Project Proposal

“The sprawled body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk the other day after a plunge from the fifth story of a Chicago apartment house.  Everyone called it suicide, but actually it was murder.  The killer was a narcotic known in America as marihuana, and to history as hashish.  It is a narcotic used in the form of cigarettes, comparatively new to the United States and as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake.” – “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth” in American Magazine by Harry J. Anslinger – First Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

“Well, as I understand it, the main supporters (of marijuana prohibition) are beer companies and the pharmaceutical companies. I’d like them to show me the dead bodies from marijuana. But they can’t because there aren’t any”. – Jack Herer: Author and Cannabis Activist

“Although the use of [marijuana] is not harmless, the current knowledge base does not support the assertion that it has any notable adverse public health impact in relation to mortality”. – The British Medical Journal – Stephen Sidney, MD: associate director of research for Kaiser Permanente, Oakland, Calif.

“Drugs” is both a word and a concept . . . that such and such a plant, root, or substance is also for us a concept, a thing apprehended through the name of a concept and the device of an interpretation.  No, in the case of “drugs’”, the regime of the concept is different: there are no drugs “in nature”.  There may be natural poisons and indeed natural lethal poisons, but they are not as such “drugs”.  As with addiction, the concept of drugs supposes an instituted and an institutional definition: a history is required, and a culture, conventions, evaluations, norms, and entire network of intertwined discourses, a rhetoric, whether explicit or elliptical” – The Rhetoric of Drugs by Jacques Derrida

According to Derrida, “drugs” is a not solely a word but a concept, susceptible to multiple connotations influenced by various elements.  More specifically, the rhetoric of drugs has evolved through time, altering the meaning of “drugs”, bending its implications in order to satisfy diverse factors of the historical process.  Thus, the word “drug”, in Derrida’s terms, may be rendered as a “remedy” and paradoxically, a “poison”.  The word “drug”, as a result of its flexible meaning, or rather, as Derrida explains, the “rules and the strange logic that links” the signified to the signifier, “has been dispersed, masked, obliterated, and rendered almost unreadable not only by the imprudence or empiricism of the translators, but first and foremost by the redoubtable, irreducible difficulty of translation” (The Rhetoric of Drugs, 71-73).  Therefore, “drugs” is a word, but one nearly untranslatable.  Consequently, it cannot be linked to a solid concept or definition.  Accordingly, I will not attempt to define the term, but rather examine the “intertwined discourses”, or rhetoric, that assign meaning to the word “drug”.

The War on Drugs in America is not a physical form of combat but a rhetorical battle of opposing ideologies.  Therefore, within the confines of this paper, I will focus upon the rhetoric of the marijuana drug war in America, referring specifically to the anti-marijuana rhetoric of The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a government agency established in the 1930’s in order to counteract the use of marijuana in the United States. Rather than argue marijuana as a “remedy” or “poison”, I will elevate “marijuana” as a word with a malleable concept made malleable by the word’s environment and the rhetoric discourse shaping its meaning.  Thus, one may not be able to define “drugs” but one is capable of examining its conceptual discourse, a discourse which has determined marijuana as a “drug”.

The concept that is marijuana the “drug” is not based upon scientific knowledge of the truth but rather knowledge derivative of power.  According to Michel Foucault in “The Body of the Condemned”, “power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations”(175).  Thus, knowledge regarding the concept of marijuana is instilled to the masses by those in power, using various rhetorical strategies to introduce their own agenda.  Furthermore, as Foucault explains in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, those in power are granted more control by “giving rise to the universe of rules”, installing these rules within humanity (150).  Those who have been “successful” throughout history “are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them” (151).  Rules are established within humanity by the dominant group.  The term “Mass Media”, coined in the 1920’s, is described in Alan Wells’ text Mass Media and Society as referring to “newspapers, magazines, television, film, radio, and recording” and “a product of mass society” (4).  Therefore, mass media is designed to reach a large audience. In successfully doing so, those in control of said media can be referred to as the dominant group holding the power to impart “knowledge” to the masses. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, established in 1930 in an era of mass media development, had the means to reach large audiences with their drug rhetoric.

To Do List:

– Discuss Plato’s Phaedrus. In the text, Socrates believes that the written word is a Pharmakon (drug), a “poison” or a “remedy”, something that “goes against natural life” (Derrida, Dissemination, 100).  Socrates states, “You must forgive me, dear friend; I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open space won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.  Yet you seem to have discovered a drug (Pharmakon) for getting me out.  A hungry animal can be driven by dangling a carrot or a bit of green stuff in front of it; similarly if you proffer me speeches bound in books I don’t doubt you can cart me all round Attica, and anywhere else you please.  Anyhow, now that we’ve got here I propose for the time being to lie down, and you can choose whatever posture you think most convenient for reading”(230d-e).  Thus, because a word can make one stray away from their natural path, the discourse constructing the word “drug” is more important to define than the word itself.

-Refer to Foucault’s ideology regarding power as the source of knowledge within a Mass Media society.  Those with the power control the media.  Those controlling the media control knowledge.  Therefore, the media is full of anti-marijuana rhetoric influencing knowledge.  Thus, because “marijuana” is a word with a malleable concept, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930’s, operating during the development of mass media, used their media power to construct the word “marijuana” into a negative concept in order to acquire monetary support for their campaign against marijuana.

– Refer specifically to the rhetoric of the FBN’s campaign against “evil weed” in the texts The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control by David Musto and Cannabis: a History.  Then, provide opposing ideologies (rhetoric) regarding marijuana.  The goal is to not assert a personal opinion but illustrate the flexibility of a word “marijuana”, made bendy by rhetoric.

– Once the bulk of my ideas have been transcribed to the page, I will clean up the argument and provide some fluid transitions from one idea to the next, linking the ideologies is usually a difficult part in my writing process.

Phase 1-3:

-Phase 1:  Once all of the bullets of my “to do” list are covered, I should nearly have a rough draft.

-Phase 2: After my rough draft is complete and peer reviewed, I will revise my paper in order to prepare for presentation.  Possibly research some film clips / media clippings to show during my presentation.

-Phase 3: Finish project and present to class.

Timeline and Time Estimation:

Having already done a fair amount of research (10 useful sources already), my time will be devoted to the actual writing.  I prefer to just jump into a paper, and then clean it up at the end.  From this point in time, I think a week of writing in which it is split evenly between days should be sufficient.  However, revising and peer evaluations will affect my estimated time.  It is hard to develop a true estimate because I am a bit inconsistent…

3 comments for “Project Proposal

  1. simi dhaliwal
    April 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm


    Your opening quote is so powerful!!!

    “Thus, one may not be able to define “drugs” but one is capable of examining its conceptual discourse, a discourse which has determined marijuana as a “drug”.

    I never looked at marijuana in this light. Your arguement is strong in that you seem to be defining the term “drug” as it has been defined by the rheotorical strength of instituions who hold power in American, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics. I’m interested in reading your paper :)

  2. simi dhaliwal
    April 29, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Your opening quote is so powerful!!!

    “Thus, one may not be able to define “drugs” but one is capable of examining its conceptual discourse, a discourse which has determined marijuana as a “drug”.
    I never looked at marijuana in this light. Your argument is strong in that you seem to be defining the term “drug” as it has been defined by the rhetorical strength of institutions who hold power in American, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics. I’m interested in reading your paper. :)

    I had some spelling errors :/

  3. May 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm


    I think this will be quite and interesting analysis, especially in light of the most recent efforts to legalize it in CA. You might also look at the FDA definition of what counts as a drug. I’ve heard it said that if sugar and caffeine were discovered _now_, they would also be controlled substances.

    In terms of the control/domination aspect, what does the federal or state gov’ts stand to gain from their definitions of marijuana? What exact mechanism of control are we seeing?

    I also suspect you may have to narrow your scope a bit; perhaps to one aspect of the discourse, or to a time period.

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