American Studies

Taking Aim at Addiction

Mon, October 5, 2009
Banner and inside photos: Christina Murrey
Banner and inside photos: Christina Murrey

Mark Smith is an associate professor of American studies and drugs are the prism through which he studies America. "My interests are in looking at the various ways Americans have perceived and reacted to various drugs over time, how the polices have changed toward them," he said.

For example, there were times when alcohol was illegal and morphine and heroin were not. "When upper class women were doing morphine in the latter part of the 19th century, it was not criminalized, it wasn't even seen as a problem," Smith says. The first drug other than alcohol to be criminalized was smoking opium in San Francisco. "The only people who smoked opium were the Chinese immigrants and the occasional gambler or gangster in the underworld," Smith said. The crackdown came when more gamblers started using opium and the drug started to spread to the general society. "As long as the Chinese themselves were using it, it wasn't quite a threat," he said. "Once they went away from that, it became a huge threat." That pattern continued until after World War II.

Then, as the world became more complex, drugs took on a symbolic role, a symbol of all that's gone wrong in society, Smith said. "It (addiction) reflects our lack of power over our own lives, because addiction literally is the lack of power over our own lives," he said. That attitude picked up steam in the 1980s with the War on Drugs. That was also a time when the United States was licking its wounds over Vietnam and Watergate.

"While we have gone beyond most of the stereotypes and emotional reactions of the '70s and '80s, our society retains its dogmatic view about drugs and refuses to entertain differing views on any of the drugs," Smith says. "With regard to drugs, our attitudes have changed amazingly little over the past 30 or 40 years."

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