Web Roundups

Web Roundup: Hurricane “relief” and Marijuana legalization

This month’s web roundup highlights two issues that have been in the news this November: Hurricane Sandy relief, and marijuana legalization. Both topics offer resonances with medical anthropology. At the end of the post, you’ll also find a list of articles on broader topics of interest to Somatosphere readers. Happy thanksgiving travel reading, everyone!


Hurricane Sandy relief

The concept of hurricane relief and recovery, viewed from the medical anthropology perspective, serves to disguise structural inequalities that in part produce the patterning of hurricane devastation. Medical anthropologists have documented the ways in which valences of disaster compound social violence, and that humanitarian relief creates its own moral conundrums (Briggs 2003; Lakoff 2010; Lovell 2011).

A vibrant discourse has emerged in the popular media following hurricane Sandy regarding the uneven level of damage across neighborhoods of New York City. While low-income areas like Redhook and Rockaway were ravaged by the storm, wealthy neighborhoods and areas of importance to global capital, the Upper East Side and Wall Street, were spared. The long process of utility reconnection and rebuilding in these outer borough neighborhoods were in thrown in stark relief by a rapid return to normalcy in Mahattan. As electricity, transport, and aid efforts were launched, the Occupy moniker was applied to grassroots volunteer efforts to organize on-the-ground solutions in hard-hit communities. The Staten Island mayor prominently decried the American Red Cross for failing to respond to the disaster effectively, and FEMA complaints were logged; a dialogue emerged criticizing bureaucratic humanitarian enterprise.

As the national conversation turns to future storm protection, possible designs to protect the city from rising water may continue to, or even worsen, the tendency to disproportionally direct flood-waters to poor neighborhoods. As the concept of building dikes or sea gates for New York City increasingly becomes an idea worth entertaining, the New York Times hosts a discussion on the subject. Contributors wonder if a sea gate project would be “treating the symptoms, but not the cause,” identifying as global warming and rising sea levels as the factor causing the observed devastation.

Meanwhile, US news outlets unevenly covered the storm damage. Focus remained largely on urban American sites in New York City and New Jersey, with minimal coverage of storm after-effects in rural areas in the region, and even more glaringly, in the regions of the Caribbean affected by the same storm. Short news clippings referred to fears that the storms effects in Haiti might cause a resurgence of existing epidemics; yet these epidemics continue to be represented as caused by “natural” disasters, rather than by structural violence.

In other Sandy-Anthropology intersections, colonial-era human remains were unearthed in Connecticut, and anthropologists literally called in to the scene; two posts on transportation habitus disruption and the storm at Savage Minds; and great photoblogging of the hard-hit neighborhoods at humans of new york.


Marijuana legalization

One of the many outcomes of the 2012 voting season – outside of the presidential politics tango – was a significant change in the legal status of marijuana in several states.

While Massachusetts joined numerous other states in legalizing medical marijuana, Colorado and Washington registered historic firsts, when, in separate ballot initiatives, voters approved measures to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Eventually, opinions columnists argue, Massachusetts may follow suit and legalize pot altogether.

Largely absent from the popular media coverage of the event is a critical reflection on how marijuana became illegal in the first place in the United States, and, relatedly, how plant-based ritual and healing substances came to be regulated and adjudicated under the aegis of a medicalized nation state. Medical anthropology, meanwhile, recognizing the temporal and cultural contingency of various healing practices (e.g. Young 1995; Cohen 1998), is well prepared to encounter marijuana as a plant-based medicine (Good 2006).

The criminalization of marijuana over the 21st century has had profound consequences: “in less than the lifetime of one old man, cannabis has moved from being a mainstay in the world’s medical pharmacopeia to a major cause for incarceration.” (Ellis 2008)

Meanwhile, the pharmaceuticalization of American healing practices is left in sharp contrast. I once watched my PhD advisor deliver a lecture to a room full of undergraduates about the ways that the medical profession gained primacy over herbalist healers amongst the US population in the 19th century. A palpable sense of disbelief circulated, as students reckoned with the realization that the noun “medicine” has not always referred to something manufactured and dispensed in an orange plastic bottle.

Now, following the election, in one more state we have the prospect of acquiring a plant-based medicine in a plastic bottle. Massachusetts officials in the state’s Department of Public Health are stuck with the logistics – they must figure out how to enact the ballot measure. They have the experience of 17 other states and the District of Colombia where medical use of marijuana is already legal to draw on (according to the New York Times).

dissertation by Thomas Heddleston (UC Santa Cruz 2012) on medical marijuana legalization movements takes an ethnographic look at the concept of prohibition, and the way that medical marijuana in California shifted from a movement to an industry. A Boston Globe article on the subject (linked above) closes with a quote on a similar note: ‘‘it’s a billion-dollar industry that we just opened the door to here in Massachusetts. They are going to come in and capitalize on anyone in pain and our young people.’’

And, as Jon Stewart points out with characteristic comedic sass, all this legalization will mean that the national conversation about marijuana will have to move beyond stoners-with-the-munchies jokes, and toward a real consideration of the powerful ritual and social role this plant substance carries. On a popular Massachusetts website, comments abound and passions fly.

The legalization votes all contribute to the conundrum of American confederacy: as the new state laws are in direct contradiction to federal laws, solutions must be brokered. In this sense the cannabis plant and its conscious-altering properties become a pivot for the intersection of bodies, cognition, and the authority of the state. The state-federal conundrum unveiled in this process points to the precarity of structures of political authority, and their intimate connection with the so-called medical.  And institutions face a similar dilemma: The Chronicle of Higher Education points out that the recreational use legalization vote in Washington and Colorado creates a conundrum for university policy.


Other items from around the web:

  • aspiring anthropologist (on mars?) and popular neurologist Oliver Sacks was biografied in New York Magazine
  • the debate rages on over the bioethics of obamacare (so many links! start here and here)
  • John Franklin Stephens’s open letter to Ann Coulter, following her callous and careless use of the word “retard” in a tweet, became an international rallying point for conversations about cognitive difference
  • even after the election, Obama myths abound still – and misinformation is sticky according to a post at cognition and culture
  • linguistic anthropologists take issue with the “neutrality” of the term “illegal immigrant”
  • video on doctors without borders/ MSF’s World Food Day in October
  • a college student in GB chooses anthropology over medicine as a major and blogs about it
  • dengue fever epidemic in India is under-reported due to Sandy coverage
  • a new pop science take on human cognition, reviewed at the New Yorker

Academic Works Cited:

Briggs, Charles. 2003. Stories in the Time of Cholera Racial Profiling During a Medical Nightmare. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohen, Lawrence. 1998. No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ellis, Bernard. 2008. Review of Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine by Wendy Chapkis and Richard J. Webb in Contemporary Sociology 38(5)).

Good, B. 2006. Medicine, Rationality, and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, Andrew. 2010. “Two Regimes of Global Health.” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 1 (1): 59–79.

Lovell, Anne M. 2011. “Debating Life After Disaster: Charity Hospital Babies and Bioscientific Futures in Post-Katrina New Orleans.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 25 (2): 254–277.

Young, Allan. 1995. The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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