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.

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