Drug History Canada

Musings on the history of drugs in Canada.

Funding disclosure

In the next few years this blog will get more substantial.  I just received funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to continue my research work in the history of drug policy pre-1911.  This will include creating and making digitally available substantial reference material relating to the history of pharmaceuticals and drugs more generally.

The material on this blog, while funded by SSHRC, in no way reflects the policy or perspectives of the Government of Canada.  It is an intersection of academic historical work and current observations.

Recently there has been some discussion in the USA about the need for political bloggers to state their funding sources. With that in mind, and because I have nothing to hide, I am stating the following

In the spirit of academic freedom I can attest that there is no hidden agenda or puppet master’s strings behind this blog.  The views on this site, unless specifically referenced to others, are those of me alone.

This disclaimer should make our Tory overlords happy, although my opinions on their policies may not.

(c) Dan Malleck, 2012.

Why do pharmacists control access to certain drugs?

I had a student who is diabetic come to speak to me today, and in the meandering way conversations I get into with students go (usually my fault), she ended up asking the rhetorical question “why do I have to get my insulin from a pharmacist?”

It is a good question.  As I noted in the last post, the issue of the “dangerous”ness of drugs drove the construction of control of access to some drugs.  But what about insulin?  It’s not addictive; it’s not really poisonous (at least no less so than non-drugs you could surreptitiously administer and kill someone, like antifreeze) and it’s an essential substance for some people to receive artificially.

To be honest, I’m not sure.  I told the student that she could do a directed reading with me and we could explore the idea. I love it when I have motivated students like that, and questions I can’t answer.

I do have some guesses, though.  They are really nothing more than suppositions based upon my thin knowledge of the process

  1. Insulin, when it was first isolated, was relatively difficult to get your hands on.  Controlling access through a pharmacist or doctor would allow its use to be judicious.
  2. Controlling access to insulin was easy to justify because diabetes itself had to be diagnosed.  Without such a diagnosis, you’d not know you had diabetes. So there was no real way to self-diagnose, and no need in the market to have it available for over the counter sale.
  3. By the time insulin had been isolated and seen to be an important medical tool, the idea of expanding medical jurisdiction over access to such technology was sort of a given. Maybe it was just natural that new important substances like insulin would be available only by prescription.
  4. It made it more expensive. Big pharma loves something that makes drugs more expensive (I doubt this was the case).
  5. It needs to be injected, which makes the hormone insulin need to be administered by docs.  See #2.
  6. None of the above
  7. Many of the above.

I really have no idea.  I will look into it though.  It’s a compelling thought, and will fill out the complexity of my narrative on the relationship between legislation that controls access to medicine, and the authority and social role of the medical industrial complex.

Interested in this question?  Have some ideas?  Post a response.  Share thoughts.  I have to come up with a reading list at some point, so you’d make my job a lot easier.

Your responses are copyright: you.

My post is (c) Dan Malleck. 2012.

Where did the dangers of drugs come from?

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.

Why the harsh new criminalization is dumb

I was recently asked why the federal Conservatives are so hell bent on pushing criminal legislation that includes 1980s era penalties for selling drugs.  More specifically, the new legislation will make mandatory minimum sentences for possession of moderate amounts of drugs like marijuana.  I guess having six plants makes you a trafficker, and there is no room for. er. judicious judicial judgement. (Sorry).

I’m not going to get into the history here, though if you wanted to, you could read some stuff by Marcel Martel, Catherine Carstairs, or Neil Boyd (there are others, too, like the book Panic and Indifference).  But since I have been asked about current policy changes, I’m going to reflect on why this policy is so out of place today.

Much of the negative commentary upon this legislation notes that it flies in the face of much of the last few decades approach to addressing what can be really problematic drug use.  For example, harm reduction to decouple the use of hard drugs like heroin from the criminal industrial complex and often gang-driven drug distribution networks, which also provide clean needles and social support for people who use hard drugs.

Historian David Courtwright wrote a brilliant book about a decade ago now called Forces of Habit in which, among other things, he asks the reader to consider the drug distribution industry as a business like any other.

Consider it: Legitimate businesses advertise, provide incentives (like “loss leaders,” coupons, buy one get one free deals, etc etc).  Drug dealers offer things like giving away some product, and then upping the price for more.  The first is considered normal business pracice, the second is considered heinous.

Legitimate businesses need to protect their product, usually through patent and copyright legislation.  Drug dealers have to protect their turf, expand their market through gang violence and other violent means, because they don’t have things like normal court system to use to protect their product.

It continues.  Legitimate businesses establish networks of distribution, work with border agencies to expedite transportation, deal with supply and demand problems, deal with the problem of “dumping” by competitor countries, or other businesses simply trying to undercut their hold on the market.

Think carefully about all of the things you hear about the illegitimate drug trade, and you’ll realize that much of what they do is precisely what legitimate businesses do, but the drug dealers do it in an environment where they are not only competing with other dealers, but they are trying to keep it out of the eyes of the police.  Their dealings are not with the border agencies and transportation companies, but with other criminal networks that can get product through borders and into the hands of distributors (aka: pushers).  These groups are criminals, they protect their turf with guns and violence, and often expand their market with other illegal or shady dealings.

It is, therefore, the outcome of the illegality of the product, not some sort of inherent character of drugs that make people do things illegal, violent or otherwise anti social.

But there is something else, and it is the way we locate certain behaviours culturally.  Historian John Burnham wrote a book entitled “Bad Habits” where he looked at the historical connections between different “minor vices” at the beginning of the twentieth century.  He referred to the relationships between, say, smoking, drinking, prostitution and gambling as a “constellation of minor vices.”  We see in the criminal gangs and different networks these same connections. It is a business system built upon what Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism,” the marketing of pleasure substances.  Some of those, say, for example prostitution in Las Vegas, might be legal in some places and therefore while considered immoral, might be severed from other illegal activities.  But they are still connected culturally to “misbehaving.”

I could go on, but my point is this: some people, usually more politically conservative, see drugs as inherently dangerous because of the way they see it altering people’s behaviour.  In this view, it is the substance that is dangerous, regardless of its social context or legal status.  Our esteemed prime minister at one point said something like “harm reduction is ridiculous because taking drugs is going to harm you.”

He is wrong.

It is not the drug that has some inherent danger.  It is the political, legal and social ecosystem created by its criminality, which then creates and expands criminality.  I am not denying that some people take drugs and end up with some serious problems.  But many people take drugs and end up with no problems–except that they’re breaking the law, so have to mingle with some unsavoury characters, and pay into a criminal network that could get them into trouble.  A number of tremendously talented people were drug addicts or alcoholics, and still functioned well, and were remarkably successful.  Think of surgeon and co-founder of Johns Hopkins University, William Halsted, for example. Coke head.  Brilliant innovative surgeon.  Or any number of drunken authors who penned remarkable works.  Or, while we’re at it, any philosopher of merit, if you believe Monty Python.

All this brings us back to the new, harsh legislation.  By creating minimum sentences for drug dealers, and ramping up the punitive measures on similar behaviour, the government is building up on and propagating a perception of the substance being bad. Increased criminalization is not the answer.  If pot were not illegal, it would be no more of a problem, and no less manageable than alcohol.

(c) Dan Malleck, 2012

the first one’s free

Welcome to Drug History Canada.  I have created this blog as a forum (or maybe a monologue) about the history of drugs in Canada.

In contrast to my other blogs, which relate little to my academic work, this blog will be focused upon my current, upcoming and at times previous research in the history of drugs in Canada.  This topic is broad, the limits being mostly set by how you define the word “drug.” Does that include alcohol? Medical drugs or only “illicit” ones? Addictive or non-addictive.  Etc., etc., etc.

I guess I come about this topic honestly: I have researched both the history of drug control and prohibition in Canada, and liquor regulation in Ontario.  I am also currently the editor in chief of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs: An Interdisciplinary Journal.  So I try to take a fairly pluralistic approach to the topic.

Having just completed a book on the regulation of public drinking in post-prohibition Ontario, (which you can find listed here and which will come out in paperback–and thus will be cheaper–in six months, and which will also be available for purchase on Google books) I am now beginning to revisit research I did years ago that looked at the decades leading up to the creation of prohibitory drug laws in Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century.  I hope to turn that research into a book over the next year or so.

That’s enough from me.  With this blog, I begin a new meandering journey. Hopefully these thoughts will be able to compete with my musings on brewing and cheese making

(c) Dan Malleck, 2012