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American Drug History, The Box Set

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Over at the blog Mexican Opium, Mikelis Beitiks has began to assemble a “Wordtrack” on the history of American drug law–a kind of “greatest hits” collection of published work in the field. He has completed Disc 1 and Disc 2, and I’m fully confident that–given enough time on Beitiks’ part–he could assemble a nice box set of work, well in advance of the holiday shopping season. Readers of this blog may remember this collegial exchange I had with Beitiks regarding that history; his greatest hits list is highly personal–there’s no attempt here to do anything but reflect on work he found helpful or inspiring–but it makes for interesting reading. If it wasn’t such a personal list, it would be great fun to disagree with some of his choices, or his reading of those choices. But, in the event, I’ll simply say that there IS a great deal of now older work in the field that’s worthy of another look. I found it useful, recently, to go back and stop treating David Musto’s The American Disease as a reference volume (though surely it works well as such) and try and come to terms with its argument.

If I were Beitiks, I might consider first adding Alfred Lindesmith’s The Addict and the Law to my list. Now unfortunately well out of print, Lindesmith’s 1965 work is less well known, I think, than his work on opiate addiction (which IS still in print; his Opiate Addictions was first published in 1947, the re-published in 1968 as Addiction and Opiates, which was re-printed in paperback in 2008). That’s too bad. While his sociological theorizing on addiction has been pretty well demolished (see Darin Weinberg’s brilliant critical take, “Lindesmith on Addiction: A Critical History of a Classic Theory,” Sociological Theory 15 (1997), 150-161), his policy work remains fascinating. The Addict and the Law appeared at the tail end of what David Courtwright has called the “classic era” of narcotic control, and it is a detailed recounting of what drug control looked like during the decades (the 1930s to the 1960s) when Lindesmith functioned as one of the best-known academic critics of American drug law and policy. Back in 2000, David Patrick Keys and John F. Galliher published Confronting the Drug Control Establishment: Alfred Lindesmith as a Public Intellectual (SUNY Press, 2000), which examined the intersection of his scholarship with his commitments to drug law reform (and, of course, the heavy-handed response from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics). Their work is a useful adjunct to a review of Lindesmith’s work, but by all means start with the original, The Addict and the Law.

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