Editor’s Note: In this latest ‘Points’ blog, Isaac Campos introduces thedrugpage.org which features his new digital humanities project on early twentieth century cannabis discourses in the United States. Below, Campos describes the origins of the research featured on The Drug Page and his intended mission in sharing it. We look forward to watching its evolution!
Twenty years ago, when I was living in Mexico City researching my dissertation, I had a daily routine. I’d spend the first part of the day, roughly from 9-3, at one of the major historical archives. Then I’d take the subway downtown to the Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library. After a rejuvenating cup of coffee nearby, I’d go into the library’s dimly-lit, cavernous research room to pore over old newspapers. That is, the original, printed copies from a century ago. Each of the desks was equipped with a big wooden stand where the ample bound volumes could be safely opened to reveal their weathered old pages. I can still hear the sound of pages turning backed by the echoes from the teeming city. I did that for two hours every afternoon. I turned a lot of pages at the Lerdo Library that year.
I was working on the history of marijuana in Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I’d been drawn to the topic in part by the historical literature on marijuana’s history in the United States. There was a whole U.S. literature that suggested that this drug was used widely within the Mexican immigrant community in the U.S., so widely that it supposedly inspired the first cannabis prohibitions at the state and local level north of the border. That literature also suggested that this was a common and “casual adjunct to life” in Mexico in the early twentieth century. But after a couple of years in graduate school reading pretty much everything that had been written about nineteenth and early twentieth century Mexico, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen the word “marihuana” (as it’s usually spelled in Spanish) in print. A close examination of the footnotes of that U.S. literature revealed that much of what had been suggested about marijuana in Mexico and among Mexican immigrants was just conjecture. No one had ever seriously looked into this.
Given what I’d learned about Mexican history up to that point, I suspected that marijuana use hadn’t actually been all that common in Mexico. The problem of course was that if I was right about that, then there probably weren’t going to be a lot of references to marijuana in the archives. And, indeed, that proved to be the case. I saw many days pass without finding a single reference to the drug.
The newspapers at the Lerdo Library might have been a good place to start had there been a quick way to search them. But there wasn’t. For the period I was studying, roughly 1850-1920, there did not yet exist as much as an indexed Mexican newspaper, much less a digitized one. There was simply no way to look up the word “marihuana” and make my way to the relevant pages. I had to decide on a publication (I chose El Diario del Hogar, in part because it published a manageable four pages a day), determine what would constitute a reasonable sample (I did one week of every other month of every other year), and then skim every page for relevant stories. I’m sure I missed more than a few in the process. For the period running from 1890 to 1910, I only found five articles that mentioned “marihuana” in any way.
Then the situation changed radically. Over the next few years, many Mexican newspapers from the period were digitized, revolutionizing our ability to study this relatively obscure topic in the press. Using the Readex Latin American Newspapers, I found hundreds of articles on marijuana (763 between 1880 and 1922). Marijuana was still relatively obscure—there were more than 17,000 articles that referenced the word “alcohol,” and more than 2,700 that mentioned morphine—but I was able to find enough to get a very good sense of marijuana’s reputation in Mexico, along with some valuable leads about other aspects of this drug’s history there. For my first book, I was able to do what was, I believe, the first ever “quantitative discourse analysis” (at least in the historiography of Mexico). I was also able to meticulously trace the movement of these ideas into the United States beginning in the 1890s. I did all of this new research over the course of a single year, dedicating about an hour at the end of every day to the digital databases. That is, basically the same method I’d used back in 2003-04, except dedicating half as much time to accomplish exponentially more. Indeed, what I accomplished in that one year would’ve taken an entire career doing it the old-fashioned way.
All of this ultimately got me interested in returning to events on the U.S. side of the border and the so-called “Mexican hypothesis” of marijuana prohibition in the U.S. The Mexican hypothesis suggested that both marijuana prohibitions and anti-marijuana ideology developed in the United States as a reaction to the arrival of marijuana-smoking Mexican immigrants. But, given what I’d found in Mexico, this didn’t sound so plausible anymore. If marijuana use was relatively rare in Mexico, how could it have been so visible among immigrants in the U.S.? So I went back and read the literature closely and looked at some of the key primary sources from the period. It soon became clear that this theory had been built on an extremely flimsy evidentiary foundation. All of this I laid out in a 2018 piece in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.
It wasn’t too surprising that the literature had gotten a lot of this wrong. The problem with researching nineteenth and early twentieth century cannabis history in the U.S. was similar to the problems with researching that history in Mexico—this was not a widely used intoxicant and thus did not appear regularly in the sources. Yet this was a crucial period in this drug’s U.S. history. It was during these years that the legal and ideological foundations of cannabis’ controversial late twentieth century history were laid. Luckily, digitized, text-searchable sources have now given us a means of shining considerably more light on histories like this that, while relatively obscure in their own time, set the stage for important developments later on.
In the spring of 2018 I began working with what would become a small team of researchers and technical advisers to mine the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America digitized newspaper collection. Focused on the 1910s, when the first local and state cannabis prohibitions began to appear in the United States, we examined every article that referred to intoxicant cannabis in the corpus during that decade, breaking each article down into its component parts, from the terminology used to refer to the drug (i.e. “hashish,” “marihuana,” “Indian hemp,” etc.) to the effects attributed to it, the demographics of its users or sellers, how it was ingested (smoked or swallowed?), where the reports were coming from, and so forth. While painstaking in its own way, the research was exponentially more efficient than my primitive methods of nearly twenty years earlier at the Lerdo Library (which of course today boasts of similarly rich digitized resources).
To bring that research to the public, we have created a series of visualizations along with an interactive map that users can manipulate to pursue their own research questions. I then created thedrugpage.org to present those visualizations. The site also contains a brief introduction to the historiography and links to further reading in both primary and secondary sources.
Among the most interesting findings:
First, “hashish” was the most common word for intoxicant cannabis in the 1910s, but “marihuana” was second and quickly gaining ground, especially in Texas and Arizona.
Second, and contrary to popular portrayals of this history, cannabis use was already linked to many very negative outcomes in the United States, including associations with both violence and madness, though there were a fair number of positive and neutral portrayals as well, especially within highly orientalist tales of hashish use abroad.
Third, while we already knew that El Paso (in the 1910s) and New Orleans (in the 1920s) were key “hotspots” for reports of and concerns about cannabis use, our research revealed another city that fit the same pattern: Phoenix, Arizona.
And there were many other discoveries, all of which I hope will stimulate further research not only in newspapers, but in local and regional archives. I also hope that educators might use this website as a jumping off point for students to begin doing some research of their own. For example, students might begin from our visualizations but then probe more deeply into the story in their own regional context.
At the very least, I hope this site will help improve our understanding of a history that has long been plagued by a lot of myth and conjecture.
Feature Image: Heatmap showing the ‘Breakdown of how much each cannabis term was used’ in the United States of America. Available on thedrugpage.org.
Isaac Campos teaches history at the University of Cincinnati. He has published widely on the history of drugs, especially in Mexico, though that research has often led him into U.S. history as well.