Reckoning with Anslinger, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gore File

Editor’s Note: This week, Bob Beach continues his discussion of evidence in the archives. This essay is based on his recent trip to the Harry J. Anslinger Papers at Penn State University.

I know he was simply doing his job, but it was a strange experience. This was not my first archive trip. But when the gentleman in charge of the Harry Anslinger papers collection at Penn State approached, by way of introduction, I couldn’t help but notice that he was sizing me up, almost like a bouncer would size up a potential nightclub patron who looked much too young. Perhaps I should have worn a tie.

In an almost accusatorial tone, he wanted to know why I was there, what I was looking for in the collection, what my motives were. He gave me a brief lecture on the importance of accurate note-taking and documentation. After a few minutes talking to him, he realized that I was a serious researcher and would not pose any threat to the collection. But he shared vague war stories about people that have been through the collection, some of whom misrepresented the collection as a whole, and some who stole documents to add to personal collections to add ammunition to what seems like a never-ending war on our first drug czar.

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Parallel to the Grain? Finding Recreational Users in the Archives

For cultural historians looking into the history of drugs, one of the more frustrating obstacles to our work comes from trying to find “the people,” those who used the drugs we are studying. In studies of more recent times, scholars are able to locate individuals, interviewing them about their experiences. But for someone who studies the history of cannabis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the archives are understandably lacking in user voices. In working through this problem, I’ve begun to problematize our conception of drug user. I’d like to share my thoughts and to perhaps get a discussion going in the comments section below.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.
A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

Who uses drugs? A simple Google search of “drug users” yields a sponsored link for Unity Recovery Center, a rehab chain based in Florida. The next four results link to an assortment of informational websites on drug abuse and addiction. Finally, after the image results that, not surprisingly, feature “the faces of meth,” our search takes us to the Wikipedia article “Drug User” which defines the user as “a person who uses drugs either legally or illegally. A drug user may or may not also be a drug abuser, and may or may not have one or more drug addictions.”

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that drug users are only those folks that smoke, sniff, ingest, shoot, or otherwise consume a substance into their bodies. This is confirmed by the image that accompanies the article.

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A Report from the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society

Editor’s Note: Today contributing editor Bob Beach reports on several drug-related panels at this year’s annual meeting of the AHA, which took place in New York on January 2-5, 2015.

This year, the American Historical Society’s annual meeting was held in Times Square in New York City. Among the 1,500 presenters, a refreshing batch of young drug and alcohol historians (and some veterans) presented their research on addiction, addiction treatment, and the long drug war.

Calling all drug and alcohol historians
Calling all drug and alcohol historians

The historical significance of this time and place was not lost on your correspondent in his first foray into the world of the AHA annual meeting. Eric Schneider reminded us on the first day of the conference that the 100 year anniversary of the Harrison Act was coming into force. The law launched the national drug war in the United States and was, in many ways, on the minds of all of “our” presenters at the conference.

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PUSHING
 DRUGS 
BEYOND 
BORDERS:
 CANNABIS 
AND
 HEROIN 
IN 
MODERN 
ATLANTIC 
HISTORY – HEROIN IN NEW ORLEANS

Editor’s Note: Today we conclude the series with Amund Tallaksen’s piece entitled, “The Transatlantic Heroin Traffic and the City of New Orleans.” The other posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.

In 1968, the recently formed Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice concluded that: “there is no longer an organized narcotics syndicate in New Orleans. During the early 1950’s the Mafia left the narcotics business in this area. Since that time, the heroin business in this city has been almost completely taken over by several Negroes who are working independently and in competition with each other.”

Three interrelated events in the early 1950s transformed the patterns of heroin use and addiction in New Orleans: (1) the passage of a very strict drug law by the state legislature in Baton Rouge in 1951; (2) the conscious decision by the New Orleans Mafia to step back from the drug trade, and instead focus on less risky endeavors; and (3) the rise of a new cohort of African American drug dealers who would create interstate smuggling routes to New Orleans from cities like New York and Chicago.

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Pushing
 Drugs 
beyond 
Borders:
 Cannabis 
and
 Heroin 
in 
Modern 
Atlantic 
History – Cannabis and Contested Knowledge


Editor’s Note: We continue this week’s posts from the recent Transatlantic History Conference. Today, I (Bob Beach) am presenting my own paper “‘From
 Baghdad 
to 
Gotham’:
 Commodity 
Fetishism, 
Knowledge 
Production,

 and
 Cannabis 
Sativa 
in
 New
 York 
City, 
1925‐1937.” The first two entries in the series are here, and here

My conference talk, in many ways is a postscript of sorts to Bradley Borougerdi’s talk. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Western society did reform cannabis, removing the plant from its mysterious “Eastern” context and integrating it into modern “Western” society.

This process involved the extensive production of scientific knowledge about the plant in a number of different arenas. My research examines this knowledge production, and my talk introduced two knowledge arenas in which this knowledge was produced. I argued that despite the ostensibly objective knowledge produced in the natural sciences and medicine during this period, the old, orientalist, medico-literary knowledge remained a powerful factor in the ways that knowledge about cannabis was consumed.

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PUSHING
 DRUGS 
BEYOND 
BORDERS:
 CANNABIS 
AND
 HEROIN 
IN 
MODERN 
ATLANTIC 
HISTORY – THE BRITISH CARIBBEAN

Editor’s Note: Points continues its series on the transatlantic history of drugs with Eron Ackerman’s “Altered States: Globalization, Governmentality, and Ganja in the British Caribbean, 1880-1913.” The first post in this series can be found here.

In the mid-nineteenth century, “Indian hemp” (Cannabis Indica) made its way through the Caribbean plantation complex. After abolishing slavery in the 1830s, the British turned to India as a source of cheap labor, recruiting some 430,000 indentured workers to toil on Caribbean plantations between 1838 and 1917. Hindus and Muslims on the Subcontinent had long used cannabis (ganja) for social, religious, and medicinal purposes. When these populations crossed the Atlantic, they brought ganja culture with them.

My research explores how colonial officials and reform advocates in the British Caribbean—mainly the colonies of Trinidad, British Guiana, and Jamaica—responded to the spread of ganja. I argue that, while views of ganja varied considerably, critics shared a tendency to link its deleterious effects to other disreputable “Oriental” practices, especially those that appeared to create problems with labor management, violent crime, and moral conduct among the region’s growing East Indian population. Concerns about ganja were thus entangled in colonial power structures, articulated through orientalist discourse, and acted upon through strategies of governmentality deployed by colonial states, missionaries and moral reformers from distant parts of the British Empire.

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Pushing
 Drugs 
beyond 
Borders:
 Cannabis 
and
 Heroin 
in 
Modern 
Atlantic 
History – Orientalizing Hemp

Editor’s Note: On September 20, 2014, a group of emerging drug history scholars presented a panel at the Fifteenth Annual Graduate Student Conference on Transatlantic History at the University of Texas, Arlington. This week, Points will present abbreviated versions of these scholars’ papers, starting with recent Points blogger Bradley Borougerdi’s talk entitled “‘At Once a Curse and a Blessing’: Orientalizing Hemp in an Atlantic World.”

The 1840s was an important decade for the hemp plant. Before then, most Anglos living in Great Britain and the United States thought of hemp as an important strategic commodity for exploration, a common fiber, an oil, or an ingredient in various household goods. Most were unaware of hemp’s psychoactive properties, mainly because they were accustomed to using a genetic variation of the plant with virtually no THC. This isn’t to say that Westerners were entirely unaware of hemp’s ability to induce intoxication; rather, that they were confused and associated it primarily with an exotic space known as the Orient.

Orientalism positioned hemp used for so-called “nonproductive” purposes in stark contrast to the Western, industrial, and more “appropriate” uses. In 1838, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a British imperial agent working in India, decided to investigate “Asiatic” hemp’s medicinal qualities. Medical investigators assumed India’s lush environment had altered the plant to suit the degenerative behaviors of Easterners, but Westerners might be able to transform it into a viable medicine. Positive accounts of O’Shaughnessy’s experiments spread quickly, with medical practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic praising hemp extracts.

Around the same time, literary accounts of Westerners who “played Eastern” by consuming hemp intoxicants started circulating in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Most of these first-hand accounts exacerbated the negative associations between hemp and the Orient, which bifurcated the plant into both a curse and a blessing, paving the way for its transformation from a strategic commodity to a banned intoxicant.

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