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Points Interview: Christopher Hallam

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Editor’s Note: Christopher Hallam is an independent researcher working in academia and civil society organisations, and a Research Associate at the Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University. He is also the author of ‘White Drug Cultures and Regulation in London, 1916-1960‘ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). In this ‘Points’ interview we ask him about his book and then his broader research interests in the history and culture of illicit drugs and the regimes that have sought to control them.

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.

Depending on the context, I usually introduce myself as either a marginal academic or an independent researcher. Either way, I possess a remarkable skill for conducting research that no-one is willing to fund. By discipline, I am a historian who emerged, intellectually speaking, out of the cultural studies debates of the late twentieth century. I like to use a mix of conceptual tools drawn from heterogeneous theoretical frameworks, and I study drugs primarily as cultural substances – symbolic things that people consume, talk about, try to control, fear and celebrate.

What got you interested in the history of alcohol, pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals?

I have personal experience of ‘addiction.’ I was a heroin smoker when ‘chasing the dragon’ arrived in the UK in the 1980s. I had been interested in drugs since I was a kid, when my father introduced me to Thomas de Quincey (not personally). I understood heroin use as a form of instinctive rebellion against Thatcherite neoliberalism. It wasn’t, but it did make it much more tolerable. Later, I did a degree in sociology, in which I was taught cultural studies by the wonderful Angela McRobbie. Reading Foucault and others, I began to see that everything was made of history, including drugs. We, all of us, walk in a ghosted landscape.

What motivated you to write this book specifically?

I am interested in youth cultures, and in what have been called the ‘countercultures of modernity,’ which include a broad array of movements from psychoanalysis to bohemia to hippies. During archival wanderings, I came across a batch of police and Home Office files on Brenda Dean Paul, who was the notorious/famous ‘society addict’ in late 1920s and 1930s London. I got these files opened under FOI legislation and saw immediately that they were significant. I approached the great Virginia Berridge, and soon I did a PhD under her supervision. This book was born of that research, though it explores considerably beyond Brenda Dean Paul and her set.

Explain your book in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

I’m not much of drinker, so I’m addressing Sam, my barista:

Hey Sam. During the First World War, which in many ways witnessed the birth of the ironic modern sensibility, drugs arrived in London. Marek Kohn captured this moment brilliantly – here, I’ll loan you his book. My own humble effort takes up the story where he left off, at the close of 1920s and the 1930s, when smart bohemia crystallised out of the travails of Britain’s aristocracy. Nightclubs and the modern party scene were born in that period, and the smart bohemians and those living the life of the West End entertainment district formed small drug cultures. Drugs and alcohol were part of a shared world of pleasures that the state was newly attempting to regulate.

Since the last decades of the Victorian era, dependence on drugs was viewed increasingly as a medical issue. Around the 1920s, a pattern of treatment known as the British System (a term which sprang from US liberal critiques of their own country’s harsh drug control regime) was set up. It enabled those dependent on heroin, morphine and cocaine to be prescribed their drug of choice by their doctor. The smart bohemian subculture relied on doctors – known by the authorities as ‘script doctors’ – for their drugs. My book looks into the complex dance that took place between these drug users and those that sought to stop them during a fifty-year period in London.

Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?

Yes. Too many to discuss them all. Here are a couple of points (!): First, the British System was massively contested within Britain. Many of those who featured in the era’s headlines for their drugs-related court appearances were actually in receipt of drugs from their doctors. But the British System had an emphasis on keeping doses minimal. Many consumers resorted to consulting more than one doctor, which was illegal, or arranged extra supplies to be sent by mail from the illicit market in Paris. The Home Office and the Metropolitan Police ran an ongoing campaign against doctors that they felt prescribed too much.

The second thing I would mention is that drug use was tightly bound up with other aspects of what I refer to as ‘social modernism’ (that is, the lifestyle practices that came to Britain along with modernism in the arts and literature). A lot of the prominent users were women, often divorced and not under the control of fathers; many were lesbian or bisexual, frequented jazz nightclubs, and mixed with racial and social subalterns. Drugs had only just become illegal and were understood differently: heroin was, for example, taken when attending parties and concerts and was not associated with our contemporary picture of the socially isolated addict.

Finally, I must add that most of the opposition to the British System was intimately linked with the eugenics movement, which was what Foucault called a ‘biopolitics.’ Eugenicists wanted drug users, along with the gay (who they termed ‘perverts’) pre-emptively confined. This movement peaked in the 1930s and was prominent not just in Nazi Germany but in the UK and the US.

What do you think is the most important takeaway from your book?

I hope that the book demonstrates some of the ways in which drugs discourse is not solely, or even primarily, concerned with drugs, i.e., with pharmacological psychoactive materials. Rather, drugs provide ways of talking about ‘race’ and ethnicity, social class, gender, youth and national identity – some of the big questions of modernity – and are therefore irredeemably political in content. They also cross disciplinary boundaries in ways that imitate their concrete existence. Drugs are more symbolic than they are pharmaceutical.

Has this research led on to your next endeavour – what else are you working on?

I am working on a number of related projects which in many ways provide a continuation of this research. I’ll mention a couple.

Firstly, I am writing a paper along the lines of: ‘The British System- a Reconsideration.’ This will analyse the regime of that name in terms outside the previous discussion, which has tended to concentrate on the relative merits or otherwise of the British and US approaches to drug control and treatment. It will concentrate more on its practical workings and the experiences of those involved.

I am also anticipating the publication later this year of a chapter in Prof. Carla Rossi’s latest edited collection, a chapter which examines Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) from a social and historical perspective.

Another extension of the research involves a project I’d like to get going to explore the transnational European opium networks of the 1920s and 30s. A group of migrant Chinese were based in London, Antwerp, Hamburg and several other European cities, dealing opium in both their adopted home countries and America. This research will trace global linkages and issues of migration, as well as relationships with the League of Nations control regime and cross-border control structures. But it requires a trans-European network of researchers, and I don’t have the resources at this point to develop it.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

I’m not really one for predicting. That said, I hope and expect to see a continuation of the decoupling of knowledge-disciplines, including history, from the assumptions of the repressive drug control regime, the latter having become much more fragile in recent years.

The second major trend I imagine is another that is already clearly underway, which is the globalisation of the field. However, I would anticipate that rather than a proliferation of grand scale world drug narratives, will we see the increasing numbers of detailed local histories and works which elaborate and articulate their interconnectivity.

Finally, I hope that the growth of digital resources will result in more ‘bottom-up’ histories, resulting in a democratisation of the field. This last will depend, of course, on the survival of democracy more broadly, something that I no longer believe is a given.


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