As any historian of drugs or alcohol knows, drug use has typically been mapped onto a binary spectrum between abstinence and addiction. The implication of the binary is that the more drugs one does, the closer one gets to a problematic fall. By contrast, the fewer drugs one does makes the user safer from the drug’s negative side effects. While plenty of drug historians have challenged this binary representation, especially as it pertains to addiction and addiction treatment, scholars still have a much harder time thinking of heavy drug use as anything but problematic.
Historians, especially those intent on breaking down historiographical binaries, should read Tim Mitchell’s 2004 book, Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol’s Power in Mexican History and Culture. This book, though ultimately disappointing itself, is a helpful starting point the abstinence/addiction binary right from the source. In it, Mitchell questions the limiting tendency, even for the more critical observers, to view excessive drinking (binge drinking) only as a form of abuse. Mitchell’s bold suggestion – that in the right context heavy alcohol use can represent a mode of solution-seeking – serves to turn the logic of intoxication on its head.
Though disappointing in terms of its methodology and conclusions, Mitchell’s forays into representations of legitimate drinking open intellectual doors for historians of drinking and drug use. He argues that intoxication has an important functional role to play in Mexican culture and history. His is a subtle but significant corrective to previous studies of Mexico that relegated intoxication to the margins of that story. He uses much of this existing scholarship in his analysis, but by bringing alcohol use (and not just alcohol) to the fore, he complicates existing scholarship by reconceptualizing alcohol’s role to one of prominence and not mere incidence. For Mitchell, alcohol has been and remains an important element in social debates about gender and family relationships, as a phenomenological tool for altering time perception, and most importantly as a form of resistance and rebellion. This post will focus on the implications of Mitchell’s framework for my own research on cannabis users in 1920s New York. I’ve spoken about gender in a previous post, so I’d like to focus on the second two of Mitchell’s thematic threads: alcohol’s role in altering consciousness and as an identity-creating tool of resistance.
To be sure, thinking about and researching the culture of drug use on its own terms is not a new phenomenon. In her classic study, Madelon Powers examined the cultural world of working class saloon patrons, arguing that while historical debates over temperance and prohibition are instructive, they tend to obscure the users at the center of these narratives. By recovering the cultural worlds of urban drinkers, Powers sheds important light on the role of intoxication in urban life. But even for Powers, the alcohol itself is largely relegated to incidental status.
For his part, Mitchell goes a step further in his anthropological/historical study of binge drinkers in Mexico. He argues that the intoxicating effects of alcohol itself, while certainly impacting public health and individual mortality, can ALSO have a palliative effect for users in certain situations. Bingeing to the point of blacking out operates as a time-altering illusion endowing impoverished urban drinkers with the agency to control their perception and experience of time. Previously, the control over time was a personal prerogative, but also one that had come to be dominated by religious Spanish authorities and later by modernizing Mexican ones.
It is in this context that binge drinking, especially in public, became a performative tool of resistance for Mexican citizens. Participating in public parades and rituals while blackout drunk was a way to express displeasure with local and national authorities. Representing religious and civic leaders as drunkards was a satirical slam against corruption, wealth disparities, and poor living and working conditions.
Similarly, the 1920s in the United States was a period of protest and rebellion, as well as a period of intense social and cultural change: suffrage victories in 1919 were only the beginning of the women’s movement; the red scare significantly retarded decades-long progress in labor reform; massive immigration spurred restrictive legislation; and the Great Migration saw thousands of African Americans fleeing Jim Crow in the south, which lead to increased racial tensions in the north.
It is perhaps no coincidence that targets of the anti-marijuana crusades of the twenties were members of these persecuted and marginalized groups. As Adam Rathge has argued several times, class and racial arguments did not create the anti-marijuana consensus that emerged in the 20s and 30s, as it was already well established by the start of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it is clear from the evidence that people in these groups used marijuana in the 20s and 30s, adding to the growing moral panic of the time. How can Mitchell’s analytical questions shed light on these user groups? Is it possible that people turned to marijuana because it symbolically addressed the issues of racism, sexism and poverty experienced by these people during this time?
This question underscores the need to critically analyze a number of dichotomies in the field. And not only the original abstinence/addiction problematic, but it signals a need to reconcile the difference between non-medical and recreational use of drugs. Alexine Fleck has commented on this discussion in a recent post on this site. She suggests that intoxication is a mode of self-medication, and it should be viewed as more akin to self-medication than addiction. While I agree with her assessment, I wonder further about the cutoff between use for healing and use for recreation, and I wonder if this relationship exists on a different plane than Khantzian’s addiction hypothesis. The discussion should continue (perhaps in the comments?) , but Mitchell’s framework suggests, at the very least, that self-medication is much more than just a psychoactive process. It can be cultural, social, and even political.
This notion of political healing can be seen through jazz lyrics from the 1930s. Faced with intense and all-encompassing violence, African Americans fled from the South and established new roots in northern cities, often in communities that were as unwelcoming as those in the South. The Harlem Renaissance has been viewed as a form of cultural protest, and cannabis use is an important element to the culture produced during this cultural watershed. In a prior post, I argued that jazz lyrics point to a convergence between official proclamations about “reefer addicts” and the experience musicians and their fans who actually used the drug. Fats Waller’s “A Viper’s Drag” provided a familiar scenario of the economic destitution during the Depression and offered an apparently time tested solution:
You don’ give a damn if you don’ pay rent
Light that tea, let it be
If you’re a viper…
More than just AfricanAmericans, other groups faced intense pressures during this period. In the evidence, members of these other groups became targets for anti-marijuana advocates. Indeed, all of these other groups all had reasons to resist the white, middle-class status quo that reigned during the twenties and even into the Great Depression. Is it possible that their choice to use cannabis was tied to specific experiential effects that the drug produced in its users? Is the time-bending, appetite-inducing, memory-erasing, and mildly euphoric effects exactly what were missing in users’ lives during this period?
These questions inevitably beg additional questions. These will continue to be addressed in future posts on this blog. Is drug use more than simple self-medication? Can drugs (or alcohol, to be sure) become a tool for rebellion and resistance for disaffected people? Can the physiological effect of drugs promote use for practical (cultural, social, political) reasons? Should we seek user perspectives on their own terms, or do we continue to view drug use as either damaging and problematic, or escapist and apathetic?
Bob Beach is a cultural historian interested in the history of cannabis in the United States before the 1960s. He’s written on marijuana history and folklore, drug war activism, and recently, marijuana legalization in New York State. He is a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University at Albany, SUNY. While writing for Points and finishing the degree, he adjuncts at Utica College, teaching courses in U.S. and drug history.