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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