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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