The Way Back Machine—Cora Lee Wetherington, NIDA Advocate for Research about Drugs and Women

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in “The Way Back Machine,” a series of interviews with key theorists and practitioners of alcohol and drugs research, treatment, and recovery among women and communities of color during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Through these interviews, Points co-founder and Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis works out some of the theoretical issues she articulated almost ten years ago in “Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards A Research Agenda.”

First, a little background: in response to the heroin panic then gripping the nation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) was founded by executive order in 1973 within the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA) housed in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services). In the words of its founding Director, Robert L. DuPont (2009), NIDA represented “the nation’s new commitment to demand reduction as a central element of drug abuse policy, and as the center of public health activity on drug abuse.” For about ten years, NIDA functioned as what DuPont called a “three-legged stool”: it oversaw research (human and animal studies of the “basic biology of addiction” as well as drug epidemiology and drug effects); training (of clinical personnel); and service (in the areas of drug abuse prevention and treatment). But in the 1980s, things got complicated.

Beginning in 1982, the Reagan administration’s shift from categorical to block grants gave states new discretion in spending on alcohol, drug, and mental health issues. Subsequent legislation throughout the ‘80s—influenced in part by a new panic over cocaine—pushed for more prevention and treatment services for “special populations,” including youth, pregnant women, the chronically mentally ill and un-housed, minorities, and people with HIV.

The 1992 ADAMHA Reorganization Act broke NIDA’s three-legged stool approach to drug problems. Along with its coequals, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Mental Health, NIDA’s research leg moved into the National Institute of Health. The legs devoted to training and services were parceled out to two new Centers, one for Substance Abuse Prevention and one for Substance Abuse Treatment. These entities were housed in ADAMHA’s replacement, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. If you’ve followed me this far, you can probably tell: the 1980s and 1990s were a helluva time.

As Laura Schmidt and Constance Weisner (2002) have pointed out, block grant funding threatened the survival of women’s treatment programs founded in the late 1970s. States had discretion in how they spent block grants—so, if a state didn’t care about women substance users, well, too bad. In response, activists and treatment providers worked to frame women—especially pregnant women—as a “special population” deserving of their own stream of research funding.

One of the staunchest advocates for research on women was Cora Lee Wetherington, who came to NIDA as a program officer in 1987 and served as Women and Gender/Sex Differences Research Coordinator from 1995 until her retirement in 2019. As a friendly co-conspirator on countless research proposals and a tireless promoter of the (crazy!) notion that research protocols needed to enroll female subjects if they hoped to produce real-world outcomes, Wetherington helped shape a generation (maybe two!) of federally-funded feminist research. She sat down with Points Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis to reflect on what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Cora Lee Wetherington Moderating a Panel
Cora Lee Wetherington (left) moderating a panel at the 2018 “Opioid and Nicotine Use, Dependence, and Recovery: Influences of Sex and Gender” conference hosted by the Food and Drug Administration. Image Courtesy of FDAWomen on Twitter.

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Chess and . . . Drugs? Addiction and Recovery in The Queen’s Gambit

Editor’s Note: Did you miss us? We experienced some technical difficulties last week. Hopefully, we’re back up and running smoothly now. 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. 

The fictional drug Xanzolam in The Queen’s Gambit. Image from Netflix.

Author’s Note: So as not to spoil The Queen’s Gambit for those who have not yet seen it, I will primarily focus on critical discourses of its depiction of drug and alcohol addiction in this post.

In the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic, in October 2020 Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series adapted from the 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis examining the improbable rise of Beth Harmon, a fictional chess prodigy in the 1960s, as she strove to become a world champion in what, at the time, was exclusively a man’s game.

The show quickly became an unlikely success and cultural phenomenon, drawing over sixty million viewers less than a month after its debut. Critics and fans pointed to several factors to explain its unexpected popularity. They praised lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy’s compelling and dynamic portrayal of Harmon, as well as the program’s innovative cinematography that somehow made the world of chess dramatic and exciting. Many were smitten by its fidelity to a 1960s aesthetics, drawing comparisons to another period piece, the hit show Mad Men.

Others suggested that timing played a crucial role. Themes of loss, grief, alienation, and trauma figure heavily in the narrative, dramatizing what millions of people across the globe could identity with as they experienced the psychological and emotional distress caused by the pandemic. “It’s a show that seems tailor-made for our joy-starved minds in a somber modern world,” wrote cultural critic Kelly Lawler in a glowing review that deemed The Queen’s Gambit “the best piece of content in 2020.” And then there was the renewed mass interest in chess. Much like exercise equipment, chess sets quickly became unavailable in the pandemic economy as sales surged to staggering levels, increasing by as much as 1000 percent for some vendors.

The show also portrays copious amounts drug and alcohol consumption—another thematic element that perhaps helped to attract a large audience given spikes in substance abuse during the pandemic. A Google search of “The Queen’s Gambit” and pharmaceuticals yields dozens of articles explaining what, exactly, the drugs consumed in the show actually were. Most likely Librium or a similar benzodiazepine, Newsweek concluded.

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The Way Back Machine—Jackie Jenkins-Scott and Community-Based Treatment in Roxbury

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in “The Way Back Machine,” a series of interviews with key theorists and practitioners of alcohol and drugs research, treatment, and recovery among women and communities of color during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Through these interviews, Points co-founder and Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis works out some of the theoretical issues she articulated almost ten years ago in “Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards A Research Agenda.”

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light not only America’s glaring health inequalities, but also the community health centers (CHCs) that serve many of the nation’s most marginalized populations. One of the most enduring features of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, these comprehensive facilities began with sprawling missions—not just biomedical and psychiatric health care, but also early childhood education, adult job training, and (you guessed it) alcohol and drug education and treatment.  The recent spotlight on the CHCs’ strengths and vulnerabilities prompted Points’ Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis to dig a little deeper into this last aspect of their mission as part of her ongoing efforts to understand the grassroots theories of substance abuse and recovery that were elaborated in the 1970s, often in urban environments far from the bucolic precincts of “the Minnesota Model.”

JackieJenkins-Scott
Jackie Jenkins-Scott.

Jackie Jenkins-Scott is the former President of Wheelock College, a founding partner of JJS Advising, and the author of the Seven Secrets of Responsive Leadership (Career Press, 2020). Before she became a “thought leader” in organizational change, however, she was a pioneering presence in community-based substance abuse treatment, working at the Dimock Community Health Center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood (among other places). Is there anybody better qualified to talk about the evolution of service delivery and recovery during the last decades of the twentieth century? We didn’t think so either.

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Just Say No Redux: The Elks Drug Awareness Program

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. 

Elroy the Elk, the official mascot of the Elks Drug Awareness Program (DAP), with an antidrug message from the program’s What Heroes Do comic book.

While in Washington DC for a Community Coalition Conference in 1999, Kent Gade, Director of the Elks National Drug Awareness Program, happened upon a speech given by John Lunt, a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Demand Reduction Coordinator. As he listened to Lunt address a room of DEA agents, Gade was drawn to the agency’s strategies for reducing substance abuse in American communities. After meeting with Lunt, Gade pursued a formal alliance with the DEA that would provide official “credibility” for the Elks National Drug Awareness Program and “strengthen the program’s affiliations with other groups”—organizations with far superior resources for combating drug addiction such as PRIDE Youth Programs and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Allying with the DEA and affiliated groups, Gade believed, would vastly increase his organization’s informational and material resources and aid in producing more engaging and creative antidrug content. As he put it, “The DEA provides us with excellent materials and dynamic speakers. Our partnership is a tremendous asset to our efforts. The agency bends over backward for us. They are absolutely invaluable to our program.”

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded in New York City in 1868. Early members sought an exclusive social club where white men could fraternize and indulge in leisurely activities unencumbered by city laws that regulated the hours of drinking and smoking establishments.

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The Death of Marilyn Monroe and the Birth of “Drug Abuse”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Matthew June, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University. You can follow him on Twitter @Users_Abusers.

For the past four decades, the concept of “drug abuse” has been the foundation of American drug policy. As many drug researchers know, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.drugabuse.gov) provides the scholarly basis for national drug programs. Since 1970, government assessments of potential for abuse have determined the legal status of all drugs. Focused on declarations of “war” against drugs, we have often failed to appreciate how this concept of drug abuse is neither timeless nor politically neutral. In fact, the idea was rarely used before the early 1960s and owes its sudden popularity to a confluence of events surrounding President John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1962 – including the suspicious death of Marilyn Monroe from an overdose of barbiturates that same year, on August 5.

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