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Teaching Points: Surveying United States’ History of Drugs and Alcohol

Updated: Aug 29

This past semester, I taught a course called Altered States: Drugs and Alcohol in America at the University at Albany, SUNY. It was my third version of the course. I had the unique opportunity to design two courses from scratch during my first adjunct gig at Utica College in 2010 and 2011. In addition to the drug course, I also designed a survey-level course on sports in US history. Professionally, this trial-by-fire was enormously beneficial and intensely productive, but for better or for (far) worse, my initial test subjects had to suffer through some serious inexperience as I fumbled through course design, reading lists (painfully long ones…), and lectures. I had wanted to hit every major vein in the field (so to speak) and did it without adequate attention to the broader historical context.

So this spring, I decided to stick with the basics. Rather than point out how drug histories stick out of the general narrative of American history, I wanted to make an argument that the histories of a myriad of psychoactive substances can help us better understand some important trends in the history of the United States. Through my doctoral coursework and achievement of candidacy, I came to this section with a much firmer grasp of the historiographical arguments in the field.

I’d like to give a brief overview of the narrative of my lectures. Students have become somewhat lecture-averse, and in my other courses I have taken steps to eliminate lectures in favor of interactive presentations and discussions. (I am still working on flipping my class completely, but that is a subject for another day). In planning the course, I found my prior inattention to context a major failing.

Lacking a historical “textbook” that had provided the context in my other, increasingly flipped classrooms, I decided to use the lecture format to provide this content. The course was divided into four units, and each unit’s lectures were supplemented by a historical monograph and a group of primary sources. At the end of each unit, we spent two class sessions discussing the material for that unit.

The first unit was an introduction to the course. We started with a short discussion about how we understand “drugs” and how use of those drugs has different meanings to different people and across time and space. To illustrate this point, the first two lectures built upon arguments presented by David Courtwright in Forces of Habit.  The book served a dual purpose by introducing the wide swathe of “global” drug history and providing context for the whole course, as well as providing the context for lectures on early US history through the American Revolution. We examined the role of drug substances in the so-called Columbian Exchange, the birth and growth of European empires in the western hemisphere and, through the story of slaves, smugglers and drinkers, the birth of the United States in the late eighteenth century.


Tea Party or Drug Riot?

The second unit, “Labor, Gender, and Race” introduced the “big three” categories of analysis in historical scholarship and examined the origins of a specific white, middle-class ideology that emerged between the colonial period and the Civil War. We looked at this process through the interaction between the ideologies underpinning Henry Clay’s American System (and the start of the Industrial Revolution) and those of the religious, reformist and utopian movements during the same period. The last lecture looked at how these seemingly contrasting worldviews converged during the process of western empire-building and in the conflicts that led to civil war. The monograph for the unit (Diana Ahmad’s The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws) was a bit out-of-time, but still provided a useful way to incorporate ideas about class, race and gender to better understand the political, economic and cultural trends of the antebellum period, and to see how these conflicts continued well after the Civil War was over.


Class, race, and gender depicted in a San Fransico Opium Den in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, 1877.

Our discussion for this unit cemented an important theme that set the tone for the rest of the course. After coming to terms with the nuances of Ahmad’s argument, students came to realize that Americans’ attitude toward drugs has a lot more to do with the people using the drug, and less to do with the drug itself. As obvious as this is for readers of this forum, it was really a breakthrough for the class. This concept went a long way toward explaining many of the contradictions in both historical and contemporary drug debates. It also illustrated, in a tangible way, how class, race and gender function as categories of historical analysis.

This breakthrough proved particularly useful for the the third unit on the emergence of drug control regulations and prohibitions. For this reason, we did not start with the political history of drug control. To understand the nature of drug control, one must understand the supposed nature of the drugs’ users. To do this, the lectures examined disparate topics like the evolution of modern medicine and the growing use of psychoactive substances in practice during the last part of the nineteenth century. We also spent some time in the urban saloon with Royal Melendy’s 1900 article from the American Journal of Sociology, and expanded on the opium and cannabis cultures, the former introduced in Ahmad, the latter based on my own work on this topic.

To shift to control in this unit, the lectures and primary sources covered the evolution of addiction theory and treatment approaches in the nineteenth century, as well as the emergence of temperance ideology during the same period. These social/intellectual trends became policy initiatives in the twentieth century within the context of the Progressive Era. The unit on control was anchored by Michael Lerner’s Dry Manhattan. His argument about the culture war that underpinned the Prohibition debate further enhanced our discussions in this unit, helping us better understand temperance and Progressive reform. The middle class dry movement that pushed for Prohibition through the teens was contrasted with a new, sophisticated (and wet) urban consumer culture. Though the initial victory of Prohibition was relatively short-lived as middle class drinkers in New York (and elsewhere) overcame the stigma of drink and overturned the eighteenth amendment, the conflict between these two cultural worldviews continued.


The harbinger of the new sophisticated urban culture.

These debates encompass some of the major elements of the modern war on drugs, the topic of the final unit. In fact, you could make a convincing case that after World War II, the United States was simultaneously the largest consumer of psychoactive drugs in the world and the most powerful global crusader for strong international drug regulations. The arguments introduced in Courtwright, Ahmad and Lerner, as discussed above, go a long way toward explaining the central paradox of this assumption.

But to drive the point home, the last unit relied on David Herzberg’s (a recent poster at PointsHappy Pills in America to illustrate how, despite the Progressive era reforms and the war on drugs, these sticky issues about the danger or utility of drug substances, the role of professionals in determining a drug’s place in society, and the importance of personal meaning among drug users continue to be important factors in how drugs and alcohol “alter states” in American history. Our lectures filled in the context of the post-war suburban consumer society, the cold war, and American foreign and domestic policy to the near-present. And of course, we covered the sixties and the Post-Nixon drug war.

We punctuated the course with an interesting discussion about drugs in contemporary American society under the rubric of “performance enhancement in a capitalist society.” It was a great conclusion to the course because it brought all of the context and the readings together. Our society has created paths to use and paths from use. Our tendency to focus only on the paths from use (say, addiction treatment and/or police enforcement) make it hard to understand why someone like Josh Gordon or Daryl Strawberry would “throw his life” away for drugs. Rather than accept the throwaway/redeemed binary, we learned a bit about nuance, historical complexity and the deeply embedded history of drugs and alcohol in the American experience.

I welcome comments, critiques and further discussion in the comments section.

#teachingpoints #drughistory #drugandalcoholhistory #Teaching #Americandrughistory

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