EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcomeHannah Palin (Film Archives Specialist) and Nicolette Bromberg (Visual Materials Curator) from the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. The University of Washington has a wonderful collection of materials by the British filmmaker and journalist Adrian Cowell. Beware, alcohol and drugs historians– once you read their descriptions of the Cowell collection, you might be tempted to book your tickets to Seattle!
In January 2015, the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, received 6 pallets of materials shipped from London. They were stacked high with boxes of 16mm film, audio and videotape, photographs, newspaper clippings, transcripts and log books—covering three decades of work by British filmmaker and journalist, Adrian Cowell. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Adrian Cowell created television documentaries detailing the complex relationships between minority insurgents in a remote region of Burma and the international opium trade originating in Southeast Asia. The Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection contains Cowell’s work tracking the opium trade from its production in Burma to the addicts and dealers in Hong Kong to the drug policy makers in Washington, D.C. It includes the most extensive collection of images of the remote Burmese Shan State in the world, gathered during Cowell’s trips documenting opium merchants, opium caravans, militias, insurgents and other activities related to the opium trade. A year and half after its arrival, Special Collections’ staff, students, and volunteers are still slowly working their way through the collection of over 2000 items, most of which have never before been made public.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 turns 100 years old tomorrow. The new federal law regulated traffic in opiates and cocaine and produced lasting effects for US and international drug policy (you can read the full text here). Today, four celebrated scholars offer 100-word reflections on first 100 years of the Harrison Act.
Editor’s Note: We’re delighted to welcome Ingrid Walker, an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Washington-Tacoma, and a past guest contributor to Points. In today’s post, Walker makes several cultural observations about marijuana as it joins beer, coffee, and wine to become the newest psychoactive substance legally produced and consumed for fun in Washington.
The much-anticipated first months of marijuana legalization in Washington have been consumed with building a regulatory system and marketplace from the ground up. Users ready to enjoy their substance of choice endured a 19-month waiting period between the passage of I-502 in November 2012 and the moment the first retail shops opened for business in July 2014. The Liquor Control Board quietly established the infrastructure for the regulation and licensed both growers and retail businesses. In the meantime, we have been left to anticipate how the new “recreational” market would affect life in Washington.
So far, the development of a recreational marijuana industry has come with a set of issues that typify the legacy of drug prohibition in the United States. The cultural reverberations of marijuana legalization reflect the attempt to normalize the use of a substance in a state and country that has no public language for that recreational practice. The law’s implementation has evoked questions about how a newly legal substance’s use-practice sits alongside the use of other psychoactive substances that we take for granted (alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco). In particular, there are many stereotypical expectations that suggest unfamiliarity with marijuana and its users.
That knowledge deficit is somewhat understandable; the paradigm shifts about marijuana use have required Americans in some states to radically reconceive the drug—first from a completely illegal substance to a medically approved substance, now to a fully legal one. In a country that has long-standing propaganda and stereotypes about marijuana use and users, perceptions are slow to change. I titled this post “Drugs and Rec” to echo Parks and Rec, the television comedy that touches on the often absurd aspects of public policy, local campaigns and government, as well as the concept of providing services for public “recreation.” While marijuana has always been “recreational,” the term distinguishes it from “medical marijuana”—the first toehold in the path to full legalization. Ultimately, should marijuana become legalized across the country, that descriptor will fall away as marijuana use becomes as normalized as alcohol use is.
Editor’s Note: Our series of reflections on Addicts Who Survived continues today with Eric Schneider discussing Teddy’s narrative, posted yesterday.
How did heroin become a drug used largely by African Americans after World
War Two, when it had been a primarily white drug in the previous decades? What were
the social settings that nurtured this new wave of heroin use? How did young people,
primarily males, become the postwar generation of heroin sellers and users?
David Courtwright locates the transition from white to black heroin use in the
Great Migration, the movement of African American southerners into northern cities,
where a primarily rural people encountered not only problems of social dislocation but
also a racism as overt and virulent as the one they left behind. But urban life was also
different, and while hemmed in by a color line that shaped residence, education, and
employment, African Americans were freer to act within these bounded spaces. Here
African Americans developed a language and a style of cultural resistance, an infra
politics of daily life, a zoot-suited, bebop-inflected assertion of self that emerged most
clearly in the social settings of entertainment and vice districts that police effectively
zoned into black residential neighborhoods. Illicit off-the-books economic activity
mingled with outright criminality and ordinary working class street life, and the drug use
of gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and hustlers inevitably seeped into daily life.
How do we understand the process by which heroin use spread? There are some autobiographies, most notably Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, that
testify to the spread of heroin within teenage peer groups. Investigations by reporters,
local police or the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tracked down the sources of the new
upsurge in heroin use that had caught them completely by surprise after the heroin
drought during World War Two. Court records reveal the outlines of trafficking schemes
as heroin made its way from city to city, and Congressional, state and municipal hearings
featured heroin users who explained before television audiences how they got “hooked.”
These records, while useful, all have limitations. Autobiographies are artfully designed
and can rarely be taken at face value, prosecutorial records are focused on proving a
particular version of events, and investigators in public hearings prepare their witnesses
and agree on the presentation of a narrative. Of course oral histories also suffer from
limitations, especially selective memory, and depend on the knowledge and the rapport
established by the interviewer, but they provide first-person insight into the
circumstances and the choices made by ordinary individuals whose experiences might
otherwise be lost. Addicts Who Survived is the best collection of interviews with opiate
users that I know.
Editor’s note: After introducing the series last week, I’m pleased to present the first of the excerpts from Addicts Who Survived chosen by our guest bloggers. Eric Schneider made extensive use of the oral histories collected by Courtwright, Joseph, and Des Jarlais in his 2011 book, Smack: Heroin and the American City. Asked to choose one particular passage from Addicts Who Survived, Eric has recommended the recounting by “Teddy” of his teenage experiences with the world of illicit enterprise. Tomorrow, Eric will offer his own reflections.–Joe Spillane
Teddy was born of black parents in Savannah, Georgia, in 1927. His family life was extremely unstable. His absentee father drank himself to death, and his mother tried repeatedly to foist Teddy on other relatives: “ I was like a burden to her.” Eventually she ran away to New York City, but he found her and joined her in the mid-1930s.
When I was a youngster Harlem was alive. You could hear laughter. The streets would be full of people. Lenox Avenue, Seventh Avenue, all had businesses: there wasn’t an empty store front along there. Seventh Avenue was like Broadway downtown. There was dope in Harlem, and crime, but it wasn’t like it is now: people weren’t getting mugged. Sure, there were fights, but it was basically just fights.
The section I lived in was integrated. There were white people living right down the block on 132nd Street, and on 134th. I went to school with white kids. We even had gangs or clubs with the white kids in them. The people who owned the stores, most of them were Jews or Italians; they used to bring their kids there in the morning, and the kids would go to school with us to grammar school. When they’d complete grammar school, they’d go someplace else. I went to P.S. 89: it was the first school I’d gone to. I didn’t go all that much down South-there wasn’t nobody to make you go down there; it was left to your family. It wasn’t compulsory to go to school the way it was here in New York. So my mother had to take me to school. I went as far as the eighth grade. I started ninth grade but I was just going, if you know what I mean: I went when I wanted. There was no one there to guide me; there was never no one home. My mother worked as a maid on Long Island. She would leave in the morning to go to work, or whatever, and she might come home two days later. So I’d be runnin’ around on the streets and stealing. At that time you could go to all the five-and-ten-cent stores, where they’d have cookies and candies just laying on the shelves. I’d go and pick them up and eat them. It was like a picnic. Everything was in the open-it wasn’t like it is now, where everything is in cases.
I had run-ins with the police, like for stealing cases of soda off of trucks. See, back then the police had a different system. The police knew just about everybody on their beat: all the kids, where they lived, who their mothers were, and their fathers. This way, if something happened in the neighborhood—if someone said, “Why, them kids stole so-and-so” —he’d round up all the kids in the block and find out who it was. Most of the time they’d take you home. But if your mother wasn’t home, they’d take you to the precinct, slap you around, beat you up, and send you on home. Then they’d notify your parents and say, “Listen, Teddy did this, this, and this.” That’s when I was getting to be about thirteen, fourteen years old.
The first time that I actually got arrested was for cuttin’ a guy. I was in a teenager’s gang; maybe I was about fifteen. It was a territory thing: we’ve got this block, this is our block, and you can’t come in this block unless you’ve got permission from us. We were fighting, but we weren’t fighting really to kill one another, even though we had sticks and knives. You had to carry this stuff. If you stuck somebody, it made you a big guy. If you stuck so-and-so, they’d give you a name like “Ice Pick Slim” or “Killer Ray.” You’d try to get a nickname for yourself. The police would take us in, and line up all the clubs, and ask, “Who did this?” So you’d say, “I stuck the guy,” right? It was a thing where, if you did it, you told them. You did it because it looked good-you’d get a name for yourself, you know. People would say, “Teddy sticked that guy, yeah,” or “Teddy’ll kill ya,” or “Don’t mess with Teddy, ’cause he’s a bad guy.”‘This is how you started to get that rep, or that bad-guy image.
Editor’s note: Contributing editor Saeyoung Park files this post from on the road, following her attendance at the Association for Asian Studies annual conference in San Diego.
Earlier this month, a Washington Postblog post referred to a Chosun Ilboarticle ( Kr.) which stated that North Korean diplomats stationed at an unnamed Eastern European country had each been given 20 kg of drugs to sell. Supposedly, the diplomats were ordered to remit the value of their drugs, about 300,000 USD, by early April or before the “Day of the Sun” (the April 15 DPRK holiday celebrating Kim Il Sung’s birthday). The Chosun Ilbo
— one of the major right-leaning newspapers in South Korea — contextualized the diplomatic drug dealing within a broader history of DPRK state-sponsored trafficking, referring to the existence of a Work Unit 39 that has purportedly been responsible for the export of “some of the best quality meth worldwide” to Chinese markets. The Washington Post blog post has drawn enough attention in the current tense phase of peninsula relations, that the official DPRK news agency, the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), has directly attacked the Washington Post and the blog post’s author, Max Fisher (see Fisher’s response).
At this point, little in the news would probably surprise readers about North Korea. And that, actually, is a problem.
How you expect to run with the wolves come night, when you spend all day sporting wit’ the puppies?
— Omar, Season Four
Over its five seasons, The Wire, among other things, delineated the terms of ghetto life in Baltimore, showing us in dramatic detail a self-contained sector of West Baltimore, a world defined by the term “hyper-segregation,” which references class as well as race.
In such a self-contained space, overall wealth tends to be finite: if someone is getting more, then someone else is getting less. And in that world of restricted space and opportunity, the drug trade stands at the center of economic activity, since only illicit commerce can thrive in a place that is so geographically isolated. This limit of commodity and geographic market sets up a fierce and violent competition for both status and wealth. As even Stringer Bell learns, it’s not just about product, it’s also about corners, since even a superior product cannot find its market if it has no access to those who would buy it. In such a vision of a specific and constrained environment, it is no surprise that eventually the emphasis of the show moves toward a neo-Social Darwininism through its exploration of the contours of human ecology within the spaces of West Baltimore.
This focus takes many forms. In the picturesque quote above, Omar explains how he feels about “finding” a bag of heroin when he’s out looking for Honey Nut Cheerios. He expresses disappointment at the ease of his acquisition, elaborating further, “It’s not what you take, but who you take it from.” As one who has dedicated his life to feeding off of those who feed off others, Omar’s assertion shows his attention to the “food chain:” he seeks to feed at its highest point.
Editor’s Note: Professor Myrna Santiago talks about her undergraduate history seminar on the cocaine-fueled drug war, the detailed syllabus of which appeared yesterday.
Three objectives drove the development of a course on the drug trade in Latin America. The first was to revise a course on U.S.-Latin American relations that was on the books and I had never taught. I wanted to change the class from a standard diplomatic history to something broader. Saint Mary’s College has only 2500 undergraduates and all Latin American history courses are upper division without pre-requisites, so I design courses that will intrigue students not otherwise interested in either history or Latin America. Given that the “war on drugs” takes so much air time, I figured a class that looked at U.S.-Latin American relations through the lens of the drug trade would catch students’ attention and still cover the traditional topics covered in such a class. This resulted in 25 student class that was heavily discussion based, with mini-lectures as necessary.
The second objective was, frankly, to learn about the topic myself. News coverage by its nature tends toward snapshots of whatever happens on a given day. There is no room for context or analysis, much less for history, in the daily media, so I was quite frustrated by what I did not know and sought to educate myself. And, as all teachers know, there is no better crash course on a topic than having to teach it!
The third objective was to speak to students’ experience. There is no young person in the United States today who does not have some personal experience with drugs. Illegal substances are tightly woven into the fabric of American society today, so no one escapes their influence or impact. Yet, what we know about illegal drugs generally comes from fiction. For young people, in particular, the source is the movies. The number of films about drugs or with drugs in them grows every year. Focused on telling a good story, however, the context in most films is limited to the immediate environment surrounding the main characters. The center of the genre is the individual; the story is personal. There are assumptions about history and socio-economic and political structures but they are left unexamined.
Thus, the course set out to investigate as many aspects of the drug trade as possible in historical context.