Editor’s Note: A week and a half ago, we noted that 40,000 Americans had died from COVID-19. Now that number is over 70,000. It’s a frightening time, but we’re trying to record history as it happens. Today contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore, discusses the long history of blaming alcohol and drug use–vice–on minority communities in times of crisis.
During a White House coronavirus press conference on April 10th, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged black and brown Americans to quit drugs and alcohol and embrace family values to best avoid contracting coronavirus.
Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. And call your friends and family. Check in on your mother; she wants to hear from you right now. And speaking of mothers, we need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your Big Mama. Do it for your Pop-Pop. We need you to understand — especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Maria Elena Cantilena, a PhD student in History at University of Trieste (Italy). Her research focuses on drug consumption in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s, exploring how its image changed in public opinion and medical debate, in the context of new legislative approaches.
Maria Elena Cantilena
On 5th May 1954, the Italian writer Dino Buzzati published «Il Morfinomane» (The Morphine Addict) in the newspaper «Il Corriere della Sera». In this short article, he described the morphine addict as a decent man who is hanging around the city looking for night-shift chemists, using these words:
«He is an old man, elegantly behaved, old-fashioned, he could be a duke, a notary or a judge. … He is a regular there, he is decent and indifferent. Chemists know him already; they call him ‘Commander’ and treat him like a high-value client».
On 23rd 1954, the Socialist congressman Giuseppe Alberti declared in the Senate:
«Drug consumption is a madness made by people who live in idleness, who long for idleness, who poisoned themselves because of laziness. In such clubs, there are no workers coming after a ten, twelve hours shift, no farmers who have woken up before dawn, and there are no clerks who have to come to terms with restricted extra-pay».
Within the Italian public debate, drugs were seen as a vice-related with upper-middle-class and show business, which in the public eye consumed morphine and cocaine because of boredom and transgression. In 1954, a new drug law was approved: consumers and drug dealers had an equal status and were punished in the same way with jail time. If a drug user declared to be a drug-addicted, he could avoid jail, but he had to be admitted in a mental hospital.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore.
Most today agree that smoking is, medically speaking, bad for you. From the Surgeon Generals’ first warnings in 1964 through the anti-tobacco media campaigns of the Truth Initiative to the growing and controversial trend of vaping, Americans since the 1970s have, as Sarah Milov recently wrote, “increasingly identified themselves by their rejection of smoking.” This shift in public perception has not been isolated to the U.S. Warning labels with explicit images of cancerous lungs, increasing sales taxes, and near blanket prohibitions of smoking in public spaces are now all commonplace in many nations across the globe.
But across much of the world during the much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, public and medical opinion on cigarettes and their impact on health was more or less the opposite. Starting in the middle 1800s, for example, dozens of brands of “medicinal cigarettes” appeared on pharmacy shelves in nations across the West, many marketed as an effective treatment for asthma, congestion, and fever. One of the most successful brands was Grimault & Co. of Paris, who produced, marketed, and sold “Cigarettes Indiennes” as a “sovereign remedy” for asthma between the 1850s and 1930s. Grimault made their Indian cigarettes from a mixture of tobacco, cannabis, datura, and belladonna, and distributed them across the world, from their pharmaceutical factory in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine to distributors and pharmacies in over two dozen countries, for nearly a century.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore.
In early April 2017, Kobili Traoré, a 27-year old Malian immigrant, murdered an elderly Orthodox Jewish woman named Lucie “Sarah” Attal-Halimi in the Belleville neighborhood of northeastern Paris. Neighbors who witnessed the attack told police that Traoré appeared “crazed,” repeatedly called Halimi a “Jewish devil,” and shouted “Allahu Akbar” and Koranic verses as he violently beat her, then threw her from a 4-story window to her death. After his arrest Traoré claimed he remembered nothing from the night in question and felt “possessed by a demonic force” after “smoking too much cannabis” throughout the day leading up to the assault.
In the now over two years since Halimi’s murder, the French court has wavered in its official opinions on Traoré’s sanity and thus criminal culpability. Initially, François Molins, prosecutor in Paris’s second district, argued that the attack did not constitute an anti-Semitic hate crime and declared Traoré unfit for trial as a result of an acute episode of cannabis-induced psychosis, a decision he largely based on an initial and somewhat ambiguous psychiatric evaluation produced by Dr. Daniel Zagury, the same psychiatrist who established the legal culpability of Salah Abdselam, mastermind of the November 2015 Paris attacks, and dozens of other ISIS-inspired and -trained terrorists detained in France. In his report, Zagury wrote, “Today, it is common to observe, during delusional outbreaks…in subjects of the Muslim religion, an anti-Semitic theme: The Jew is on the side of evil, of the devil. What is usually a prejudice turns into delusional hatred.” Traoré’s murder of Halimi, he thus concluded, “constituted a delusional if anti-Semitic act.”
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from John O’Brien, a Lecturer in Sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland. His research has focused on alcohol policy, political leadership and social memory. In 2018 his book States of Intoxication, a historical sociology of alcohol and its place in state and society, was published. His recent work has focused on urban policy, examining the ‘creative city’ thinking, the growth of cultural quarters, and the expansion of the night-time economy. His current research projects focus on the secularization of addiction treatment services, alcohol-related public order offences in the night-time economy, and commemoration.
The history of psychoactive substances is the history of taxation and the revenue base of states. That governments have always had this preoccupation can be seen in how the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest records of any state, has more to say about alcohol than any other subject. The alcohol industry has long been promoted by states as a means of guaranteeing a crucial revenue stream. Nearer to our times alcohol contributed 40% of total revenue over the 19th Century in the UK (Harrison, 1971), with this falling continuously however, as economies become more complex, to 35% in 1900, to 12% in 1940, to 7% in 1967, to 3% in 1987, with the figure standing at 0.5-3% for EU states today (Anderson & Baumberg 2006: 54). While the falling dependence on alcohol has opened the door to public health policies, it remains an old-reliable that few governments are willing to forego, and liberalisation of other psychoactive substances is largely justified through arguments concerning revenue and the costs of foregoing it.
Bernard Mandeville, in the context of the 18th Century gin epidemic (inspired by a revenue hungry British government) wrote: “Bare virtue can’t make nations live, In Splendour; they, that would revive, A Golden Age, must be as free, For acorns, as for Honesty”. In other words, private vices can be public virtues, and an emphasis on virtue can be a recipe for poverty. Vice – a going to the extremes, a failure to act in a proportionate manner, a disregard for tradition – can be beneficial, as it will generate economic vibrancy and fill the coffers. We could perhaps trace the genesis of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to alcohol and psychoactive substances involving the propensity to binges to this sharp utilitarian perspective. It is a dramatic contrast to the virtue ethics that had largely governed use previously, stemming from Platonic thought, which emphasised what was in due measure, embodied in the figure of Socrates who could not become drunk. The true philosopher could not become drunk because they were the embodiment of the measure, of ‘the good’.
Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Leanne Horinko, the interim director of the office of graduate admissions at Drew University’s Casperson School of Graduate Studies. Enjoy!
As academic history continues to expand, incorporating interdisciplinarity and meeting the needs of public history, areas of history previously overlooked by scholars are becoming new spaces for exploration. Counter-cultural history is no exception. Scholarly inquiry of these new interdisciplinary subjects can lead to interesting challenges in understanding the subject matter without sacrificing academic rigor. Those interested in contributing original research to interdisciplinary fields like counter-cultural history or alcohol and drug history can find themselves neck deep in historiography from multiple fields and trying to piece together a framework for their work. These challenges are perhaps best illustrated in my own research.
Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest blogger Liz Greene. Greene is a dog-loving, beard-envying history nerd from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch up with her latest misadventures on Instant Lo or follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene.
Like so many of our modern “wonder drugs”, heroin was born of necessity. Unfortunately, the promise of a non-habit forming solution to morphine addiction turned out to be false, and a new national dependence was formed. This is the story of heroin.
In the 1800’s, opium use had taken a toll on the country. With doctors prescribing opium and its derivatives for everything from coughing to “women’s troubles,” many patients had become addicted to the much used cure-all, leaving doctors and pharmacists scrambling for an alternative.
Editor’s Note: Today we’re happy to bring you an article by Ferdinand Nyberg, a Finnish citizen currently getting his Ph.D. at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where he works at a collaborative research center which investigates ‘threatened orders.’ His focus is in American Studies and his research will specifically center on the intersections of nineteenth-century temperance efforts, abolitionism, race, and gender. He’ll be contributing several articles to Points and we look forward to reading his work!
Few visitors to Berlin aged around 16 to 30 will be unfamiliar with Görlitzer Bahnhof; or, rather, they’ll be familiar with the park frequently referred to by that name (often shortened as ‘Görlitzer’ or ‘Görli’). As the name suggests, it was once a Bahnhof, a railway station; and one, it happens, with a fascinating history.
Built in 1866, it was to function as a major artery for trade and travel eastwards (notably to Görlitz). The impressive neo-renaissance station, commissioned by Prussian ‘railway king’ Bethel Strousberg, simultaneously advanced and symbolised Prussia’s rapid industrialisation and economic growth. But – as has so often happened in Berlin’s history – time and space had another say in the matter, and the station’s symbolic significance would take many turns.
In 1961, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall (officially, the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’) and Görlitzer Bahnhof, now located in closed-off West Berlin, lost its purpose. Within a year it was demolished, and its former location became nothing but empty space and rubble (in the 1990s, the area – already used for frolicking – was turned into the park we have today). Suddenly, Kreuzberg – the district in which Görlitzer Bahnhof stood, and one bordering the wall – had become a liminal and undesirable ‘Wild West’ in the already-liminal exclave that was West Berlin. Pretty quickly, locals moved out; either to West Germany proper or to newly-built government-subsidised housing projects (realising that the Berlin Wall might cause an exodus out of West Berlin, the government swiftly got to work, building spacious and affordable housing in the traditionally swanky parts of town). For a time, then, Kreuzberg was a destitute neighbourhood, myriad apartments standing empty. Some revitalisation would come through the German government inviting ‘guest workers’ from southern Europe and the Middle East to help instigate theWirtschaftswunder. Thousands settled in Kreuzberg, which still forms the heart of Berlin’s Turkish and Arab community. Second, West Berlin became a sanctuary for ‘alternative types,’ defined broadly.[i] Students, artists, draft dodgers, and activists interested in ‘experimental living’ were attracted to Kreuzberg’s ‘different’ feel and eagerly took advantage of its low rents and ample squatting opportunities. Soon enough, liminal Kreuzberg had developed its own hybrid culture, a compound of left-leaning counterculture and ‘Middle Eastern’ elements. (A cultural admixture which, in retrospect, loudly forebodes the gentrification now taking place.) Görlitzer was, quite literally, central to these changes.