Opioids, Overdose, Abstinence—A Historically Deadly Combination

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

We have told ourselves the “opioid crisis” is an exception to past drug scares. In the past century, the narrative goes, we relied on law enforcement and punishment to curb widescale drug use, but our country now has turned over a new leaf—one centered on public health and compassion. Had it not been for Purdue Pharma, a uniquely bad actor, the spread of addiction and overdose deaths would have never occurred.

None of this is true. Rhetorically, yes, smart politicians now deemphasize the punishment aspect in public speeches. But law enforcement plays a greater role than ever before in regulating the use of drugs—from the zealous policing of some people who use illegal drugs to expansive prescription monitoring programs and from the detailed cataloging of the dosage of Americans’ medications to DEA to threats to doctors who fail to obey their dictates. Such strict and exacting regulations often leave elderly patients and patients with chronic pain out in the cold unable to secure necessary drugs. Yet, at the same time, prohibitionist drug control measures have also done little to stop the proliferation of black-market drugs.

Far from being a deviation, this has long been the norm and with often devastating results. Regardless of your thoughts about current events, this post will let us look back and travel to the past to try to clarify why overdose deaths continue to increase now despite a dramatic recent decrease in opioid prescriptions. And why this situation unlikely to change under current conditions. For about the last century, the United States government has abided by a philosophy that seems to prioritize drug abstinence and the strict policing of drug use at the expense of saving lives. To investigate this continuity, I will briefly examine two episodes: a 1930s critique of an early version of the war on drugs and the government’s opposition to needle exchanges during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Points Hudson Title Card Opioids
Left: A 10 milligram OxyContin pill. Source: Wikimedia Foundation.

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“How to Paint a Morphine Addict”: Notes from the “Substance Use and Abuse in the Long 19th Century” Conference

Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from Hannah Halliwell, a third-year History of Art PhD student at the University of Birmingham, England. In it, she describes the work she presented at the “Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century” conference, held last September, and her winning entry into the Creative Competition. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @hanhalliwell. Enjoy!

Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century was a two-day conference at Edge Hill University, England, on 13th-14th September 2018. It was an interdisciplinary symposium with fascinating talks on topics ranging from alcoholism and cocaine use to opium, logistics and concepts of addiction. A personal highlight was being named the Creative Competition winner.

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Approaching Edge Hill University for Day 2 of Substance Use and Abuse

As I neared the end of the second year of my History of Art PhD at the University of Birmingham, I realized I had missed the Call for Papers deadline for the Substance Use and Abuse conference. Whilst researching attendance details on the conference website, the words “Creative Competition” caught my eye. This was a way to get involved with the conference, although it was a far cry from the usual 300-word abstract submission. Regardless, I saw it as an opportunity to present my research on visual representations of the morphinomane (morphine addict)[1] in French fin-de-siècle society (c.1880-1910) in a new way.

The task: “Your research in one image.”

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Heroin: The Great Lie

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest blogger Liz Greene. Greene is a dog-loving, beard-envying history nerd from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch up with her latest misadventures on Instant Lo or follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene.

Like so many of our modern “wonder drugs”, heroin was born of necessity. Unfortunately, the promise of a non-habit forming solution to morphine addiction turned out to be false, and a new national dependence was formed. This is the story of heroin.

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In the 1800’s, opium use had taken a toll on the country. With doctors prescribing opium and its derivatives for everything from coughing to “women’s troubles,” many patients had become addicted to the much used cure-all, leaving doctors and pharmacists scrambling for an alternative.

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Drugs on the Small Screen

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest contributor Michael Brownrigg. Enjoy!

It is often said that we are in the midst of a new golden age of television. A remarkable abundance of compelling stories and indelible characters on the small screen has captivated American audiences, fostering new trends in how and where we consume visual media. It seems that everything these days is must-see TV. The small screen’s renaissance has occurred in the wake of cinema’s so-called “death,” in which quality and experimental content has largely yielded to commercial imperatives, consequently impoverishing the cinematic experience once considered transcendent.

Yet while the surfeit of quality television is striking, so too is the prevalence of representations of drug use available for our viewing pleasure. Indeed, drugs of all kinds, licit and illicit, are more than mere props in recent popular programs, but dynamic characters with the capacity to propel and shift plotlines and enrich visual narratives. Below I briefly examine the integral role of drugs in two critically-acclaimed television programs: Mr. Robot and Fear the Walking Dead. Although significantly different in subject matter, each show depicts American society on the cusp of historic change and situates the addict at the center of stories of structural transformation (or disintegration). While this small sampling only begins to reveal the prominent place of drugs in our visual culture, I hope to draw attention to contemporary assumptions about drug addiction embedded in the imagery that reach millions of Americans on numerous platforms.

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The Points Interview: Barbara W. Grossman

The fifth installment of the Points Interview takes us on our first venture into biography as a dimension of drugs history.  Here, we talk with Barbara Wallace Grossman, author of A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009).  The work tells the story of the actress Clara Morris, whose morphine addiction is just one dimension of a remarkable, turbulent, and compelling life.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage (Southern IllinoisBook cover of Spectacle of Suffering University Press, 2009) is the story of a remarkable person and grew out of my ongoing interest in documenting the lives of women who shaped American theater history. Having written a book about Fanny Brice – someone who worked hard, played hard, and left very little primary source material behind – I wanted to find a woman in theater who had kept a diary. A former student doing research at Schlesinger Library in Cambridge (Massachusetts) told me about an actress whose 54-volume diary was housed there. After spending several weeks reading the first few volumes, I knew I had the subject of my next book – a project that took almost 14 years to complete! It chronicles the turbulent life and career of actress, author and feminist Clara Morris (1847-1925)

Largely forgotten today, Clara Morris (1847-1925) was one of the most renowned stars of her time, known as “America’s Greatest Actress,” the “Queen of the American Stage” and the “Empress of Emotional Acting.” Her mesmerizing performances riveted audiences as much as her tabloid-worthy antics intrigued them. Using Morris’s diary, memoirs, novels and short stories, as well as countless newspaper articles and secondary sources, I worked hard to present her story in an objective, yet compelling way.

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