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Q&A: David Herzberg, a "historian of drugs"

"...it’s inspiring to see what 'healthcare' can be in the hands of people attuned to both individuals’ wellbeing and social justice." -- David Herzberg


We checked in with our SUNY Buffalo colleague David Herzberg, a "historian of drugs" and author of the new book, White Market Drugs: Big Pharma and the Hidden History of Addiction in America.

Though the contemporary opioid crisis is widely seen as new and unprecedented, Herzberg argues that it is merely the latest in a long series of drug crises stretching back over a century. He explores these crises and the drugs that fueled them, from Bayer’s production of heroin in the early 1900s to Purdue’s OxyContin and all the drugs in between: barbiturate “goof balls,” amphetamine “thrill pills,” the “love drug” Quaalude, and more.


The vast majority of American experiences with drugs and addiction have taken place within what Herzberg calls “white markets,” where legal drugs called medicines are sold to a largely white clientele.


Publishers Weekly named White Market Drugs one of the "Big Indie Books of Fall 2020." The Wall St. Journal reviewer said, “At the start of White Market Drugs, Herzberg laments that ‘pharmaceutical opioids do not yet have their historian.’ They do now. He has presented a careful and comprehensive chronicle spanning more than a century.”


Purchase White Market Drugs from the independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza: www.bhny.com/book/9780226731889.


What are you most looking forward to in your personal life in the coming year?

Oh man, can I just say “everything”? I’d like to hang out with friends, eat at a restaurant, see a movie, visit out-of-state family, reconnect with far-off colleagues and collaborators. One very, very, faint silver lining to the pandemic is that it has lowered the bar for what qualifies as wonderful. Just hugging my grown sons who aren’t at home any more — that would be paradise.

What is your biggest hope for America in 2021?

I hope we can somehow commit ourselves to the virtues of pragmatism: just doing things that work. Obviously we all have bigger dreams than that for our country (I definitely do), but just for next year, after bizarro-hellscape 2020, it would be enough to start doing smaller, achievable things that have been proven to work.

In drug policy this means things like low-barrier access to medication assisted treatment for addiction, safe consumption sites, maybe decriminalizing (but robustly regulating!) drugs, etc. And my sense is that there is a ton of low-hanging fruit like this for other issues too. It would make a big difference if we could start there, just pragmatic things that will directly improve peoples’ lives.

What's the most important thing we can learn from the pandemic?

The pandemic is a terrible lesson in the importance of social determinants of health. Humans are mortal, we suffer illness and we die; no one can do anything about that. But we can do something about virtually all the details, and the details matter so much: how many of us suffer which illnesses, when, and what happens to us when (and after) we are ill. Unfortunately, the pandemic is teaching us that much of what we do actually makes things worse. Our investment in social inequalities kill: black and brown communities, essential working poor, and elderly Americans are suffering and dying disproportionately. Yet we also see the hopeful side of social determinants of health, in that collective action can help: places that have embraced masks and that provide support for workers to remain home are doing much better. Biomedicine is an amazing, almost miraculous enterprise. But in the end, if you want to help people, social and political decisions matter as much as or even more than miracles.

Is there anything on Earth that you find unexpectedly beautiful?

I didn’t expect to become so attached to the brown-and-white landscapes of New York winters. I wouldn’t want to have it all year, but while it’s here I often notice it and appreciate its stark complexity.

Bidwell Parkway, Buffalo

What did you most enjoy about writing White Market Drugs?

I liked writing the quieter parts. Of course I dream that people will pay attention to the big-picture arguments about the danger of allowing addictive substances to be sold for profit, why it doesn’t make sense to divide psychoactive substances into “medicines” and “drugs,” and how pharmaceutical regulations could serve as a model for drug policy more generally. But probably like many writers, I have a secret preference for the smaller stories, like the fortunate yet beleaguered people with addiction who navigated a secret network of morphine-prescribing physicians during America’s first punitive drug war, or the forgotten would-be miracle opioids before OxyContin, or the origins of “pill mill” prescribers in the 1970s. I knew it was the right thing to do but oh, I did not like cutting those parts down to reasonable lengths! I wanted to be unreasonable with them. (Readers don't fear, I did my duty.)


What new social or technological development excites you the most?

Although I didn’t get to write about it much in the book (just a little in the conclusion), I’m most excited about the emergence of harm reduction. As a historian, it’s thrilling to see a group of smart, dedicated people who are radically rethinking our inherited ideas about drug use and addiction. People who are intelligently and deliberately freeing themselves (and hopefully us) from the historical shackles of a century’s misdirected drug policy. More generally, it’s inspiring to see what “healthcare” can be in the hands of people attuned to both individuals’ wellbeing and social justice. I love harm reductionists and they give me hope, about drug policy and addiction but also about so much more.


More about David Herzberg:

www.davidherzberg.com/ | twitter.com/dhbuffalo

Read an excerpt from White Market Drugs, University of Chicago Press

Interview: David Herzberg On White Market Drugs, November 13, 2020. KSRO radio, Sonoma County, California

‘White Market Drugs’ Review: Addiction by Prescription, October 20, 2020. Wall Street Journal


In the news

COVID-19 may be worsening the opioid crisis.

According to the CDC, over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. Preliminary studies and media reports indicate that the US may be on track for even worse news for 2020 as a whole. More from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p1218-overdose-deaths-covid-19.html


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