Points Video Interview—Yan Liu, Healing With Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to feature the first Points Video Interview today! SHAD co-Editor Dr. David Herzberg interviews Dr. Yan Liu about his new book, Healing With Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China.

Points Interview Yan Liu

At first glance, medicine and poison might seem to be opposites. But in China’s formative era of pharmacy (200–800 CE), poisons were strategically deployed as healing agents to cure everything from chills to pains to epidemics. In Healing with Poisons, Dr. Yan Liu explores the ways physicians, religious devotees, court officials, and laypeople used powerful drugs to both treat intractable illnesses and enhance life. By recovering alternative modes of understanding wellness and the body’s interaction with potent drugs, this book cautions against arbitrary classifications and exemplifies the importance of paying attention to the technical, political, and cultural conditions in which drugs become truly meaningful.

In this interview conducted by David Herzberg, Dr. Liu discusses several topics from his book, including the crucial, but forgotten role of poisons in Chinese medicine during the medieval era, the misconceived dichotomy between Chinese and Western medicine, psychoactive drugs, and the close relationship between poison, witchcraft, and politics in medieval China.

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The War on Drugs at 50

Editor’s Note: This post by Social History of Alcohol and Drugs Editors Nancy Campbell, David Herzberg, and Lucas Richert kicks off Points’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of the War on Drugs.

In a White House press conference on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. His message was stark: “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.” He announced that it was “necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive” on this enemy, and his campaign would be “worldwide” in size and scope. Fifty years later, the United States and, indeed, many other countries are reckoning with the fallout.

President Richard Nixon’s June 17, 1971, press conference announcing a “a new all-out offensive” against drugs and “drug abuse.” Source: Richard Nixon Foundation YouTube channel.

At the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (SHAD), we are all too aware of the long term ramifications of President Nixon’s pronouncement, but we also recognize that the “War on Drugs” did not strictly begin in June 1971 and was rooted in prohibitionist impulses that built up over the decades; still, one can’t deny the power of branding—and in formalizing the “War” agenda at the highest level.

We are also committed to understanding the War on Drugs in locales and populations beyond the United States. And we are committed to understanding how harm reduction was minimized at the expense of more punitive measures, leading the War on Drugs to also become a War on People who Use Drugs.

Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, we are happy to share below a free selection of six SHAD articles that help explain the War on Drugs on the home front and outside American borders. These articles, which will be freely available and open access until the end of August 2021, present, we think, a valuable and broader perspective on the War on Drugs, which we hope will be of use to you. Interested readers can see the abstracts below and click through to read the articles.

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Interview: Meet the New Editors of SHAD

In January 2018, Nancy Campbell, David Herzberg, and Lucas Richert assumed responsibility for Social History of Drugs and Alcohol: An Interdisciplinary Journal. They took on the role of co-editors in chief and began planning for the future. In April, the ADHS signed an agreement with University of Chicago Press.

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SHAD’s new co-editors, L-R: David Herzberg, Nancy Campbell, and Lucas Richert

1.) Tell us about your history as a scholar. What got you interested in alcohol and drug history?

Nancy: As the daughter and grand-daughter of small-town doctors, I was fascinated by the drug room and amassed a large collection of pharmaceutical giveaways. I was struck by how dismissive people were toward “druggies,” so at a tender age, I announced my intention to write a history of drugs. I’m just sticking to the plan.

Luc: I didn’t have a plan. Far from it. But I did figure out that I wanted to focus on the field of history in my third year of undergraduate. I started scheming and scrambling after I finished up at the University of Saskatchewan – and then I traveled to Edinburgh and London for graduate school. Early on, the American pharmaceutical policy grabbed my attention for a number of reasons; ultimately, this seemed a useful way of understanding the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

David: One of my closest friends in college had a very severe anxiety disorder. He was a very charismatic guy and liked to hold court and hold forth while medicating himself thoroughly with the one drug that he said eased his mind, alcohol. A favorite subject of his was Big Pharma medical journal ads. He had somehow come into possession of a huge stack of old journals, and he would flip through the images of smilingly healed people, deconstructing them freestyle, brilliantly but also bitterly–those drugs had let him down, but there they still were, mocking him with their shiny and, to him, fake promises. It stuck with me, this acute, intense version of consumer culture promises and human realities. My friend died while I was in grad school, making the questions more urgent right around when it was time to pick a dissertation topic.

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Exciting Updates: SHAD and the University of Chicago Press, the 2019 ADHS Conference, and more!

The Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS) has a lot of exciting news to reveal these days.

First of all, the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (or SHAD), the official journal of ADHS, has three new co-editors. We’re so pleased to welcome this esteemed and worthy trio!

Second, the co-editors of SHAD just signed a five-year agreement with the University of Chicago Press, beginning with the 2019 volume of the journal. ADHS President Dr. Timothy Hickman celebrated the news in an email, stating that “this is a fantastic deal for the society.  Of greatest interest to those of you who have published in the journal or are considering it, our reach will grow dramatically.  We will be bundled in with other U. of Chicago journals and will be part of their institutional subscription package.  That means we will become available in hundreds of libraries and research institutes all over the world where we had no presence before.

“It also means that the entire run of the journal will be easily available electronically and that the submission and review process will be brought up to date.  Submission will be centralized, and reviews assigned via an on-line submission system.  The new system will push the journal to an entirely new level, which I hope will encourage even more of you to submit.  The society will also benefit from a very lucrative financial arrangement with the press.

“We will also be able to bring our membership and subscription practices up to date.  The U. of Chicago Press will manage subscriptions, so please watch out for a renewal e-mail from them in the future.”

But that’s not all! Things just seem to be getting more exciting for ADHS: our 2019 conference will take us to Shanghai!

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Drug War Dissents: Robinson v. California

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Dr. David Herzberg, as associate professor of history at SUNY Buffalo and the author of Happy Pills in America (2010) and his forthcoming project The Other Drug War: A History of Prescription Drug AbuseEnjoy! 

Most American drug policy historians are familiar with the 1962 Supreme Court decision Robinson v. California, which held that addiction was an illness and not a crime. The case involved a California man sentenced to jail not for buying, possessing, or using narcotics, but for the condition of being a narcotic addict. In striking down the law, the Court declared that addiction was an illness, and that—in Justice Potter Stewart’s memorable words—“Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold.” (Stewart would probably be glad to know that at least one group of people, however small, remembers him for this quotation rather than his “I-know- it-when- I-see- it” definition of “hard-core pornography,” which he later feared would adorn his tombstone.) For historians the decision serves as a convenient marker of the broader shift away from the punitive policies of the “classic era” of narcotics control and towards more medicalized approaches to addiction.

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Of late, drug policy historians have been placing this shift under increasing scrutiny. Complementing the vast and growing literature on medicine as a form of social control, historians like Eric Schneider and Points’ own Claire Clark have begun to focus more on how medical approaches harmonized with, rather than diverged from, punitive ones. Methadone maintenance, for example, was implemented primarily as a crime control measure and was evaluated on that basis, and thus ultimately complemented rather than upended prison-based approaches. Meanwhile, therapeutic communities’ tough-love philosophies could lead to “scared straight” type tactics that, in many cases, were much harsher and farther-reaching than simple imprisonment. Historians’ increased focus on the disciplinary dimensions of medical treatment may be due, in part, to the increasing visibility and intellectual availability of “harm reduction,” which also draws parallels between medical and criminal control of drug use.

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Forgotten Drugs of Abuse I: T’s and Blues

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  It’s about a new drug, a killer, raging through a major American city filling ERs and morgues and leaving a trail of wrecked lives.  Just a year ago heroin was the big problem, but now this new scourge accounts for three-fourths of drug busts and a third of all addicts seeking treatment.  Experts are saying there’s no way the drug will stay in one city: “similar to an infectious process,” it will inevitably spread across the nation.  It’s already surfaced in a handful of cities, and who knows where it will strike next.

Scourge of Our Cities

The year is 1978, and the Talwin panic is in full swing.

Wait, you don’t remember the great Talwin terror of 1978?  Maybe haven’t even heard of Talwin?  Don’t feel bad.  Despite the promising start, the Talwin scare never really got off the ground.  There were a few headlines here and there, a TV documentary, and a day of testimony in Congress, but in the annals of anti-drug crusades it was small potatoes.

Why?  1978 was a great year for drug crusades, and this one seemed to have plenty going for it:  Talwin really was causing major public health problems in Chicago; it had a hip, media-friendly street name (“T’s and Blues”); and most of its abusers were nonwhite, urban poor—classic drug-war boogeymen.  More:  one of the largest sources of Talwin in Chicago was a Medicaid clinic, where, Congress was told, the drug was “handed out literally like M&Ms.”  The headlines could have written themselves.  “Hard Working Taxpayers’ Dollars Going to Give Dope to Junkies!”  And if that wasn’t enough, how about this sound bite from the Congressional hearings:

Thank you indeed!  “Grandmothers are buying Talwin on the street”:  does it get any better than that for an anti-drug crusader? It wasn’t supposed to end up like that for Talwin. 

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Ask Your Doctor!

So a college student walks into a doctor’s office and they start talking meds.  The student had been deeply troubled in the past, had been acting out, drinking too much, failing classes, etc., but he had seen his life turn around after he started taking Prozac a year or so ago.  It was a miracle, he told the doctor.  But at the same time he was worried:  was the whole new him dependent on the pill?  What if he stopped taking it, or if it stopped working?  Would he lose all the wonderful new attitudes and capabilities he’d developed?  He wasn’t overly frightened, mind you, just mildly nervous.  He didn’t directly ask what to do about it, but the question still hung in the air, waiting for the doctor to advise him.

Office Hours for the Wrong Kinda Doctor

A typical moment from psychiatry’s wonder-drug era, right?  Except the doctor wasn’t an MD.  The doctor was me:  a historian with a PhD, or, as we like to say in my family, WkD—the Wrong kinda Doctor.

Two other recent examples of this kind of situation, which seems to crop up fairly often (details changed to protect privacy, as with the Prozac story above):

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The Pub, the Street, & the Medicine Cabinet: Be There or Be Square

Points is pleased to announce that the complete program for the 6th Annual International Conference on the History of Alcohol and Drugs is now available.  Hosted by SUNY Buffalo under the able stewardship of David Herzberg, the conference runs from 24-26 June and features a keynote address by Points co-managing editor Joe Spillane, “Our Own …

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