American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1231-1241
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Drug Wars and Wonder Drugs
At a certain moment in the 1960s, it would not have been surprising to hear reports of counterculture avatars such as Timothy Leary or Ken Kesey calling on Americans to alter their consciousness with drugs—to "turn on, tune in, and drop out." The call was to hedonism, but it also had a distinctive political undercurrent: if enough minds could be liberated through drugs, revolutionary social change would inevitably follow. The key was to take illegal "consciousness-expanding" drugs such as marijuana and LSD, and not commercially produced tranquilizers and other legal agents of conformity. In this psychic politics, control over access to drugs loomed as more important than control over the means of production.
This kind of rhetoric seems impossibly dated forty years later. Illicit drugs may still have their partisans, but they do not tend to be social revolutionaries, and antidrug campaigns (and advertisements for commercial medicines) far outweigh them in cultural visibility and influence. The notion that drugs hold some essential key to higher consciousness and social transformation seems laughable and—in an era of reenergized antidrug campaigning—downright dangerous for anyone foolish enough to espouse it too loudly.
If paeans to illegal drugs have fallen out of vogue in the mass media, however, skepticism about drugs and drug control have persisted in the far less celebrated realm of academic scholarship—and for good reason. Since the 1950s, hundreds of millions of Americans have taken prescription mood medicines (psychotropes) such as Valium or Prozac each year, altering perceptions of "the good life" and helping make the pharmaceutical industry one of the mightiest sectors of the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, recent presidential elections [End Page 1231] testify to the continuing significance of the twentieth century's "wars against drugs": the margins of victory have, by some measures, been smaller than the number of drug-crime felons (disproportionately nonwhite) ineligible to vote. It does not take a drug evangelist to recognize that consciousness and the chemical means to alter it have been, and remain, important arenas of cultural and political striving and conflict.
The "war against drugs" and the psychotropic phenomenon receive new and valuable attention from Curtis Marez's Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics and Jonathan Metzl's Prozac on the Couch: Prescribing Gender in the Era of Wonder Drugs. Both books trace how and why particular groups of Americans—police, immigrant laborers, psychiatrists—worked to establish drugs as a public spectacle, infusing them with intense and often contradictory political valences. Marez argues that both state agents and "subaltern" insurgents exploited drugs as a cultural terrain for developing and contesting ideas about imperial power relationships (9). Metzl, examining medical and popular representations of psychotropes since the 1950s, finds them populated by gendered images and discourses supposedly vanquished from American psychiatry when "wonder pills" replaced psychoanalysis (7). Drug Wars and Prozac on the Couch look beyond drug takers to drugs' many other "users": those who sell, police, prescribe, or tell stories about drugs through advertisements, antidrug campaigns, music, memoirs, and so forth. These "users" leveraged drugs' powerful but ambiguous psychic effects into even more potent political, economic, and cultural ones. Metzl and Marez, then, model how American studies scholars might look to cultural analysis of drugs as part of a wide range of inquiries, rather than only within the specialized field of drug history.
Marez and Metzl are part of a larger trend in drug scholarship. Several scholars, for example, analyze how stories about addicts and crime have been used to dramatize race and gender stereotypes, shaping the nature and extent of police control over poor or nonwhite cityscapes.1 Others identify international drug trafficking—legal and illegal—as a financial pillar of...