that the process may not reliably pan out for humans. Years ago, his team observed vaccinated rats appearing less hyperactive after cocaine use than non-vaccinated rats, and the isolated antibody absorbing cocaine particles in a test tube, but scaling up is not necessarily linear. “We need to find out if the vaccine will cause enough anti-cocaine antibodies to be produced so that it works in humans, too.”
Crystal’s cautious optimism is not reflected in articles like the one my friend shared (though author Melody Hahm is considerably more measured in the main text). Once Crystal began experimenting on primates after mice, an article from The Fix invited readers to “[i]magine that cocaine addiction could be eradicated, poof, with a simple vaccine. [Crystal] now thinks his team has actually figured out a very clever trick to make that dream a reality.” A recent article in the New York Post calls the treatment a potential “saving grace” for addicts.
Methadone did little to alleviate the structural inequalities that contributed to drug addiction, as elaborated in this 1966 pamphlet
Poof! The drug historian continues smiling. In the early 1960s, scientists Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander began using the synthetic opioid methadone to treat heroin addiction. Soon, journalists began proclaiming the drug as the “magic bullet” solution to the nation’s growing heroin problem. (But not without reason; the uniquely favorable conditions of early methadone trials, which featured rigorous screening processes for applicants and included staggered patient cohorts in cumulative retention data, produced impressive results: anywhere from 71 to 94 percent of users ceased criminal activity, found steady employment, and/or enrolled in college.) But heroin addiction was most prevalent in poor, high-stress urban neighborhoods characterized by racial discrimination in housing and employment. Methadone didn’t alter the scene much in places short on opportunity and long on reasons to use and sell dope. For decades, critics have credited the drug with simply perpetuating social conditions that give rise to drug use in the first place.
dAd5GNE may face similar charges. It doesn’t eliminate craving for cocaine, it just reduces the drug’s effect. Research suggests cocaine must occupy at least 47 percent of a dopamine transporter to produce a characteristic high and Crystal’s vaccinated primates never reached levels above 20 percent. But committed human addicts may accidentally overdose trying to bridge the gap, assuming they stick with the vaccination booster regiment at all, while polydrug users have an easier workaround. In any case, neither the setting or consequences of cocaine use on a social or individual level will probably change much. And, like its opioid-blocking counterparts, the cocaine vaccine gets us no closer to answering questions about addiction’s natured and (or?) nurtured etiology.
However, the vaccine has one major advantage over most opioid maintenance therapies: it has virtually no addictive potential. Twelve-step adherents and other abstemious interests liken methadone maintenance to substituting one drug – read: addiction – for another. Opioid replacement drugs can induce a mild euphoria, create physical tolerance, and even be fatal at certain dosage thresholds, which, at least theoretically, are non-issues for vaccine boosters administered weeks apart.
However, this treatment is not for everyone who does cocaine. The vast majority of users enjoy it as a fun or utilitarian stimulant without adverse outcomes. Many have no desire to stop. But even for problem users hoping to quit, the cocaine vaccine may go the way of methadone, Antabuse, and nicotine patches: magic bullets for some, stopgaps for others, nothing for most. (Assuming, of course, that trials confirm dAd5GNE is viable for human use.) But for anyone who earnestly desires to break patterns of destructive behavior, here’s hoping for more poofs in the future than the past.
The latest episode of Poinstcast is now available on Soundcloud for your listening pleasure! On this episode, Alex and I introduce a new segment, the Paper Chase, where we unpack the cultural meaning of even silly-sounding news from a not-so-bygone era. We end with a discussion of the “lovable drunk” television trope, particularly on The Bachelor and other reality (“reality”) shows featuring heavy alcohol use. Join us for a meandering conversation about dogs on marijuana, a purported heroin Queenpin in 1940s Chicago, and whether Barney Gumble and Karen Walker are held to a gendered double standard.