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A Report from the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today contributing editor Bob Beach reports on several drug-related panels at this year’s annual meeting of the AHA, which took place in New York on January 2-5, 2015.

This year, the American Historical Society’s annual meeting was held in Times Square in New York City. Among the 1,500 presenters, a refreshing batch of young drug and alcohol historians (and some veterans) presented their research on addiction, addiction treatment, and the long drug war.

Calling all drug and alcohol historians

Calling all drug and alcohol historians

The historical significance of this time and place was not lost on your correspondent in his first foray into the world of the AHA annual meeting. Eric Schneider reminded us on the first day of the conference that the 100 year anniversary of the Harrison Act was coming into force. The law launched the national drug war in the United States and was, in many ways, on the minds of all of “our” presenters at the conference.

The centennial of Harrison also occurred amid the recent “virtual work stoppage” by the NYPD in response to criticism by New York mayor Bill de Blasio. Police across the nation have been under scrutiny by citizens and DeBlasio after a series of high profile incidents, most notably the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in July. While some are decrying this move by the NYPD, those interested in the enforcement implications of the drug war might stop and take notice, as it is precisely those tactics developed in the war on drugs that have all but disappeared on the streets of New York. With the police now making arrests “only when they have to,” perhaps this protest is one thing that can expose the folly of poorly enforced drug laws.

But then again, maybe not. With the possible exception of marijuana, Americans are still fearful of the scourge of drug abuse and addiction and the voices of these residents are more powerful than many have perhaps realized. This was in evidence at the first ADHS panel of the conference. Chris Hays, Marsha Barrett and Points contributing editor Michael Durfee presented papers that examined the interplay between local and national anti-drug movements after the 1960s. According to the presenters, local residents and community organizations were very vocal supporters of anti-drug policies especially those who were most directly impacted by drugs, drug addiction and crime in general.

During the 1960s community groups, civil rights leaders, and the urban working-class pushed for a combination of treatment and enforcement to eliminate the drug problem and restore order in their neighborhoods, and each presenter discussed different strategies employed by these groups during that period. For state enforcement agencies and local and national politicians who responded to these demands, the call for treatment was ignored and the solution of imprisonment was embraced. Liberal and conservative alike, public officials capitalized on the the call for strict enforcement from the streets, assuring citizens besieged by the drug trade that with their policies, urban residents would finally be able to take back their streets.

The Wire's incisive commentary on political street space.

The Wire’s incisive commentary on political street space.

The use of streets, and urban spaces more generally, holds a great deal of interest for drug and alcohol historians. The panel “Hustle and Show: Labor, Power, and Space on the Streets,” demonstrated the role of urban space in ways useful to Points readers. Recent contributor Amund Tallaksen discussed the racial integration of the New Orleans Police Department after World War II. He argued that integration was a response to enforcement priorities as the heroin trade shifted from mafia to black organized crime outfits. This restructuring of street space in the context of policing led both to opportunities for African-American police officers while simultaneously allowing the NOPD to infiltrate the new heroin networks in a Jim Crow city.

The two other papers, while not drug or alcohol related, provided some useful frameworks for the work that we do. Jessica Klanderud talked about the negotiation of street use in African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh by prostitutes and jitney drivers, and Elaine Parsons spoke on the role of the media in countering claims to public space by former slaves in the Reconstruction-era south. These three papers highlighted the role of contested space and made strong arguments for thinking of urban areas as both political and intellectual arenas in addition to physical and social spaces.

Bolstering the notion of intellectual space was the aptly titled panel, “How the Elephant Got Stuck in the Room: New Histories of the Long War on Drugs.” The presenters, Sarah Siff, Aaron Brown, and Points managing editor Claire Clark, discussed the multi-faceted institutional actors and the complex multi-layered policy debates in the war on drugs. Clark argued that the treatment model in prisons was surprisingly resilient during the 1980s, but created gaps in treatment options beyond prison walls. Siff discussed the emergence of the exclusionary rule in California courts during William Parker‘s tenure as LAPD chief. Brown highlighted the interplay of domestic and foreign politics through Nixon’s famed “Operation Intercept.”

The connecting theme of these three very different papers was their critical and nuanced approaches to evaluating the drug war. Brown’s argument suggested that Nixon’s approach toward Mexican smuggling was not exclusively tied to drugs, but to the refinement of his public image. And Siff and Clark both argued that while there indeed have not been many positive aspects of the drug war, if you look hard enough, there were places for the widespread assertion of fourth amendment rights and for the right of treatment in prison. Perhaps these stories can shed light on ways to continue to break down the seeming monolith of the war itself, to finally get the elephant unstuck and out of the room. As odd as it sounds, the NYPD protest might be a relevant example for a future historian to explore.

These great panels were complemented with a panel on an often overlooked drug, tobacco. Early in the morning on Saturday, a group of historians, Stephen Sanfilippo, Thomas Balcerski, and ADHS President Scott Martin, presented a collection of papers that, according to commentator David Courtwright, filled in an important gap in the historiography of tobacco. Sanfilippo regaled the audience with songs of the sea in his fascinating paper on the role of tobacco in maritime culture, arguing that tobacco was a central component to life on the high seas. Balcerski argued that before the American Civil War, tobacco was equally important to the political elite in Washington D.C. These two papers emphasized the importance of tobacco rituals and the social and political uses of those rituals in the context of their respective topics. Martin argued that tobacco, perhaps more thoroughly so than alcohol, was a key target for temperance reformers in the nineteenth century and must not be forgotten as an important substance for the emergence of addiction language in the twentieth.

My first experience of the annual meeting was excellent. It was exciting to see historians expanding on the historiography of drugs and alcohol studies in a number of different directions. I thoroughly enjoyed the above panels and look forward to the next annual meeting in Atlanta. In the meantime, I will be contributing some of my own thoughts on pushing the historiographical envelope on cannabis starting next week.



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