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Creating the American Junkie

, 288 pages

2 line drawings

March 2002



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Creating the American Junkie

Addiction Research in the Classic Era of Narcotic Control

Heroin was only one drug among many that worried Progressive Era anti-vice reformers, but by the mid-twentieth century, heroin addiction came to symbolize irredeemable deviance. Creating the American Junkie examines how psychiatristsand psychologists produced a construction of opiate addicts as deviants with inherently flawed personalities caught in the grip of a dependency from which few would ever escape. Their portrayal of the tough urban addict helped bolster the federal government's policy of drug prohibition and created a social context that made the life of the American heroin addict, or junkie, more, not less, precarious in the wake of Progressive Era reforms.

Weaving together the accounts of addicts and researchers, Acker examines how the construction of addiction in the early twentieth century was strongly influenced by the professional concerns of psychiatrists seeking to increase their medical authority; by the disciplinary ambitions of pharmacologists to build a drug development infrastructure; and by the American Medical Association's campaign to reduce prescriptions of opiates and to absolve physicians in private practice from the necessity of treating difficult addicts as patients. In contrast, early sociological studies of heroin addicts formed a basis for criticizing the criminalization of addiction. By 1940, Acker concludes, a particular configuration of ideas about opiate addiction was firmly in place and remained essentially stable until the enormous demographic changes in drug use of the 1960s and 1970s prompted changes in the understanding of addiction—and in public policy.

Caroline Jean Acker is an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and cofounder of Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a needle exchange program in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. She is co-editor, with Sarah W. Tracy, of Altering American Consciousness: Essays in the History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800–2000 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004).

"A well-written and thoughtful book... Acker presents a fascinating account of how addicts' negative image came to dominate public and official perceptions, as well as how it forced some users into the mold. Her careful analysis of research findings will make this book of interest to historians, drug-abuse workers, and anyone else who wants to examine the origins of American drug policy."

"Fascinating... A compelling journey through drug-addiction history... This book lays a firm foundation for re-evaluating our approach to the study of addiction."

"Draws on familiar themes to create a novel and compelling portrait of the times."

"This book makes its most original contribution by probing the intersecting interests of professionals and policy makers who believed in managing the drug problem through a self-conscious combination of legal control and scientific knowledge... Acker's history of drug policy and science during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century illustrates the recent guise of an old social divide between deserving and undeserving Americans."

"A thorough and compelling survey."

"A fine book, convincingly arguing its central points, and in the process concisely making a significant original contribution to an intensely studied field."

"A critical text for scholars and policy makers alike that underscores the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to developing anything approaching an accurate model of substance-dependence and humane policies for dealing with people dependent on opiates."

"While harm reduction supporters will find this book validating, readers do not need to subscribe to this particular drug policy alternative to find Dr. Acker's book to be filled with fascinating stories about the people and the ideas which have shaped today's ptiched battles in the drug policy wars."

"This is an accessible study of interest to a broad and varied audience. Acker has a good eye for the revealing quote and incident. She has undertaken an important task in seeking to configure the social historical (who the addicts were and what constituted addiction), the sociology of knowledge (the involvements of the several groups of researchers considered), and public policy."

"Provides an excellent foundation for understanding not only the prevailing attitudes of the day but also the influence of those attitudes on current policy and theories of addiction."

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