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What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part IV: Scott Taylor

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, “What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. Scott Taylor, associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, contributed the fourth installment. Be sure to check out part III by William Rorabaugh

What do I wish people knew about the history of drugs?

As the early modernist on this panel, the main point I want to make today is that the patterns of our thinking and behavior around drugs and alcohol run deep – what we see today we also saw 200 and 400 years ago. Briefly, I’d like to show you what the early modern history of drugs can tell us about two trends today: marijuana legalization and the new opiate epidemic.

First of all, we have always judged drugs by who uses them (or who we imagine uses them) as much as any objective chemical or biological effects of the drugs. The eighteenth-century moral panic surrounding the “Gin Craze” was as much about attitudes toward the urban poor in the explosive growth of London as the effects of this newly marketable distilled spirit. American attitudes toward opium in the nineteenth century were wrapped up in the racist fear of the “Yellow Peril.” Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is how quickly public attitudes toward cocaine changed as it went to the clean, supposedly non-addictive powder version used in Manhattan and Hollywood in the 1970’s to the crack cocaine inner city epidemic of the 1980’s.

For cannabis, notice how marijuana legalization has depended on creating sympathetic would-be pot users: AIDS and cancer patients. Originally, in the 1970’s, the disease whose sufferers would be alleviated by cannabis was glaucoma. Now ordinary suburban white moms and dads are those whom we imagine smoke pot, which is so different from the black users in mid-20th-century jazz clubs during the “Reefer Madness” era. For opiates, I suspect that one reason we are not yet feeling a moral panic about the high levels of usage is that it has spread to the white working class and indeed the middle classes. The thinking in our culture is that anyone can go from a prescription to an addiction, even high-functioning middle class people, so it’s not the addicts’ fault. The sympathy towards the victims of the new opiate crisis is especially tied to the new attention that the media has focused on the white working class and their newly rising mortality rates, as we all try to figure out how Donald Trump became our president.

This focus on the moral character of the users obscures larger forces at play: for opiates, the role of pharmaceutical companies & “pill-mill” physicians and pharmacists are ignored. The Charleston Gazette-Mail has recently reported that out-of-state drug companies shipped 9 million hydrocodone pills in 2-year-period to Kermit, WV, population 392.1 And while we have all been reading JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy for clues to why the working class is doing so poorly and turning to Trump, in six years, West Virginia as a whole received 780 million hydrocodone & oxycodone pills. The last point I would like to make about both marijuana and opiates is that if in the future the users change, or are thought to change, our attitudes towards these drugs will, too.

My second general point is that new rituals, ceremonies, social patterns, and physical sites have always coalesced around the emergence of new drugs. We are probably most familiar with coffeehouses and their role in the development of the Habermasian public sphere, and of course tea-time as a female-directed family social gathering. But crack houses are also a site of a new sociability that grew up around a new drug, and so too are smokers who huddle in the cold around the doors to their offices as they take their cigarette breaks. Communities and rituals can even coalesce around the abstention from drugs – think of Alcoholics Anonymous, with their highly focused communities and rituals like rotating speakers, “My name is …,,” making the coffee, and so on.

As cannabis becomes legal, how will its use change? How will social rituals and physical sites evolve to accommodate it? Travel journalist Alan Feuer recently had a story in the New York Times on marijuana tourism. Journeying to Denver on a guided trip, he found his fellow-tourists toking up on the bus from airport; he noted that this doesn’t happen on the bus when wine tourists arrive in Napa Valley.2 But there are no social rules yet for legal marijuana. What social norms will emerge as marijuana comes out of the shadows of illegality? Do you smoke pot before or after dinner, or during? Can you smoke weed while taking care of your kids? What if someone else’s kids are over at your house? Likewise, the contemporary opiate crisis is changing our behavior. Photojournalist Chris Arnade has declared in the Guardian that McDonald’s has become the new community centers for heroin-ridden city neighborhoods; a place where users (and others, including the poor and the elderly) can come in, use the bathroom, get free wi-fi, visit with friends, and take a break for a while.3 On a larger scale, the Washington Post has as series entitled, “Unnatural Causes: Sick & Dying in Small Town America,” and one features the surge in kids being raised by grandparents; opiates are now changing the basic family structure for thousands of families.4

In conclusion, now and for hundreds of years previously, drug and alcohol use has always been intertwined with the most fundamental, intimate parts of our lives: race, class, and gender, our families, our social networks, and our identities. Drugs and alcohol help make us who we are.

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