Race and the War on Drugs…Today

In an effort to unravel the true contributors to the modern day mass incarceration problem, Donna Murch sets out to critique Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majoritywhere he seeks to reburden mass incarceration onto the backs of middle and working class African Americans. Murch aggressively attacks his lack of proof that the working class supported punitive policies such as the Rockefeller drug laws and his suggestion that there was a liberal shift in black politics, despite the blatant radicalism of the Black Power movement and figures such as Malcolm X. The largest issue Murch takes with this book is that the author draws exaggerate conclusions to reflect a made-up majority of the Black American Perspective following the civil war. She also hinges on how Fortner’s thesis essentially overlooks the effects of poverty and other social phenomenon that contributed to the crime and drug epidemic. 

In response, Fortner utilizes secondary sources to verify the poltical power blacks actually did have in Harlem specifically following the civil war, power that was used to introduce a conception of crime and drug addiction. He additionally quotes a report from the NYC Chapter of the NAACP and the Atlanta Daily World which laments on just how crucial addressing the crime issue was at the time. 

I truly appreciated the discussion and attention to the sources used as each author debates the credibility of his/her opinions. This was particularly interesting as one newspaper discussed, The Amsterdam News, was used in my primary response blog. This source was critiqued for representing only the views of Harlem’s elite. 

More importantly though is the debate at the heart of these two articles and the hard truth to confront : Did the black race have a hand in pushing through the original crime policies that have resulted in mass incarceration African Americans seem to detest so much today. 

What I find most interesting about this discussion is the similarity that can be drawn between Rockfeller’s motivations to push through draconian policies in the 1970s and the modern day presidential debate surrounding criminal justice reform as it pertains to Ex-Democratic Preisdential Candidate Kamala Harris. In immediate response to Ms. Harris’s announcement for presidency, many attacked her prosecutorial past and hand in mass incarceration. In an interview with the New York Times, Ms. Harris said, ‘I was swimming against the current, and thankfully, the currents have changed.’ She apparently blames the lack of political will in the late 1990s for her inability to make changes within the system. This can be juxtaposed with Fortner’s hypothesis on the politicization of the history of mass incarceration. Just as Rockefeller followed in the footsteps of Reagan’s presidency to appeal to a conservative republican party, Kamala seems to be following the foosteps of a growing liberal democratic party to appeal to young black voters for the benefit of her campaign. 

It is ironic to see the sources available for examining mass opinion today as these two sources debate the credibility of media surveys. Using twitter as an example in conversation with the discussion of Kamala Harris, a very simple search of Ms. Harris’s name and the debate can offer a variety of views. I am interested to see how this source might be used in the future as a historic tool. 


Herndon, Astead. « Trust Me : Kamala Harris Makes Big Play on Criminal Justice Reform.’ New 

            York Times. 9 Sept 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/09/us/politics/kamala-harris-


Murch, Donna. ‘Who’s to Blame for Mass Incarceration ?’ Boston Review. 



Fortner, Michale. ‘Historical Method and the Noble Lie : A Reply to Donna Murch.’ Boston 

            Review. http://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/response-michael-javen-fortner-donna-


Last Blog Post

Blog topics: Courtwright’s addicts who survived: Hooked and Caroline Acker’s: How Crack found a niche in the American Ghetto.

In her article, Acker delves deep into the social mechanism through which a person tries and subsequently becomes addicted to a drug and asserts that drug addiction epidemics are not solely dependent on the anatomy of the drug but on “the social context of the drug” (Acker 6). She does this by examining three different time points and their respective epidemics. First, she examines morphine use in the late 19th century, then cocaine in the 70s and subsequently crack cocaine use in the 80s.

In the late 19th century, the use of morphine and other opiate derived products were widely normalized among the population. So much so that they were fully legal often overprescribed by physicians for the simplest of ailments. This combined with the invention of the hypodermic syringe which “offered a powerful new route of administration produced a population heavily reliant upon these drugs (Acker 8). Later on, she highlights a different social mechanism for the increase in cocaine use during the 70s citing that it was primarily because of the image and status associated with the drug. This was because the general public saw it as very “chic” because it associated with highly idolized people in society such as “rock stars and stockbrokers”(Acker 9). Onto her main illustration of how crack penetrated and anchored itself “in poor inner-city neighborhoods where illicit markets compete successfully against constrained opportunities in the legitimate workforce.

Crack cocaine existed within a specific niche of society, it was mainly used by the  lower working class in the inner city. This was primarily due to the fact that “crack was a market innovation” in the sense that it was “watered down” cocaine at a much lower price point which made it very affordable for less affluent neighborhoods (Acker 10). Cocaine was the opposite as it was primarily found “in the veins of affluent purchasers” from much more affluent neighborhoods (Acker 10). The price was not the sole reason for many people to start using. The atmosphere of inner-city was described as having “disproportionate rates of crime and disease” and overall lack of legitimate economy due to a decline in industrialization post World War II making the “decline in employment levels in the region” shockingly apparent. Consequently, this caused people to participate in the crack scene for a variety of reasons. 

Some theorize that it is because we have an innate “desire to alter consciousness” but Ackers states that it’s because people were “search for excitement or a more passive process of seeking identity and belonging” in a time where their surroundings were unforgiving as most users reported “abusive childhoods and disorganized families”(Acker 13)

 Courtwright’s journal documenting the etiology of surviving opium addicts was very interesting to read as they were in direct communication with Acker’s article. Courtwright has transcribed the experiences of three different addicts but two of them stuck with me as they seemed more interesting. The first one was about an addict named Ivory who was born to “poor black parents in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1920. His father, “a street guy who did nothing,” left when he was six years old” (3). Subsequently, Ivory was then arrested for stealing when he was just eleven years old, “and was in and out of reformatories and prisons for the rest of his life (Courtwright 3). It was in jail where he first tried heroin stating that it made him sick and caused him to throw up all over the place. After that, he swore he wouldn’t take it anymore until it was offered to him by a friend. During this experience, he still threw up everywhere but it was more enjoyable. The interesting part is that Ivory didn’t become addicted to heroin until he started selling it make ends meet. This is in direct communication with Acker’s article as the lack of employment due to various factors such as crime made it hard for Ivory to find a job that pays well, as a result, he resorted to selling heroin. It didn’t even seem to be something dangerous. Ivory described one of his clients as his “friend who would buy heroin from him and shoot up at his house” (Courtwright 6). This is reminiscent of Acker’s assertion that people use crack, or perhaps any drug, as a “passive process for finding identity and belonging”. This is also apparent in the way Ivory started selling and taking heroin. They were both introduced to him by friends.

The other interesting case was Sam, as he was reminiscent of Americans who acquired their addiction through prescriptions from a “physician, pharmacist, or patent medicine vendor” through the belief that “they were relieving their ailments with a little opium or morphine”. Similar to what was said in Ackers about opium use in the early 19th century.Sam was born to parents who became millionaires, he lived the high-class life which ultimately produced feelings of  “unhappiness and alienation”(Courtwright 10). These feelings manifested physically in the form of “50-minute long migraines” in which he cited the cause for the migraines as a product of stress from “ a woman with whom he was entangled; another was his unhappiness with his wife, and the third was the hatred of his father, and the loathing of the work he was engaged in. He hated his family business” as it did not “represent him or what he is capable of”(Courtwright 10) 

One contradiction I encountered had to do with Acker. She states in her article that “rates of problematic use dropped as people experienced or witnessed negative consequences of use” which was not observed in any of thememoirs from the addict. Especially in the cause of Ivory who had a terrible first time using heroin. He was still easily convinced to try it a second time. Maybe this was due to the social aspect of the way he was coerced into doing the second time because it was suggested by a friend.

The Under-Drugs–Crack and Heroin

Despite the differences in the chemical compositions of both “crack” and “heroin,” the two drugs were lumped roughly into the same category of users and dangers. They were advertised as unclean, not only health-wise, but morally too, and were associated with lower-classes, and often times, minorities.

In this paper, I will use the following to demonstrate the similar views on “crack” and “heroin”—David Courtwright and Herman Joseph’s novel Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America 1923-1965, Caroline Jean Acker’s article titled “How Crack Found A Niche in the Ghetto: The Historical Epidemiology of Drug-Related Harm,” David Herzberg’s “Entitled to Addiction? Pharmaceuticals, Race, and America’s First Drug War,” and Matthew Lassiter’s “Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs.”

Crack and heroin were both associated with a lower class of people. Crack was typically used in the cities, while cocaine was used more commonly in suburban areas and was more expensive, hence why it was associated with a higher class than crack was. The media often blasted crack as causing deformities in babies, classifying these babies as “Crack Babies.” However, no word of “Cocaine Babies” was uttered in the media, despite both cocaine and crack causing the same amount of harm to babies when they were developing in the wombs. Crack was associated with minorities, especially African Americans, and images of African American mothers with deformed babies would commonly be in the media to reinforce this association of a specific race with crack in the public’s mind. As seen in David Musto’s novel The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, there was also a rampant fear among whites of cocainized blacks, more so being African American men using crack, what one could call the poor man’s version of cocaine, and suddenly rampaging and assaulting the purity of white women, raping them, and getting retribution on white society. Keeping in mind this difference in class between crack and cocaine users, someone would have to have to five-hundred grams of powdered cocaine in order to get the same prison sentence as someone with just five grams of crack, as shown by Acker.

A juxtaposition of heroin and opium was made apparent in the readings, as well. Heroin was mainly found in minority neighborhoods within major port cities. Knowing that people looked down on those that used heroin instead of opium, Frieda, an eighty-one-year-old white woman addicted to narcotics, made a point of saying that she did not look down on those that used the needle—heroin—when she would smoke opium, the higher-class drug of sorts. In fact, she said she “never bothered with them” even, thinking that opium users were not like “the junkies in the street” using heroin (Courtwright and Joseph 82). In Herzberg’s “Entitled to Addiction? Pharmaceuticals, Race, and America’s First Drug War,” authorities saw users of heroin as “street-hustling urban junkies.” It appears that heroin was cheaper than opium, too, making sense as to why it was associated with a lower class of people. Drawing from Frieda’s story in Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America 1923-1965, opium became harder to afford compared to heroin in the 1930s. Just as cocaine was the “rich man’s drug” in the 1970s, opium, or as they refer to it in the reading— “hop” —was the “rich man’s drug” in the 1920s and a favorite of those “flush with cash” (Courtwright and Joseph 77). One can possibly see why heroin, since it was known to be easier to smuggle than opium, could be associated more with a lower form of criminal, dirtier, and more clandestine. According to Herzberg in “Entitled to Addiction? Pharmaceuticals, Race, and America’s First Drug War,” people would increasingly identify with being an outsider and even an outlaw when smuggling heroin, as opposed to opium. It is important to realize that opium was not always associated with higher class people, in fact it was a prime target in federal narcotic legislation and was seen as dirty and deplorable, associated with Chinese people, until tides had changed when heroin entered the picture in the American drug world. 

“Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs” reveals how former President Ronald Reagan and former First Wife Nancy Reagan framed both crack and heroin as the drugs killing the children of America, along with marijuana. With opium and morphine having the same chemical impact, morphine extract could be used to create heroin, similar to cocaine being transformed into crack. 

Crack was associated with lower-classes, namely African Americans, and heroin was associated with lower-class people, as well, and minorities. One should keep in mind through this comparison of crack and heroin in these various pieces of literature that it appears whichever drug was used by minorities was the under-drug, to make a spin-off of the term under-dog. 

Perceptions of Cocaine use in America

Cartwright draws attention to cocaine and opium addiction was a growing problem in America throughout much of the 1800s. This was, in part, due to the lagging of medical advancements. Doctors, having enough industry in medicine to patent drugs, but not enough mastery to sufficiently treat many ailments, resorted to quick fixes (Courwright 63). This resulted in the use of cocaine and narcotic containing drugs as a panacea for many chronic illnesses (63). While doctors knew they could not cure their patients, they could relieve the more distressing symptoms of their illnesses. This lead to many becoming addicted to these substances through repetitive use (64). 

However, this was mainly in regards to narcotic addiction among white people, where it was found to be specifically pervasive in the South (62). This is because white people had more access to doctors, in general. There were also substantial effects post civil war among white people, who, having lost the war felt a lingering malaise among their population (66). This was in part due to loss of industry which relied on slave labor, loss of life, and prevailing injuries. This had a two-fold effect on the abuse of substances among whites, as they used narcotics to cope with emotional distress, as well as lifelong physical ailments. There was also found to be a genetic factor, as malaria was also treated with the use of narcotics, and the black population was found to be more resilient to the disease (67). 

More popular among the black population was the use of cocaine, supplied through the black market. As black people were far less likely to consult doctors for medical problems, due to race discrepancies, coca leaves were common among black labor workers who found it eased the physical demands of their work (66-67).  Race discrepancies prevailed not only in the use and obtainment of cocaine and narcotics, but also in public perceptions of its use. The use of cocaine among black people in the South fueled a racially charged panic that the substance was causing users to become violent (71). While narcotic addiction occurred at exorbitantly higher rates among the white population, the fear elicited surrounding substance abuse among black people generated more attention within the public sphere (70). This was something that Musto remarks upon, that the accounts of the effects of cocaine were much a characterization of white fear rather than the substance (70).

 Musto, in surveying the cocaine epidemic in America, explains the shifts in public perceptions of the drug. When cocaine first became available, ready to use, on the American market, the popularity of the substance soared. Doctors revered it for its effects and it was soon used for more and more medical maladies, especially as opium became less publicly desirable (Musto 60). Many doctors even became proponents in its use to treat opioid addiction. Its popularity in medical use soon transferred to a wide acceptance of the pick-me-up drug, and it became popular for recreational use, appearing in common products such as Coca-cola and was even sold door to door (60). 

This popularity translated into a high volume of consumption among Americans (61). At the turn of the nineteenth century, America’s average annual import of cocaine was 200,000 ounces (61). Today, America consumes ten times that amount, even though the population has only increased to three times the amount it was in the 1900s(61). Clearly, America is still fervent in its use of the now illicit drug. The shift in legality of the drug, however, is mirrored to a shift in it’s reputation amongst the American public and medical professionals. This began with reports of chronic abuse of the substance (61). Many of these reports were from those who had used cocaine to assist in overcoming opiate addiction. With more and more users coming forward as habitual abusers, the medical sphere reviewed it as being less effective than previous thought, as its effects were more damaging than what it sought to cure (62). Cocaine was once again viewed as a drug that is destructive, and social biases reignited (63).

In total, both authors were helpful in providing background in the proliferation of both narcotic and cocaine use throughout American history. The dialogue between the two papers provided not only cultural, but medical insight into why these drugs became the source of high volumes of addiction. With this insight it becomes easy to fathom why America views these substances the way they do in both a social context, but in the context of the law as well. Any questions I am left asking of the cocaine epidemic are to do with contemporary use of the drug, as we can see it is obtained in much higher amounts than when it was both legal and publicly accepted in the 1900’s.

Amphetamine and Heroin Use Amongst U.S. Soldiers in Vietnam

Growing up watching war movies I always viewed war as a glorified struggle of justice filled with absolutely baffling circumstances, each unique for a specific situation and specific war. My father would always tell me these wars aren’t what they seem: the closer in date each U.S. war involvement got to our current year the less justified the war was, but I didn’t understand what he meant until I started reading about it. I was allowed a brief glimpse into the chaos of Vietnam through the film Platoon, which unexpectedly portrayed a very accurate depiction of a specific common problem that occurred in many platoons in Vietnam: drug use. Drug use, in combination with conflicting ethics and interests of the individual soldier, often created issues in the cohesive function of each platoon or unit. These two situations marched hand in hand with the experience of young GIs in the heat of the horror in Vietnam. During this time, the military was not only turning a blind eye to recreational drug use (heroin, opium, amphetamines, cocaine, psychedelics, barbiturates), but they were also encouraging and rationing pharmaceutical drugs to improve soldier performance as well as pacify negative psychological effects of combat. GI issued amphetamine use increased soldier alertness and aggression, contributing to increased performance but also civilian casualties and friendly fire, while heroin was used to temporarily pacify the deep psychological trauma that later revealed itself to soldiers returning home as chronic stress or PTSD.

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Amphetamines had a direct impact on soldier performance in combat in Vietnam. Unlike the amphetamines used in WW2 (Benzedrine), Soldiers in Vietnam were issued Dexedrine (Dextroamphetamine) which is a derivative of Benzedrine that is double the potency[1]. These were issued at 20 milligrams each, which is roughly equivalent to 40-50 milligrams of instant release Adderall1. Platoons doing reconnaissance were commonly issued the most Dexedrine due to the long hours they had to be awake and tuned into their environment. A member of a reconnaissance platoon, Elton Manzione recalls a navy commando saying, “When I was a SEAL team member in Vietnam, the drugs were routinely consumed. They gave you a sense of bravado as well as keeping you awake. Every sight and sound was heightened. You were wired into it all and at times you felt really invulnerable.”1 A study determined 3.2 percent of arriving soldiers in Vietnam heavily used amphetamines, and after a single year of deployment that rate rose to 5.2 percent1. This rise in the heavy use of amphetamines was directly influenced by the US military rationing amphetamines to soldiers.

Amphetamines not only increased alertness, but aggressiveness as well. This aggressiveness contributed to incidents of friendly fire and the killing of many innocent civilians. Due to the high potency of Dexedrine issued, amphetamine comedowns left soldiers extremely irritated, some remarking that they felt like “shooting children in the streets.” 1 One soldier in the Green Beres was heavily addicted to amphetamines, taking roughly 100 milligrams per day (equivalent to more than 200 milligrams of Adderall). Comrades account he “was so jumpy after twenty-six sleepless, drugged hours on duty that, when startled by a noise, he machine-gunned an accompanying boat, ,” one comrade remembered, “ killing and maiming a number of his colleagues.” 1 When I recall scenes from Platoon, I now understand that the extremely aggressive behavior elicited in the scene where they burn the village could have been a reflection of how amphetamines amplified their aggression. The words “let’s do the whole village” are an accurate replication of first-hand accounts of overly aggressive reactions to amphetamine comedowns in combination to the situation and pressure they faced in Vietnam.

Regardless of the enhanced performance and increased aggression elicited from soldiers on amphetamines, they still had to deal with the consequences and psychological repercussions of guerrilla warfare. Most soldiers had conflicted feelings towards their objectives given by military commanders especially because there seemed to be a lack of direction in a strategic objective1. They were sent on “search and destroy missions” which was truly to push for maximum kill ratios, and firefight success was determined by body count. Add civilian casualties to the mix and this easily increased soldier’s feelings of resentment for the Vietnam mission. To make matters worse, commanders applied a depraved incentive to increase kill ratios: acquire a trophy from the body of the Vietcong (penis, ear, finger, etc.) and soldiers would receive extra beer rations1. The more trophies, the more rations. This crippled morality and lead to an increase in self-medication in Vietnam. 

Due to the reduction of marijuana, heroin use gained immense popularity among GI’s[2]. A whopping 79 percent of all soldiers who used drugs tried heroin1. Once the military caught on to the use of heroin, marijuana, although it was the drug of choice, was not the issue1. During 1970, drug trafficking routes from the Golden Triangle through Cambodia opened up allowing for extremely pure forms of heroin (94-98 percent) to be introduced to U.S. soldiers1. Labs were also opened up in Vietnam to meet the “rising demands of American troops” 1. An important aspect about this heroin was that it didn’t need to be injected intravenously. The purity of this heroin enabled it to be smoked or even snorted like cocaine1. This allowed it to be much more attractive to new users who didn’t like the idea of using needles to shoot up heroin. Only nine percent of drug users in Vietnam used drugs intravenously1. Although the new means of using heroin were more attractive to users, the increased purity was dangerous to users. Heroin accounted for over half GI overdoses1.

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Although soldiers were under pressure to be discrete about marijuana, heroin was odorless and hard to detect, allowing for less stress to the user1. Regardless of the regulations, users were fairly overt about their use: engraving messages on their helmets and lighters about being high1. My personal favorite:

Always ripped

Or always stoned

I made it a year

I’m going home1.

By 1971, heroin addiction had soared to an estimated 25000-37000 soldiers (10-15 percent of troops) and in some unites 20 percent were addicted1. 85 percent of all servicemen were offered heroin, 35 percent of them tried it, and 20 percent were habitual users1. By 1973 on out of every three soldiers used heroin[3]. A veteran recounted “Near the end of my tour, when everyone was doing heroin, I remember there was a pool of vomit outside our hootch that never dried up completely. Like for days on end. Because heroin makes you vomit” 1.

            Surveys were sent to veterans returning home asking them about their drug habits. It was reported that out of 43 percent that consumed drugs in Vietnam, 10 percent of them used drugs in the U.S. after returning home[4]. Although it seems fabricated, the results are accurate according to Kamienski. It’s speculated that Drug use in Vietnam was contextual and stress induced from combat1. Although many returning veterans didn’t continue to use drugs, many who suffered from PTSD did continue to use.

An aspect of drug use in Vietnam that differs from civilian drug use is that GI’s had no idea if they were going to die the next day. The uncertainty of death undoubtedly increased the likelihood of drug use and irrational decisions away from combat, but during that time those decisions were considered rational. The combination of the U.S. military issuing pharmaceuticals while being unable to detect heroin, the increasingly stressful environment of war, and the uncertainty of death on their next patrol introduced soldiers to a “live fast and die young” philosophy that embraced drug use. Vietnam proved to be a pharmaceutical lesson in military history that has changed how soldiers fight and unwind in foreign wars today. When reflecting on the challenges these soldiers faced day to day I’m impressed that some were abstinent from drugs at all. When living in a hell like that, how could you be?

[1] Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

1 Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[2] Musto, David F., and Pamela Korsmeyer. The Quest for Drug Control: Politics and Federal Policy in a Period of Increasing Substance Abuse, 1963-1981. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

1 Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[3] Shuster, Alvin M. “G.I. Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam.” May 16, 1971.

1 Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[4] Kuzmarov, Jeremy. The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009

The Spatial Nature and Communicability of Drug Addiction

In the second chapter of Eric C. Schneider’s book Smack Jazz Joints and Junk, he analyzes the ways in which social setting plays a key role in the spreading of drug use and addiction. Drug use is “rooted in physical spaces” which are a necessary part of its spread and longevity (17).  There is a “spatiality to drug use and transmission of drug knowledge” (17). Cultures form around these locations and drug knowledge can be absorbed into, and become a part of, those cultures. In order to demonstrate this relationship, Schneider analyzes the culture around marijuanna use in the 1940’s in New York and traces it as a linkage to heroin use following WWII. This relationship between culture/location, individuals, and drug use seems very reminiscent to Hannah Cooper’s Medical Theories of Opiate Addiction’s Aetiology… and the addiction theory of drug addiction as a communicable disease, presented therein. 

Schneider outlines Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s investigation into the marijuana culture in New York as a means to show how the social environment catered to the growth of marijuana use. La Guardia launched a two pronged investigation, one into the pharmacological effects of marijuana and the other into the social setting surrounding marijuanna (19). The prevelant dialogue within society at the time discussed marijuanna as if it were a threatening drug that caused aggression, and in many cases murder. His pharmacological study showed no evidence of this being the case. Rather, it seemed to be a semi-relaxing drug of non-addictive nature. In order to investigate the culture surrounding marijuanna, the task force employed by La Guardia focused on the major locations in-which marijuanna us purchased and consumed. This included areas in and around jazz clubs, and “teapads” (20). Anti-marijuanna legislation forced these communities to be underground, but once again, even in these underground communities the general mood was non-aggressive and benign.

These factors eventually built a community among these individuals that marijuanna happened to be apart of. Drug legislation forced these communities to be underground, but this only strengthened the relationship between the individuals in these communities. There was a degree of comradery between people in this group and a counterculture of shared sentiment. Schneider then pivots to analyzing heroin use and aligning it with the same culture that previously was partaking in this marijuanna subculture. While the dialogue surrounding marijuanna was entirely unfactual, it continued to be propagated by the government and media. Marijuanna users, being experienced with the substance, knew these tales were blatantly false. This experience primed them to be less receptive to the warnings of media and government in the future. Marijuanna was a single aspect of the subculture that it was found in, and easily gave way to different drugs over time (23). Eventually, heroin gets introduced into this culture and becomes an indoctrinated part of this culture. Why were jazz musicians, at the time, so commonly users of heroin? Schneider uses this question to argue his point that these cases of drug addiction were primarily propagated by the culture they were a part of. This point can be best understood through Cooper’s “communicable disease theory” (441). 

In Cooper’s historical analysis on the shifting perceptions of health professionals’ perspectives of the causes of drug addiction over time, she points out many proposed theories of addiction. She primarily focused on how changes in the primary users race and class lead to different understandings of how addiction comes about. She, as a critical race theorist, noticed the problematic disparities in the dialogue surrounding and treatment of addicts depending on race and class. While there is a lot that could be said about the previous theories, and a lot that can be problematized about them, the information that is most relevant to Schneider’s work is one of the two main theories promoted in the 70’s, the communicable disease theory.  The communicable disease theory looks at drug addiction as if it were a more traditional disease, being “driven by the interaction of the traditional public health triad of agent, host, and environment”(441). Heroin is the agent, the user is the host, and this distinct culture is the environment.  

Using this framework, let us analyze the jazz musicians of the time.  The jazz musician worked directly in this environment (the culture Scheider identified). This forced him to be in contact with the agent and other hosts very frequently. What makes the case of the jazz musician intriguing is that they have higher rates of drug use than other participants of this culture. A possible explanation for this is the fact that they work all night, and commonly slept a large portion of the day before heading back into this spatial environment. Their time inside this environment was much more than most other individuals. These jazz musicians were figuratively quarantined into this environment where they were susceptible to catching addiction. Given that they seem to have more time than anyone in this environment and the highest rates, it is plausible that being in this environment lead to their own usage. This could be contrasted with the other prevalent theory of the time, the “metabolic disease theory”. Within this theory, much of the cause of the addiction was thought to rely primarily on biological factors (441).  These musicians were likely not biologically more predisposed to drug use, it was the culture they were found in.

Cocaine + Pazil: Big Money Epidemics

In his article America’s First Cocaine Epidemic, David Musto summarizes how the United States entered its first cocaine craze a century ago. He begins by quoting Sigmund Freud, who wrote On Coca (1884)that after he had tested coca on himself, he found it to ward off “hunger, sleep, and fatigue and steels one to intellectual effort”. Freud was not the only clinician at the time to endorse this new and shiny drug and echoed many other fellow physicians in their “song of praise to this magical substance”. In fact, Freud was inspired to try coca because of the strong enthusiasm for it demonstrated by its earliest advocates: American doctors. What caused this cocaine fad? What drove physicians to so enthusiastically prescribe what we now know to be a rather dangerously addictive substance?

Musto asserts that among other “marvellous powers”, cocaine was hailed for its ability to cure opiate addictions. However, as demonstrated by one medical magazine from 1880, cocaine’s benefits extended far beyond alleviating opium reliance: “One feels like trying coca, with or without the opium habit. A harmless remedy for the blues is imperial,’ And so say we”. The combination of the cheery endorsement from physicians and a complete utter lack of laws restricting its sale, consumption, and advertising lead to strong motivations to create profits off of the drug. In other words, package and sell it to many Americans in as many ways as possible. Musto emphasizes that cocaine was found seemingly everywhere: As coca-leaf cigarettes, crystals, solutions for hypodermic injection, wine, and even Coca-Cola (illuminating the origins of the soda’s name). Ultimately, through drawing from several primary sources, Musto highlights the American obsession with cocaine that existed from 1885-1920s. However, the benefits were only heralded for so long – soon consumers began to realize the drug’s possible negative implications and their giddy obsession transformed into a cultural fear. In this transition, the perceived demographic of cocaine users also shifted from upper-class professionals to “bohemians, gamblers, high- and low-class prostitutes, night porters, bell boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps, and casual laborers”. Cocaine’s public perception went from being an ally of the hyper-productive professionals of America to Public Enemy No. 1., supposedly aiding criminals in their terrifying endeavours.

In his introduction to Happy Pills, David Herzbergechoes Musto in his emphasis on the financial motivations behind the popularizing of drugs. He primarily utilizes Paxil as an example of this – citing an advertisement in a 2001 Newsweek magazine which advised that those who suffered from “chronic anxiety” could possibly find a cure: “Talk to your doctor about non-habit-forming Paxil today. So you can see someone you haven’t seen in a while… Yourself”. Reading this, I felt as if the advertisement was an eerie remnant of the ads cited by Musto in the early days of the cocaine epidemic: Have problems? Take this drug! A doctor said it was okay, so no need to worry. Herzberg emphasizes that at the turn of the twenty-first century, pill culture was commonplace both in popular and medical culture, and that advertisers pounced on spreading the message that selfhood was based in our biology and thus could be fixed or improved through drugs. “Direct-to-consumer” ads in magazines and on televisions created an arena for the creation of “blockbuster drugs”, yielding immense profits and thus motivations for pharmaceutical companies to medicalize and prescribe anything that they could. Similarly to cocaine’s initial image of being used by the upper class, advertisements for these blockbuster drugs clearly were targeted primarily towards wealthy and white Americans. The term “narcotics”, meanwhile, was relegated only to be used in association with non-white and marginal groups. Both Happy Pills and America’s First Cocaine Epidemic highlight through these examples that how positively or negatively the public views a certain drug is often (unfairly) correlated with the demographic in which it is thought to be used in. If a drug is “good”, it is marketable and fair to use by white rich people. If a drug is “bad”, it is amoral, legalized, and used by the poor and the dark- or brown-skinned.   

After reading Happy Pills and America’s First Cocaine Epidemic, it is difficult not to feel rather untrustworthy towards not only pharmaceutical companies, but towards general popular culture. I was born into an era in which drug advertisements were utterly normalized, and it wasn’t until the last few years that I realized how odd it was to commercialize medicine. I also cannot help but feel that although “happy pills” and cocaine are separate substances from separate decades, a general medical, political, and social culture links their epidemics. Big money seemingly underlies several drug crazes which have probably had immeasurable consequences on the lives of many – It would have been interesting for Musto and Herzberg to incorporate other substances into their discussions.

The Institutionalization/ Medicalization of Opioid Addiction Treatment: Comparing “The Clinics” and “Methadone Maintenance”

The chapter The Clinic in “Addicts Who Survived” by David Courtwright et al. describe the time period in US history where opioid treatment had a “clinic era” (280) from 1919-1923, in which addicts were able to access narcotics in some form from these establishments. This chapter first features an interview with one of the clinic doctors/founders, a person who was addicted to opioids and utilized a clinic, and finally another physician working at a clinic. The first clinic doctor, Willis Butler, a health officer and medical examiner, describes how he was propositioned by the president of the Louisiana state board of health to open a narcotic clinic in Shreveport modeled after an already existing clinic in New Orleans. Butler describes the process of how he did not agree with the process occurring in New Orleans, similar to which also was described to be taking place in the New York City clinic described by S. Dana Hubbard later in the chapter, where addicts were given decreasing amounts of substances, however, in the New Orleans clinic they were deceived and would dilute the vials with water, whereas in New York, the patients knew they were being slowly withdrawn. Themes of stigmatization and the institutionalization of drugs and drug users arise in all three interviews featured in the chapter. In Butler’s interview he describes how every person who came to his clinic had to be fingerprinted and background checked by the FBI (284) and I wonder if this intense screening process that registers the drug user as such was a barrier to treatment for some people, especially in a time with an increasing shift towards stigma towards drug users in light of the Harrison Narcotics Act that was about to be passed. This stigmatization and desire for institutional control was especially clear in S. Dana Hubbard’s testimony about her work in the narcotic clinic in New York and her overall evaluation of drug addicts as a group of people, describing them to be selfish, cunning, and willing to do anything for drugs, a group of people in need of control, as was clear by her endorsement of the Harrison Act. 

The chapter Methadone Maintenance features the stories of three methadone patients, Sam, Red, and Jerry, and then one of the founders of methadone maintenance treatment, Dr. Vincent Dole. One of the biggest common themes expressed by the first three men interviewed was the feeling that although methadone was something that had improved their lives in terms of being able to lead a normal, functioning life, they felt trapped in a way as well because methadone maintenance is a lifelong treatment and requires daily visits to treatment centers or clinics, which are not available in all places so travel can be hard or impossible and also it can be inconvenient in daily life in general. One of the men, Red, also spoke about how methadone was a cheaper alternative to heroin and that this lifestyle was more manageable after spending mounting amounts of money on his drug habit and not being able to predict the quality of the heroin. One of the most interesting and important parts of the chapter is the section with the interview with Dr. Dole, and a point that he speaks about is the metabolic theory of addiction that there are essentially chemical hooks and dependencies involved that were permanent effects of addiction, and methadone was a solution to this, and Dole supported this idea in conjunction with the belief that in addition to methadone treatment there was a need for treatment of the underlying factors of addiction. Another important point that he speaks about is how methadone expanded rapidly in the 70s under Nixon and how this was not necessarily positive because there was not a medical and institutional understanding of the mechanisms of support needed to make methadone treatment effective. 

A major commonality between both chapters are the sections featuring the interviews from Dr. Dole and Dr. Butler, who were both pioneers in their field, and while somewhat controversial figures, they both present the narrative of caring about patients and changing the way that the system was previously set up to treat addicts as test subjects. Dr. Butler was opposed to the idea of trying to trick patients into gradually withdrawing and he was passionate about and believed in his method of treatment so much so that he fought to keep it open despite government warnings. This is similar to Dr. Dole, who describes his feelings about it being necessary to treat addicts as patients and human beings and to treat the underlying emotional causes rather than simply adopting the more standard “prison ward” and “guinea pig attitude” towards the patients (336). He was also instrumental in helping to develop addiction treatment for people who were suffering from withdrawal when they were in jail in New York City, as he described the situation of the people as being in great suffering. Similar to Dr. Butler, Dr. Dole also was not supported by the government and specifically the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tried to stop his experiments and work using methadone maintenance because it was “maintaining addicts.” This once again also highlights the common theme between the two chapters of the stigmatization of addicts as a group of people as well, as in both chapters they were treated as group needing to be controlled by the government and outside medical forces, deemed incapable or undeserving in many situations to make their own treatment decisions. 

In both chapters of Addicts Who Survived, the format is similar in the method of the chapter is to open with an abstract discussing the subject matter and giving a brief history, as well as synopsizing what the conclusions will be from the chapter as a whole, then the rest of the chapter is filled by first hand accounts from the interviewees. I think that they are both very useful and I would not say that one is more useful than the other in general, I think that it depends on the context of what they are being used for. 

One question that I was left with after reading both chapters, was comparing the two, after thinking about Dr. S. Dana Hubbard and others who were highly critical of narcotic clinics and addicts in general, I wonder how they would have felt, or did feel, years later about methadone maintenance and whether Hubbard would have considered methadone a narcotic, evil and reinforcing the identity of the addict that he described, or whether he believed that methadone was permissible under the type of treatment that he described as ideal, wherein people would detox and then go to an open-air farm of sorts until they are fully able to return to the real world and be contributing members of society, drug free (294). 

Liz’s Blaze It Blog II

Hey, everybody. How’s it going? In case you didn’t get your fill of drug-based scholastics in last post, I have curated another one for you.

Today’s topic?

Caroline Jean Acker’s “How crack found a niche in the American ghetto: The historical epidemiology of drug-related harm” vs. David Herzberg’s “Happy Pills in America : From Miltown to Prozac”.

In what is likely unsurprising to you, both of these readings discuss aspects of drug culture. Both focus on the United States. I will summarize each, then put them in conversation with one another.

How crack found a niche in the American ghetto

-The work aims to fill the gap that exists when only science is used to examine addiction.

-It does so by focusing on social factors that determine who it is that is becoming addicted.

-The argument of the piece’s purpose is that social factors are powerful, so powerful that it is irresponsible to ignore them when examining addiction.

-It focuses on crack epidemics in urban neighborhoods in the 1980’s, looking at causes of this circumstance.

Happy Pills (Pages 1-14)

-It opens with a dramatic “Paxil” advertisement that promises its users a restored sense of self.

-Explains that ads like these are rooted in post-WWII medicine in America.

-Mentions that the 1990’s ushered in a trend of skepticism of pharmaceutical messages.

-Emphasizes the role of consumerism.

-Mentions the defining of the “war on drugs” as often excluding prescription drugs.

-Brings back the powerful idea that the history we know is missing many pieces of information.

A Couple Examples of the Many Common Threads

There are many common threads throughout the two works, but I selected two that I found to be the most dominant.

While the works are different in many wats, there are certainly some areas of overlap. These areas show us themes of distinct importance within the dialogue of drug history.

I will be using “HCFNAG” as an easy, catchy, and brief acronym for “How crack found a niche in the American ghetto: The historical epidemiology of drug-related harm”. I will be using “Happy Pills” as the abbreviation for its full title.

1)Notions of drug intake as a solution/coping mechanism

              -HCFNAG: Coping with isolation/poverty through crack usage

                            -Acker discusses the long history of the Hill District, explaining that the years of struggle created a vulnerable environment in the face of drug epidemic. She writes, “Tracing these changes in the neighborhood captures some of the experience of its residents and sets the stage for the arrival of crack,” (Acker 79).

              -Happy Pills: Taking “Paxil” as a complete cure-all

                            -The 2001 ad for the medication promised that one would “see someone you haven’t seen in a while… Yourself” (Hertzberg 1). This pharmaceutical ad, posing as scientifically based, issued promises to consumers that are unrealistic.

2)Component of incomplete understanding shaping views of drug users

              -HCFNAG: idea of the “crack baby”

                            -Science initially, and incorrectly, informed Americans that babies whose mothers had smoked crack were prone to more devastating birth defects than babies whose mothers had consumed cocaine (Acker 84). This shocked the public and “Images of black ‘crack babies’ excited alarmed pity” (Acker 83). The sense of “otherness” already surrounding communities with crack problems were then magnified.

              -Happy Pills: Framing drug’s abilities as more capable than in actuality

                            -Drug advertisements in this century have had aspects of an “accent of consumer culture, implying a lifestyle choice as well as a medical therapy” (Acker 2). This advertising tactic markets a near-truth, rather than a truth, that ultimately misinforms and manipulates consumers.


In looking at these two works, we are able to better understand drug history in the United States as a whole. It is integral to interrogate concepts like the ways in which notions of drug intake manifests as a solution/coping mechanism and societal components of incomplete understanding shaping views of drug users.

To better understand the ways in which addiction manifests now, we must lean the ways in which it has occurred and been influenced in the past. Both Caroline Jean Acker’s “How crack found a niche in the American ghetto: The historical epidemiology of drug-related harm” and David Herzberg’s “Happy Pills in America : From Miltown to Prozac” provide us with useful insight.

Works Cited

Acker, Caroline Jean. “How Crack Found a Niche in the American Ghetto: The Historical Epidemiology of Drug-Related Harm.” BioSocieties, vol. 5, no. 1, 2010, pp. 70–88., doi:10.1057/biosoc.2009.1.

Herzberg, David. Happy Pills in America : From Miltown to Prozac, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/emory/detail.action?docID=4398380.

Reaching Enlightenment: Psychedelic American Buddhism

Hope Chang

When asked to imagine a “hippie”, what comes to mind? For many, it may look something like the following:

The 1960s, hallucinogenic prints, long hair, mind altering substances, and a “make love not war” mentality. However, what may be not as visibly stereotypically a part of the counterculture’s is its association with Eastern religion – Buddhism, particularly.

During the 1960s, psychedelic experiences led figures such as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert to explore Eastern Buddhist practices and to eventually publish a book on the matter entitled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. During this time, many other psychedelic users were also drawn to Buddhism and its practices after their mind-bending experiences – the rise of interest in yoga, meditation, and Eastern religions in the 60’s and 70’s was closely tied to the rise of a counter cultural interest in psychedelics. In 1967, one anonymous Harvard East Asian expert went so far as to compare Buddhist monasticism and the “hippie movement”, claiming to have foreseen the movement in a book on Eastern religion written a ten-years beforehand (The Harvard Crimson, 1967).  However, in the following decades of the late 70’s and 80’s, many Buddhists distanced themselves from the antiestablishment counterculture that they had previously subscribed to, anxious to rid their reputation of the 60’s drug. Given that Buddhism’s fifth precept demands abstinence from all intoxicants, a large proportion claim to have left these drugs behind to subscribe to the more traditional, original practice – However, a newer generation of American Buddhist converts continue to combine their meditations with psychedelics, giving rise to a uniquely Americanized (and oftentimes, substance-involving) version of the religion.

For my final blog project, I intend to explore the relationship between psychedelics and American Buddhism. More specifically, I want to see how such a traditionally substance-rejecting Eastern religion became so associated with mind-altering substances in the U.S. – What caused this mingling and what are its implications? What would American Buddhists to leave behind the substances which lead them to their religion in the first place? 

The origins of the connection between Buddhism and psychedelics can be traced to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (Osto, 2019). The youth of this decade began to reject characteristic American conservatism, consumerism, materialism, and conformism, and as Mélisa Kidari, author of The Counterculture of the 1960s in the United States: An “Alternative Consciousness”?  writes, “they looked for a bigger horizon. What is bigger than the Universe? The Buddha taught connection with the universe”(Kidari, 2012). Ultimately, Kidari argues that it is only logical why the counterculture would be so attracted to tenants of Eastern philosophies – Feeling stifled by traditional expectations and limitations, turning inwards to search for spiritual enlightenment seemed like a direct rebellion of the norm and perhaps an avenue for peace to replace their social anxieties. However, in many sects of Buddhism, a practitioner primarily achieves enlightenment via rigorous meditation and asceticism – things that required a discipline that contradicted the counterculture’s rejection of authority (Kidari, 2012). However, some early experimenters of psychoactive substances proposed with the aid of such drugs like LSD, one could reach a similar enlightenment with the additional advantages of having to waste no time and no effort and abide by no discipline. Here, we begin to see why an overlap began to build between psychedelics and Buddhist philosophies.

 Through a number of major publications and studies, the 60s were witness to the birth of a major psychedelic movement. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – both American psychologists now famous for being early advocates for the therapeutic uses of psychoactive substances – began the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960 to investigate possible benefits of psychedelics by recruiting various graduate students and faculty members in the Boston area and giving them psilocybin mushrooms. On Good Friday in 1962, one of the project’s most well-known experiments was conducted under the supervision of Leary: The Marsh Chapel Experiment of 1962 (also appropriately referred to as the Good Friday Experiment). Walter Pahnke – a medical doctor, a Protestant minister, and one of Leary’s graduate students – conducted the study in Marsh Chapel at Boston University as part of his Religion and Society PhD dissertation, specifically to investigate if psychoactive substances could induce mystical experiences. Even in its early days, psychedelics seemed to almost immediately tied to religion and spirituality.

Shortly after the experiment was conducted, Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard and began to co-author their own book entitled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964) with Ralph Metzner. As the title indicates, the authors were clearly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or more formerly Bardo Thodol,from which the authors were inspired is a Tibetan guidebook which is meant to be read to the recently deceased to help guide their consciousness through the various bardo states before their rebirth into the next life. In several schools of Buddhism, the bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth and is primarily comprised of three stages – “bardo of the moment of death”, “bardo of the experiencing of reality”, and “bardo of rebirth”.  After Metzner, Leary, and Alpert had several experiences on various psychoactive substances, they equated their altered states to one of the bardo states they had read about in The Tibetan Book of the Dead – the Clear Light state found in the “bardo of the moment of death”. Thus, in The Psychedelic Experience, the clear light altered state became the primary goal and purpose of using psychedelic substances and became synonymous with Buddhist enlightenment. At the time of its publication, readers most likely knew little about Buddhism or psychoactive substances, and consequently the trio of authors soon became the major narrators of their popular perceptions in the U.S (Osto, 2019). It was this point in my research that I began to wonder what implications this could have for both users of psychoactive substances and the demographics of American converts to Buddhism. Hypothetically, if Metzner, Leary, and Alpert had not been a main introducer of Buddhism and psychedelics to U.S. populations, would psychoactive substances still be considered as spiritual as they are today? 

In addition to creating a guidebook for future users of psychoactive substances, Metzner, Leary, and Alpert also had another major objective in mind – the unification of science and religion through psychedelics. They write, “Modern psychedelic chemicals provide a key to this forgotten realm of awareness…. Now for the first time, we possess the means of providing enlightenment to any prepared volunteer…. For these reasons we have prepared this psychedelic version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The secret is released once again, in a new dialect, and we sit back quietly to observe whether man is ready to move ahead and to make use of the new tools provided by modern science”(Leary & Metzner & Alpert, 1969). Interestingly, the authors incorporate science as an additional motivation to utilize and link psychedelics to and in Eastern philosophies. One of the trio’s contemporaries, Alan Watts – an influential convert to Buddhism and popularizer of East Asian religions during the early 1960s –, was a self-proclaimed student of the psychology of religion. Similar to Leary and Alpert’s dismissal from Harvard, Watts encountered governmental and societal pressures to no longer pursue research in the field of psychoactive substances. In response, he argued that the mystical experiences induced by such substances were similar enough to the “tradition of genuine religious involvement” (Watts, 1968) that users should be entitled to at least some form of constitutional protection. He writes:

“This is a barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom, suggesting that the legal system of the United States is, after all, in tacit alliance with the monarchical theory of the universe and will, therefore, prohibit and persecute religious ideas and practices based on an organic and unitary vision of the universe” (Watts, 1968)

After reading the above sentiments, my mind immediately circled back to a book I read for a Buddhism course I took last semester. In Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (2012), the 14th Dalai Lama also interestingly calls for a necessary unification of religion and Western science (H.H. Dalai Lama, 2012). He of course does not call for the use of psychedelics as the bridge between the two as Metzner, Leary, and Alpert do, but the similarity in calling to bridge religion and science in Beyond Religion and The Psychedelic Experience demonstrates that perhaps there exists a significant population which craves some intermediary between the two – a craving that has possibly existed for decades and perhaps also played a role in why Buddhism and psychoactive substances have seemingly arisen so concurrently in the U.S.

Metzner, Leary, and Alpert may have been major perpetuators of the American link between Buddhism and psychedelics, but how did the authors become interested in this marriage in the first place? To provide further context for the link between the rise of American Buddhism, it is helpful to understand one of the main inspirations behind The Psychedelic Experience, another book published two years prior in 1962 entitled The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness written by the aforementioned Alan Watts. In its foreword, Leary and Alpert write, “We have had to return again and again to the non-dualistic conceptions of Eastern philosophy, a theory of mind made more explicit and familiar in our Western world by Berson, Alduous Huxley, and Alan Watts” (Leary & Alpert, 1962). Here, Leary and Alpert explicitly acknowledge Watt’s ability to write about Asian religions, giving further evidence to the association between Buddhism and psychoactive substances. In the book, Watts postulates that direct experience is the “purview of religion”, and so he aims to connect science and religion via experiences on psychedelic drugs. Throughout his writing, he appropriates from Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu lines of thought and aligns them with his own substance-induced hypotheses about the true nature of reality, ultimately concluding that psychedelics may be the form of “medicine” needed by humans to rid themselves of their false sense of separateness. He writes:

“Such aids to perception are medicines, not diets, and as the use of a medicine should lead to a more healthful mode of living, so the experiences which I have described suggest measures we might take to maintain a sounder form of sanity. Of these the most important is the practice of what I would like to call meditation – were it not that this word often connotates spiritual or mental gymnastics” (Watts, 1962)

Watts also repeatedly refers to the Buddhist notion of “void” in relation to his words on meditation, ultimately making the association to Buddhism explicit.  In Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America (2016), Osto analyzes that throughout his various works, Watts demonstrates a common narrative found in “psychedelic Buddhist” literature which hails that using psychedelics is not only a way to find spirituality by themselves but can also be supplementary with Buddhist practices (Osto, 2019)

At this point, I hope to have made the connection between psychedelics and Buddhism clear: The popularizers of psychoactive substances were often also the popularizers of Eastern religions, and a shared ideal of achieving some sort of higher consciousness and peace in place of pursuing traditional American expectations allowed for a logical relationship between substance and religion. However, although this overlap was acclaimed by some, it was also heavily criticized and resisted by others. In another Alan Watts publication Psychedelics and Religious Experience (1968),he argues that the notion of “mystical experiences” resulting from drug use is not generally well-accepted by Western societies and blames the culture’s enthrallment with placing value on a person depending on their ability to be a self-determining, responsible, and controlled individual through their own sheer effort and will. Ultimately, he believes that the notion of spiritual or psychological growth through the use of drugs directly contradicts and is even repugnant to the surrounding American cultural tradition. Thus, Watts postulates that resistance to allowing the use of psychoactive substances does not only originate in secular values, but in religious ones as well.

Since the 1960s, the association between Buddhism and psychedelics has remained present. In one 1996 edition of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a poll from 1,454 readers found:

  • 89% engaged in Buddhist practice
  • 83% stated they had taken psychedelics
  • >40% said their interest in Buddhism was sparked by psychedelics
  • 71% believe that “psychedelics are not a path, but they can provide a glimpse of the reality to which Buddhist practice points”(Tricycle, 1996)

Given that according to government surveys only 8% of the U.S. population have experimented with psychedelic drugs (Osto, 2019), it seems Buddhists are more likely to have had experimented with psychoactive substances than non-Buddhists. However, it is pertinent to point out here that those who partake in “psychedelic Buddhism” are predominantly white, middle- or upper-class, college educated, politically liberal converts to the religion (Osto, 2019). Although Asian American Buddhists seem to be much less interested in using psychedelics, given the scope and topic of this post, I was not able to satisfactorily investigate nor speak to how Asian American Buddhists felt about usages of substances. However, I felt it was important to acknowledge race is a touchy but important subject in discussions surrounding American Buddhism. Here is a link to an article that can speak more in depth on the issue: https://www.lionsroar.com/were-not-who-you-think-we-are/. Putting that aside, Tricycle makes it clearthat the relationship between Buddhism and psychedelics did not die with the counterculture of the 1960s. When asked, “How important was LSD for the importation of Eastern spiritual practices into the U.S. during the sixties?”, one interviewee responded:

“I took LSD and other psychedelics at Dartmouth after I started studying Eastern religions. They came hand in hand, as they did for many people. In fact, the majority of Western Buddhist teachers used psychedelics at the start of their practice. A number still do on occasion”

Some even went so far as to claim:

“‘How can you be a serious Buddhist if you’re not exploring psychedelics?’ Then you’re sort of an arm-chair Buddhist, a Buddhist from theory, a Buddhist from practice, but it is sort of training wheels practice”

A tension currently exists between a more traditional and conservative rejection of psychedelics and a more permissive attitude (Badiner & Gray, 2002). A common narrative trope among boomer-generation American Buddhists found by Davis in Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism on Psychedelics (2002) is that “Yes, that is what we did back in the sixties, but then we got serious about our Buddhist practice and it stopped”. Ultimately, there seems to be a great amount of diversity and at times conflict among American Buddhists on what the role of psychoactive substances can or should play in their religion.


Badiner, A. H., & Gray, A. (2002). Zig zag zen: Buddhism on psychedelics. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.

Buddhism & Psychedelics. (1996). Tricycle: The Buddhist Review6(1). Retrieved from https://tricycle.org/magazine-issue/fall-1996/

Hippies and Buddhists Compared by Scholar: News: The Harvard Crimson. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1967/10/28/hippies-and-buddhists-compared-by-scholar/.

Huxley, A. (1954). The doors of perception. London: Chatto and Windus.

Kidari, M. (2012). The Counterculture of the 1960s in the United States: An “Alternative Consciousness”? . HAL. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a485/18890adef0805e5db3e0ec31396202d649e7.pdf?_ga=2.212101271.2081329948.1575652564-1454238188.1575652564

Leary, T., Metzner, R., & Dass, R. (1969). The psychedelic experience: a manual based on the Tibetan book of the dead. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

Osto, D. (2019). Altered states: Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Queen, C., & Williams, D. R. (2013). American Buddhism Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. London: Taylor and Francis.

Watts, A., Leary, T. F., & Dass, R. (1962). The joyous cosmology: adventures in the chemistry of consciousmess. New York: Vintage Books.

Watts, A. (1968). Psychedelics and Religious Experience. California Law Review56(1), 74. doi: 10.2307/3479497