Sample Essay On Drug Addiction In Nineteenth-Century America Versus Today

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Drugs, Addiction, Violence, Homelessness, Abuse, Bullying, United States, Literature

Pages: 9

Words: 2475

Published: 2021/01/05


Many observers characterized the U.S. during the long nineteenth century as a paradise for all dope fiends. Indeed, Opium could be sold legally at a convenient location and low prices at any time during this epoch. Morphine, one of the strongest and most enjoyed pain-killer, was commonly used both during and after the Civil War during the 1860s. The germination of heroin use became increasingly marketed in the public towards the end of the 1800s. Such opiates today are imbued with pejorative undertones in relation to social, cultural and political aspects of the type of people who use and abuse these drugs. However, the aforementioned opiates combined with a vast array of pharmaceutical preparations unequivocally were “freely as accessible as aspirin is today” (Howe 341). Opiates indeed flowed through various channels that were nonetheless legal in prior decades. While nineteenth-century drug was widespread and sanctioned due to the therapeutic benefits drugs such as cannabis and cocaine provided, the stigmatization of such drugs in the present day has not necessarily stunted drug abuse but rather it has emerged as normative behavior for subaltern communities as well as the homeless. Drug use and abuse thus functioned as mechanism that reified the status quo vis-à-vis the arbitrary legal construction of cannabis consumption as “criminal” unlike it had been during the nineteenth century.


During the 1800s, the United States was characterized by many observers as a drug addict’s paradise because of how easy it was to purchase opium and other psychiatric drugs including morphine both during and after the Civil War. Legally-consumed opium sold in the U.S. during the 1800s had been imported to the U.S. legally under names such as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, and Darby’s Carminative. Advertisements in magazines, on billboards, and in periodicals all showcased these items which were used as “soothing syrups”, for the teething of children, and for “women’s troubles” (Terry and Pellens 61). Morphine was manufactured in the United States legally after importing the plant from China primarily. Opium poppies were allowed to be cultivated in the United States. The earliest evidence of farmers growing the opium poppy is in a letter from Dr. Thomas Bond, a physician who worked in Philadelphia who estimated that the production of opium every year was around a thousand pounds. Opium was primarily grown in the former Confederate states during the Civil War and or a short time at the conclusion of the war. Thus, it is unequivocal that the use on opiate consumption in the United States escalated by the end of the nineteenth century as part and parcel of a burgeoning trend of using drugs in order to resolve one’s issues/problems. This trend that planted the seeds for the drug addiction and abuse that has materialized and in turn has increasingly been viewed as normative behavior. The etiology of the epidemic of drug use and abuse stemmed from the nineteenth century, an epoch during which drug consumption and addiction in the modern sense was ubiquitous.
Beyond morphine, opium, and heroin, drugs based on cocaine proliferated and contributed to greater profits yielded by the medicine industry while also increasing drug addiction and abuse in the United States. People often engaged in chewing coca leaves because it contained natural stimulants that had historically been used to facilitate the acclimatization of those who suffered from jetlag due to new conditions. By 1860, cocaine had become “isolated in pure form,” although there is no documentation of diffuse consumption of it until two decades later when a German military doctor named Dr. Theodor Aschebrandt created a stable supply of the psychoactive drug and prescribed it to the Bavaria soldier. The doctor noted that the drug suppressed fatigue in the soldier (Freud 44). Aschebrandt recorded his observations on cocaine, which piqued the interest of Sigmund Freud, a renowned Viennese neurologist, who was contemporaneously suffering from depression, chronic fatigue, and a vast array of neurotic symptoms.
As a result of his maladies, Freud experimented with the drug in the hopes that his nervous diseases would dissipate. Moreover, he prescribed one of his patients the drug who suffered from morphine addiction and neurasthenia. Freud observed that cocaine was a “miracle drug” that retained immense therapeutic currency (Jones 49). As a result, Freud increasingly pushed his patients to consume the drug to cure their illnesses. Although a lot of people admired and followed Freud, patients increasingly reported that their use of cocaine led to drug abuse, compulsive use, and adverse side effects to the drug. An unregulated drug throughout the nineteenth century, pharmacists increasingly used cocaine as an active ingredient in medications obtained over the counter. Medical experted touted cocaine for treating a litany of maladies, including venereal diseases, alcoholism, and addiction to other drugs such as opiates. Indeed, cocaine was a psychoactive drug that induced an ephemeral feeling or euphoria, which spawned a so-called golden age in the consumption of cocaine during the nineteenth century (Inciardi 30). Unregulated cocaine use and distribution hated one the medicine industry wet bankrupt as a result of government policies that curtailed the consumption of drugs epicurean purposes. As a result, scholars note that cocaine did not affect much in the United States until the latter half of the twentieth century. It is thus unequivocal that illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine—which are currently imbued with pejorative connotations—did not always signify criminal behavior.
Similar to cocaine, the history of marijuana was grown and consumed by British colonists upon arriving North American shores. Heroin indeed had become taboo in public discourses and social relations during the 1930s, so marijuana ascended to the fore as the desired drug of choice. Chroniclers rendered cannabis a “devil drug” that was slowly killing the youth (Inciardi 7). During the 1800s, marijuana—which had been first introduced during the seventeenth century as a viable remedy for aches and pains—became a lucrative business that also had therapeutic currency because medical experts believed that it cured depression, insanity, mental retardation, hysteria and impotence. Pharmaceutical companies such as Squibb and Parke-Davis obtained marijuana in order to family pharmacists to diffuse. While cannabis never appealed to people or its therapeutic worth, cannabis consumption as a recreational activity became quite popular. Almost all major American cities by 1885 had active subcultures filled with marijuana users that catered to the wealthy elite.
As the twentieth century drew near, marijuana and other illicit drugs became linked to subaltern peoples, thereby eliciting a response in public discourses that non-whites were predisposed to criminality. The stigmatization of drugs during the nineteenth century functioned as a means to prevent it from impeding the success of more lucrative drug such as those that contained opiates. As a result, elites articulated their trepidation over cannabis consumption because of its purported foreign origins. Propaganda proliferated over the vagaries and dangers of cannabis as a “serious drug” that bred abuse and addiction that resulted in criminal behavior. As such, drugs threatened to tear the ideal middle-class family—which was ideally predicated on the separate spheres ideology in which men were the breadwinners and women took charge of domestic tasks and raising their children to become civic-minded citizens—asunder (Kalunta-Crumpton 32). As such, prior to the outbreak of World War II, the corpus of literature on marijuana as well as other stigmatized, psychoactive drugs grafted the terms “drug addiction” and “drug abuse” into the folklore of illicit drugs in the grand narrative.
Drug policies in the United States have targeted subaltern communities that often are hampered by poverty, crime, and racism. According to Nadelman, Congress had passed a resolution in 1988 that boldly asserted that it wanted to reconstruct an America divorced from drugs within the next ten years. Drug policies in America within the context of modernity and post-modernity, however, have hitherto failed due to the inefficacy of policy-makers who devised policies and legislation predicated on charged political rhetoric rather than reality. Such legalities championed moralism over pragmatism. Politicians, law enforcement officers/officials, and drug representatives have made claims to their role as public guardians of morals rather than looking to qualified health officials themselves regarding drugs. Thus, ubiquitous drug abuse has ascended to the fore of public debate and as a contentious issue at both the local and national levels. The so-called "War on Drugs"—dubbed by President Richard Nixon during the 1970s in his quest to implement law-and-order strategies in order to curtail crimes rates—merely exacerbated than rectified the trenchant problem that politicians faced (Nadelman 111). Many scholars have also espoused their belief that these subaltern communities are active members as the underbelly of western culture and society. Indeed, public discourses have rendered non-whites pathologically predisposed to drug use, abuse, criminality. Other scholars and observers provide novel interpretations that underscore the racial prejudices that inhere government policies
A photo-ethnography that introduces a paradigm-shift in the study of poverty and heroin use/addiction, Philippe Bourgois and photographer Jeffrey Schonberg Righteous Dopefiend deploys anthropological lenses to study urban people and cultures in order to fully understand the latent aspects of heroin addiction in urban America, a form of abuse that has shaped various subaltern and poor families and communities in the modern day. This monograph provides a meaningful discussion and analysis in understanding the structures and mechanisms that undergird urban social inequality in America. Renowned anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and photographer Jeffrey Schonberg assert that their twelve year long ethnographic project aimed to “portray the full details of the agony and the ecstasy of surviving on the street as a heroin injector without beatifying or making a spectacle of the individuals involved, and without reifying the larger forces enveloping them” has resulted in a paradigm shift in the conceptualization in the intersectionality poverty, class, and drug addiction (Burgois and Schonberg 5). The concept of the "righteous dopefiend" emerged as a paradigm that proffered various ways to deconstruct both structural and intimate violence in order to re-conceptualize drug abuse as really "lumpen abuse." Karl Marx had introduced this concept of "lumpen" to refer to an economic class that was unproductive and thus embodied the scum and refuse of all of the social classes (17). Thus, the authors argue that gleaned from their ethnographic projects, drug abuse resulted from politically structured abuse that provided an impetus for personal abuse within impoverished urban spaces. Starting in 1994, Bourgois and Schonberg immersed themselves into a group of homeless users in order to better understand the structural underpinnings of heroine abuse. They proffer a meaningful portrait of the lives of homeless drug addicts residing in San Francisco, revealing how the powerful forces that shape them ranging from public-health interventions and pernicious drug policy to gentrification and segregation; to racial and sexual violence; and ultimately, the physiological stranglehold of drug addition that many in the urban homeless population suffer from. This range of abuses is both causes and perpetuated by members of the homeless population, and the psychological, interpersonal, and physical abuse can only be fully understood and conceptualized through the lens of the ramifications of unequal power relations and structures.
The images reinforce more objectivity within a field of study that often deploys images for their hyperbolic or propagandistic currency, The chapter on deindustrialization becomes one of the most important in this respect, as the photos underscore how the Reaganomic concept of "trickle-down benefit" to the poor and indigent of the high-tech, digital, and booming economic in San Francisco's Silicon Valley, a bastion of digital technology invention, becomes limited to outdated and discarded computer monitors that function as seats in a gallery. In this chapter, the authors reconfigure Marx's seminal concept of class redefines the problematic through the category of "lumpen" in order to construct "a theory of lumpen abuse under punitive neo-liberalism." To do so, the authors draw from a variety of theoretical concepts already imbued with anthropological and ethnographic currency: Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and symbolic violence; Michel Foucault's definition of "biopower" and subjectivity; and Primo Levi's analysis on the invisibility of grey areas in the quotidian similar to the Holocaust era. The authors draw on these concepts in order to reconceptualize the lumpen as members of vulnerable and ignored populations for whom state-mediated discourses and forces of discipline in modernity, or "biopower," has become abusive in nature rather than productive. The structures and symbolic violence that undergird the modern economy limit individual achievement, and the free market efficiency ultimately condemns large poor populations to the aforementioned processes that undergird becoming lumpen and thereby enact violence onto the bodies of these poor drug adducts and thereby enhance their cyclical suffering.
The notion of "lumpen abuse" functions as an organizing concept throughout this engaging work. This study covers an epoch when Reagan era cutbacks during the 1980s had essentially trickled down to the urban streets and effectively dismantled the U.S. welfare safety net that had already been crumbling. Inner cities had undergone gentrification, especially cities such as San Francisco that were linked to global finance capitals. Former homeless hubs for the unstable homeless and poor to live were being converted into condominiums for the bourgeois, and urban police forces had not been organized systematically, so they enforced the zero-tolerance enforcement and harassed and incarcerated homeless drug addicts and thus rendered homelessness very visible. Poverty in the United States had suffered from a hegemonic version of punitive neo-liberalism that rendered many indigent drug addicts trapped in an "abusive carceral cycle." Incarceration thus emerged as de facto housing as well as drug treatment for the lumpen, abused by the vagaries of neoliberal public policies that unequivocally condemned the chronically unemployed drug users to homelessness until they inevitably become incarcerated once again. During the authors' fieldwork, they noted that the prison population had increased by over half a million women and men, the majority of the new inmates being homeless drug addicts when they were arrested who have incurred a rather lengthy criminal record exacerbated by low skill levels as a result of idleness cultivated within a prison system that is defined by recidivism rather than rehabilitation. From a political, analytical, and emotional perspective, Righteous Dopefiend renders visible the human costs of punitive public policies in the U.S. that results in the fomenting of an underground moral economy defined by mutual betrayal both personal and structural. It removes the visceral stigmas attached to homeless drug addicts in order to expose how these individuals devolved into becoming considered "lumpen."
Since Bourgois and Schonberg lived with and get to intimately know the homeless addicts they intended to study, they effectively locate the etiology of the drug addition for this particular group. Many of the drug addicts point to their childhood and the treatment they endured at the hands of the adults in their lives as children. An unpleasant and horrible childhood affected some people so profoundly that they manage their pain with daily fixes of heroin. Other reasons for using can be failed love relationships and failed interpersonal relationships with family and/or friends. There is a full range of possibilities for why some people choose or are forced to live their lives as homeless, constantly scrounging for dope, alcohol, food, and shelter. The group’s needs seem to come in that order. Until their fix is secured, their day can be horrible. If a person does not keep up the injection routine, there is little grace period between the absence of the fix and withdrawals occurring. So the focus of any addict’s life is to first and foremost to secure their drug fix, which becomes a cyclical and debilitating way to live each day. As such, the group spends its day in search of dealers and money and in fear of the police. Rather than provide a scathing critique of how drug addicts perpetuate their own miserable existence by refusing to become clean, the authors instead seek to elucidate the structural and institutional underpinnings for certain people to fall into such a miserable lifestyle. Bourgois and Schonberg declare: "The suffering of homeless heroin injectors is chronic and cumulative and is best understood as a politically structured phenomenon that encompasses multiple abusive relationships, both structural and personal" (16). Within this context, they analyze homeless addicts through the lens of "lumpen abuse," as homeless addicts are viewed as below even the general homeless population. Rather than excoriate them, the authors seek to reconceptualize how homeless addicts are viewed. This "community of addicted bodies" that reside underneath the freeway overpasses even in one of the world's most bustling and wealthy cities must be understood as proffering refuge for these people from the hostilities and vagaries of the modern world.
In the introduction, the authors provide an anecdote about a member of the group who had spent the entire day laboring for a moving company, moving heavy furniture. However, at the end of the day, he was not paid and told to come back in the morning for his pay. Thus, not all members of this homeless community were "lumpen," or completely unproductive due to their drug addiction. Other members of the group commit crimes to get their fix money, such as picking people’s pockets, burglarizing homes to take enough electronic equipment to pawn or sell on the street for their fix money, or panhandling in order to get a fix. The authors relate that a small amount of heroin costs two dollars, so the money needed for a temporary fix is not as high as one would think. To provide a fuller picture of the lives of these homeless drug users, the authors interviewed their family members to give the other side of the story. While this methodology is conventionally used by academics researching a topic, it is surprising in this study because of the researchers breaking that veil of objectivity. It is not surprising, however, to find that relatives have differing memories of what triggered the addiction of their relatives. Some family members do not want the user around because they set bad examples for the children. Others have had children taken away from them because of the neglect the children suffered at the hands of their addicted parents. Getting hooked on heroin creates monumental losses for both the addict and the addict's family. The cycle of abuse continues as they are powerless to change any of it because of their addiction.
Lastly, the photographs displayed in the book are compelling and provide visual proof of what the authors have articulated about their observations and interactions with these "lumpen" members of society. Text alone cannot adequately convey the quotidian violence of survival that inhered living homeless in San Francisco as well as its intriguing sociality could only be visually articulated through photographs. These people appear brave for letting themselves be photographed in their condition. Hopefully the medical personnel who treated the homeless in San Francisco will be able to help the addicts get treatment and stay clean, as drug addiction is a quotidian battle that the medics are willing to fight. Thus, Righteous Dopefiend brings into the moral and visual field the plight of individuals who have been ostracized to the margins of society, the documentation of their quotidian struggles that define their lumpen condition, and a deft and meaningful exploration of the social structures and institutions that enhance their suffering. The images splashed across the cover of the book draw in the reader to explore the forces that shape the suffering of people in society and how society at large reacts and responds to it. Ultimately, the authors elided any captions of the pictures so as to avoid objectifying or simplifying the structures, processes and themes that they convey substance abuse and poverty, crime, HIV, racialized ethnicity, non-normative sexuality, childhood trauma, and interpersonal violence are all subjects that function on a moral continuum. Thus, juxtaposing the images with the text sans captions facilitate a critical analysis that engages the reader in the subject in a evocative, unnerving, yet beautiful way. Merging text with photography cultivates intellectual as well as informal debate to broad audience about the very subject of lumpen abuse as well as how such subjects should be broached and practically engaged.
In conclusion, Bourgois and Schonberg have written a book based on twelve years of research infiltrating a homeless group of addicts in San Francisco during an epoch defined by punitive neoliberal policies that underscored poverty and grafted punishment for being homeless and/or into the structures of American life. Righteous Dopefiend provides insight into the reasons for addiction and describes the process of getting clean and sobering up. This work also describes what heroin users do daily to secure their fixes for the illicit drug. Some of the homeless work a job for a day or short period of time while others panhandle and/or turn to committing crimes such as burglary and pick pocketing to procure enough money to fulfill their fixes. Indeed, the life of an addict always underscores how the majority of the members in the homeless population become obsessive over how they will get their next fix. The reasons addicts become hooked on drugs are numerous, and they seem powerless to change their lives for the better. Some addicts bury painful episodes in their lives by using heroin to cover over the pain these occurrences caused. Instead of seeking mental help, these people want to rely on heroin to relieve the anguish a horrible childhood caused. Most do not like living outdoors and being moved by the police. So daily, they must have a fix, they must keep out of the way of law enforcement, and they must find a way to pay for that fix for the day. Family members love their addicts but cannot help them because of the family they need take care of comes before the needs of the addict. Bourgois and Schonberg show the life of an addict with intimacy.

Works Cited

Bourgois, Philippe and Jeffrey Schonberg. Righteous Dopefiend. Accessed on 11
Nov 2014 at
Breecher, Edward M. "Nineteenth-century America a Dope Fiend's Paradise." 1 Jan. 1972. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.
Fagan, Kevin. “Righteous Dopefiend.” San Francisco Chronicle. 2009. Web. N.p. Accessed on 28 Mar 2015 at
Crumpton, Anita. Drugs, Victims and Race the Politics of Drug Control. Winchester, UK: Waterside ;, 2006. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. Cocaine Papers by Sigmund Freud, ed. Byck, Robert. New York: New American Library, 1975. Print.
Howe, Hubert S. “A Physician’s Blueprint for the Management and Prevention of Narcotic Addiction,” New York State Journal of Medicine 55(1955): 341-348. Print.
Inciardi, James A. Handbook of Drug Control in the United States. New York: Greenwood, 1990. Print.
Jones, Earnest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, vol. 1. New York: Basic Books, 1953. Print.
Terry, Charles E. and Mildred Pellens. The Opium Problem. New York: Committee on Drug Addictions, Bureau of Social Hygiene, Inc., 1928. Print.

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