Where did the dangers of drugs come from?

by danmalleck

In the next little while I’ll be musing on the origins of the idea that drugs, and especially drug addiction, is a problem.  there has been a lot of work on this, so I am going over very charted territory.

My concern is that the work on the idea of the “discovery of addiction” as Harry Levine named it, has focused generally upon official discussions, medical discussions, and those of commentators.  But not, from what I’ve read, on how policies and professional lobbying affected ideas of the meaning of drug consumption

In my dissertation, I took this back to basics, looking at the emergence not of prohibitory drug laws of the early 20th century, but rather of the first attempts to control in any systematic way the access to drugs: pharmacy laws of the mid- to late- nineteenth.  Here we have the idea of a substance that can kill you being labelled a poison and duly controlled.  After that, within a few decades, the idea of 1) controlling the public’s access to certain substances for their own good and 2) controlling what a person takes into their body under the idea that the damage, while not death, could undermine the individual’s physical capabilities really took off.  It was a constellation of influences.  I’ve discussed it somewhat in my 1997 article “Its Baneful Influences are too well known” published in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History.  I also published, a few years later, an article on the development of the idea of addiction in asylum treatment, and then also on the tension between physicians and pharmacists over the control of access to drugs.

These are merely a few of the many influences over the shifting perceptions of habitual drug use.  From a simple habit to a complex socially problematic condition or even “disease,” drugs, their habitual use, and the multifaceted impact this behaviour has on society have deep and interwoven roots.  The process of deracination is long and difficult.

I’ll try to make it straightforward in subsequent posts, but if you’re really interested, I can post a reading list.  I promise it won’t be all my work; I don’t have that kind of ego!


(c) Dan Malleck, 2012.