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Education: Higher Education

Seeking Pleasure, Managing Moods: User’ Experiences with Psychoactive Drugs

About the Module


Caroline Jean Acker, Associate Professor and Head of the History Department at Carnegie Mellon University, received her PhD in History of Health Sciences from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1993. She is author of Creating the American Junkie: Addiction Research in the Classic Era of Narcotic Control (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002 ) and co-editor, with Sarah W. Tracy, of Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000. She has volunteered with Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a needle exchange program she co-founded, since 1995. Her areas of research interest include the history of drug use, the experience of drug users, ideas about addiction, pharmacology, and drug policy. Her article “How Crack Found a Niche in the American Ghetto: The Historical Epidemiology of Drug Related Harm” appeared in BioSocieties (2010) 5, 70-88.

suggested use

Psychoactive drugs are compounds that enter the brain and affect mood, consciousness, perception, cognitions, and behavior. Much that is written about psychoactive drugs, in both scholarly literature and popular media, assigns them great power: drugs sap the will; they enslave their users; they derange the mind; they scramble neurotransmission. Such constructions obscure the human agency involved in drug use. In the past two decades, historians have opened up new perspectives on understanding drug use in the past by putting the person using the drugs in central focus. In doing so, they have drawn on insights developed by anthropologists and sociologists who have studied drug users in diverse social settings. They have also adapted tools from epidemiology in examining the intersections of social and spatial geography to analyze how drug use spreads (or not) within and among groups. The result has been a growing literature that explores ways that social setting influences drug use and helps shape the meaning of drug experiences. A better understanding of these influences and of the meanings of drug use for those who use them will improve students’ ability to understand complex behaviors in the past and present. This unit focuses on the U.S. from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Many medicines are also psychoactive drugs. These include some pain relievers (such as morphine), anti-anxiety drugs, and stimulants prescribed for conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These drugs are also consumed in ways that are conditioned by social and cultural values. That a physician prescribes them lends them an aura of scientific healing. They are usually taken while alone rather than in a social setting. Yet there are close resemblances between many illicit drugs and medically approved ones, and many people bring the same motives to their consumption of either category: to assuage difficult feelings or moods, to control psychic pain, to maintain an addiction in order to stave off withdrawal symptoms. The readings in this module prompt students to think critically about these similarities: what do they suggest about how Americans have sought to maximize the benefits that psychoactive drugs might offer while controlling the risks they pose?


At the conclusion of this module, students should be able to:

  • Place people who use drugs in the context of their social milieu and economic status and analyze the drug-using behavior in the context of opportunities available to them. (Opportunities can refer to options or constraints posed by socioeconomic class, gender, race, educational status, or other factors as well as opportunities to encounter and perhaps use drugs.)
  • Identify similarities and differences between people seeking to modulate moods or relieve anxieties by consuming illicit drugs or taking drugs as prescribed by a physician.
  • Analyze how historical actors have made choices about drug use in the context of other options and constraints in their lives.
  • Describe one or more patterns whereby the use of a drug has moved from one social setting to another, and what the consequences have been.
  • Reconstruct the meanings of drug use in people’s lives.
  • Distinguish patterns of drug use that have characterized distinct periods in American history from the late nineteenth century to the present.
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