The Unruly Pharmacy: Expert Opinion and the Management of Public Debate over LSD

By Bost, Matthew | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Unruly Pharmacy: Expert Opinion and the Management of Public Debate over LSD


Bost, Matthew, Argumentation and Advocacy


Drugs are a perennial facet of human culture. From the use of cannabis discussed by Herodotus (73-74.5) to the millions spent worldwide on tobacco, coffee, and chocolate for daily and hourly consumption, we have a pronounced tendency to intoxicate ourselves to various degrees and in various contexts. Despite this tendency, however, consciousness-altering substances have also been severely proscribed throughout history. Ancient religious prohibitions against drug use are the ancestors to current drug prohibition in a variety of geopolitical contexts. This tension between frequent open use and taboo, as well as the interplay of scientific reasoning and religion in more recent public discussions of drugs, make debates over drug use an ideal case to study the limits of argumentation.

This article examines a key moment in the formation of contemporary attitudes toward drugs: the hearings held in 1966 by the United States Senate Committee on Government Operations to decide the fate of federally funded research on LSD. While they produced no legislation, they are a crucial moment in the history of debates over drug policy in the United States because they set the tone for subsequent state- and federal-level debates over criminalization and regulation. The results of these debates have had significant policy consequences: the federal government spent over $25 billion dollars on drug enforcement and treatment in 2012, and hundreds of thousands of people are in state and federal prisons for drug offenses (Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Summary). The medical model the FDA and other federal agencies applied to discussing LSD's fate is also a rhetorical precursor to the scheduling process set up by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which gave the FDA authority to schedule (make illegal) any substance as a dangerous drug without significant external oversight. I argue that the 1966 hearings exhibit three rhetorical strategies of interest to scholars of argument. First, while the legislators debating the LSD problem widely admitted they did not know how to deal with the drug, they asked specific types of experts--psychiatrists and public health researchers--for advice. The story these experts told about who uses LSD and why codified a medical model of drug use that saw control of drugs by physicians as legitimate and all other use as illegitimate. The definition of the problem as a medical one led to a second move: via their testimony, the doctors speaking in the hearings created a mythology of drug users as lazy and stupid that was taken for granted in subsequent legislative discourse about drug use, as well as establishing a specifically medical model for drug control that has since granted the FDA broad powers to decide what counts as a drug and which drugs should be controlled. Finally, narrative descriptions of LSD users were used to justify the inclusion of testimony on the part of concerned citizens. The few non-expert voices allowed in the hearings served as precursors for public debate, dramatizing the officially sanctioned opinion of LSD use as the one held by the public. These three strategies--the solicitation of experts, narrative description of LSD users, and the selection of citizen testimony "representative" of public discourse--conditioned subsequent debate about LSD and set the terms of future drug policy debate. Because the hearings were officially a fact-finding mission, they appeared to be an open solicitation of opinion and an effort to encourage public discourse on the issue; instead, they conditioned the outcome of public debate over drug use in advance. These strategies are of immediate political interest: they show how discourses in official fora, such as Congress, can foreclose or manage subsequent public debate on an issue by defining the terms of the problem and determining who is qualified to offer an opinion about it.

The strategies deployed in the 1966 hearings are also of interest to scholars of argument in that they contribute to debates over the relationship between expert knowledge and public deliberation.

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