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Points Interview: Detectives, Detectors, and Drug Sniffers

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: This is the first Points interview with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 35, no. 1; Spring 2021), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Justin Hubbard, who holds a PhD in the history of medicine from Vanderbilt University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and vicious pug. You can see his article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article or any other article from SHAD’s history.

Article Abstract

The popularity of drug-sniffing dogs since the 1970s rests on the contributions of a dying technological movement—counterinsurgency science. A comparison of two drug-sniffing dog programs—the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’s detective dog of the 1940s and 1950s, and the Department of Defense’s detector dog of the 1960s and 1970s—documents how federal agents failed to institutionalize drug-sniffing dogs, while Department of Defense researchers succeeded. The disparate outcomes of the two programs illustrate, first, the contingent institutional factors involved in adopting dogs for drug control, and second, the fragile institutional relationships supporting counterinsurgency science and new drug-control strategies after the Vietnam War.

Tell readers a little about yourself

I’m an independent scholar, trained as a medical historian, living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The large chunk of my research has examined the social conditions of health and illness, the political economy of medical technologies, and health-maintenance and knowledge production as problems of governance. I’m currently transitioning from academic history to a career in strategic labor research. In the meantime, I volunteer at Philadelphia’s famous medical history museum, The Mütter, where I’ve created a learning module for some 600 human brain slices cast in plastic.

SHAD Interview Hubbard

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

I started my PhD program intending to write about health promotion and economic modernization in the urban South—an extension of my MA work. But, while I was preparing my prospectus, I encountered a seemingly perplexing detox program based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, called Operation Awareness (see Image 1). I found myself stuck trying to understand how the Army’s largest Post came to host an experimental, residential treatment unit for heroin users, and how it became the first and, for a considerable time, the only place in North Carolina where one could access legal methadone therapy.

Operation Awareness Hubbard Interview

Image 1: The text states, “The Army copes with drug addiction in ‘Operation Awareness.’ A white-coated sergeant supervises a simulated heroin injection by two drug patients.” Source: Los Angeles Times, Sep. 28, 1971, p. C7.

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

Why do we use dogs to search for drugs? The obvious answer is that dogs are equipped with a superior sense of smell that outperforms the best manmade inventions. An historical answer turns this common sense on its head.

My article addresses the historical problem of detector dogs by tracing the fates of two drug-detector dog programs, one by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and the other by the US Army’s Limited Warfare Laboratory (LWL). The FBN program fizzled out shortly after its creation, while the LWL program cemented the use of dogs in drug detection. These disparate experiences illustrate two points. First, the institutionalization of dog acquisition, training, and testing determined the extent to which supporters believed that dogs could realistically identify drugs by smell. Second, military and academic researchers promoted animal research as one of the most promising avenues for realizing the civilian benefits of collaborative war research.

These findings offer a surprising answer to the question of why we use dogs for drug detection. Dogs were drafted into the War on Drugs because they advanced the objectives of the post-World War II military-academic research system.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

This essay came from my dissertation concerning how the US military contributed to narcotics enforcement during the Vietnam War-era. I had the opportunity to write about novel technological solutions to drug abuse created and refined in the US military—including urine drug testing, electronic information hoppers, sniffer dogs (see Image 2), and, as I mentioned, Operation Awareness.

My more recent work has picked up the other side of the “drug question;” moving from prohibition to promotion. Specifically, I’ve been writing about state cannabis markets and 1) securities trading since the Great Recession, 2) the political alignment of private equity firms, university research centers, tech startups, and the Democratic Party, and 3) worker-focused alternatives to business ownership and social equity schemes.

Leatherneck Hubbard Interview

“Joint-Smoker’s Nemesis” article about US military drug-sniffing drugs from Leatherneck: The Magazine of the Marines, March 1972, p. 5.

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

I have two feelings about this. The first is that, for better and worse, drug history hosts two competing impulse—on the one hand documenting how narcotics enforcement reinforced identity-linked oppression and exclusion and on the other hand showing how drug enforcement contributed to novel imperatives of governance. The second feeling is that the former will dominate in reaction to recent attention on police violence and mass incarceration and the politico-academic fixation on disparities.

My description is, admittedly, an all too simple binary—should we emphasize how the state monopolizes violence against subject populations or how the state promotes health to satisfy countless other projects? The history of drugs is not that cut and dry, but this is why I talk in my article about how “the governing that dog work did was not just about terrorizing. It was also world-building in its aspirations.”

Nonetheless, I think anthropologists William Garriott and Angela Garcia have mined interesting problems involving, for instance, the invention of state cannabis markets (Garriott) and the commodification of drug treatment (Garcia), and neoliberal modes of governance, jointly.

Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

EP Thompson. I’m ready for some Moral Gastronomy, but definitely not English food.


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