- Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America’s Romance with Illegal Drugs
Patterns of illicit drug use reflect a multiplicity of factors. Socioeconomic status, structures of opportunity as they interact with race and class, dynamics of markets in illicit substances, adolescent desire to experiment with thrills and push the borders of adult norms, cultural messages about drugs, and more influence ways that groups use drugs and the meanings with which they invest this use. To attempt to explain our national experience with illicit drugs is an ambitious task, though one that increasingly becomes manageable as a recent welter of historical articles, dissertations and monographs on America’s drug history provides a growing basis for a broad, synthetic history of drug use in America.
In Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America’s Romance with Illegal Drugs, Jill Jonnes, a journalist who completed a Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins University, has cast a suitably broad framework. Drawing both on the secondary literature and on her own archival research, she covers an impressive array of themes: shifting patterns of use with attention to individual drugs and demographics of using groups; international drug trafficking; U.S. drug policy, especially enforcement efforts; cultural attitudes toward drugs among using groups and in the larger society; and physicians’ views on drugs and drug dependence. Her work makes its most significant contribution to the historiography in her narrative of drug control efforts within and beyond our borders. However, the overall result is a unidimensional interpretation of a complex phenomenon.
Jonnes structures her chronology on the interpretive framework developed by historians David Musto and David Courtwright: in the Progressive Era, widespread quasi-medical use of opiates was brought under control while a young pleasure-seeking cohort began sniffing heroin and cocaine in the social juncture between new urban entertainment venues and vice markets; this pattern of recreational use waned in the 1930s and 1940s, only to begin rising again after World War II with trafficking centered in inner cities; use by middle-class youth exploded in the 1960s and contributed to the entrenched markets and patterns of heavy use that constitute iconic social problems in the 1980s and 1990s. A separate narrative thread describes the growth of international black markets in opiates and cocaine, including the French connection and the cocaine cowboys of Colombia. Drawing on State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration files (some not seen by other historians), she describes the enforcement attempts to eradicate these drug markets. One of her most emphatic conclusions is that corruption and, to a greater degree, a willingness to sacrifice the aims of drug policy to Cold War exigencies hampered enforcement and resulted in failure to bring drug markets under an acceptable degree of control.
Jonnes paints illicit drug use in almost any form as deeply offensive to middle class values of hard work, thrift, and deferral of pleasure for the good of the individual, the family, and the community. In doing so, she aligns herself with the middle class Progressive Era reformers who created the legal basis of American drug policy and with zero-tolerance conservatives of the present day. She argues that recreational drug use became entrenched in deviant groups unwilling to make any investment in the larger society and unmotivated by any morally energizing social vision. The tragic dimensions of the story, in her view, are two: [End Page 179] first, these destructive patterns of use swept over much of the country in certain periods when misguided Americans engaged in a “romance” with “hipsterism,” or heedless thrill-seeking connected with a pose of cool detachment from restrictive bourgeois ideals; second, the harshest impacts fell on minority communities as illicit markets became entrenched in impoverished urban neighborhoods, while affluent whites were able to escape the heaviest consequences of drug use.
“Hipsterism” becomes Jonnes’s all-purpose explanation for drug use, whether by Bohemians smoking opium in the 1890s, African Americans smoking marijuana in Harlem in the 1930s, or stock brokers snorting cocaine in...