Drug Use in America After 1945

AMST 3950.12 – Spring 2014

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:35-10:50am, Room P201

Professor: Emily Dufton

Class Description:

Drug use has long been a part of American culture, a subject that is both titillating and taboo, while anti-drug activism, from Prohibition to Just Say No, has lurked directly behind it, trying to change Americans’ ways. This class will explore the changing drug landscape in the post-war era, from the “conformist culture” of alcohol in the 1940s and ’50s, to our current moment of prescription drug abuse and “Breaking Bad.” It will also explore the myriad forms of anti-drug activism that have accompanied these changing trends. In addition to primary and secondary historical sources, we will look at cultural representations of drugs, drug users, and anti-drug activists in films, television shows, autobiographies, music, and museum exhibitions in order to explore how drug use can deepen our understanding of American history and American culture. A heavy emphasis will be placed on reading, writing and discussion. Group screenings of films may be scheduled during the evenings.

Class will be organized in the following manner. Tuesdays will primarily be lecture days, in which the professor will present material. Thursdays will be more discussion-based and participatory, with conversation based on both the materials presented in the lecture on Tuesday as well as your writing assignments based on that week’s reading. See below for more information on writing assignments.

Writing Assignments:

Starting the second week of class, there will be a short (1-2 page) writing assignment due every week. It will be due Thursday at the beginning of class, and will help you engage in the discussion we will have that day. I will collect these at the end of each class, so please bring hard copies of these writing assignments, or email me them before class begins. Writing assignments will be graded on a check plus/check/check minus system, and will count, both quantitatively as well as qualitatively, toward your final grade.

Note that the prompt is only that: a prompt. If there is something else that struck you about the week’s lectures or readings and you wish to use your assignment to respond to these ideas, that is fine. The prompt is to ensure that everyone responds to at least something discussed during that week, and to generate discussion of larger themes and ideas.



This is a course that makes heavy use of film and cinema to depict drug history. Films can either be watched individually through blackboard or Netflix, or we can schedule group screenings. I will happily schedule screenings for the class, or you can watch these movies on your own. If we choose to watch the films on our own, they are required viewing and are considered as important as completing the reading and writing assignment for the week. We will discuss how films will be viewed the first week of class, and can schedule viewings throughout the semester if we so desire.



Grading will be heavily based on your performance in class itself. As mentioned above, Tuesdays will be a lecture-based class, while Thursdays will be more discussion-based. Because you will have a short weekly writing assignment due on Thursday, you are expected to present these ideas to the class itself.

Other grades will come from attendance (you may have two unexcused absences before this negatively affects your grade); participation; and the midterm and final paper. Breakdown is as follows:

  • Attendance =                                                10%
  • Participation =                                            20%
  • Weekly writing assignments =             20%
  • Midterm =                                                    20%
  • Final =                                                            30%


Required Books:

  • Jill Jonnes, Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America’s Romance With Illegal Drugs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)
  • Martin Torgoff, Can’t Find My Way Home: America In the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000 (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
  • All other readings are online. Those with asterisks (*) after them are available on blackboard.



Week 1: Introduction: Swinging between Acceptance and Prohibition – The Origins of American Drug Control (1/14-16)


Week 2: Conformist Cocktail Culture: Alcohol in the 1940s and ‘50s (1/21-23)

  • Lori Rotskoff, “Drink and Domesticity in Postwar America,” from Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America (2002)*
  • Bernard DeVoto, “The Hour,” from The Hour (1948)*
  • Watch: The Lost Weekend (1945)*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Using our “Questions” sheet, describe the characters of Don Birnam and Helen St. James. Who are they? What kinds of drugs are being used? Why? Is any character redeemed? How?


Week 3: The Viper Life: Drug Use in the Urban Underground, 1940’s and ‘50s (1/28-30)

  • Jill Jonnes, Ch. 7: “The Sky is High and So Am I” (119-140)
  • David Courtwright, “Heroin in Postwar America,” from Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America (1982)*
  • Malcolm X, “Detroit Red,” from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964)*
  • Listen: Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” (1941) vs. “God Bless the Child” (1955)*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Using your writing assignment from last week, compare the characters of Don Birnam and Helen St. James to the hipster/viper subculture described by Jonnes. How is drug use portrayed for each ­­­­­demographic?


Week 4: Hipsters, Hep Cats, and White Heroin Use in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (2/4-6)

  • Jill Jonnes, Ch. 11: “Burning for a Heavenly Connection” (205-216)
  • Allen Ginsberg, “Howl for Carl Solomon,” from Howl (1956)*
  • Watch: The Cross and the Switchblade (1970)*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Choose one (1) of the following questions to answer: 1.) Jonnes claims that “the new middle-class drug users chose to become outsiders and hipsters” (216). What does she mean by this, and, given what we’ve already discussed, why do you think they were making this choice? 2.) How do Jonnes’s “outsiders and hipsters” and Ginsberg’s beatniks compare to the young drug users portrayed in The Cross and the Switchblade? How was each group using drugs to create an identity, and how do the results of this identity creation differ?


Week 5: California Dreamin’ in the early 1960s (2/11-13)

  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: What did you know previously about the drug culture of the 1960s, and how did you learn about it? Did the readings and lectures disrupt anything you previously knew, or did it add to it? Finally, why do you think drug use was of such monumental importance during this period – what did it offer society, and why was it so often seen as a threat?


Week 6: The End of the Sixties and the Birth of the Modern Drug War (2/18-20)

  • Selections from Sara Davidson’s Loose Change (1977): “Prologue,” and Chapter 26, “Sara,” 331-334
  • Jill Jonnes, Ch. 14: “The Problem Has Assumed the Dimensions of a National Emergency” (261-299)
  • Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Introduction,” from The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (2009)*
  • Watch: Panic in Needle Park (1971)*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: At the end of the 1960s (which did not necessarily end in 1969), the way drugs were used and viewed had changed dramatically from earlier that decade. Jonnes and Kuzmarov explain the role that Vietnam and opiate abuse played in jump-starting the national drug war, whereas Davidson and Panic in Needle Park suggest alternative histories behind America’s increasing discomfort with drug use. Using your “How to Read a Cultural Artifact” sheet, examine the people we’ve come across in this week’s readings. Where do Bobby and Helen, Sara Davidson, or Vietnam veterans fit in this debate? Choose one individual or group from this week’s readings and explore how the 1960s came to an end for them, and how the views and representations of drug use in the 1970s changed or altered Americans’ perceptions.


Week 7: The First Age of Decriminalization, 1973-1978 (2/25-27)

  • Martin Torgoff, Ch. 8: “The Golden Age of Marijuana” (258-293)
  • Raymond P. Shafer, Chairman of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding” (1972), Foreword, Letter of Transmittal, Introduction, select sections of Section V. Marihuana and Social Policy*
  • Emily Dufton, “Parents, Peers and Pot: The Rise of the Drug Culture and the Birth of the Parent Movement, 1976-1980”*
  • “Interview: Sandee Burbank,” High Times, April 1984*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: The parent movement was inspired by the wave of decriminalization that spread across the United States in the 1970s. What is your opinion of the movement – their strengths? Their weaknesses? What is your opinion of the decriminalization movement – its strengths? Its weaknesses? Do you see something similar happening today?


Week 8: Just Say No: The Drug War and the Reagan Administration (3/4-6)

  •  Doris Marie Povine, “Congress on Crack: How Race-Neutral Language Hides Racial Meaning,” from Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs (2007)
  • Jimmie L. Reeves and Richard Campbell, “Reaganism: The Packaging of Backlash Politics,” from Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy (1994)*
  • The New Teen Titans comic book, Issue 1 (1983)*
  • Watch: “Speech to the Nation on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse,” Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Sept. 14, 1986 (
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: It was during the Reagan administration that the drug war stopped focusing exclusively on adults and started focusing more on children. Using your “How to Read a Cultural Artifact” sheet, how were drug users and drug dealers portrayed to this young audience, and what messages were being conveyed? What was powerful about marketing the drug war to children? Do you have any memories of being told about the drug war when you were young? You can choose to read either the Reagans’ speech from the White House or the comic book, or the news coverage that Povine and Reeves and Campbell discuss in their chapters.


MIDTERM: Due Friday, 3/7, by 5pm in Emily’s mailbox or by email.

Individual Research Project: Choose a primary source or a cultural example from any of the periods we have already discussed. This could be a song from the 1950s that alludes to drug use, an anti-drug poster from the 1960s, or an episode of Mad Men that deals with drugs. Then, based on the history you’ve already learned and our “How to Read a Cultural Artifact” sheet, analyze this piece. How does this piece show us a hidden side of American drug history? Does it celebrate drugs or demonize them? Does it seek to help drug users, scare people away from drug use, or inspire experimentation? Is it ahistorical or factually correct? Is it a decent representation of drug history at the time, or is it overly simplistic, romantic, or a scare tactic?

Choose something we either haven’t analyzed in class, or something we mentioned only briefly – i.e. do not use any of the assignments on this syllabus. Discuss your source with Emily prior to writing the paper. All sources will need Emily’s approval before researching commences.

4-5 pages, double-spaced, 1” margins, Times New Roman font.


*** SPRING BREAK *** (3/10-14)


Week 9: The 1980s: Age of Crack Cocaine (3/18-20)

  • Jill Jonnes, Ch. 17: “Now Everyone Was Into Smoking Crack” (367-388)
  • Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine, “The Crack Attack: America’s Latest Drug Scare, 1986-1992,” from Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems (1995)*
  • Jefferson Morley, “What Crack Is Like,” from The New Republic, Oct. 2, 1989*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: This week we read a wide variety of views and understandings of crack cocaine use in the 1980s. Given what you already know about crack cocaine, which of these stories was surprising? Which was not? Which history do you believe? And why do you think crack was such an important, frightening, and startling trend (for both users and media coverage) during this time?


Week 10: Prozac Nation: The Age of Antidepressants (3/25-27)

  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: At the end of Rimer’s article, she quotes a woman who has been taking Prozac for 18 months but still claims, “I don’t take drugs. I don’t even take aspirin.” How did Prozac become a non-drug drug? What, and who, did it appeal to, and what problems did it solve? How was it able to create a drug culture in a country that seems to despise drug cultures?


Week 11: “A 60’s revival is sweeping the baby sitter generation”: Medical Marijuana in the 1990s (4/1-3)

  • Eric Schlosser, “More Reefer Madness,” The Atlantic (April 1997)*
  • Michael Pollin, “Living With Medical Marijuana,” The New York Times, 20 July 1997*
  • Francine Prose, “Trying On the ‘60s,” The New York Times Magazine, 11 August 1991*
  • Ian Fisher, “Repotted,” The New York Times, 7 March 1993*
  • Watch: Dazed and Confused (1993)*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: The 1990s became a period when many embraced a nostalgic and romantic view of drug use in the 1960s and ‘70s, even going so far as to allow for medical marijuana use in some states. Looking back to your first reading of David Musto, explore how drug history functions in cycles. Do you agree with Musto, that history functions in cycles like these, where drugs that were once in vogue and then demonized become popular again? Cite evidence from class. Where else have you seen this occur, if you have? If you disagree, why?


Week 12: Drug Use, Disease, and Disposability: Drug Use at the End of the Twentieth Century (4/8-10)

  • Martin Torgoff, Ch. 9: “Out of the Closets and into the Streets”
  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2010), Ch. 1: “The Rebirth of Caste”*
  • David Denby, “Getting Serious: Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club, The New Yorker, November 4, 2013
  • Noah Gittell, “Dallas Buyer’s Club: An AIDS Drama the Tea Party Can Enjoy,” The Atlantic, November 18, 2013
  • Watch: Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013)*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: As with most subjects in history, we cannot avoid discussions of race, class, gender and sexuality in drug use. Using your “How to Read a Cultural Artifact” sheet, read Dallas Buyer’s Club. Looking at it this way, which review do you agree with more? Are both incorrect? What is your opinion of the movie, and why do you think a popular film about AIDS and drug use was made in 2013?


Week 13: Breaking Bad, Winter’s Bone, and the Legalization/Decriminalization Debate: Meth and Marijuana in the 21st Century (4/15-17)

  • TBD from, “Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series” (2013)
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, “Buzzkill,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2013*
  • Watch: Winter’s Bone (2010)*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: In advising Washington state policy makers regarding the legalization of marijuana in 2012, drug policy expert Mark Kleiman warned that, “The alcohol model is a very, very bad model that’s had very, very bad outcomes. We shouldn’t want to do that again.”
  • This week we’ve talked about modern drug use and how it’s depicted in the media. Given what you’ve learned so far in this class, how should Washington and Colorado regulate the sale of marijuana? Should they have legalized it in the first place? Can we possibly regulate marijuana when widely abused drugs are already made out of common products (meth) and legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco are barely regulated?


Week 14: This is Your Brain on Drug History: A Wrap-Up (4/22-24)

  • Torgoff’s conclusion: “The Temple of Accumulated Error” (456-474) from Can’t Find My Way Home
  • Jonnes’s conclusion: “You Have to Pay Up Somewhere Along the Line” (413-441) from Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams
  • Alexander’s conclusion, The New Jim Crow, Ch. 5: “The New Jim Crow”*
  • WRITING ASSIGNMENT: You’ve just studied over half a century of drug history. Given the wide variety of conclusions other scholars have come up with, what’s yours? Who do you agree with? Who do you think is off the mark? What do we make of America’s history with drug use, and, most importantly, where do we go from here?


FINAL: Due Monday, 5/5, by 5pm in my mailbox or by email.

Museum Tour: Schedule a trip to the DEA Museum in Arlington, VA (700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, VA, 22202; blue/yellow line to Pentagon City metro, walk north on S Hayes Street, turn right on Army Navy; DEA is large black and brown building on your right). The Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10am to 4pm, and admission is free. As with most museums in Washington, you will have your bag searched prior to admittance.

Bring a notebook and examine the museum’s primary exhibit, “Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History.” (You can also look at “Good Medicine, Bad Behavior,” but it is not necessary.) Examine the history being presented in this exhibit.

Your final assignment is to critique this museum exhibit. What is the narrative being presented, and what does it say about the role of drug use, anti-drug enforcement, and drug users in American history? Do you agree with this narrative, or would you correct it? Where is the exhibit historically accurate, and where does it overlook or ignore certain aspects of drug history? Read the exhibit like the cultural artifact it is, and, using class notes and reading assignments as evidence, write a review of the exhibit. Point out its strengths and its flaws. Make an argument defending or decrying the strengths or weaknesses of its primary narrative, and give evidence to show what you would add (or take away) if you were in charge of remodeling the rooms.

7-8 pages, 1” margins, Times New Roman font.


How to Read Cultural Artifacts Vis-à-vis Drugs: A Few Questions We Will Consistently Ask

A cultural artifact is the broad term used by social scientists to describe anything created by humans that gives information about the culture of its creator and its users. Films, books, articles, paintings, television shows – all of these (and many more things that are not listed here) are cultural artifacts, both representing and projecting information about the culture which produced them.

Messages and meanings are encoded in these cultural artifacts, whether they were put there purposefully or subconsciously. By looking closely at how certain things are represented in these texts (e.g., people, actions, places, activities, etc), we can begin to understand the “moral” that the piece is seeking to teach.

All of this is to say that culture and cultural artifacts are not static, simple or stable objects that wait silently for our consumption. Instead, they actively represent ideas and opinions about society itself, and we can participate in a conversation about how our society represents itself through a closer examination of these works. Culture, when looked at within its moment, is as much a chronicle of history as anything else. These cultural artifacts can serve as primary historical sources, documenting how opinions and ideas about drug users and drug use were unfolding at the time the cultural artifact was made.

To begin using cultural artifacts to better understand our past and to understand more completely Americans’ opinions at the time, ask yourself these questions when watching or reading an assigned work:

1.)   Who is the drug user? Is it an individual or a collective? What is the drug user’s age, race, gender, class? What does the drug user do (hobbies, job, school, etc) besides use drugs? What other information about the drug user does the cultural artifact provide?

2.)   How is drug use being portrayed? (A sickness, a failure of willpower, a temptation, a coping mechanism, a way to wealth and power, etc.)

3.)   Can the drug user be “saved” from their use?

4.)   If so, how are they saved?

5.)   If so, who does the saving? (Age, race, gender, class of savior; any additional information provided)

6.)   If not, why can’t they be saved? Does the savior try and fail? Or does no one try?

7.)   Overall, what are your impressions of the drug user? Are they a menace to society, a victim of their own desires, a hero, a comic foil, a reject, etc? What is your final opinion of drug use? And what opinion or message was the piece trying to convey about the effects of drug use on society?


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