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What Students Write about Drug History

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

What is it that interests students about the history of drugs?  As it turns out, a wide variety of topics.  And not necessarily the ones I would have expected.  In this post I’m going to reflect on the experience of teaching a research course on the history of drugs.  The idea here is to start a conversation about how to teach the history of drugs, how to help students shape research questions, and what subject areas may be particularly accessible.

In spring 2010 I taught a required (for history majors) undergraduate research course—choosing as my theme, Drugs in the Modern World.  Students completed a series of readings, including David Courtwright’s Forces of Habit (2001) and David Musto, The American Disease (3rd ed., 1999 [1973]) and a series of articles on topics such as the US drug wars in Latin America, Probibition, drugs and colonialism, addiction and treatment.  In a course limited to fifteen, probably most students enrolled because it’s required and the time fit their schedule. But others had a particular interest.  One student brandished passionate conservative politics (although he was a bit unsure what that meant in terms of the history of drugs), another his participation in the student group advocating drug liberalization, and others seemed to have more of a non-academic interest in the subject.  Early in the course they had to choose research topics and begin developing a bibliography.  By the end of the semester those that survived had each completed a 20+ research paper based on original (or at least contemporary) sources.  Most of them came to understand that the big building called a library housed more than computers and a café.  In a trade off, I had to acknowledge that an ever-expanding body of material is available digitally.  The advent of Google books in particular makes it possible for students at regional universities like UTEP to explore a wide range of nineteenth and early twentieth century topics that previously would have been impossible.  Still, the many volumes on “drunkenness” in our library’s collection of the British Parliamentary Papers remain largely undisturbed.

So, what did my students decide to write about?  Although I tried (in a few cases successfully) to get students interested in international topics, predictably enough they mostly focused on the US (which I know little about).  I was fairly successful at steering students away from contemporary history.   Although the quality of papers certainly varied, each of the students raised important issues and almost all got excited about their projects.  And one advantage for the instructor in a class like this is the amount of learning required to assist students in their projects  (or is that a disadvantage?).   One student’s paper, on Prohibition in El Paso, won the prize as the best paper in our undergraduate research conference.

As you might expect, a number of students researched various aspects of regional history, including the rise of the Peyote Church, the development of stereotypes of Mexican migrants as marijuana users, and the history of “Operation Intercept” in El Paso when the border was effectively closed for a brief period in 1969.  That paper revealed the surprising docility of local opinion notwithstanding the substantial disruption of the binational El Paso-Cd. Juárez economy and community.  A comparison of press coverage of the marijuana issue in the 1930s in Los Angeles, Albuquerque and El Paso, facilitated by the availability of digitized, searchable texts, revealed some broad patterns, but also some very interesting local idiosyncrasies.  In general the coverage of marijuana was much less tied to a “Mexican threat” than has been sometimes asserted, while in El Paso the marijuana issue tended to be closely linked to efforts to control the illegal trade in liquor.  The paper on the introduction of prohibition in El Paso did an excellent job of revealing the ways that this issue intensified ethnic and class divisions and, once the entertainment industry heated up in Juárez, reshaped the relationship between El Paso and that city.

The other topics were all over the map:  one was on alcohol and Native Americans in the early 1800s, another on stereotypes of Irish drinkers in the nineteenth century, another on US opium policy in East Asia, and one of the best looked at US narcotics discourse in the context of League of Nations debates (the records of which we happen to have in microform).  More contemporary topics included two papers on drug use among the military during the Vietnam War with one student focusing on the rather stunning increase in amphetamine use; another looked at LSD in the media, and another on American women and valium.  My arch conservative abandoned his initial plan to study alcoholism in Congress and produced one of the best papers—a study of the 1974 Wilbur Mills scandal as a moment in which to observe changing public perceptions of  alcohol abuse, which culminated, in this paper in any case, with the establishment of the Betty Ford Clinic.

In closing I should note that this course took place in the midst of a local debate (that made its way onto CNN) about drug policy set off by an El Paso City Council vote asking the Federal Government to rethink US drug policy in view of its devastating consequences for the US Mexico Border.  In an atmosphere marked by a polarization between easy calls for legalization and  unfortunate demands for intensified interdiction, almost all of these students in their papers displayed, thanks to our readings and discussions, quite balanced, sophisticated and critical approaches to subjects that were in many cases complex and politically charged.


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