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.
Today’s post is from Dr. Bruce Erickson. He is currently the chair of the department of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.
In recent years I have included in my rotation two courses that begin with the narcotics trade, “Coca, Culture, and Politics in Latin America” and “Opium, Empire, and State in Asia.” These two classes began life as one that tried to combine “Wars on Drugs” with Wars of Drugs,” so really they were and are less about drugs themselves than about the politics of drugs. Or better, they use the study of narcotics to explore larger histories. In their conception my classes are simply a commodity chain approach to studying and teaching history. What differentiates coca, opium, and their derivatives from other commodities goes beyond their effects to their inconsistent and shifting legal status, the social consequences of their introduction, and their social, political, and economic importance at particular times and places.
Recent work on commodities, particularly Paul Gootenberg’s recent work on cocaine has highlighted the roll of knowledge formation in understanding the dynamics of commodity relationships. In his book, Gootenberg traced the commodity chain of cocaine as it was shaped through political, economic, and intellectual filters in Bolivia, Peru, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. Gootenberg’s work has broadened our understanding of this global commodity over a long period of time, and suggests that the nature of these knowledge filters shift as commodities cross temporal and geographical boundaries.
Historians who study commodities within more limited spacial and temporal boundaries can still find Gootenberg’s work useful. As Michael Pollan suggests in his recent work, The Botany of Desire, the meaning of cannabis was contested at the foundational level – of biology itself – as the plant was molded and shaped for a multiplicity of human uses. Taken together, the historical and intellectual approaches of these and similar studies can help us better understand how, during the first four decades of the twentieth century, cannabis was not merely transformed from an important industrial input to a dangerous recreational drug, but often held both distinctions simultaneously.
This past semester, I taught a course called Altered States: Drugs and Alcohol in America at the University at Albany, SUNY. It was my third version of the course. I had the unique opportunity to design two courses from scratch during my first adjunct gig at Utica College in 2010 and 2011. In addition to the drug course, I also designed a survey-level course on sports in US history. Professionally, this trial-by-fire was enormously beneficial and intensely productive, but for better or for (far) worse, my initial test subjects had to suffer through some serious inexperience as I fumbled through course design, reading lists (painfully long ones…), and lectures. I had wanted to hit every major vein in the field (so to speak) and did it without adequate attention to the broader historical context.
So this spring, I decided to stick with the basics. Rather than point out how drug histories stick out of the general narrative of American history, I wanted to make an argument that the histories of a myriad of psychoactive substances can help us better understand some important trends in the history of the United States. Through my doctoral coursework and achievement of candidacy, I came to this section with a much firmer grasp of the historiographical arguments in the field.
In the early nineties, a woman from Alabama, responding to a prisoner survey conducted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) on behalf of her incarcerated husband mused, “…someday, [marijuana] will be legal. Maybe there will be a lot of non-violent people released from the Government and bac [sic] to their families.” The statement has proven remarkably prescient, as recent events surrounding both legalization and sentencing reform have shown. It is also clear that despite these promising new steps, obstacles and controversy remain.
On January 12, 2016, Wendell Callahan brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend and her two children in Columbus Ohio. The story in The Columbus Dispatch quickly informed readers that Callahan had “twice benefited” from retroactive reductions in federal sentencing guidelines. This was in reference to a 2014 decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent commission in the judiciary, to first reduce federal sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and later under intense public pressure, to make these changes retroactive.
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.
In their 2011 book, Gendering Addiction: The Politics of Drug Treatment in a Neurochemical World, Nancy Campbell and Elizabeth Ettorre problematize the male-centric knowledges that frame addiction research and treatment programs. They call for a more inclusive treatment strategy that does not consider the neurochemical “male brain” the baseline for recovery. According to the authors, these “epistemologies of ignorance” limit, even eliminate, the useful options available for female addicts.
In many similar ways, epistemologies of ignorance also manifest in the historical record of marijuana users in the 1930s. Perhaps “ignorance” is not quite the right term, even as its effects were just as restrictive, especially for women users in during the decade. But due to the American obsession with gender and sexual normativity during this period, both female and male users (as well as male and female anti-marijuana activists) occupied mutually exclusive discursive spaces from which two separate gendered narratives about marijuana use emerged. Reading past these stereotypes though, utilizing Michelle McClellan’s notion of “damp feminism” (here, and here), historians can make use of these highly problematic portrayals of female marijuana users from this period.
In my previous posts, I began to ask questions about how to find user voices in the archives. In my last post, I moved to a more direct discussion of sources from actual users — jazz musicians– and their relevance to social history methods. But I haven’t yet raised the bigger question: how did everyday users contribute to the historical record on cannabis use during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? In another speculative exercise, using a combination of disparate source material, I will begin to lay out the foundation of an answer to this question. Further research in this area, connected to my dissertation project, will hopefully crystallize into a more workable hypothesis about casual marijuana use during this period.
“Man whats the matter with that cat there?/ Must be full of reefer!/ Full of reefer?!” -Cab Calloway “The Reefer Man” (1932)
During the 1920s and 1930s young Americans of all stripes were mesmerized by a new kind of music: jazz. The jazz movement combined various musical styles like ragtime, blues, folk, and classical music with an improvisational, polyrhythmic flair. Its popularity among African-Americans and American youth raised red flags among the older generation. The music (much like it’s 1950s cousin, rock n’ roll) became a scapegoat for delinquency, sexual depravity, and of course, drug use.
Among these charges, jazz was closely associated with the rise of cannabis use in places like New Orleans, Harlem, and Chicago. Some scholarly arguments about the topic suggest that the emphasis on marijuana overlooked the prevalence of heroin and alcohol use within the jazz community. Others stress that the connection between marijuana and jazz is sound– its use is discussed explicitly in several jazz songs of the 1930s– and the jazz discourse was a direct challenge to the anti-drug contentions of Anslinger and others.