Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Adam Rathge, director of enrollment strategies and part-time history professor at the University of Dayton. Rathge is also a drug scholar and a longtime friend of Points. He continues our Teaching Points series here, explaining how drug and alcohol history can be brought into the classroom and can be a vehicle for understanding historical methods. Enjoy!
During the coming Spring semester at the University of Dayton, I’ll be teaching HST 299 – Historical Background to Contemporary Issues. This will be my second time teaching the course. It is offered once a year by the History Department and open to students of all majors, with rotating topics driven primarily by faculty expertise and current “headline news” issues. In my case, this means teaching about drugs by focusing on current trends in marijuana legalization and the opioid crisis. From the department’s perspective, the topics are somewhat secondary to the true purpose of the course, which is designed to “focus on the methodology of history as a discipline and on the utility of historical analysis for understanding contemporary political, social and economic issues.” As such, in my version of the course, drugs become the gateway to teaching historical methods.
Over the fifteen-week semester, I divide the course into three, roughly five-week blocks. The first block covers recent developments with marijuana legalization. The second block explores the ongoing opioid crisis. The third and final block provides time for scaffolding the research process on a headline news topic of each student’s choosing. In essence, the first two blocks are designated topics on contemporary issues that allow the class to work through a guided model of historical methodology together, while the third allows them to put those skills into practice for themselves on a topic of interest. Each five-week block, therefore, introduces not only the topic at hand but also skills relevant to reading, writing, and thinking like a historian.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Enjoy!
The current so-called opioid epidemic has placed an urgent frame around drug-related policy debates in Ohio. Here, the current midterm election ballot includes Issue 1, a state constitutional amendment that would convert level 4 and 5 drug felonies—charges for possession and use of drugs—into misdemeanors, somewhat like California’s Proposition 47 in 2014. Ohio would be only the sixth state to take similar measures to reduce drug-related mass incarceration.
So Issue 1 was much on the minds and lips of panelists at “Facing Opioids: Drug Enforcement & Health Policy in Today’s Epidemic,” an Oct. 19 symposium at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. I appreciated the chance to listen to legal experts in criminal justice and public health talk about Issue 1, drug courts, harm reduction, and other topics related to Ohio’s very high rate of overdose deaths.
When polling stations closed last week, the response to Ohio’s rejection of Issue 3 came fast and furious in local and national news. “Ohioans did the right thing on Tuesday by overwhelmingly rejecting a deeply flawed marijuana legalization ballot initiative,” Vikas Bajaj wrote in TheNew York Times. “The proposal would have amended the state’s constitution to grant a monopoly on commercial cultivation of cannabis to a small group of investors, which is a terrible idea.” The editorial board of Cleveland.com agreed: “Issue 3 is the wrong way to legalize marijuana for recreational use,” they wrote, “if there is even a right way to do it.”
In the wake of the first major anti-legalization vote after three years of seemingly intractable progress, what Bajaj and many others decried was not the halted expansion of legal cannabis, but rather the specter of Big Marijuana: the threat that pot, if legalized, would become as fierce and monopolistic a vice as Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol or Big Gun. And Issue 3, which was originally proposed by a group calling itself ResponsibleOhio and backed by wealthy investors (including retired NBA player Oscar Robertson and former boy bander and Buckeye State native Nick Lachey), seemed to embody those fears by granting the sole right to cultivate legal weed to just ten farms, all of which were owned and operated by these same investors. As November 3 approached, the specter of a marijuana monopoly seemed increasingly real: even as legalization was being touted as a social justice issue (by reducing the number of arrests of non-white males), it couldn’t escape the fact that it also smacked of a system that was inherently unfair, a symbolic gesture toward social equality that, in truth, benefitted only the already-privileged few.
What’s particularly interesting for drug historians, however, is not that this was one of the first rejections of legal marijuana in the past three years, or that it could be a harbinger of marijuana’s difficulty making inroads in the Midwest, but rather that arguments against Big Marijuana are once again rearing their ugly heads. The specter of Big Marijuana invoked last week was only the most recent example in a debate that’s been going on for forty years. Newly-reinvigorated after Ohio’s rejection of Issue 3, whenever there are discussions of legalized or decriminalized marijuana, fears of corporate takeovers and monopolies are never far behind.