Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by guest blogger Katrina Pineda, a junior undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) pursuing a degree in Science, Technology, and Society. She is the co-president of the Philippine American League, RPI’s cultural Filipino club. This post was submitted at the end of Filipino American History Month (October) and in time for Araw ng mga Patay—Day of the Dead in the Philippines—in remembrance of those who have died in President Duterte’s war on drugs.
Pusher ako. Wag tularan.
“I am a [drug] pusher. Don’t do what I did.”
The crudely drawn message on a cardboard sign beside a man just killed in the street is posed as a warning to the living. The sign appeared next to the body of Michael Siaron, a 30-year-old pedicab driver killed by a vigilante group in 2016. A famous photo of his bereaved partner cradling his body echoes “The Pieta,” also known as “The Lamentation of Christ.”
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.
In March, the former Governor of New York signed legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis in New York. In a previous post, I introduced the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), and I discussed some of the important points in the legislation regarding the issues of equity and reinvestment in those communities overpoliced in the war on drugs (full details can be found on the state’s website).
Indeed, if the provisions of the MRTA are fully implemented as written, half of available retail licenses will be granted to specific targeted communities, including over-policed neighborhoods, women-led businesses, and disabled veterans. The dynamics discussed in this short post, however, demonstrate that many of these targeted groups will face an uphill battle to compete with other, more established license holders.
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.
When I went to college (the first time), I left my home in Central New York to attend a Franciscan College near Albany, the state capital. With a scholarship in hand—and a career in the medical field on my horizon—I was confident in my ability to succeed in the classroom. Being away from home for the first time, however, forced me to confront a much bigger fear: negotiating a safe, healthy, and productive college social life. My biggest worries were alcohol and drugs.
Fearful of parental reprisals, school sanctions, and, of course, a life of crime and addiction—all lessons that had been reiterated ad nauseum during the “Just Say No!” era, I had sworn off all substances during high school. But, facing college and the culture of college drinking made me rethink that approach. I decided that I was going to have to try alcohol at some point, and I didn’t want it to be my first week on campus. So, a week before my arrival, I had my first alcohol experience with a friend at a different college.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, avisiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).
It seems true (though not perfectly true) that laws and policies conform to public opinion eventually. I recently attended a virtual meeting on sentencing reform wherein one of the panelists, a district judge, twice underscored the deep importance of public opinion to criminal justice reform. His comments stood out because, in my academic experience, people so rarely talk about public opinion as an element of policy change. Yet everyone seems to agree it exists.
We might reasonably feel optimistic these days about the drift of public opinion toward decarceration and liberalizing drug laws, but such winds have more often blown in the opposite direction. A century ago, the Supreme Court followed public opinion and affirmed the constitutionality of the Volstead Act, leading the country into the disaster of federal alcohol prohibition. Such laws did not lead to orderly sobriety but to similar measures against other substances like the widespread “preventive” prohibition of cannabis. Such was the historical argument of legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread in 1970. They worried that contemporary public opinion about cannabis had been inflamed by the larger social conflicts of the 1960s, consigning the marijuana debate to “the public viscera instead of the public mind.”
Sadly, they were right. Although many scholars and activists in the early 1970s considered legalization imminent, this possibility disappeared in a cloud of bad press and President Carter’s spiraling public approval rating. Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, Joe Biden was one leading politician who often proposed or supported escalations of the drug wars because of public opinion. Biden, and other drug warriors, explicitly argued that the people wanted tougher drug policies and more federal aid to drug law enforcement. (The people, he said, were even willing to spend money on it.)
Public opinion is uncontrollable yet essential; public opinion can be either fickle, deep-rooted, or mysterious. But since public opinion can—and often does—influence laws and policies, we might think about it more often. In that spirit, I offer a brief collection of media artifacts from several different eras that have helped shaped public opinion about drug control. Americans have been consuming a sustained diet of drug-related information for more than a century.
Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Prince Vlad, a pseudonym the author (a public school teacher by day) uses to protect their identity. For an ongoing research project, they have recorded nearly 150 life histories with men and women from several different Salvadoran and US gangs found across El Salvador. Portions of this research have been presented at national and international conferences.
In the last half of the 1980s, youth groups known popularly as maras emerged as an issue of public concern in El Salvador. Contemporary newspapers, drawing heavily from law enforcement information, raised the alarm and cast the maras as juvenile criminal drug users. In 1988, for example, Diario Latino described the Mara Gallo as a “juvenile band… dedicating themselves to stealing, rape, and smoking marijuana” . A year later El Diario de Hoy charged that the “juvenile band ‘Mara Chancleta’” was made up of “drug addicts, thieves, and huelepegas [glue sniffers]” . That same year El Mundo warned its readership about a gang of sixty “huelepegas and thieves” known as the Mara Morazán which operated around the San Salvador capital .
Media accounts, although superficial and sensational, were grounded on facts. Ricardo, a co-founder of La Morazán, summed up the eight years he spent he with his mara: “I was robbing, I was smoking. I was on glue. I was on drugs. I drank. When it was time to drink I drank. And when not, just the jar of glue, right?” .
José similarly framed his six years as a member of the Mara Gallo using terms of drugs and delinquency. “I stole for drugs, for glue, for alcohol, to be around girls. I was in a dark world [mundo tenebroso],” Ernesto said, adding “but it didn’t end there, right?” .
Ricardo’s and José’s testimonies are from a collection of interviews I have recorded with nearly 150 male and female active and ex-gang members from El Salvador for a historically grounded study about the origins and evolution of the country’s contemporary gang phenomenon. The subject of drug use was discussed by all narrators. These personal narratives—and my continued research project—reveal intimate details about the causes, consequences, and nature of drug use among Salvadoran gang members across multiple generations.
In his 1995 book, Night, English poet and essayist Alfred Alvarez, traces the emergence of opium as a source of artistic inspiration to the Romantic Era. Since the positive effects of the drug include an immediate sense of euphoria and numbness soon followed by severe drowsiness, it is no coincidence that the narcotic became popular at a time when writers were obsessed with dreams and nightmares. These writers believed that the dreamworld provided new experiences and new places that they could incorporate into their work. 
Thomas De Quincey, perhaps the most outspoken opium addict of the era, first popularized the drug in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey believed that inspiration could transcend from the dreamworld into reality and he wrote that, “If a man could thro’ Paradise in a Dream & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when awoke—Aye!” 
In 1804, Friedrich Sertürner identified morphine as opium’s most active ingredient, and, with the arrival of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-nineteenth century, injecting morphine became the most popular ingestion method. It is impossible to quantify the popularity of opium—especially as soldiers began returning home from the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s—but the drug was especially prevalent among artists and writers of Bohemian Paris.
And opium became the perfect substance for rebelling against the bourgeoisie, as the drug causes users to become isolated and withdrawn in their thoughts, often making it physically impossible to contribute to conversations or productivity of any sort. Opium use provided a sense of camaraderie among Bohemian users who fashioned themselves as fighting against traditional literary, art, and social norms. But what may have begun as rebellion had a side effect: the dreamworld and deranged senses provided users with fodder for their art.
Editor’s Note: Points continues its series of interviews with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs(vol. 34, no. 2; Fall 2020), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Erika Dyck, Professor and Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She co-authored the article, “Reframing Bummer Trips,” with Dr. Chris Elcock. You can see their article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history.
Tell readers a little bit about yourself(and your co-author)
Chris was a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan, and I was his supervisor when we began thinking about this topic. We were both interested in the history of psychedelic drugs, me from the perspective of medical history, and Chris more so from the perspective of cultural history. We started by comparing notes on how “bad trips” were described in different ways—as catastrophic in public health literature, but also as complex and even beneficial experiences, according to some consumers of psychedelics. We were curious about how the idea of “bad trips” became a short hand for understanding the values placed on psychedelics.
What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?
My own interest in drugs, and their history, stems much less from personal experience than many people might imagine. For me, it was always the politics of drug use, regulation, and criminalization that intrigued me the most. Or how people claimed to know about drugs.
Why do some drugs have a reputation for causing irreparable harm in some circles, yet have a certain degree of social capital, or even cultural caché, in another context? I was interested in how some drugs became the object of medical fascination but had different reputations or characters once they left the clinic.
This set me on a path of examining LSD and mescaline experiments conducted in Saskatchewan, Canada, during the 1950s. Saskatchewan was also place that had claimed the first socialist government in North America—a government, it turns out, that invested in psychedelic research and saw potential in the research for reforming mental health care. Since then, I have been curious about how psychedelics have been framed as a political tool or weapon—drugs that, on one hand, allegedly inspire tolerance, enlightenment, and self reflection, but, conversely, also drugs that trigger violence, narcissism, and reckless behaviour. These polarizing views about drugs and their users have significant consequences for how we view drugs as medicines or as substances of abuse—but also for how we consider drug users and pushers, or patients and psychiatrists and their interactions with psychedelics.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a history PhD student at Southern Illinois University.
Psychologist Stanton Peele refers to the time we’re living in as a “pharmacological era,” one where “drug use, both approved and unapproved, is widespread, almost universal.” Currently, it’s dealt with through regulation and prohibition. Dr. Peele argues: “Instead, we need to accept drug use as socially and psychologically regulatable behavior to be incorporated into modern life.”
In some ways, we’re already there. It’s near universal, just two-tiered. A Vice News headline summed it up perfectly: “America’s Rich and Powerful have permission slips to get high.” We don’t have to look far to see these inequities in action. Recently, Elon Musk—of Tesla fame—smoked a blunt on the Joe Rogan Experience. Had it been a Tesla employee, they would’ve been fired. Ivy League students swallow smart pills to study just like their future selves, the businessmen burning the midnight oil. And a white woman popping a Xanax found in the seabed of her Hermès bag, totally normal too. But a black man smoking a joint—whoa, wait a minute, that’s unacceptable. So, yeah, like I said universal but two-tiered—same dynamic in Washington. Recall Dr. Ronnie Jackson, Trump’s (failed) nominee for Veteran Affairs Secretary. Apart from his stunning lack of qualifications and experience, we learned during his time as Physician to the President he regularly doled out Schedule II drugs for recreational purposes. As Politico reported:
Nearly a dozen current and former officials — including some who were treated by Jackson while working in the Obama White House — say Jackson is being unfairly labeled as a “candy man” and that casual use of some prescription drugs is an established fact of life at the highest echelons of government. “Not everyone wants it. But anyone who does gets it,” said a former Trump administration official who traveled extensively with Jackson and the president.