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Parallel to the Grain? Finding Recreational Users in the Archives

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

For cultural historians looking into the history of drugs, one of the more frustrating obstacles to our work comes from trying to find “the people,” those who used the drugs we are studying. In studies of more recent times, scholars are able to locate individuals, interviewing them about their experiences. But for someone who studies the history of cannabis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the archives are understandably lacking in user voices. In working through this problem, I’ve begun to problematize our conception of drug user. I’d like to share my thoughts and to perhaps get a discussion going in the comments section below.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

Who uses drugs? A simple Google search of “drug users” yields a sponsored link for Unity Recovery Center, a rehab chain based in Florida. The next four results link to an assortment of informational websites on drug abuse and addiction. Finally, after the image results that, not surprisingly, feature “the faces of meth,” our search takes us to the Wikipedia article “Drug User” which defines the user as “a person who uses drugs either legally or illegally. A drug user may or may not also be a drug abuser, and may or may not have one or more drug addictions.”

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that drug users are only those folks that smoke, sniff, ingest, shoot, or otherwise consume a substance into their bodies. This is confirmed by the image that accompanies the article.

But this definition seems inadequate. Indeed, the top five results from Google seem to confirm this. Unity Recovery Center is using the addictive properties of drugs to craft recovery and rehabilitation programs, and to make some money. The informational websites are products of various professionals and freelancers using drugs to share their knowledge about drug abuse and addiction with those suffering directly or indirectly from the problem.

This begs the question, would pushing “user” beyond our basic, knee-jerk conception of the term (as a legal or illegal imbiber) lead to unique and interesting pathways to a better understanding about how drugs are used, and more importantly, does it offer possibilities to recover the lost voices of those recreational users long hidden from the historian’s gaze?

To be sure, I am not the first to ask this question. Claire Clark has argued here, and Brian Hererra here, that drug abuse and addiction has become a boon to the rehabilitation industry which depends on drug use, and abuse, for its existence. Studies on the drug war frequently examine how drugs are used by policy makers and media types to push their agenda. The social construction of problem drug users is not new and may find theoretical origins in Philip Jenkins’s 1994 Using Murder, which examines how “claims makers” used the phenomenon of serial murder following the Dahmer case, to push various social, economic, and political interests.

Still, the question of “the people” is still obscured by this focus on the rehab industry, policy, and on claims makers. To recast these arguments to help us find, say, a recreational cannabis smoker in the nineteenth century, I argue that it is necessary to reconceptualize what it means to use the substance and to find parallels between the experience of recreational users and others who cultivate, study, and write about the drug. Finding these parallels offer historians possible windows into the previously obscured voices of those (perhaps less legitimate) cultivators, students and authors of cannabis.

For example, we can reasonably surmise that folks who used cannabis in the nineteenth century or even in the 1930s, obtained their drug from a trafficking network that began with an individual pulling a plant out of the ground. We also know that whether we are talking about industrial hemp or medicinal cannabis, that legitimate channels existed that also began with an individual pulling a plant out of the ground. Where do these two networks meet? How, and at what point, do agricultural techniques of legitimate hemp farmers in Kentucky bleed into the agricultural techniques of recreational user networks? And how can developments in botany in the twentieth century transform the cultivation of illicit cannabis during the same period?

He's hoping no one else figures out how to do this.

He’s hoping no one else figures out how to do this.

Adam Rathge has recently posted on the self-experimentation of pharmacists and physicians with cannabis drugs in the nineteenth century. He argues that “proving” new drugs, through self-experimentation, yielded important insights into promising possible applications and potential hazardous side-effects of unknown substances, and that proving drugs like cannabis was done with the purpose of advancing science. But what can these accounts tell us about those who did not experiment with cannabis to advance science, but instead to enhance a night out with friends? Were recreational users not also experimenters? How did they understand their use and express their experiences? How did these folks “write” about their use and through which sorts of media? (Feel free to add your ideas and comment below.)

This is not to say that any methodological approach that emerges from these questions will yield more productive results in a search of the history of recreational cannabis use than have already been found in archives. But the larger significance of these questions may provide impetus for historians to consider them in their work. We very often approach the hidden voices of groups that don’t leave written records as outsiders, very consciously “reading against the grain” to answer difficult historical problems. But to me, as productive and useful as this methodology is, I think it only exacerbates the distance between the historian and his/her subject. To maintain that important element of connection in historical research, we might consider adding new types of evidence, evidence that we can read “with the grain” or indeed, parallel to it. We might find that it yields surprising results for social and cultural historians in their continued efforts to find “the people” in their work.

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