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What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part III: William Rorabaugh

Updated: Aug 29

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. Part III is brought to you by William Rorabaugh, Dio Richardson Professor of History at the University of Washington. Be sure to also check out part II by Isaac Campos

I would like to make four points about alcohol and drug use that historians of both substances need to keep in mind while doing their research.

First, Jack Blocker’s Cycles of Reform is very instructive on the long-term cyclical nature of alcohol consumption in the United States. Heavy use is associated with heavy abuse, and when society becomes alarmed by heavy use, a temperance, prohibition, or other restrictive movement will be precipitated. These movements use different methods, but they do succeed in reducing consumption and harms. As a result, the problem sinks below the radar screen, the public loses interest, and consumption and harms begin to rise again until another cyclical peak and reaction takes place. Alcohol and other substances all take the form of epidemic waves both in the United States and in other cultures. Drug researchers, in particular, can profit from examining the record concerning alcohol, which as a legal, taxed substance for most of American history has better consumption data than is available for most illegal substances.

Second, it is hard to study illegal substances. Consumption patterns have to be estimated, and often the estimates are based on somewhat sketchy assumptions. In addition, patterns of use may be associated with certain devastating outcomes in the public mind due to propaganda. Real harms may be more subtle and much harder both to measure and to evaluate. Basic research on illegal substances is often difficult to finance or impossible to conduct without exemptions from legal sanctions that are hard to obtain or which can only be obtained by select researchers who work within a paradigm that supports the ban on the particular substance. Disinterested scholarship, therefore, is far more difficult to conduct and to publish.

Third, after prohibition of alcohol was repealed in the United States in 1933, the newly legalized alcohol industry, as part of its attempt to gain respectability, agreed to finance alcohol research. Much of this research was conducted at the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies, which later relocated to Rutgers. During the 1930s Yale did pioneering work on rats that established that alcohol affected the brain in particular ways. Later, this line of scientific inquiry was furthered by the National Institutes of Health, and later still by the creation of the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. As a result of eighty years of research, we know today a lot more about how alcohol works inside the brain than we do for other substances and especially for illegal substances for which it is difficult to get research grants and/or permission to do studies. We ought to know as much about other drugs in this respect as we do about alcohol.

Finally, there is a general ignorance about illegal drugs and, indeed, about many legal drugs as well. Recently, there was a scientific study of thirteen-year-olds who were heavy daily smokers of marijuana. The study stopped at age sixteen. Researchers discovered through the use of brain scans, a relatively new technology, that the brains of these young adolescents stopped developing normal adult neural synapses as a result of the heavy daily pot use. The implication was that there might be significant long-term development damage that included lowered intelligence and greater inability to control emotionality. Of course, this is only one study, so it is difficult to draw any general conclusions except that much more of this type of research is needed. During the 1960s, hippies often excused themselves from a group to go smoke pot alone by stating that they were going to go get stupid. Perhaps they really were doing just that. How do we reconcile this sort of study with the heavy promotion of marijuana candy, cupcakes, and snack food in states that have legalized recreational marijuana? There are many questions to be answered.

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