“Buried Alive in a Chemical Tomb”: The Story of the “Trip or Trap” Anti-Drug Playing Card Deck

Editor’s Note: From the Collections highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from publications and historical collections of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP). In this post, Points Managing Editor and AIHP Head Archivist Greg Bond investigates the story behind the unique “Trip or Trap” anti-drug playing card deck from 1970.

Trip or Trap Decl Cards
Playing cards from the “Trip or Trap” deck. Images courtesy of the Brodeur Playing Card Collection, American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

“This Trip or Trap Card Deck is an attempt to educate through facts and ridicule,” wrote public health advocate Dr. Wayman Rutherford Spence about his anti-drug set of novelty playing cards. Published in 1970 by his business, the Spenco Medical Company, the “Trip or Trap” deck was one of many quirky Spenco products that combined humor with pop culture ephemera to educate the public about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other intoxicants.

The “Trip or Trap” deck adopted a prohibitionist attitude towards drugs, demonized the recreational use of intoxicating substances, and denied the legitimate medical or pharmaceutical use of drugs like cannabis. On an informational card accompanying the deck, Spence explained that “drug abuse has many faces.” Using a common gendered understanding of substance abuse, he wrote that “it is the lady starting her day with a diet pill for a pick-up and ending it with a sedative for sleep, [and] it is the man habitually unwinding with several drinks.” He also linked together “the chain smoker unable to quit… the twelve-year-old experimenting with glue sniffing… the teenager smoking pot… and the hard-core addict shooting heroin.”

Despite the substantial variations among these very different drug-use scenarios, he wrote that each case represented “a threatened person retreating from reality.” Concluding dramatically, Spence informed users of the “Trip or Track” deck that “drug abusers are not blissfully composed, rather they are often deadened, deprived of personality, and all but buried alive in a chemical tomb.”

The “Trip or Trap” playing card deck is one of several hundred pharmacy-themed playing cards in the Donald Brodeur Playing Card Collection at the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. This post is a short investigation into the story behind the “Trip or Trap” deck and its creator Wayman R. Spence, a now mostly forgotten drug warrior and public heath advocate.

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Points Interview: John O’Brien

Editor’s Note: Today we present an interview with John O’Brien, a lecturer in sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland, and author of the new book States of Intoxication: The Place of Alcohol in Civilization (Routledge, 2019). Enjoy! Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. The ‘publican’ who runs the ‘local’ is …

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