What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part I: Miriam Kingsberg Kadia

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. First up is Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (2014). Her piece critiques the sloppy and often simply false way “knowledge” about drugs is presented from “authoritative” sources, particularly the D.E.A. museum in Washington, D.C. Contact the author at Miriam.Kingsberg@colorado.edu.

What Historians Wish the DEA Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Museum in Pentagon City, Washington, D.C. depicts the history of the narcotics market and U.S. government efforts to counteract it. The exhibition currently on display was created under the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009) yet reflects the view of the new Trump administration: that mind-altering substances are (and have always been) a “foreign” problem and threat to an imagined ideal of “Americanness.”

The opening placard reads:

During the 18th century, the Chinese began smoking first a mixture of tobacco and opium, and then pure opium. The British, who had a huge trade imbalance with China, were delighted to finally find a highly popular commodity. But when the Chinese emperor realized that opium was incapacitating the upper sectors of society, he outlawed further trade. This sparked the Opium Wars of 1840 and 1860. Britain won both and forced China to make opium legal. Addiction became widespread in the Celestial Kingdom and sparked resentment among the Chinese. This began the modern pleasure drug culture.

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