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Teaching Points: “Narcotic Hedonism: American Drug Use”

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note:  The fourth installation in our “Teaching Points” series is a bit of a trip, to say the least.  A “Student Forum” at Wesleyan University, “Narcotic Hedonism” is the brainchild of Robert Echeverria  and Siddhanth Issar, advanced undergraduates working under the guidance of Sociology Professor Jonathan Cutler.  They explain the rationale for the class and present the syllabus below; their commentary on the class will appear tomorrow. 

Only at Wesleyan

“Narcotic Hedonism: American Drug Use” is unlike the majority of academic courses on the subject of drugs. For starters, Sid & I are both currently senior undergraduates at Wesleyan University. Sid is a philosophy major with a strong interest in ethics. I am a sociology major with a focus on media and cultural studies. In our time at Wesleyan, we have led two academic seminars–“Pornocopia: Society & Pornography” and “Narcotic Hedonism: American Drug Use.” Unlike formal classes that are taught by Professors with PhDs, Wesleyan University allows for faculty to sponsor students to teach student forums. These student leaders must create their very own syllabus, detailing the subjects to be covered each week, the reading material for that week and any assignments that will be turned in, on a topic of their choice and have it meet the approval of both the chair of the desired department and the Dean of Academic Affairs. Both the student leaders and the students who enroll in the course are given one full academic credit in a pass/fail format. Needless to say, the process is long but rewarding. Wesleyan limits the class size at 15 plus the two student leaders. It allows for a safe discussion environment and encourages everyone to share his or her viewpoints. Sid & I have been fortunate to have amazing turnouts for both classes and have had the luxury to pick and choose a diverse group of 15 Wesleyan undergraduates ranging from freshmen to seniors in each.

The purpose of this student forum was to discuss the relationship between society and its simultaneous fascination and rejection of hedonistic drug use. Society has always frowned upon drug use and has held strong to the mantra of a drug free society. Our class aimed at investigating the feasibility of this goal and we dwelled into the ethics and pragmatism associated with this view. Historically speaking, mankind has never had a drug free society and has found various uses for drugs such as recreation, medicinal purposes, spiritual experiences and an enhanced perception of reality. However, with the rise of the Western world, western value and religion, perceptions regarding the use of mind-altering substances started to change drastically. Over the last century, movements such as the hippie revolution and the War on Drugs indicate a somewhat divided perception on the volatile topic of drug use. In American society, drug use is heavily tied to the criminal underworld but it is also glorified and accepted as something that comes with fame and fortune. Thus, throughout our course, we studied drug use from a historical and sociological perspective, gained a deeper understanding of why the perceived value of drugs have changed over time, discussed the philosophical question of whether or not we have a right to choose to partake in drug use, attempted to understand the sociological and historical context of drug policies and the surrounding social movements, and tried to attain a full understanding of addiction and the cultures surrounding specific drugs. Below is the syllabus for the course.

1. Intro Class From Duster, The Legislation of Morality •     “Deviance and the Reaction of Society” From Shiner, Drug Use & Social Change •     “Social Dimensions of drug use” 53-67 From Bancroft, Drugs, Intoxication & Society •     “Drugs in a culture of intoxication” 173-195 From Oppenheimer, Confronting Drug Policy  •     “Social Demography of Drug Use” 53-67

Agent Orange/Purple Haze

2. History Class From Kuzmarov, Myth of the Addicted Army • “Nixon’s War on Drugs” 101-121 • “The crackdown: the Reagan revolution” 166-189 • “Creating the myth of the Nam junkie” 37-56 From Louria, The Drug Scene •     “Turning on & The Hippies” 165-177 From Burnham, Bad Habits •     “The turning point: repealing prohibition” 23-50

3. Policy Class From Inciardi & McElrath, The American Drug Scene: An Anthology •      “Against the legalization of drugs” 336-345 From Greiff, Drugs & The Limits of Liberalism •      “Liberalism, inalienability, and the rights of drug use” 110-133 From Bollinger, De-Americanizing Drug Policy •      “Lessons from alcohol policy for drug policy” 15-49 From Lazear & Krauss, Search for Alternatives •      “The Wrong Question: Critical Notes on the Decriminalization Debate” 3-33

4. Addiction Class From Acker, Creating The American Junkie •      “The Addict in the Social Body” 184-212 From Greiff, Drugs & The Limits of Liberalism •     “Rationality & addiction” 25-46 •     “The irrationality of addiction-and does it matter?” 46-61 From Shiner, Drug Use & Social Change •     “Drug Use As A Lifestyle” 108-120 •     “Addiction in the First Person” 44-65

5. Youth & Drugs Class From Scarpitti & Datesman, Drugs and the Youth Culture •     “The Hard Drug Scene” 59-81 From Mohamed & Fritsvold, Dorm Room Dealers •     “Why Rich Kids Sell Street Drugs” 41-63 •     “No Dreams Deferred” 169-185 From Morrow & Wilson, Drugs In American Life •     “Drugs & The Youth Sub-Culture” 159-178

6. Alcohol/ Nicotine Class From Goode, Between Politics & Reason •     “Alcohol & Tobacco: The Real Dangerous Drugs” 135-151 From Tracy & Acker, Altering American Consciousness •     “From nicotine to nicotrol: addiction, cigarettes & American culture” 383-403 From Parker & Aldridge, Illegal Leisure •     “Alcohol: Our Favorite Drug” 50-82

7. Hallucinogens Class From Henderson & Glass, LSD: Still With Us After All These Years •     “What is a trip- and why take one?” 9-37 From Harner, Hallucinogens & Shamanism •     “The Mushrooms of Language” 86-123 From Zaehner, Zen & Mysticism •     “LSD & Zen” 112-136

8. Coca & Its Derivatives Class From Waldorf & Murphy, Cocaine Changes •     “Getting into Coke: Initiation & Styles of Use” 17-41 •     “The Call of the pipe: crack use & Freebasing” 103-140 •     “Coke & Culture” 263-283

9. Opium & Its Derivatives Class

Mike Ballard, "Chasing the Dragon," Digital Collage (

From Inciardi & McElrath, The American Drug Scene: An Anthology • “Becoming a Heroin Addict” 111-121 • “Chasing the Dragon” 144-147 • “Non-addictive opiate use” 147-159 From Courtwright, Dark Paradise • “The transformation of the opiate addict” 110-145

10. Marijuana Class From Goode, The Marijuana Smokers •     “A Profile of the Marijuana Smoker” 27-50 •     “The Smoker’s View of Marijuana” 69-94 From Becker, Outsiders •     “Becoming a Marijuana User” 41-59 From Goode, Marijuana •     “Marijuana Use & The Social Context” 25-43

11. Other Drugs Class From Inciardi & McElrath, The American Drug Scene: An Anthology •     “Ethnographic Notes on Ecstasy Use Among Professionals” 189-194 •     “The Dusting of America: The image of PCP in the popular media” 204-214 From Deschin, The Teenager in a Drugged Society •     “The “Legal” Pusher” 61-74 From Louria, The Drug Scene •     “Glue/Gas-Up/Down” 46-62 From Cohen, The Drug Dilemma •     “The Sedatives” 83-91 •     “The “Head”” 105-115 From Grinspoon & Hedblom, The Speed Culture •     “The Contemporary Amphetamine Scene” 11-40

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