Review of A Drunkard’s Defense

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In A Drunkard’s Defense: Alcohol, Murder, and Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), Michele Rotunda has written a significant contribution about the history of alcohol consumption that will appeal to students of numerous fields, most notably scholars engaged in legal, medical, and cultural studies. Drawing from an impressive array of primary sources, Rotunda’s taut narrative, tracing the complex evolution of juridical precedents beginning in the colonial era that established the culpability of defendants accused of often gruesome crimes while intoxicated, is revelatory.

Rotunda’s extensive use of court documents, in particular, illuminates in exquisite detail the highly contested nature of judicial concepts like intention and responsibility, and how they considerably influenced verdicts in cases of alcohol-induced criminality. Did murder commissioned under the influence of alcohol constitute a deliberate, voluntary, and premeditated crime? If not, was the accused nevertheless at fault for willfully partaking in a vice that could disorder the mind and facilitate the perpetration of murder—an idea resting on deeply entrenched beliefs in American society about the immorality of drunken indulgence that knowingly caused mental derangement? Or, as physicians who were increasingly concerned with the physiology and psychology of intoxication proclaimed, was the impetus for murderous behavior exhibited by defendants vastly more complicated, requiring nuanced diagnoses that only practitioners’ scientific expertise and empiricism could provide?

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Review: “Commodifying Cannabis: A Cultural History of a Complex Plant in the Atlantic World”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

Borougerdi book Commodifying Cannabis
Cover of Commodifying Cannabis

I’ve been reading about pot since before my formal history training. I’ve always been fascinated by the inclusion of the standard story about the “long history” of cannabis that seemed to appear in the introduction to just about every book or article on the subject. As a teenager/young adult first experimenting with cannabis after a childhood of “Just Say No” sobriety, I was somehow comforted to know that I could tap into the wonders of a cannabis high in the same way that many ancient societies had in India, China, or the Middle East.

I have since learned a lot more about the plant, and it is clear that my assumptions had been based on problematic conceptions of “other” cultures. The growing historical literature about intoxicants has further challenged my formerly overly simplistic understandings about how societies manage drug use and about how drug policies and public opinion interact to shape beliefs about drugs. I’ve been struck, though, that the connection between ancient uses of cannabis and our more recent social and cultural contexts have often been missing from these analyses. Such a long-term historical perspective could help us better understand the dynamic flows of drug knowledge across time and place.

Bradley J. Borougerdi’s 2018 book Commodifying Cannabis seeks to make these types of connections. Borougerdi focuses on the Anglo-American Atlantic World and describes the plant as a “triple-purpose” cultural commodity. He builds on previous work by scholars like Isaac Campos who has previously investigated how re-interpretations of Spanish and indigenous knowledge influenced the circulation of information about cannabis in Mexico. Borougerdi, here, examines how orientalist assumptions shaped knowledge about the plant as it moved through the Anglo-American world. He argues that the different meanings of cannabis—attached to its different modes of use—dictated the trajectory of cannabis commodification in the early modern period, the prohibition of cannabis in the nineteenth century, and the recent re-commodification of cannabis.

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Craft Weed offers clear-eyed optimism on cannabis farming, regulation

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

In his 2018 book Craft Weed: Family Farming and the Future of the Marijuana Industry, Ryan Stoa, visiting professor at Louisiana’s Southern University Law Center, aims to put cannabis agriculture at center-stage in the legalization movement. He argues that legalization has the “potential to revitalize the American family farm and rural economies nationwide” (p 15). His main reason for thinking so: growers care—about their plants and their local communities, and they can be regulated in a way that suits both, despite what industry analysts might be predicting.

Stoa understands that when it comes to cannabis regulation, “it all starts at the beginning of the supply chain, where farmers plant, care for, and harvest marijuana” (p 7). Despite this, in places such as California, his main study area, “lawmakers completely neglected the subject of marijuana agriculture for twenty years” after a citizen initiative legalized medical marijuana in 1996. The result has been an unregulated Green Rush that has left many well-intentioned, small-time growers to fend for themselves and given rise to fears that, when full legalization does come, it will privilege only the largest and wealthiest entities.

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Points Bookshelf: Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He adds to our Points Bookshelf series, where we examine and review recent books about alcohol and drug history.

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In Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University, probes the “symbiotic relationship between drugs and war,” or “how drugs made war and war made drugs.” Over the last two years, this area of interest has garnered tremendous attention. Two blockbusters that come to mind are Shooting Up: A History of Drugs and War, a general history of drugs and war throughout the ages, and Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which, as the title suggests, hones in on Nazi Germany’s love-hate relationship with psychoactive substances, particularly methamphetamine. Shooting Up has some close parallels with Killer High, as the two dip their toes in the same stream so to speak, but Killer High is different in its approach, emphasis and aim. Andreas concentrates on six drugs—alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamine, and cocaine—detailing his interpretative lens through five types of relationships, including the complementary and often contradictory link binding war with drugs throughout history. 

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Points Bookshelf: “Dignity,” by Chris Arnade

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. As part of our Points Bookshelf series, he reviews Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Sentinel, 2019). 

Screenshot 2019-11-14 at 8.36.59 AMChris Arnade was an unlikely candidate to write Dignity, an intimate portrait of the ignored communities dotting America’s landscape. His professional adulthood has leapfrogged from elite institution to elite institution: first, getting a Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins University, then planting himself in Wall Street, at the nexus of wealth and power, working as an early “quant” (a trader)—popularized on-screen in films like The Big Short—for the next several decades.

Tired of staring at screens, reducing complexity down to data points, he expanded his routine walks around safe New York neighborhoods into those considered dangerous, beginning with Hunts Point in the Bronx. Arnade assumed he would find, as numerous colleagues suggested, violence, crime, and prostitution. What he did not expect was to be welcomed. A curiosity at first, Arnade, a white guy carrying a camera, lessened concerns when asked what he was doing there by saying that he was hanging out and taking photos. People wanted him to snap their picture, while others wanted a chance to tell their life stories. Surprised, he discovered self-sustaining tight-knit communities which produced vibrant street art, as well as places filled with fascinating people, like the man he met who worked with pigeons. 

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Points Bookshelf: “Imperial Twilight” by Stephen R. Platt

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Screenshot 2019-09-05 at 8.18.45 AMWithin the field of Chinese history, the Opium War, fought in the southern port city of Canton (Guangzhou) and its environs from 1839-1842, is among the most exhaustively researched of topics. Scholars have long argued for the significance of this nineteenth-century clash between the British and Chinese empires, representing it as the beginning of the latter’s infamous “century of humiliation” at the hands of the great powers. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of the China’s Last Golden Age (Knopf, 2018) does not dispute this view of the conflict as a watershed marking British ascendancy and Chinese decline. However, Stephen Platt’s highly readable and original book does overturn various longstanding assumptions about the events leading up to the war. In particular, he shows how small moments of frustration and miscommunication changed the course of history. 

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Points Bookshelf: “Bottle of Lies” by Katherine Eban

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. As part of our Points Bookshelf series, he reviews Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom (Ecco, 2019). 

Screenshot 2019-08-07 at 4.49.07 PMKatherine Eban previews Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom with shocking statistics on the state of pharmaceuticals: “Roughly 40 percent of our generic drugs are manufactured in India. A full 80 percent of the active ingredients in all our drugs, whether brand-name or generic, are made in India and China.” China is the sole source for many of America’s essential medicines, including those used in anesthesia and the treatment of cancer and HIV/AIDS. It is the world’s only source for antibiotics. One drug importer explained to her that “without products from overseas, not a single drug could be made.” 

Bottle of Lies’s popularity and positive press stems from Eban asking what appears, at first blush, to be a naïve set of questions: What are generic drugs? How are they made? Where are they made? And what are the consequences? If you surveyed the American people’s knowledge of what a generic drug is, they would probably say something to the effect of “generic drugs are the cheaper version of the name-brand.” “Patients” Eban writes, “tend to assume that their generic drugs are identical to brand-name drugs in part because they imagine a simple and amicable process: as a patent expires, the brand-name company turns over its recipe, and a generic company makes the same drug, but at a fraction of the cost.”

It doesn’t happen this way. Instead companies, “erect a fortress of patents around their drugs, sometimes patenting each manufacturing step—even the time-release mechanism, if there is one. At any point, they can tweak a drug “declare it new, to add years to their patents, a move known as ‘evergreening.’” Whatever generics hit the market, they arrived there “not with help from brand-name drug companies, but in spite of their efforts to stop them.”

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Points Bookshelf: “The Age of Addiction” by David Courtwright

Editor’s Note: It’s David Courtwright week on Points! Today we feature a review by contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University, of Courtwright’s most recent book, The Age of Addiction (Harvard University Press, 2019). We’ll follow Hudson’s review with an interview with Courtwright on Thursday. Enjoy! In Age of Addiction, the …

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