Lessons from The Narcotic Farm, Part One

Editor’s Note: Today, Points begins a series of reflections on the Lexington Narcotic Hospital, from Luke Walden, JP Olsen, and Nancy Campbell.  Walden is a documentary filmmaker, Olsen a journalist (and documentarian), and Campbell a historian (and Contributing Editor to Points).  Olsen brought Walden into the development of his film, The Narcotic Farm, and along the way the two began collaborating with Campbell as well–ultimately producing not only the film, but an accompanying book.  As with any such project, there is plenty of material left on the cutting room floor, and we are delighted that they have decided to share some of that with us here at Points.  Look for more posts on Lexington over the coming months.

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Century of Progress Farm. Bluegrass Retreat for America’s Suffering Mankind. Helping Humanity Home. World’s Restoration Hospital. Federal Institution for Incorrigibles. U.S. Torpor Institution. Your Boy and Mine. Narcomania.

These were some of nearly 800 submissions to a Lexington, KY newspaper’s 1935 contest to name a massive federal edifice growing in the farmland outside town.  From the fanciful to the prosaic, the names embodied the national hope, idealism, desperation and confusion that attended the founding of the first United States Narcotic Farm. The dominant attitude about the $4 million asylum on a thousand acres of rich farmland was optimistic, progressive, even utopian.  It would not just be a prison for drug addicts it would also save them.

Atlanta Georgian: The Light of a New Day

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The Points Interview: Chris Bennett

For the twenty-first Points Interview, we’re venturing down the road less traveled.  Today’s installment features Chris Bennett’s Cannabis and the Soma Solution (Trine Day, 2010).  In the very first line of the book, Chris makes a sensible observation: “Generally, when discussing the role of cannabis in history, most people’s minds go back to the early Sixties, or at most the reefer madness of the Jazz age…” (p. 1).  Cannabis and the Soma Solution takes the story back–way back, and we’re grateful to Chris for taking some time to discuss the book (you can see more of what he’s been up to here).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

In the minds of most people, our relationship with “marijuana” or cannabis as it is properly known, only goes back to the Hippy era of the 60s where it fueled a generation of free love seekers and anti-war protesters, but as Cannabis and the Soma Solution Book cover of Cannabis and the Soma Solutionexplains there is a seemingly archaic co-evolutionary relationship mankind has had with cannabis, to the extent that it is thought by some researchers to be humanity’s oldest agricultural crop. As this book documents, one of the most profound areas of influence in this relationship can be found in the ‘religious’ life of man, and where ever cannabis traveled in the ancient world, people seem to have recognized it as a gift from the gods, and utilized it as a shamanic plant that provided a clear form of religious inspiration that inspired poets and prophets a like whether it was burned in Mesopotamian Temples, or consumed in sacred beverages in India and Persia. In regards to the latter, Both the Indian Vedic texts, and their Persian counterpart, the Avesta, both of which derived from an identical earlier more ancient tradition, refer to a sacred beverage, known as Soma in India and Haoma in Persia,  which inspired both their gods and the texts authors, and the ingredients of this liquid sacrament has been a subject of scholarly debate for over a century. 

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Week In Review: February 20 to February 25, 2012

While late February may be dispiriting to many of our readers who eagerly anticipate the end of winter, we here at Points have no complaints, having had a crackerjack week. We’ve had six authors cover a wide variety of fascinating topics, including the culture of the drug trade in Africa and Mexico, public histrorians’ presentations …

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Weekend Reads: Whitney Houston Edition

Editor’s Note: Thank you for rejoining the retooled Weekend Reads. You’ll notice that, rather than providing links to a variety of stories currently in the news, this column will now look at the multiple lenses through which the blogosphere frames a single, current drug-related news story. This week, we take on Whitney Houston’s untimely passing and what role, if any, drugs played in the singer’s life and death.

As you likely know by now, multiple Grammy Award winner and movie semi-star Whitney Houston was found dead in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11. Houston – the much-beloved multiplatinum belter-outer of megahits like “I Wanna’ Dance With Somebody” and “I Will Always Love You” – had fallen on tough times over the last decade. Though she was still financially solvent and continued producing moderately successful records, she was a heavy drinker, had a conflicted relationship with food, and clearly dabbled in all manner of drugs, including “street drugs” rarely associated with the lifestyles of the Hollywood glitterati. Her drug use most famously entered the public ether more than a decade ago when, being interviewed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Houston felt compelled to (disingenuously) pronounce “crack is whack.”

Once Houston’s drug use became fodder for public discussion, it came to dominate her public persona. For this reason, the media – as is its wont – has made her drug use a central element of discussions of her passing. Did she bring her death upon herself through cavalier drug use? Such is the view of pundit Bill O’Reilly, who proclaimed that all Houston had to do was choose not to use drugs and she could escape the ravages of addiction. The Telegraph’s Damian Thompson, perhaps anticipating a rash of O’Reilly-like moral outrage, headed such thoughts off at the pass. In “Whitney Houston and Crack Cocaine: Why This Addiction is so Desperately Hard to Break,” Thompson explains the mechanics of drug addiction and, in particular, the effect crack cocaine has on the release of dopamine to the brain, concluding that “for any experienced user of crack or crystal meth (the most deadly dopamine stimulant of all), it’s not a question of just saying no: there’s no “just” about it.” Alas, the Fox News and Telegraph crowds rarely mix.

Bill O'Reilly to Whitney Houston: You Should Have Just Said 'No'

Reilly’s supposition, while clearly preposterous and profoundly ignorant, speaks to some of the broader discussions in the media regarding Houston’s passing.  In “The Strange Lessons of Whitney Houston’s Addiction,” Elizabeth Wurtzel of The Atlantic takes on the idea that there is anything other addicts or prospective addicts can take from Houston’s experiences, given the singularity of the singer’s experience as a millionaire media idol. Wurtzel also points out how close the average person is to falling into the abyss of addiction, chastising the “entertainment industry that has been (understandably) ridiculing Houston’s behavior for at least a decade…[but] is now mourning her unapologetically.” Should we be trying to take any lessons from Houston’s death other than drugs are terribly addictive and you might need to die before people acknowledge that fact?

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“So Logical to Us”: Donna Krulitz Smith’s Account of the Complex and Compelling Story of the Prohibition Experience in Northern Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Mining District

A superb 2004 master’s thesis completed in the University of Idaho’s history department by Donna Krulitz Smith examines how prohibition – first at the statewide level, imposed on January 1, 1916, and later, nationwide prohibition, imposed on January 17, 1920 – played out in the rough-and-ready environs of the Coeur d’Alene Mining District of Idaho’s northern panhandle.(1) The core sections of Smith’s narrative tell the story of two important trials.  The first prosecuted town officials and other involved parties from Mullan, a village just six miles west of the Idaho-Montana border; the second prosecuted a like group of defendants from Wallace, Shoshone County’s county seat, six miles west of Mullan on U.S. Hwy 10 (now Interstate-90).  Both sets of city leaders were accused of condoning, protecting, and illegally benefiting from illicit liquor trade during prohibition.  An alleged conspiracy conducted by these defendants imposed illegal taxes, fines, or fees on bogus “soft drink” establishments and other alcohol-vending businesses, including the district’s ample supply of sporting houses.  But there was an important twist to the story:  The tribute system in Mullan and Wallace – unlike the sprawling graft and corruption schemes spawned by prohibition in the nation’s large urban centers – did not find municipal officials personally profiting from the arrangement.  Instead, all revenue thus derived went straight into the two cities’ respective treasuries.

Satirical cartoon published June 4, 1921 after discovery of still in local mine, from Smith (2004)
Town leadership saw the tribute system they erected as a workable device for resolving three key structural problems:  First, there was the problem of insufficient sources of municipal revenue.  Second, there was the problem of the inevitability of a brisk alcohol trade in town continuing during prohibition, driven by the district’s large corps of work-parched, hardrock silver and lead miners.  Third, there was the problem of the ongoing police-related, court-related, and other municipal costs associated with, and amplified by, the presence of so large a population of young, unattached, and high-spirited men within the city limits.  City leadership figured that so long as no one profited personally from their specially crafted tribute mechanism – which came to be termed the “license by fine” system – their approach represented a workable (albeit somewhat risky) exercise in administrative and fiscal realism.  The absence of personal profit made all the difference, as that factor allowed for the engagement of the tacit support of most townspeople — who by-and-large shared the view that the system made the best of an awkward and difficult situation.  Indeed, townsfolk rallied to the aid of their officials when those charged with federal liquor trafficking violations went to trial and, thereafter, helped support the families of convicted defendants when the latter were carted off to federal prison to serve their terms.

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Absolut Tampax

According to Stephen Colbert, being a parent is a “sublime and beautiful adventure, filled with unexpected joys and unimaginable terror.”  Undoubtedly, much of this is due to the behavior of children. If that weren’t enough, most local news hours provide wall-to-wall coverage of the “unimaginable terror” which Colbert speaks of.  Look no further than Phoenix KPHO, who stood steadfast to their self-appointed motto, “telling it like it is.”  Taking a catnap from more pressing immigration concerns, KPHO delivered a hard-hitting piece on the newest problem in Arizona high schools, alcohol soaked tampons.

Absolut Tampax: Absolute Stupidity.

In order to provide their audience with an objective, measured assessment of the situation, KPHO led with the “experts.”  As Valley High School security officer Chris Thomas explains in the broadcast, “This is not isolated to any school, any city, any financial area.  This is everywhere.”  Similar to made-for-TV ads capable of shaking housewives out of ambien-induced comas by shouting, “Wait! That’s not all,” KPHO kept the shock coming—its not just teenage girls getting in on the fun.  Again, American crime-stopper Chris Thomas breaks the news, “this is definitely not just girls.  Guys will also use it and insert them into their rectums.” But Wait! That’s not all….

KPHO finishes strong, exposing the real danger on the horizon, the growing trend of “butt-chugging” amongst misguided youth.  You heard that correct, “butt-chugging.”  Unfortunately, this is exactly as it sounds.  Enthusiasts use a funnel/beer-bong and apply the tube directly to their anal cavity.  After watching 10 minutes of actual “butt-chugging” clips, I find myself asking the same question you all are, WHY?  What’s wrong with using your mouth?

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Drug Exhibitionism: Alcohol and Drug History in a Local Museum

As part of a semester-long series of events related to addiction here at the University of Michigan, a group of students researched and designed an exhibit called “Bad Habits: Drinks, Drags, and Drugs in Washtenaw County History” for a local museum.

Exhibit Flyer, Museum on Main Street, Washtenaw County Historical Society

Co-sponsored by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and by the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center (UMSARC), the Research Theme Semester, as it is known, has included seminars, visiting speakers, a film series, and more.  Those of us involved in the museum exhibit hoped that it would bring the semester’s events into the community and also encourage student involvement with the county historical society, which runs the museum.  Like many local historical societies, this one includes a number of older people on the executive board, and I assumed, mistakenly as it turned out, that they might not endorse this idea for an exhibit.  In fact, they have been enthusiastic supporters, providing many research leads for the students to explore and, in some cases at least, sharing their own memories of drinking escapades.  Since much of the semester has focused on addiction, with a very serious tone as a result, I found their good humor a welcome change of pace.

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African Perspectives on Pharmaceuticals and Drugs

Fann-Hock Pharmacy, Dakar

In a panel on “Drugs in Africa” at the African Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, DC in November, Donna Patterson, a historian in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, presented a paper on “Drug Trafficking in Africa:  Historical Cases from West Africa,” which in contrast to other papers on the panel looked at the commerce in legal pharmaceuticals.  The discussion that followed made clear the value of exploring the histories “legal” and “illegal” drugs in conjunction one with the other—something that has rarely been done for Africa, where the focus has been much more on understanding the linkages between “traditional” and Western medicine.  At the same time, the discussion led us to consider how those very linkages might inform our understanding of the trade and consumption of various kinds of drugs—however categorized—in African societies.

Patterson specializes on Francophone Africa, African-Atlantic exchange, health, and gender and is working on a larger project, “Expanding Professional Horizons:  Pharmacy, Gender, and Entrepreneurship in Twentieth Century Senegal,” that  examines the emergence and expansion of African medical professionalization between 1918 and 2000.  That work explores the growth of the African biomedical industry, African access to French systems, and the training of doctors, pharmacists, and midwives.

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