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short & insightful writing about a long and complex history

Joint Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy

ttravis | January 20, 2011

Points (n.)

1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.

Disconnect: Moral Liberalization and Mass Incarceration

Note: The following is David Courtwright’s thoughtful response to my earlier post, in which I raised some questions about his recent work.

Joe Spillane has identified a central paradox of recent American history. Why were the prisons filling up, particularly with drug offenders, when legislatures and courts were liberalizing policies on divorce, Sunday liquor sales, gambling, pornography, abortion, sodomy, and other Victorian taboos? How, as he nicely puts it, could “we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time?”

Conservatives have argued that moral liberalization and mass incarceration went hand in hand, insofar as promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent families produced more sociopathic behavior, particularly among young, unmarried men. Though much sociological evidence supports this generalization, it cannot explain the prison boom by itself. First, if society “defines deviancy down” to accommodate the increase in misconduct, the number of additional inmates will not necessarily match the number of new sociopaths. Adding prison capacity is a conscious (and usually expensive) political act. Second, contraception and abortion were also part of the moral revolution. They diminished future criminality by diminishing the number of unwanted and neglected children, a case economists John Donohue III and Steven Levitt made in a famous 2001 article. Interestingly, the abortion-crime tradeoff created a sensitive dilemma for conservative Republican politicians, many of whom were publicly pro-life but privately reluctant to see the end of legal abortion. “These guys are all fakers,” Michael Dukakis told me in an interview. “They tell their Evangelical friends they’re pro-life, and they do nothing about it.”

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Quaalude: The one that didn’t get away?

I was talking to a 67-year old relative about Quaalude at a recent family event. (Does this sort of thing happen to you all the time too, or is it just me?) I know her to be a friendly skeptic on the subject of drugs, and she has made it clear that she never used them herself—she’s a half-glass-of-wine-sends-me-to-bed type. But apparently Quaalude was different. To my surprise, she got a gleam in her eye, something like a faraway look, and said “Now that was a good drug.” It was the only drug she’d tried, she said, and she’d only done it once, but she remembered it fondly. She would have done more drugs if they were like that.

Here’s the thing: more drugs were like that. Sleeping pills were a dime a dozen, and even if you had a preference for Quaalude, well, until 1973 Quaalude was, if not a dime a dozen, at least easy to come by, and probably not much harder for a decade or so afterward. Chances are that my relative wouldn’t have used more drugs like that, because she didn’t. And this makes sense: for all the hip and happy memories of Quaalude, it was just a sedative like the others, with the same basic set of risks and rewards. Most likely she didn’t use it for the same reason she didn’t use other drugs.

So why the nostalgia? I don’t want to stretch the point too far. You can have nostalgia about paths not taken, and people aren’t required to be logically consistent. And yet the two conflicting dimensions of her experience with Quaalude—her reality of choosing not to use it, and her memory of it as a “good drug” that she would have done more of—struck a chord. Like a few other brand name drugs, “Quaalude” has proved hardier as a cultural symbol than as a medicine. It is used to identify the cultural moment of the long 1970s, listed alongside other signifiers like wife swapping and bell-bottom jeans. It is, as the New York Post referred to it recently, a “retro” drug.

And Quaalude does truly appear to be “retro.” Some people, somewhere, are still using it, and “Quaalude ring” busts do occasionally pop up in the news. But overall use of the drug has become so minimal that it is no longer even listed on Drug Abuse Warning Network’s reports. According to the 2003-2004 SAMHSA survey, the vast majority of people who have ever tried the drug are over the age of 26. Only one out of every 25 people who have tried Quaalude are younger than that. By way of comparison, one sixth of cocaine users are under 26, along with one fifth of heroin users and one fourth of marijuana users. Clearly Quaalude’s days as hot item among drug users is long past. Yet if you use Google’s Ngram viewer to track books mentioning the drug over time, you see something interesting: references to “methaqualone” (the generic name) rose to a peak in 1980 and have been declining ever since. That’s pretty much what you’d expect. But if you search for “Quaalude” you see something different. Mentions rise continuously all the way to 2002 before declining. We’re talking about a small number of books, of course, and this is hardly definitive data, but it’s further evidence that Quaalude the symbol has outlived methaqualone the drug.

So: is this what drug-war success looks like?

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Turn, Turn, Turn

If you’re familiar with Rorotoko, the author interview site, you’ll probably observe that we borrowed a bit from that concept in developing our own author interview format. We liked the idea of allowing authors to speak for themselves in talking about their book, and we felt it was important to leave the formal book-reviewing work to the folks at The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, who already do it well.

Drug and alcohol historians will want to take note of a recent Rorotoko interview with David Courtwright, on his new book No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, which I would encourage you to read here. Courtwright’s book deftly presents his basic argument, that “when disenchanted white Evangelicals left the Democratic Party and climbed aboard the GOP bus, they discovered that it was bound for Market Square rather than Church Street.” In No Right Turn, the GOP manages consistently to dupe the moral reactionaries, while the country continues its march toward moral liberalism—a “moral revolution” in the author’s terms. When did this happen? Courtwright concedesCover of No Right Turn that some recent work pushes the timeline back before the 1960s, but he argues that the battleship of Victorian moralism still sailed at the end of the 1950s: “on fire and taking on water…still afloat, its colors tattered but unstruck. Then, the tempo of the attack suddenly increased, and it broke up and sank.” Amongst all the buses and battleships there is a provocative and well-reasoned argument here, but one which has to make a conspicuous exception for drugs and crime. There’s no way to argue, and Courtwright doesn’t, that public policy relating to drugs and crime have somehow been swept up in the tide of moral liberalism. Instead, the United States in particular has witnessed an expansion of its costly drug law, and an unprecedented era of mass incarceration. So we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time, headed in seemingly different directions. What’s going on here?

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The Points Interview: Erika Dyck

For our third installment of the Points Interview, we move from alcohol to LSD, and a conversation with Erika Dyck, author of Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD From Clinic to Campus. Erika is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. Readers interested in more compelling work in the history of medicine and health may wish to check out a new edited volume by Erika Dyck and Christopher Fletcher, Locating Health: Historical and Anthropological Investigations of Place and Health.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

The Sixties are often remembered for the day-Glow images, groovy terms, tie-dyedCover of Psychedelic Psychiatry fashions, trippy music and, for some people, perhaps even as a period of social and moral degeneration. LSD has been blamed (or credited) for helping to create this imagery, but the drug has a longer history. It was first developed in 1938 and was legally used in thousands of research studies throughout the 1950s before it became known as a more popular recreational drug. My book looks at one of these sets of studies; a set of experiments that took place off the beaten path but that had a significant influence on the way that LSD was studied, understood, and later abused. In the small town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, with support from Tommy Douglas’ provincial government, the same government that introduced Medicare to Canadians, researchers coined the term ‘psychedelic’ and left their mark on a generation. This book is about those prairie-based psychedelic pioneers.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Drug and alcohol historians may already be familiar with the mythology surrounding LSD and the psychedelic ethos, but they may be less familiar with the way in which LSD was used as a treatment for alcoholism.

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Rural Distilling in Burma and Nigeria

A Rural Distillery in Inle, Burma

On a visit to Myanmar/Burma in late December I toured the region surrounding Inle Lake, well known for its spectacular beauty and villages on stilts.  A boat trip to the southern reaches of the lake took us to a regional market and to several temple sites—and to a local distillery.  We were welcomed by the owner, a man in his 30s who was in the third generation in his family to operate the business.  He gave us a thorough description of the distilling process:  outside in large metal vats about the size of garbage cans rice was cooked.  The cooked rice was then transferred into the main distillery building, dirt floor and about 50 feet long with a thatch roof and woven bamboo walls.  There the rice was mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment into rice wine in large pots.  After several days these were heated and the steam moved through 10 foot pipes to pots filled with cool water.  The distilled rice liquor then dripped into pitchers.  This liquor in various strengths was then decanted into bottles labeled “Best Jungle Wine.” 

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RehabTV?

Television narrative has long mined drug and alcohol use and abuse for inciting incidents. As a plot device deployed to inaugurate conflict within a television narrative, drugs and alcohol can really do the trick, whether for single episodes or for multi-episode story arcs. In a dramatic series, this or that beloved character might become addicted to drugs or alcohol, while a situation comedy might devote a “very special episode” to the impact of drugs or alcohol upon one or more of its characters. Crime shows, in particular, are especially drug- and alcohol-dependent, with intoxicant related crimes contributing myriad story arcs for shows as historically and stylistically diverse as Dragnet, Police Woman and The Wire.

Yet within the last decade or so, several emerging televisual subgenres have begun using drugs and alcohol as a narrative device in ways that might prove historically significant. While a full accounting of the ways drugs and alcohol manifest on contemporary television screens certainly exceeds my task in this brief comment, several noteworthy ways that contemporary television narratives “use” drugs and alcohol warrant consideration. (For the purposes of this discussion, I employ the term “television narrative” to address a diverse array of televisual genres, including both scripted dramas and comedies alongside what is widely referred to as “reality” tv, the myriad documentary television programs which, though ostensibly “unscripted,” nonetheless utilize a range of editing and production techniques to sculpt the dramatic action internal to each episode and, often, across the span of a multi-episode “season” of programming.)

The three subgenres I would like to highlight are, in turn, domestic dramas of narco-trafficking; “drunk girls gone wild” reality shows; and, perhaps most ubiquitously, RehabTV.

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On Moving Beyond “Context”

Perhaps it is because I teach in a medical school, rather than a traditional academic history department, but over the past two years I have become increasingly interested in thinking about how historical scholarship can directly contribute to solving current problems. When people discover where I teach they often ask me, in a somewhat quizzical way, what I actually do. How do I spend my time? What do I contribute? Why have a historian at a medical school at all?

It’s a good set of questions. I typically respond with something about “context”  – how history helps us understand the present, or raises interesting questions about the direction we are going, or some other such formulation. This is all true, of course, and its important. I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t think in these terms. But I have also started to wonder if historians can do more – and, if we can, whether or not we should. So, I’ve started to ask myself: what can historical scholarship contribute to the design and implementation of health interventions? To the crafting of public health policy? To the definition and measurement of quantifiable problems and outcomes? To the generation of grant money? Can historians do more than talk about the past in order to provide “context” for the labor of others? And should we?

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