What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part III: William Rorabaugh

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. Part III is brought to you by William Rorabaugh, Dio Richardson Professor of History at the University of Washington. Be sure to also check out part II by Isaac Campos

I would like to make four points about alcohol and drug use that historians of both substances need to keep in mind while doing their research.

First, Jack Blocker’s Cycles of Reform is very instructive on the long-term cyclical nature of alcohol consumption in the United States. Heavy use is associated with heavy abuse, and when society becomes alarmed by heavy use, a temperance, prohibition, or other restrictive movement will be precipitated. These movements use different methods, but they do succeed in reducing consumption and harms. As a result, the problem sinks below the radar screen, the public loses interest, and consumption and harms begin to rise again until another cyclical peak and reaction takes place. Alcohol and other substances all take the form of epidemic waves both in the United States and in other cultures. Drug researchers, in particular, can profit from examining the record concerning alcohol, which as a legal, taxed substance for most of American history has better consumption data than is available for most illegal substances.

Read more