Los Angeles: City of No Surprises

Everyone, including the writer/director, producer, and stars of the film, had figured Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone a long shot in all the Academy Awards categories for which it was nominated last night–Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay (from the novel by Daniel Woodrell).  Nevertheless, it was particularly depressing to see this riveting narrative of a young woman searching for her father, a parole-jumping meth batcher in rural Missouri, lose the Best Adapted Screenplay prize to Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network.

The latter was a smart movie, largely because

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POINTS Guide to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards

In case you hadn’t heard, the 83rd Annual Academy Awards will be distributed on Sunday evening. And even if you haven’t paid attention recently (or ever), it might be of interest to you as a POINTS reader to recall that Oscar – the nickname for film industry’s most prestigious award for achievement – has long had a fascination with drugs, with drink, and with their influence. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the 2010 Academy Awards deliver comparatively few nominations for films instigated by drugs or alcohol in the outlying categories like “best foreign language” or “best documentary.”

But those acting categories? They deliver the drugs and the booze. Thus, I offer my own brief accounting of the influence of drugs and alcohol within this year’s nominated films and performances. Consider it “The POINTS Guide to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards.”

To begin, BEST ACTOR honors will almost certainly go to

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Remembering Bob Schuster

NOTE: Dr. Charles Robert “Bob” Schuster passed away on February 21, following a sudden illness.  Bob was a remarkable figure in the modern history of substance abuse research.  Nancy Campbell and I had the great privilege of having Bob Schuster as one of the participants in our oral history project on addiction research.  Nancy conducted the interview back in 2007, one of the best in the series, which you can read here.  Nancy shares, here, this remembrance:

Bob Schuster was a jazz musician and a storyteller, a deeply political person who cared about the effects of drug policy on ordinary and extraordinary people, and a humane and compassionate scientist.  As a young person growing up in Camden, New Jersey, his parents’ home was a gathering place for jazz musicians that many referred to as “The 1020 Club.”  Playing underage at Philadelphia nightclubs, Bob personally witnessed close associates “just playing around” with heroin whose lives were transformed as they became addicted.  He spent his entire career in industry, academia, and government as a behavior analyst who set out to understand the behaviors associated with drug-taking–without moralism, without judgment or condemnation, as public health problems.

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London High Society

It’s lunch time in my office, and that means it’s time to raise up from a stack of student papers and enjoy the riches of “the Internets.”  Top of the list today for any lover of alcohol and drugs history should be the online component of London’s Wellcome Library High Society exhibit, the analogue version …

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Disconnect: Moral Liberalization and Mass Incarceration

Note: The following is David Courtwright’s thoughtful response to my earlier post, in which I raised some questions about his recent work.

Joe Spillane has identified a central paradox of recent American history. Why were the prisons filling up, particularly with drug offenders, when legislatures and courts were liberalizing policies on divorce, Sunday liquor sales, gambling, pornography, abortion, sodomy, and other Victorian taboos? How, as he nicely puts it, could “we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time?”

Conservatives have argued that moral liberalization and mass incarceration went hand in hand, insofar as promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent families produced more sociopathic behavior, particularly among young, unmarried men. Though much sociological evidence supports this generalization, it cannot explain the prison boom by itself. First, if society “defines deviancy down” to accommodate the increase in misconduct, the number of additional inmates will not necessarily match the number of new sociopaths. Adding prison capacity is a conscious (and usually expensive) political act. Second, contraception and abortion were also part of the moral revolution. They diminished future criminality by diminishing the number of unwanted and neglected children, a case economists John Donohue III and Steven Levitt made in a famous 2001 article. Interestingly, the abortion-crime tradeoff created a sensitive dilemma for conservative Republican politicians, many of whom were publicly pro-life but privately reluctant to see the end of legal abortion. “These guys are all fakers,” Michael Dukakis told me in an interview. “They tell their Evangelical friends they’re pro-life, and they do nothing about it.”

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Quaalude: The one that didn’t get away?

I was talking to a 67-year old relative about Quaalude at a recent family event. (Does this sort of thing happen to you all the time too, or is it just me?) I know her to be a friendly skeptic on the subject of drugs, and she has made it clear that she never used them herself—she’s a half-glass-of-wine-sends-me-to-bed type. But apparently Quaalude was different. To my surprise, she got a gleam in her eye, something like a faraway look, and said “Now that was a good drug.” It was the only drug she’d tried, she said, and she’d only done it once, but she remembered it fondly. She would have done more drugs if they were like that.

Here’s the thing: more drugs were like that. Sleeping pills were a dime a dozen, and even if you had a preference for Quaalude, well, until 1973 Quaalude was, if not a dime a dozen, at least easy to come by, and probably not much harder for a decade or so afterward. Chances are that my relative wouldn’t have used more drugs like that, because she didn’t. And this makes sense: for all the hip and happy memories of Quaalude, it was just a sedative like the others, with the same basic set of risks and rewards. Most likely she didn’t use it for the same reason she didn’t use other drugs.

So why the nostalgia? I don’t want to stretch the point too far. You can have nostalgia about paths not taken, and people aren’t required to be logically consistent. And yet the two conflicting dimensions of her experience with Quaalude—her reality of choosing not to use it, and her memory of it as a “good drug” that she would have done more of—struck a chord. Like a few other brand name drugs, “Quaalude” has proved hardier as a cultural symbol than as a medicine. It is used to identify the cultural moment of the long 1970s, listed alongside other signifiers like wife swapping and bell-bottom jeans. It is, as the New York Post referred to it recently, a “retro” drug.

And Quaalude does truly appear to be “retro.” Some people, somewhere, are still using it, and “Quaalude ring” busts do occasionally pop up in the news. But overall use of the drug has become so minimal that it is no longer even listed on Drug Abuse Warning Network’s reports. According to the 2003-2004 SAMHSA survey, the vast majority of people who have ever tried the drug are over the age of 26. Only one out of every 25 people who have tried Quaalude are younger than that. By way of comparison, one sixth of cocaine users are under 26, along with one fifth of heroin users and one fourth of marijuana users. Clearly Quaalude’s days as hot item among drug users is long past. Yet if you use Google’s Ngram viewer to track books mentioning the drug over time, you see something interesting: references to “methaqualone” (the generic name) rose to a peak in 1980 and have been declining ever since. That’s pretty much what you’d expect. But if you search for “Quaalude” you see something different. Mentions rise continuously all the way to 2002 before declining. We’re talking about a small number of books, of course, and this is hardly definitive data, but it’s further evidence that Quaalude the symbol has outlived methaqualone the drug.

So: is this what drug-war success looks like?

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Turn, Turn, Turn

If you’re familiar with Rorotoko, the author interview site, you’ll probably observe that we borrowed a bit from that concept in developing our own author interview format. We liked the idea of allowing authors to speak for themselves in talking about their book, and we felt it was important to leave the formal book-reviewing work to the folks at The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, who already do it well.

Drug and alcohol historians will want to take note of a recent Rorotoko interview with David Courtwright, on his new book No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, which I would encourage you to read here. Courtwright’s book deftly presents his basic argument, that “when disenchanted white Evangelicals left the Democratic Party and climbed aboard the GOP bus, they discovered that it was bound for Market Square rather than Church Street.” In No Right Turn, the GOP manages consistently to dupe the moral reactionaries, while the country continues its march toward moral liberalism—a “moral revolution” in the author’s terms. When did this happen? Courtwright concedesCover of No Right Turn that some recent work pushes the timeline back before the 1960s, but he argues that the battleship of Victorian moralism still sailed at the end of the 1950s: “on fire and taking on water…still afloat, its colors tattered but unstruck. Then, the tempo of the attack suddenly increased, and it broke up and sank.” Amongst all the buses and battleships there is a provocative and well-reasoned argument here, but one which has to make a conspicuous exception for drugs and crime. There’s no way to argue, and Courtwright doesn’t, that public policy relating to drugs and crime have somehow been swept up in the tide of moral liberalism. Instead, the United States in particular has witnessed an expansion of its costly drug law, and an unprecedented era of mass incarceration. So we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time, headed in seemingly different directions. What’s going on here?

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