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Professorship about drugs begins with successful seminar

How wise is it to use drugs for children struggling with attention deficit disorder? What are the implications of students diverting those same prescription drugs from their intended use to a quick way to induce alertness when studying for an exam? Does a punitive or therapeutic approach—or elements of both—work best when dealing with drug addiction?

Meg Upchurch

Psychology professor Meg Upchurch

Those were among the topics discussed in July during the first formal event of psychology professor Meg Upchurch’s Bingham-Young Professorship titled Drugged America. She hosted a group of 15 faculty and staff members for a week-long seminar that explored the forces contributing to the widespread use of drugs in American society.

One of Upchurch’s goals in the two-year professorship is to involve as many people from the campus community as possible to produce events, in addition to bringing to campus highly qualified speakers. From that perspective, she felt the July seminar was a good beginning.

“I was very pleased that faculty and staff were talking together about the issues,” Upchurch said. “What I am aiming for, and what I saw to a certain extent, is people asking about the root causes—how did we get to where we are today with our frequency of drug use?—and what we might want to change about the situation.”

logo for Drugged AmericaUpchurch’s program will look at the impact of drugs on American society from a variety of viewpoints, including the use of drugs for medical purposes, how international relations are affected, the economic impact, the problems of drug addiction, and other topics.

“Drugs are so pervasive at all levels of society that I feel this is an important topic common to all of us that touches on many different areas,” she said.

In her teaching, Upchurch has special expertise in behavioral pharmacology. Her professorship will focus on the use of psychoactive drugs, but also refer to the larger context of drug use in general, including such widespread applications as antibiotics, medications for cholesterol control, birth control pills, alcohol, tobacco, and other types of drugs.

As an example of her broad approach, Upchurch will include a look at the role drugs play in popular music. “If you think of popular music as being both a reflection of our culture and something that might drive peoples’ opinions, then you have to look at things like gangster rap when it focuses on illicit drugs and country music with its sense of the role alcohol plays in our lives.”

The first outside speaker—David E. Courtwright, Presidential Professor in the University of North Florida history department—appeared on campus in October and spoke on “Forces of Habit: Why We Make War on Some Drugs and not on Others.”

Courtwright discussed different levels of government restrictions on drugs, from the very light, such as age limitations on the purchase of alcohol and tobacco, to the drastic, which includes a complete ban on LSD and heroin. He said such restrictions are not always applied in a rational manner.

“If you think about the objective dangers of drugs, we don’t regulate them in accordance with their real danger to health,” Courtwright said. “The health consequences of alcohol and tobacco can be tremendous.”

To explain this phenomenon, Courtwright says we have to look at non-rational, non-public health reasons for the crackdown on certain drugs.

“The size of the industry surrounding a drug matters a great deal,” he said. “In 1964, when the surgeon general’s report came out regarding smoking and lung cancer, there were about 70 million smokers in a nation of about 200 million people, plus another 2 million who owed their livelihood to tobacco. So it would have been politically impossible for the government to go to a very strict policy.”

Other factors in how restrictive the government is, said Courtwright, include what kind of drugs the leaders use (President Roosevelt smoking a cigarette, which tended to lessen concern), the association of a drug with a minority group (opium smoking by Chinese in the nineteenth century, resulting in a crackdown), or a sudden increase in use (cocaine in recent decades, also bringing about a restrictive attitude).

“Another big one is if the drug is perceived to be a threat to youth,” Courtwright said. “When a drug takes off among young people, such as LSD and marijuana in the 1960s, or ecstasy in the 1980s and ’90s, that creates a very powerful legislative reaction to protect young people because they are the nation’s future.”

Other speakers, as well as faculty presentations and student seminars, will highlight the schedule for the remainder of this academic year and the next. (For information, go to the Transylvania calendar of events.)

“I hope my professorship will cause members of the Transylvania community to look drug use in the face, to see how widely it affects local institutions and the world, and introspect on whether a future in which drugs play such a wide role is truly desirable,” Upchurch said.

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