Watch “A Century of American Drug Use” Virtual AHA Panel

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. 

The annual gathering of historians for the American Historical Association’s yearly meeting is set to resume in January 2022 in New Orleans, barring a major resurgence of Covid due to the delta variant. The pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2021 meeting slated for Seattle, Washington, but the AHA selected several panels to present at its virtual AHA colloquium, which started early this year and will wrap up this month. Panels not selected for the main colloquium were still encouraged to hold sessions, and the AHA generously offered space on its YouTube channel for recordings of Zoom meetings to be uploaded.

I was part of such a virtual AHA panel entitled “A Century of Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor” that met on the most appropriate day possible for such a thing—April 20, 2021. We gathered together on Zoom with a group of 50 friends for a very productive 90-minute panel.

Virtual AHA Panel

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Event Alert—A War on Research: Drug Policy and 50 Year of Lost Knowledge

Editor’s Note: This event alert is part of Points’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Drugs.

Mark you calendars for this coming Thursday, June 24. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is hosting a panel titled, “A War on Research: Drug Policy and 50 Years of Lost Knowledge.” Sponsored by the DPA’s Department of Research and Academic Engagement, the panel discussion will explore the research and knowledge that has been delayed or lost due to the drug war.

Title: A War on Research: Drug Policy and 50 Years of Lost Knowledge
Date: Thursday, June 24 from 4:30pm–6:00pm ET
RSVP linkbit.ly/50YearsLostResearch

Description: On June 17, 1971, President Nixon declared the war on drugs. Fifty years later, the devastating harms of the war on drugs—ranging from mass criminalization and police violence to soaring rates of overdose —have been well documented. Less well documented are the ways in which the drug war has been a barrier to research and science.

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The War on Drugs at 50

Editor’s Note: This post by Social History of Alcohol and Drugs Editors Nancy Campbell, David Herzberg, and Lucas Richert kicks off Points’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of the War on Drugs.

In a White House press conference on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. His message was stark: “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.” He announced that it was “necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive” on this enemy, and his campaign would be “worldwide” in size and scope. Fifty years later, the United States and, indeed, many other countries are reckoning with the fallout.

President Richard Nixon’s June 17, 1971, press conference announcing a “a new all-out offensive” against drugs and “drug abuse.” Source: Richard Nixon Foundation YouTube channel.

At the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (SHAD), we are all too aware of the long term ramifications of President Nixon’s pronouncement, but we also recognize that the “War on Drugs” did not strictly begin in June 1971 and was rooted in prohibitionist impulses that built up over the decades; still, one can’t deny the power of branding—and in formalizing the “War” agenda at the highest level.

We are also committed to understanding the War on Drugs in locales and populations beyond the United States. And we are committed to understanding how harm reduction was minimized at the expense of more punitive measures, leading the War on Drugs to also become a War on People who Use Drugs.

Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, we are happy to share below a free selection of six SHAD articles that help explain the War on Drugs on the home front and outside American borders. These articles, which will be freely available and open access until the end of August 2021, present, we think, a valuable and broader perspective on the War on Drugs, which we hope will be of use to you. Interested readers can see the abstracts below and click through to read the articles.

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Drug Packaging: Newspapers’ Long History of Sensational Narcotics Reporting

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting 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.

Packaged Drugs Featured Image

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Harry Anslinger Goes to the Movies: To the Ends of the Earth

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the author of The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Ends of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Ends of the Earth Lobby Card
Ends of the Earth (1948) lobby card. Image courtesy of MoviePosterdb.

Above one of the many neo-classical governmental buildings that populate Washington, DC, an American flag waves proudly. “United States Department of Treasury,” the voiceover intones. “That’s right, the place they make money.” Dissolves bring us inside where assembly lines stack and sort sheets of cash, “that green stuff,” the narrator drones, “you scramble to get, and then give back at the end of the year, so cheerfully.” But Columbia Pictures’s 1948 thriller To the Ends of the Earth isn’t about money or taxes. Or, at least, it isn’t about their physical presence. Instead, it’s about unassuming quiet objects. It’s about secret circulations of global capital flows. And in particular, it’s about an “innocent, pretty little thing”: the poppy flower and its dark passenger, opium.

Following Agent Michael Barrows, the narrator and protagonist, through China, Egypt, and Lebanon before returning to the harbors of New York, the movie tracks across opium manufacturing and trade routes while regularly referencing the drug onscreen—shocking for a Hollywood film produced during the era of the Production Code. And while the movie has been mostly forgotten, never released on DVD let alone streaming services, it’s an important document about the ties that bind drug policy, governance, censorship, mass media, and the twilight of the Hollywood studio system.

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Points Interview: Stephen Snelders

Stephen Snelders Points Interview card

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Stephen Snelders, the author of Drug Smuggler Nation: Narcotics and the Netherlands, 1920–1995 (Manchester University Press, 2021). Snelders is a Research Fellow at University of Utrecht, and is a member of the Intoxicating Spaces project. He has written books on seventeenth-century Dutch piracy, leprosy in the Dutch colony of Suriname and LSD therapy in the Netherlands. The interview was conducted by Contributing Editor Peder Clark.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The recreational use of illegal drugs is quite common and a more or less accepted leisure activity in the city where I (and my bartenders before and after the lockdown) live. Just as common is media coverage of violence executed by “organized crime,” trials against “drug lords,” new record drug seizures in Dutch port towns, police raids on underground drug laboratories, and the “subversion” of the democratic state by organized drug gangs. Fifty years ago, all of these phenomena seemed to exist to a much smaller degree. The whole concept of “organized crime” was then unknown to the Dutch judiciary and police force. Furthermore, a hundred years ago, there were no laws against illicit drugs in the Netherlands. Since then, the Netherlands has become a key hub of the international drug trade.

My book basically asks the question, how did we get ourselves in this situation, and, especially, why did Dutch drug smuggling become so big and important? The book researches histories of smugglers and smuggling networks: drug users, criminal entrepreneurs, idealists from the hippie and XTC (ecstasy or MDMA) drug undergrounds, brokers from pharmaceutical companies, sailors, and others. They could all thrive in a social and cultural climate of what I call “criminal anarchy:” embedded and rooted in Dutch society, connected to a legal “upperworld.” Crucially, they were NOT organized in large hierarchical crime syndicates that would have been relatively easy targets for police activities, but rather the groups and networks were often transitory, vertically organized, and only seldom competing with each other. In short, the book shows why cutting off one head of the hydra of drug smuggling only led to the growth of new heads in new places.

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Drawing the Peddler: “Reefer Madness” in Four Editorial Cartoons

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. 

Everyone loves a good editorial cartoon. They dramatize contemporary issues in newspapers, in magazines, and, increasingly, in online publications. They routinely engage in a visual form of incisive social critique. And they can be funny—although over the years some of the “humor” has come from degrading caricatures of racial and gendered stereotypes.

For all of these reasons, editorial cartoons are useful teaching tools for historians, and they routinely appear in history textbooks, historical websites, and even on history exams. Currently, some of my students in a semester-long guided research project are using political cartoons to explain aspects of US drug history. (Others in the class are analyzing advertisements or newspaper reporting, and I will share more about the course in a future post).

Given the press bonanza around cannabis during the “reefer madness” era of the 1930s, I have been surprised during my research and teaching to have found only four cartoons from the period that specifically mentioned marijuana. To be sure, there were plenty of cartoons that focused on related issues like “narcotics” control—which often included cannabis—and the Uniform State Narcotic Act. Such cartoons, however, tended to focus on heroin (usually represented by snake imagery) and have not been useful for my marijuana research. There was also another interesting 1940 cartoon that mentioned marijuana in a very different context. This image depicted South American countries being stupefied—like a “Mexican” marijuana user—by “Nazi Propaganda” [1]

Despite spilling less editorial cartoon ink than might be expected given the sheer volume of press generated on the subject during the 1930s, these four identified cartoons present a specific and surprisingly nuanced take on Reefer Madness. They illustrate that the marijuana peddler was often the central focus of the evolving American war on cannabis. Drawn by four different cartoonists in four different cities, the four peddler characters were remarkably similar. In each image, the peddler was not only the source of the drug, but also seemed to be the source (perhaps more than the drug, itself) of all the problems associated with the drug trade.

Left: “Idol of Both,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 5, 1930; Right: “One Place to Get Tough,” Cleveland Press, November 13, 1936. Click on image above for to see larger version.

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Remembering Civil Rights Lawyer Samuel Carter McMorris and his Fight Against Unjust Drug Laws & Police Brutality

Editor’s Note: Today’s post in honor of Black History Month comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).

Samuel Carter McMorris in the Makio, Ohio State University’s yearbook, in 1944.

In 1962, the United States Supreme Court struck down California’s “narcotics addict” law in the case Robinson v. California. Samuel Carter McMorris, the lawyer who argued and won the case, was a fierce criminal defense lawyer for the Black community in Los Angeles during a tumultuous era. Robinson was the second of two criminal cases McMorris successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, both of them at his own expense on behalf of indigent clients. Yet McMorris has been lost to history, left without so much as a Wikipedia page.

As McMorris knew, abuse was inherent in California’s narcotics addict law. A quarter of drug arrests in Los Angeles during the 1950s and early 1960s were solely for the crime of addiction, a charge that did not even require the physical presence of drugs themselves. The testimony of an officer that he had observed injection marks on the arm of a suspect was ordinarily enough evidence for a conviction. Police freely and frequently demanded that citizens roll up their sleeves and expose the insides of their arms so officers could inspect for needle marks. This “evidence” was so conclusive in court that suspects in custody sometimes disfigured themselves by burning the area with lit cigarettes. McMorris’s legal activism helped overturn the criminalization of addiction and this type of invasive drug enforcement.

Early Life

McMorris was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1920. His father, Arthur, was a policeman, and his mother, Marie, was a homemaker; Samuel had four younger sisters. When he graduated from East High School in 1937, his class named him both “most industrious” and “most conscientious.” He worked as a traveling salesman, served in the Army, then attended Ohio State University, where he attained a law degree in 1950. 

Pictured in 1950 with the staff of the Ohio State Law Journal, Samuel Carter McMorris was the first Black student to serve in that role.

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