Drug History Canada

Musings on the history of drugs in Canada.

Tag: drug addiction

Good drugs and their bad tendencies

After several decades of working on this (ok, worked on it in the 90s then took some time away) my book, When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws has been released.

You can order a copy of the hardcover here.

And for reference, here is a picture of the cover.  Below I will tell you more about it.

Malleck - Good drugs - cover image

In this book I look at the origins of Canada’s drug laws, the century or so before the creation of the Opium Act, 1908, and the Opium and Drugs Act, 1911.

My main question was simple: where did the idea come from that some drugs were bad and needed to be regulated. It may seem simplistic, but beneath this question are a bunch of related issues: Why is addiction considered a problem?; what is wrong with recreational drug use? How did the idea that government should be involved in the regulation of drugs come about?

These may seem odd questions, but they really are fundamental to our understanding of current debates over drug laws and drug use.

For example, we seem to have this idea that recreation is an illegitimate application of chemicals.  That is, you can take drugs for pain killing, to heal, to allow children to focus, to reduce coughs, and to get rid of the sniffles, but once you enjoy them purely for the sake of enjoyment, you are misusing drugs.

Here we get this idea of “drug abuse” which is linguistically connected to things like child abuse and spousal abuse, but in this way we’re really considered to be abusing ourselves by using drugs in a way other than one medically acceptable.

Why was medicine the only legitimate use of such substances?  How did physicians get that kind of power?  Why are pharmacists the ones who should be managing the sale of drugs?

The book takes a long view, stretching back to pre confederation, to look at the various uses of drugs, and the different ways that people began to suggest there are legitimate and illegitimate uses of them. It traces the creation of provincial pharmacy laws, which I argue are Canada’s first drug laws.  Here the idea emerged that the trade in certain substances should be governed by small groups of educated men rather than allowing the free market to do its thing.  Once you establish the idea that some things should be controlled by government pronouncement, and you deputize groups of professionals to do the controlling, that scope of control can be broadened. The idea of controlling drugs that could kill you broadens to include controlling drugs that could hurt you. Then the idea of “hurt” expands to include not just maim or debilitate, but perhaps just make you need them all the time (habituation, or addiction).

It’s a complex story, and one that needed to be told for Canada.

I hope you enjoy it. Buy multiple copies.  Christmas is coming, after all!

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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.