SoundCloud Rap and the Opioid Epidemic: In Defense of a Genre

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

On 3 October 2018 Michael Jones, a relatively obscure rapper within the SoundCloud rap movement known as New Jerzey Devil, was arrested after a joint investigation involving the New York Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Authorities alleged that Jones was responsible for the drug overdose death of Diana Haikova, a 29-year old resident of New York, after providing her with heroin and fentanyl. According to DEA Special Agent in Charge James J. Hunt, “This investigation led us into the underbelly of emo rap and its glorification of opioid use.” 

Of course, the argument that hip hop has glorified the use of illicit substances is hardly new. The genre’s depictions of alcohol and narcotics have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in correlations between media exposure and drug practices. The results of a couple of the more contemporary studies are indicative of the general trend in academic investigations that have almost universally found hip hop particularly deleterious. “Positive portrayals of drug use have increased over time, and drug references increased overall,” Denise Herd, a professor of behavioral sciences, noted when summarizing a 2008 study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, that analyzed popular rap songs between 1979 and 1997, a conclusion that led ABCNEWS to simply declare that “rap music is glamorizing drug use.” Similarly, a 2018 study published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol determined that “listening to rap music was significantly and positively associated with alcohol use, problematic alcohol use, illicit drug use, and aggressive behaviors.” Although this is just a sampling of the numerous studies that have appeared over the past three decades examining the individual and societal effects resulting from exposure to hip hop, their conclusions reflect an entrenched consensus that the genre possesses an extraordinary capacity to encourage antisocial and destructive behaviors, particularly alcohol and drug addiction. 

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Public Relations Language Disguises How Drug Discourse Today Is More Successful – and More Sinister – Than Anything Harry Anslinger Could Concoct In His Wildest Dreams

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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If you’ve followed the opioid issue, you might suspect, based on media reports and statements from policymakers, that we have turned over a new leaf in our attitudes toward drugs and are finally moving in the right direction: today we are “expanding treatment” and abandoning the former “punitive” morality play model. Elite discourse reinforces the perception that we have become more sophisticated, science-based and compassionate to users and those with substance use disorders. 

That’s only partially true, but not because powerful institutional actors experienced a change of heart; they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into embracing, if only rhetorically, this new model. If anything, grassroots activists, harm reductionists, health workers and criminal justice advocates on the front lines have waged tireless, and at times seemingly thankless, campaigns to reform our draconian laws, and they have succeeded. (Prime examples of these successes include legalizing cannabis, decriminalizing psilocybin in Denver, and expunging criminal records for marijuana arrests in some states.) Activists also shifted the conversation away from the dehumanizing language used to describe people who use drugs among press and policymakers (“junkie,” “addict,” etc), a language that enabled us to conceive of other people as less than human, making it easy on our collective conscience to confine them to cages. Even now, further incremental baby steps are met with the same hostilities and recitations of the parade of horribles that would be unleashed as they used before. 

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Fiction Points: Amy Long

 

amy raw-26_pinkwall

Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2019) and a founding member of the Points editorial board. She has worked for drug policy reform and free speech advocacy groups in California, D.C., and New York; as a bookseller at Bookpeople in Austin, TX; and as an English instructor at Virginia Tech and Northwest Florida State College. Her essays have appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2015Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. Codependence is her first book.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask what you write about, how do you answer?

“Myself. I find myself inherently interest–sorry, I’m maybe having a Topamax flashback. You’re sure that penguin’s really here?” And then I’d probably ask the bartender for a cup of water, down a Klonopin, and run like mad out of there.

Points is primarily a blog for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

The juxtaposition of medicinal and recreational opioid use would probably most interest drug historians, as would the descriptions of “doctor shopping” in 2003 versus 2012 and 2015. All the events in Codependence take place prior to implementation of the 2016 CDC guideline, and it’s harder now to find doctors who are willing to write opioids in doses high enough to actually control serious pain. My ex-boyfriend David, a major figure in the book, was a master doctor shopper back when it was still easy to get opioids from a doctor for any relatively believable pain complaint, and I doubt even he could get them now. I don’t give him credit for much, but watching him trick doctors into writing him pain pills taught me how to act in pain management offices and is likely a major reason I’m still able to treat my intractable headaches with opioids in today’s restrictive climate. It’s not that I’m lying; I wish I were! But he taught me how to present myself and that presentation matters.

I also hope literary historians like reading a drug memoir that doesn’t end in recovery or tie up in a neat bow. Feminist historians interested in relationships similar to the one I was in as an older teenager and college student might find something interesting about the emotionally abusive, codependent dynamic David and I share.

Scholars interested in gender disparities in medicine will hopefully appreciate reading about my experience as a pain patient with a “women’s problem.” I experiment with non-opioid headache medications, too, and depict my use of illicit drugs such as marijuana and LSD, which should interest historians who study medicine and pharmacology. I was also an early Suboxone adopter  (at one point in the book, I get off opioids entirely and stay off for a year, but I go back to them after I get dependent on Advil–Advil!), and I write a good bit about how quitting alcohol (it’s a migraine trigger) affects my social life, so there’s something for everyone!

Mostly, though, I’m writing about opioids and other drugs, pain, addiction, dependence, recovery, and mental health in ways that I’ve never seen represented in literature, so the essays work as a sort of case studies in what it’s been like to rely on opioids during the past 15-plus years.

 

CodependenceCoverwSpine

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I started Codependence in my MFA program. I always knew that I wanted to put these two kinds of drug-related experiences in conversation with each other, but I thought I’d write it as a novel until I took a creative nonfiction workshop with Matthew Vollmer in my second semester. That class totally changed the way I think about writing and even just being a person. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet as my final project (if you’re ever at Virginia Tech, ask Matthew if you can see it; he’s its executor!) and used that as an outline for my thesis, which turned into this book. But drugs have been a big part of my life since I was 18, so I was always going to address it in some way. To me, Codependence is the book I had to write in order to ever write anything else. But my writing will probably always involve drugs in some way. I mean, I take three drugs right when I wake up; they’re hard to ignore!

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

Nearly every decision I made had something to do with drugs. I needed a way to wrap a coming-of-age story into one about a druggy relationship and a medical memoir without using chronology to connect the dots. There’s no way I could have left drugs out of the book. But I spent a lot of time thinking about how I’d use them. Codependence is an essay collection, but it’s also a non-linear memoir or memoir in essays; the essays touch on different parts of or events from my life, but they create a distinct arc when you read all of them together, so I had to decide when it was right to introduce certain elements. For example, the first essay centers on me telling my mom that I’m back on opioids, and the second kind of sums up my relationship with David, but neither refers to the events depicted in the other, and readers have to figure out as they go how those two strands connect. I didn’t want to spell it out, and there’s a degree to which I don’t know what it means that I used to take drugs for fun, and now I take them to treat chronic pain either, so building a sort of puzzle-like, incantatory narrative structure made up of essays that might not always seem related puts the reader in a position similar to mine, which is the other thing I most wanted to do: trap the audience in my body, my head, my pain so that the book mirrors both chronic pain and addiction and hopefully builds in some empathy (I know, I’m really great at selling this: “Let me trap you in my pain!”).

About half the essays use received forms (I’ve seen them called hermit-crab essays, but I call them “formally inventive”) such as a map or a series of glossary entries. One of my favorites is a set of six prescription-informatic-like essays that tell the story of my and David’s relationship. After I wrote it, a friend said, “You’ve found your form! You could write the whole book like that,” but I thought writing about drugs in a drug-label format would be too on the nose. I included the glossary in part because I wanted to catalog all the migraine and headache medications I’ve tried, but I also thought readers might need actual definitions of some things, especially since I can’t assume that all my readers have had the prodigious drug experiences I’ve had! So, decisions about how to write about drugs played an important role in shaping the narrative, its structure, and the meanings it can make.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

Mostly, I like that I blur the boundaries around medicinal and recreational drug use or abuse, and I’m interested in stories that don’t really resolve at the book’s end. In my next project, I’d like drugs to take something of a back seat to other themes, but I know what I want to write next, and I can’t do it without writing about drugs again! And I like writing about drugs. Maybe what most interests me is looking at how to live in a drug-dependent body without letting drugs structure every interaction, every thought, every relationship, even though there is a way in which they have to for me.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope [oh, we hope!] Codependence gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

“Dance, Dance” by Castanets

Raymond Raposa, whose band is Castanets, and I are going on tour together this fall (we launch the book at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on Sept. 14!), but I started thinking of that song as my “credits song” for a long time, way before I knew Ray and I were doing the tour (I have been thinking about this answer for literal years!). It just really captures the feelings and themes of the last essay and of the book as a whole. It’s evocative and paints this kind of bleak but beautiful picture in a way that’s similar to what the  book does.

Chipping Away: Opioids, Autowork, and the UAW Yesterday and Today

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from one of our newest contributing editors, Dr. Jeremy Milloy. Milloy is the W. P. Bell Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Allison University. A scholar of work, capitalism, addiction/substance use disorder, and violence, he began studying substance use and the workplace while researching his first book, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Violence at Work in the North American Auto Industry, 1960-80, published in 2017 by the University of Illinois Press. His current book project investigates the historical relationship between work, capitalism, substance use, and recovery in Canada and the United States, considering how wage labor has influenced substance use, anti-addiction efforts focused on work, the creation of employee assistance programs, workaholism, drug testing, and methadone programs. You can reach Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremymilloy) or by email (jmilloy@mta.ca). And you can look forward to reading more of his work on Points!

Among the historian’s most valuable contributions is the knowledge that many current phenomena that seem new have actually been around for quite awhile. So it is with the current opioid crisis, which many have pointed out is a continuation of, not a departure from, longstanding trends in substance use and dependence in North American life. 

The automotive industry is a good example. Today, both the major North American automakers and the UAW have identified opioid-related harms as a significant threat to their workforce, membership, and communities. As journalist Jackie Charniga has shown, the U.S. areas dealing with the most severe opioid-related harms overlap with the areas of the Big Three’s major American manufacturing facilities. Ford and the UAW in 2017 started the Campaign of Hope, which aims to educate and inspire workers to avoid the misuse of drugs. The UAW is bargaining with the Big Three to make more help available for workers and make it easier to access that help while keeping their jobs. Unionists and Ford are even working together to pilot a medical device that could possibly relieve some of the agony of withdrawal. 

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The Other, Other Opioid Crisis: Tramadol in West Africa

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

For the past twenty years, a steady rise in opioid addiction and overdose rates across the U.S. has led to a “public health emergency,” declared by Donald Trump in October of 2017.[1] In 2017 alone, over 70,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdose, and 47,600, or 68%, of those fatal overdoses involved illicit and prescription opioids.[2] This means that opioids, whether in the form of illegal heroin or prescription pills such as OxyContin, killed more people in 2017 than car accidents (40,100) and gun violence (39,773). According to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 37,113 of the 47,600 opioid-related deaths that year, or 78%, were of “White, non-Hispanic” people.[3] Particularly hard hit by the epidemic were the Rust Belt of the Ohio River Valley and mostly-white suburbs of Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, and Massachusetts.

While the label “public health emergency” is apt given these statistics, the current media obsession with the “white prescription opioid cum heroin user”—epitomized in Chris Christies oft-repeated anecdote about his college buddy who was a “great looking guy, well-educated, great career, plenty of money, beautiful, loving wife, beautiful children, great house, and had everything” but then tragically succumbed to prescription opioid addiction after a back injury—is both unhealthy and unethical.[4] As Solomon Jones, a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently argued, perceptions of drug addiction in America have become so “gentrified,” that what once “was primarily a black and brown problem” of morals “has been rebranded by whiter and richer” Americans as a public health crisis affecting good, white citizens deemed victims.[5]

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Treatment, as it exists, is treatment for the few

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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If you look at recent coverage of opioid epidemic, media outlets admit that in the past they added gasoline to the fire during the “crack epidemic” and want to apologize for those mistakes. The New York Times editorial board gave a belated “whoopsie-daisy” for feeding the American people a steady diet of bad science and race-baiting incitement several decades ago. In their mea culpa they wrote:

“Today, with some notable exceptions, the nation is reacting to the opioid epidemic by humanizing people with addictions — depicting them not as hopeless junkies, but as people battling substance use disorders — while describing the crisis as a public health emergency. That depth of sympathy for a group of people who are overwhelmingly white was nowhere to be seen during the 1980s and 90s, when a cheap, smokable form of cocaine known as crack was ravaging black communities across the country.”

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The Sociological Approach, Part 1

In an article recently published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Joseph Spillane has given me some clues on how to proceed in my own work. “Inside the Fantastic Lodge” is Spillane’s consideration of the networks, identity-making and social limitations revealed in Marilyn Bishop’s narration of her days as a young white heroin user in 1950s Chicago. The Fantastic Lodge (1961) is a book-length transcript of interviews with Bishop conducted by sociologist Howard Becker. As Spillane explains, The Fantastic Lodge was a product of the mid-century rise of a sociological approach “that took the individual as the unit of analysis.”

Spillane’s reading of Bishop’s life story construes her as the center of her own universe of social networks. By describing her social world, including the actors in it and outside intrusions upon it, he creates a piece of empirical evidence that is at once specific and universal. Historians, he writes, should continue to do this type of work in spite of a historiographic current that seems to be flowing in a different direction.

Although I have always thought of my research style as inductive—proceeding from my searching and reading rather than from my big idea—I have not really attempted to closely think and write about a single drug user. But now I have a subject whose story seems to require such an approach.

He is Keeny Terán, an adolescent Mexican-American boxer and heroin user from the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. After his meteoric rise on the amateur boxing circuit in the early 1950s (Bishop’s era of heroin use), he became a target of the news media and the police over a drug habit that he described as essential to enduring the pain of boxing, but that had originally sprung from social networks in his neighborhood and possibly at the gym where he trained.  

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Keeny Terán, seated leftmost in this April 1951 Los Angeles Times photograph. What insights could boxing’s social networks hold about his heroin use?

Once targeted, Terán endured a string of public humiliations. They began when he was at the height of his notoriety: recently married, a new father, and seeking to earn a greater share of boxing’s receipts. He was arrested in the locker room after winning a fight, then outed as a supposed narcotics informant (which he denied), prompting death threats against him. Soon afterward he suddenly called off a big match and disappeared, ostensibly to a rehab center. Upon his return, a reporter double-crossed him by revealing his addiction treatment in a splashy story about his “big comeback.” Soon he was again arrested and charged with selling heroin, receiving a five-year prison sentence; about a year into serving it, the media furtively covered his divorce. The moment he hit the streets on parole, the cops marked and hounded him. He did more time, wrote a memoir that might have been lost, and ended up on methadone, which he hated.  

Many pieces of Terán’s story are missing and might never be recovered. In pursuit of facts and events, I have failed so far to ask questions about his relationship networks and his internal life, about struggles related to his family and his neighborhood and to the overlapping social worlds of boxing and heroin. More importantly, I have not yet even described these things.

The process of “describing to know” (as I’m calling it) seems to spring rather naturally from a sociological perspective. I noticed this fact last year when Ceci Burtis, a senior sociology major who conducted some research under my hapless guidance, submitted to me a write-up describing similarities and differences between two celebrity drug users. Her skilled process of simply describing aspects of the lives of these two women—Billie Holiday and Judy Garland—was simple and effective. For example, she gave me this comparison chart as a note:

Judy GarlandBillie Holiday
1922-19691915-1959
singer/actressjazz singer
whiteblack
pills: amphetamines & barbituatesheroin and marijuana
alcohol and cigarettesalcohol and barbituates
middle class familypoverty
never arrestedarrested at least three times
cirrhosis of the liver, depression, hepatitiscirrhosis of the liver, heart and liver problems
died age 47died age 44
self-administered overdosegeneral organ failure due to chronic drug use
actress at 12 years oldprostitute at 13 years old
rehab/“rest cure” four times, numerous hospitalizationsrehab three times

Marilyn, Keeny, Judy, Billie. One aspect shared by three of these lives is something Spillane describes as the “most salient” of the outside forces that can disrupt social networks and impose costs unevenly on members of those networks: the criminal justice system. Garland perhaps escaped entanglement with the law, but another disruptive force in all these cases (except personally for Marilyn, though it touched her indirectly) was the attention of the news media.

In pursuit of better history, I hope that I can begin to practice a sociological approach to writing about drug users. I also hope you will enjoy reading Ceci’s write-up about Holiday and Garland in the post that follows this one.

Teaching Points: Using Drugs as a Gateway to Historical Methods

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.

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Many Scholars Think Drug Courts Harm Policy Reform, Not Vice Versa

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.

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Bad History, Bad Policy: Maybe Historians Should Be Ostracized from Society

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

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Historians aren’t the first people national publications go for hot-takes. That may be a good thing. But I’ve always been in the camp that says historians should be more active outside of academia. So, I’ve been encouraged by publications like The New York Times and Washington Post reaching out to historians, asking them to analyze the opioid epidemic in its historical context. On the other hand, it’s been frustrating to see those opportunities squandered. An example that caught my eye was Clinton Lawson’s op-ed for the Times, published in May. It’s well-written and pleasant enough to read, but his interpretation of effective policies, then and now, resembles a DEA spokesperson more than a member of the public. Overall, his argument is aesthetic, encouraging us to avoid bad things, like racism or overhyping stories in the news, while at the same time offering the conventional wisdom: penalties and prison.

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