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A Dispatch from Buffalo: Session H1 – Drugs and the City

Updated: Aug 30

As readers of this blog know, many of us recently convened in Buffalo for the 6th Biennial Meeting of the Alcohol and Drug History Society. Overall the conference was a great event, and I enjoyed myself tremendously – thanks to organizer David Herzberg for the all work and love that obviously went into it. One of the many fascinating sessions at the conference was one on “Drugs and the City,” which consisted of three presenters speaking about how race, politics, and geography are intertwined with both patterns of consumption and efforts at regulation and treatment. The editors of this blog asked me to write a brief review of the session, which I present below.

The first paper was given by  Richard Del Rio, a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. Del Rio presented a very interesting overview of the history of drug control in early 20th century Chicago, tracing the origins of the illicit drug market, early regulatory efforts, and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of law enforcement. The paper was quite ambitious in its approach, seeking to explain the origins of the modern drug war as a function of the transition to corporate capitalism – in particular, Del Rio drew on Martin Sklar’s truly essential book The Corporate Reconstruction of Capitalism, 1890-1916 to argue that the erosion of craft identity among pharmacests, among other factors, led to increasing competition and the spread of consumption in disapproved of forms; this in turn drove local regulations and heightened police surveillance, violence, and corruption – which, in turn, drove efforts at police reform and the increasing bureacratization of law enforcement. I had some theoretical disagreements with Del Rio’s approach, but this is an important effort and the author is clearly onto something. We need more work on the early history of drug reguation that explicitly draws connections between structural changes in the economy, the origins and meanings of the illicit market, and the emergence of regulatory efforts. I’m excited by this project, and I look forward to seeing where Del Rio goes with it.

The second paper was given by Paul Draus, a sociologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Draus provided an overview of his NIDA funded ethnographic study of sex workers in Detroit. Draus’s work is motivated by a question that I think we would all do well to keep in mind: “How does the ecology of drug use in specific [geographic] zones correlate and articulate with social and moral geography, including mainstream markets, police and regulatory regimes, and cultural norms such as race, class, and gender.” Spatial analysis is something that historians in general – and historians of drugs in particular – would benefit from paying more attention to; for an exemplary model of how to incorporate spatial analysis into historical scholarship on drug use, I’d suggest taking a look at Eric C. Schneider’s book: Smack: Heroin and the American City (2008). It was great to have this type of work presented at the conference – and, I think, it should push those of us who identify primarily as historians to reach out to others working in different fields. Historians have a lot to learn from different methodological approaches.

Jessica Kovler, the third scheduled speaker, was unable to attend the conference and present her paper. Fortunately for us, Samuel Roberts of Columbia agreed to present some of his recent work on methadone maintenance in New York City instead. Roberts is the author of Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation (2009), which is a first-rate study of the political economy of health, race, and tuberculosis control up through the mid-twentieth century. Roberts is concerned with the way that public health efforts are situated in specific and local racial, economic, and political contexts, and he brought this focus to the effort to establish methadone maintenance in New York City. Roberts presented a highly sophisticated analysis of what he calls “political pharmacology” – the situated nature of drug use, and treatment efforts, in local contexts. Importantly, this approach shifts the framework that historians of addiction have often taken on the topic away from the scientific origins of methadone treatment and toward an analysis of the social, racial, economic, and political dynamics that have gone into shaping what Caroline Acker has called the various “lives” of the drug. As Roberts notes, “we don’t need an origin story for methadone if we want to talk about political pharmacology.”

In sum, this was a very interesting panel and one that offered the audience plenty of food for thought. Taken together, the papers offered important insights about how to approach the history of drug use, regulation, and treatment from a local, situated perspective – one that takes seriously the interwoven dynamics of geography, political economy, and categories such as race, class, and gender. I very much appreciated the willingness of the panelists to share their work with us.


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