Toward a New Drug History of Latin America

Toward a New Drug History of Latin America

Curated by Farren Yero, Duke University

Drugs, broadly conceived, have been central to Latin American history from the pre-Columbian era to the present. Over the last three decades, illicit drugs in particular have come to be associated with the region, and with them, tremendous violence and political instability. In this introductory essay, Paul Gootenberg and Isaac Campos consider the possibilities for a “new drug history of the Americas,” offering a long-term periodization of drugs to uncover and analyze their complex and often-surprising roles. Their essay opens a new way for historians to research the topic and meaningfully contribute to the public conversation on this important subject. The full article can be found at

A number of leading scholars in the field offer their reflections on this introductory essay, as well as the wider implications of a “new drug history of the Americas.” We invite all readers to provide their own reflections, either in response to the essay presented here or in response to the special issue more broadly. The senior editors of the Hispanic American Historical Review hope to create a rigorous interdisciplinary dialogue and debate through this open forum.

6 Comments on “Toward a New Drug History of Latin America

  1. Commentary by Peter Andreas

    I often tell my students that policymakers tend to neglect
    the lessons of history—and that nowhere is this more evident than in the drug
    control policy debate, which too often appears to suffer from an extreme case
    of historical amnesia. There is a striking lack of policy learning from past
    mistakes going on, it seems, with the result that drug warriors often keep
    trying the same old thing, over and over again, with the same failed and even
    counterproductive results.

    But the neglect of drug history, it turns out, is not
    restricted to the policy world. As Gootenberg and Campos tell us, it is even
    evident where one might least expect it—the field of history itself. As they
    put it, “historians are just starting to seriously research the topic.” Astonishingly,
    “Until the 1990s, the sole dedicated historian of drugs in Latin America was
    the intrepid U.S. diplomatic historian William Walker III.” It is also worth pointing out that quite a
    few of the books that Gootenberg and Campos cite that have been published since
    then (including several of my own) were not actually written by historians. Interestingly,
    sociologists, criminologists, anthropologists, and political scientists have
    shown as much or more interest in drug history as historians.

    While Gootenberg and Campos do not offer much of an
    explanation for this strange and striking oversight by historians, they do a
    thoroughly convincing job of showing the enormous research holes. More
    important, they show that filling them would powerfully illuminate much larger
    dynamics and developments in the history of the Americas, from pre-Columbian
    times to the present. Drugs have been intimately intertwined, for example, with
    the rise and fall of empires, state building and state disintegration, slavery
    and other forms of extreme labor exploitation, and Cold War geopolitics. This makes
    the scholarly neglect all the more puzzling. Of course, given my own research
    interests, I was already sold on the importance of drug history before even reading
    the essay by Gootenberg and Campos. But now I’m even more convinced. So bravo
    to them for bringing history back in and placing it much more front and center
    in the history of the region. This is a long overdue and much appreciated move.

    Importantly, Gootenberg and Campos emphasize the need to go
    back not just years or decades but centuries, and to place as much (or more)
    importance on licit drugs as illicit drugs in making sense of this long history
    (quite a few of which, I must confess, I had never even heard of, especially some
    of the hallucinogens). Indeed, the illicit status of a number of prominent
    drugs today—most notably cocaine, cannabis, and heroin—is a relatively late
    development, and should not distract from the largely licit (though still often
    contentious) substances that have dominated drug history in the Americas, with
    coffee (the world’s most popular drug) perhaps a particularly notable illustration.
    After all, can one really understand the history of Brazilian development and
    state-making without understanding the history of coffee?

    Since the editors expect me to be more than just a
    cheerleader here, I’ll conclude by pointing to the essay’s curiously
    understated discussion of alcohol. Yes, Caribbean rum and Chilean red wine and
    Mexican tequila are mentioned here and there, and a few citations are sprinkled
    in, but to a surprising extent alcohol comes across as more of a sideshow in the
    long drug history of the region (despite its huge importance, past and present,
    and the fact that the authors rightly note that the distinction between “drugs”
    and “alcohol” is an artificial one). Alcohol is arguably Latin America’s number
    one “drug problem,” and has been for quite some time. And I find myself
    wondering if the alcohol-focused historical literature (which I don’t get
    enough of an introduction to in this essay) is quite as anemic as the rest of
    the drug history literature. This quibble aside, if I could assign just one
    piece of writing on the history of drugs in the Americas to my students, the
    Gootenberg and Campos essay would be it—and I eagerly await the book version.

    Peter Andreas
    John Hay Professor of International Studies
    Brown University

  2. Commentary by David Courtwright

    Few anthropologists or historians would dispute Paul Gootenberg and Isaac Campos’s
    thesis that drugs played a crucial role in Latin American history before,
    during, and after European colonization. The authors breathe life into this generality
    by giving it a precise chronology and a rich historiographical context.
    Plainly, they also mean to make a political point, insofar as the region has become
    the Stalingrad of the drug war, with unexpected consequences for all sides.

    What, then, to add to their essay? Cigarettes, for a start. For all Latin America’s notoriety
    as a drug-exporting region, multi-national tobacco companies quickly spotted
    its potential as a market for their products, particularly after the
    mid-twentieth-century health scare eroded cigarette sales in “First World”
    nations. As Andrew Paxman has pointed out, British American Tobacco and Philip
    Morris International aggressively promoted premium brands in countries like Brazil
    and Mexico well before they expanded in regions like East Asia and Eastern
    Europe. By 1990 Marlboro was Mexico’s best-selling cigarette—four years before
    the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect (“Helping Mexico
    Smoke,” American Historical Association paper, January 2, 2015).

    Scotch whiskey manufacturers enjoyed similar success in expanding sales in Mexico—their
    ninth-largest market worldwide—and in such countries as Brazil, Venezuela, and
    Panama, a regional distribution hub (“Scotch Whisky Exports…,” September 4,
    2013, Gootenberg and Campos
    warn historians not to be too respectful of the distinction between licit and
    illicit drugs. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, but would highlight
    an implication: Modern Latin America is as much a target of international drug organizations as it is a base for their

    Going further, I would argue that the preeminent Latin American drug of the twentieth
    century was not coca or cannabis or even rum, but the cigarette. In an essay on smoking in Buenos Aries in a
    forthcoming anthology (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Diego Armus shows
    that cigarettes, commonplace in the city by the late nineteenth century, became
    increasingly popular among both male and female smokers. As in North America, cigarettes
    were a conveniently flexible symbol of modernity, connoting pleasure, power, sexuality,
    and individuality. By 1949 they even connoted Peronism, with advertisers
    asserting that “everyone” had the right to enjoy brands “providing the smoker the
    right Argentine flavor.” Not to be outdone, foreign tobacco companies stepped
    up their competition for the Argentine market and, by the 1970s, had succeeded
    in dominating it. The bad news about cancer, heart disease, nicotine addiction,
    and environmental tobacco smoke eventually prompted reform, though not until
    late in the game. The Argentine government failed to enact comprehensive
    anti-smoking legislation until 2012. Chile, which had an even higher rate of
    smoking, finally enacted its reforms the following year.

    Paxman tells a similar story about Mexico. As more and more Mexicans fired up their
    cigarettes, the government and its cronies in the tobacco industry (not least Carlos
    Slim) let them have at it, health worries be damned. Aeroméxico allowed smoking
    on domestic flights until 1999, while the federal government neglected to pass stringent
    anti-smoking legislation until 2008. Broadly but fairly stated, the region’s
    public health response to the world’s deadliest drug was desultory and belated.
    Why this was so is an economic, cultural, and policy history question well
    worth exploring.

    Another way to say this is that Latin America’s drug history has a corporate import
    side as well as an illicit export side. Gootenberg and Campos acknowledge as
    much by providing a generous list of what counts as a drug, including tobacco
    and alcohol and “even, arguably, sugarcane-derived sucrose” (3). The latter
    remark, if taken seriously, would elevate Coca-Cola’s Latin American Group to
    the status of trafficking organization numero
    uno. Now that would be a new drug history, and one in line with neuropharmacologists
    who argue that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Yet I doubt whether the
    authors embrace this approach, or attach the same historical weight to all the substances
    in their list. What most interests them, and what gives the essay its political
    focus, are currently illicit drugs like cannabis and cocaine and long-contested
    indigenous plants like peyote.

    Gootenberg and Campos reflect on how historians should view these and other psychoactive substances.
    I will end with a few comments on their social- constructionist model—a model
    about which they themselves are ambivalent. The essay contains a subtle, never-quite-resolved
    tension. Drugs “are no ordinary goods” (2); they “can directly alter thought processes and the senses and thus excite
    public emotions” (18, my emphasis); and they “are perhaps even addictive in
    their demand” (19). All true enough. Yet the authors also warn of the dangers
    of demonizing or apotheosizing drugs. They urge historians to treat drugs
    neutrally as commodities or, alternatively, as goods with cultural biographies.
    Their actual effects thus depend heavily on the user’s set and setting.

    Set and setting do matter. That is particularly true for substances like LSD or Psilocybe mushrooms or peyote that act primarily
    on the serotonergic system. But drugs also have “direct” and often toxic effects
    independent of the user’s expectations and surroundings. Anyone who doubts this
    has only to sample the methamphetamine or the fentanyl (used to spike heroin)
    that Mexican narcotraficantes manufacture.
    If one of these substances lands you in the emergency room, and you find
    yourself staring, semi-conscious, at a bleary-eyed resident, he will not ask
    you about your “placebo script.” He will ask you which drug you took so that he
    can try to save your life. You have a powerful drug agonist in your system. He is
    looking for the right antagonist or other suitable treatment to counter its
    acute effects.

    Keep taking that drug agonist long enough and you will alter the neurochemistry of
    your brain, increasing the risk of addiction. The word “risk” is important
    here. Drug use does not invariably lead to addiction, nor is addiction evenly
    distributed in human populations. Genetic variations and life
    circumstances—stress, social defeat, neglect or abuse during critical periods
    of brain development—make some people more susceptible to addiction than others.
    Yet the very vulnerability of socially marginal individuals and groups adds moral
    urgency to the goal of preventing drug abuse and addiction. Like progressive
    reforms generally, drug control is about achieving social justice through
    social control.

    Does the U.S.-backed drug war, as it has evolved since the early 1970s, represent just
    and intelligent drug control? It does not. But the fact that we currently have
    a bad policy, distorted by partisan and culture-war politics, counterinsurgency
    agendas, bureaucratic opportunism, hysteria, nativism, and racial prejudice, does
    not mean that the original concern about drugs was mistaken. The drug war is
    not much ado about nothing. It is too much ado about something. When the
    authors tell historians to “contest the idea that drugs per se possess chemical
    or demonic agency” (22) they offer half-good advice. Drugs are not demonic. They
    save lives, alleviate suffering, create social bonds, and inspire religious
    transcendence. But they also possess chemical agency of a direct, complex, and
    lasting character. They release neurotransmitters in the brain’s diffuse
    modulatory systems; sensitize neurons; alter gene expression; condition memories
    associated with craving; affect reflexes, metabolism, pulse, and breathing; and
    can damage vital organs, including the brain itself. It is hard to know what is
    socially constructed about a methamphetamine user who has developed Parkinson’s
    disease because the drug has killed off dopaminergic neurons in his substantia nigra, a brain region
    important for movement as well as reward.

    Gootenberg and Campos are right about the intrinsic interdisciplinarity of drug history. But
    let me enter a plea for taking this idea all the way. Neurochemical, genetic,
    epidemiological, and other medical research should also inform drug history, particularly
    its public health dimension. Scientific understanding of drug actions does not dictate
    pharmaco-centrism any more than knowledge of pathogenic microorganisms dictates
    reductionist accounts of infectious diseases.

    For a half century medical historians like Charles Rosenberg, Nancy Tomes, and Randall
    Packard have been publishing richly contextualized studies of cholera,
    tuberculosis, malaria, and other infectious diseases without ignoring their
    biology or succumbing to “germo-centrism.” Historians of psychoactive
    drugs—licit and illicit—would do well to follow their example.

  3. Commentary Elaine Carey and Andrae Marak

    As historical actors, people discover, grow, process,
    transport, distribute, sell, use, police, and legislate psychoactive drugs and
    narcotics. In a timely and significant article, Paul Gootenberg and Isaac
    Campos explore the growing historiography of drugs and narcotics by analyzing
    three areas of methodological concerns issues of transnationality and scale,
    the place of drugs in commodity studies, and the social constructivist approach
    of drugs meanings and effects. Their
    seminal essay offers scholars a language of historical relevance but also
    opportunities to fill historical and intellectual gaps to the body of

    Gootenberg and Campos recognize gaps in the growing body of
    literature and demonstrate those gaps by describing the emerging periodization
    that distinctly focuses on the modern: Pre-Colombian, colonial, a long
    nineteenth century, and the mid-twentieth century. While we do not disagree
    with the periodization, the fact that the majority of works focus on the long nineteenth
    to twenty-first century offers historians the opportunity to consider bigger
    histories that explore change over time and to fill in the (often) vast spaces
    of the pre-nineteenth-century world.
    They also acknowledge that the studies have predominantly focused on a
    few countries and areas such as Mexico, Colombia, and the Andean region; areas
    where nation-states have attempted to suppress or control the production,
    distribution and consumption of particular drugs.

    While not specifically addressed in the essay, Gootenberg
    and Campos position Latin America as central to global movements. We agree.
    This is not just the result of their (and our) being Latin Americanists (or
    Americanists writ large); our agreement reflects the central role that the
    United States has played as a center for the consumption and policing of
    drugs. Furthermore, the rise in the
    consumption of drugs in other areas of the world as well as the extension of
    policing regimes around the globe suggests that the methodologies that
    Gootenberg and Campos explore in their article will be usable with great
    purpose in other settings. As the authors note, scholars such as Sidney Mintz,
    Clarence Smith, and Steven Topik, to name a few, have examined other
    commodities and offer methodological approaches for drug and narcotics
    historians. More significant, Gootenberg
    and Campos reflect that a study of drugs intersects with countless subdisciplines
    within history, whether diplomacy and policing; law, politics, and state
    formation; race, class, gender; science, medicine, and technology; and business
    and economics.

    The authors recognize that much of the field has been
    dominated by narco-journalists producing a growing body of narco-histories that
    are frequently repetitive and sensationalist. While these works are
    problematic, these studies contribute to the growing new drug history in two
    ways that we think indicate opportunities for historians. Basically,
    journalists’ studies demonstrate the popularity, relevance, and timeliness of
    drug history. Yet, the problems within
    these works serve as a reminder of the need for careful and thoughtful
    methodologies and analysis. Too often these narco-journalists depict drug history
    (and politics) as a brand new scourge that will soon destroy the capacities of
    nation-states to defend their sovereignty (as if they ever could) rather than a
    natural extension of local, regional, and global economic flows. Thus, archival
    approaches that require consistent mining of sources and evidence are needed to
    tell more nuances stories. In other
    words, we among those writing the new drug history, along with Gootenberg and
    Campos, call upon historians to do that work.

    As scholars of dope, alcohol, and vice, we strongly endorse
    their call. While the growing historiography on drugs and illicit economies offers opportunities to expand
    regional and cultural studies, these commodities flow through webs of
    controlled spaces but are moved, whether physically, virtually, or remotely, by
    people. Although contemporary studies
    focus on these transnational actors, few scholars have examined how these
    historical actors navigate controlled spaces that are heavily policed such as
    the airports, seaports, and national borderlands. Borderlands, whether actual or figurative,
    must be further analyzed to understand these shifting zones where illicit
    markets are created. Though heavily
    monitored and controlled by global policing agents, these spaces continue to
    offer economic opportunities. Scholars
    must consider the significance of the commodities but also timing, locations,
    and the multitudes of actors: vendors, traffickers, sellers, dealers,
    producers, financiers, and policing agents. They must also explore the
    importance of (often competing) moral crusaders, key players in formulating and
    reformulating the very (and shifting) categories of the licit and illicit.

    In a time of calls for greater inter-disciplinarity, the new
    drug history offers historians opportunities to engage new methods and skills as
    applied to data mining, digital humanities, and text analysis. More significant, historians of drugs
    communicate directly those in other disciplines such as anthropologists,
    criminologists, medical and public health experts, and sociologists by reinserting
    historical relevance in social sciences or policy studies. We encourage an expansion of this new drug
    history because we believe that historians have an obligation to provide
    historical knowledge and intellectual depth to the prevailing myths and thoughts
    bantered about as obvious truths in the broader (but often stunted and unempirical)
    public policy debates.

  4. Commentary by Joseph F. Spillane

    Surely Paul Gootenberg and Isaac Campos were choosing their words carefully when they invoked the idea of a research “frontier” to characterize the state of the drug history field. Far from a celebratory summation, the essay instead amounts to an extended plea for scholars to extend and develop important lines of inquiry. To be sure, some of this work is already being undertaken, with the field “slowly advancing” (in the words of the authors). The footnotes and bibliography here are testament to growing interest in the historical context of modern drug wars in the Americas. Still, Gootenberg and Campos make the case that the extant published work is “too sparse and scattered for useful synthesis”—which I take to be their way of warning historians against the sins of synthesis. These sins include a sense of complacency about archival work already done, about which the authors argue—correctly, in my view—that there is an enormous amount of primary source material as yet undisturbed by academic historians. Equally worrisome to the authors seems to be the potential for placing the cart of sweeping and bold argument before the horse of archival research. Again, I am a generally in sympathy with this sort of admonition. “Drugs” can serve as a convenient device for making all sorts of macro-level claims about modern history, but they also deserve careful, “fine-grained” (again, the authors’ words) historical analysis. Here, I briefly propose some directions for those adventurers who take up the Gootenberg/Campos challenge and head for the research frontier.

    In other aspects of my work, I have been drawn to thinking about how we reflect on the drug war. Noting that the recent centennial of the First World War coincided with passage of the Harrison Act (the first major federal antidrug legislation in the United States), I have observed that the Great War and the drug war have been studied in vastly different ways. Who today would expect a serious history of the former conflict to dwell solely on the national leaders whose confused and inept diplomacy helped initiate the conflict, or the flawed vision of the generals who helped make it prolonged, savage, and bloody? No, we would almost certainly insist on some insight into the social and cultural dimensions of the conflict, and we would look for rich detail on the experience of battle and the impacts of war (both immediate and long-term) on those who fought and on the communities from which they came. We have been reassured by historians that this would not be asking too much, I think. So after more than a century of drug wars in the Americas, we should be devoting similar attention to the lived experience of this great conflict.

    To take just one question of interest: What does it mean to be part of a drug trafficking network? In fact, the one question subsumes so many others, including the challenging issues of how to define a drug trafficking network, how to identify the different types of such networks, and how on earth one might figure out what it means to “be a part” of such an enterprise. Still, I am inspired by recent historical efforts, including Elaine Carey’s Women Drug Traffickers: Mules, Bosses, & Organized Crime, which upends cultural constructions of women’s roles in the flow of illicit narcotics between Mexico and the United States. Historians should draw inspiration as well from contemporary research on the hidden populations connected to illicit markets. Ethnographic studies offer one useful window into how the worlds of the illicit can be conceptualized and studied. [1] Organizational and network studies offer another useful set of tools for historical scholarship. [2]

    And “borderlands” scholarship from a variety of disciplines reminds us to be attentive to the vernacular maps of illicit worlds.

    The frontiers, according to the authors, are almost everywhere. Topical possibilities are wide open, sources mostly underused or as yet unidentified, and the national and transnational narratives still underdeveloped. Oddly enough, given my own interests in the frontline history of the drug wars, I found myself drawn to their discussion of sociocultural constructionism. We must indeed bring the passion and experiential side of drug use to life and think most seriously about drugs as an important arena of consumption. After reading Gootenberg and Campos, I am tempted to declare this the “case of the missing footnote”—where are the studies that really document, much less explain, historical patterns and trends in drug-using behavior? It might help, perhaps, to consider exactly what would go into modeling the “historical epidemiology” (terrible phrase) of drug-using behavior. I would propose a model of studying historical patterns of illicit drug use which would emphasize three interrelated elements: expression/identity; access; and regulation.

    I’ll work backward on these three. The “drug war” formulation tends to obscure that most control efforts are actually aimed at (either in formal theory or at least in practice) regulating drug consumption. The great mythology of drug prohibition is that passage of antidrug legislation set in motion an enforcement and surveillance regime whose operation has, since, been fairly predictable and consistent. That is most certainly not true. Laws have been variable over time, as have enforcement priorities and enforcement capacities. With respect to the second concept, access, it remains the case that even contemporary studies of consumption largely ignore the question of consumer access, except to note the historical accidents by which large quantities of certain substances became available to potential users at particular moments in time. Finally, of course, there are the questions of expression and identity that are so vital. Drug use is, after all, an experience of consumption. What does drug-taking mean to consumers? Can we, as historians, move beyond the notions of deviance or victimization to take consumers seriously on their own terms? Gootenberg and Campos give us, I think, the conceptual underpinnings to explore this frontier and the confidence to imagine that a decade hence the next set of footnotes will be far richer.

    Joseph F. Spillane
    University of Florida

    [1] See, for example, Jeremy Slack and Scott Whiteford, “Caught in the Middle: Undocumented Migrants’ Experiences with Drug Violence,” in A War That Can’t be Won: Binational Perspectives on the War on Drugs, edited by Tony Payan, Kathleen Staudt, and Z. Anthony Kruszewski (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013), as well as Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches From the Streets of El Paso and Juarez (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).

    [2] By way of example, consider Michael Kenney, From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).

  5. “More on Drugs”—Response by Paul Gootenberg

    First, my immense gratitude for such a thoughtful and lucid set of responses to our essay, by some of the leading lights of global and historical drug studies, all of whom actively engage with our proposal of a “new drug” history to historians of Latin America. Many thanks to the commentators and to our HAHR hosts.

    Peter Andreas, a political scientist with a rare passion for both history and international relations, notes the double irony of historians themselves ignoring the historical back story of drugs. He’s right that until recently that gap that has been filled by some vital social science contributions. Indeed, I heartily recommend that our colleagues learn from the kind of cutting-edge historical work that Peter himself has done on the Mexico-U.S. borderlands and from his remarkable, beautifully written history, Smuggler Nation, which pointedly underscores how illicit trades long shaped the contours of U.S. history. [1] Peter catches that we downplayed the roles of alcohol in Latin American drug history, and a wealth of excellent studies of drink by social historians and anthropologists are out there. We fully subscribe to the same expansive definition of “drugs.” Yet, a key analytical goal here is to home in on the historical research and political questions raised by the illicit drugs that so deeply trouble the hemisphere today: cocaine, cannabis, opiates. Alcohol has at times been disreputable and contentious but rarely banned in Latin America. Can research reveal how today’s illicitness-licit boundaries came into play over time, separating today’s specific conflicted drugs from popular alcoholic drugs or from formative legal drug stimulants such as coffee?

    As two proudly proclaimed historians of “dope, alcohol, and vice,” Elaine Carey and Andrae Marak reiterate with us that the Americas, and their commodities, seem to have been long at the center of “global movements.” They concur that deeper researched, i.e., archival, drug histories are essential to moving us beyond the presentist and alarmist journalistic lens of so much published today on hemispheric drugs. There is some progress: for example, Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s hot-off-the-press A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” takes a long-range historical view of the horrific events unleashed in Mexico after 2006. They also have a decidedly “transnational” scope, encompassing a century of U.S. policies with drugs and towards Mexico. In short, they reflect the groundwork of archival researchers like Luis Astorga, Isaac Campos, and Elaine Carey. [2] Carey and Marak, who explore border smugglers in their joint work, also highlight borderlines and borderlands in defining the parameters and actors in illicit drug trades. This is an important angle we also likely downplayed in thinking about illicit status of drugs as constructed over time by shifting commodity formations. [3] Elaine has provocatively transgressed the border and its formative impact on drugs in her own new book about Mexican historical “borderlanders,” which also sheds light on the remarkably ignored gendering of drug trafficking networks, a fresh topic well worth noting. [4]

    Latin Americanists ought to know that Joseph Spillane is one of the pioneer archival historians and historical criminologists of drugs in the United States. [5] He appreciates our care to distinguish our effort at uncovering the vast metaphorical “frontier” of drug history research from any premature stab at synthesis. He’s absolutely right to stress how much historians are missing the social and cultural “lived experience” of drug war history since 1914, including the consuming experience of drugs. By coincidence, Joe brings Latin Americanist Elaine Carey’s book in as an exemplar of looking at drug networks from this historical ground up. Joe has also been lately stressing the experiential history of forgotten drug war victims, the incarcerated, marginalized, addicted, resilient, recovering, and dead. Joe has identified two challenging transnational questions. The first is linking the history of drug prohibition to the making of illicit drugs, but the second involves connecting emergent traffickers across broad historical spaces and borders to emerging consumers and “the experience of consumption.” Such connectively holistic drug scholarship is still elusive; however, it’s been done powerfully with other commodities (Mintz’s sugar, a caloric-rich example) and is a laudable goal for new drug historians.

    David Courtwright is the author of the most rigorous, richest global history we have of drugs, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World, and continues to be an agenda setter in the field. [6] He poses a lot of great questions—for example, about Latin America as a prime target of global nicotine, whiskey, and sucrose corporations (i.e., the legal capitalist traffickers of dangerous drugs)—and informed as usual by the latest scholarship. Drug historians like Courtwright continuously break down the boundaries of illicit and legal products. At the end, he challenges our “social constructionist” model of drug history—i.e., the classic idea of the plasticity of drug effects in terms of “set and setting” and the historical context of drug experience. Courtwright argues, energetically and colorfully, for more concerted attention to the biomedical side of drugs in history, a topic that Isaac Campos will likely take up further in his comment.

    We ourselves noted, albeit in punning fashion, that social constructionism can easily slide into “concept abuse,” nor do I suspect that David is calling for the kind of deterministic or naive biomedical perspectives that used to litter drug studies. We adopt our specific and hopefully cautious strain of social constructionism, the more I think about it, primarily as the foil to the historical “fetishization” or “demonization” of drugs. This is too often tied to specific biochemical attributes—stimulation, pleasure, pain, addiction—as well as to inherited “drug war” ideologies and moralities. Of course drugs affect our minds and bodies, which is precisely why they attract such strong political emotions.

    As David also notes, our present policies are disastrous, both at home and abroad, emerging from an unfortunate cascade of political events since the 1970s. But are they not also deeply rooted in the long historical fetishization of illegal drugs—the hopes and fears, loves and hates, that get projected onto coke and weed and meth? “Bad policies” are aplenty, but they could not have been so irrationally sustained over the past half century or more by entrenched institutional interests without constructing unscientific notions of “good” and “bad” drugs. The dispassionate cost-benefits of public health and social harm have rarely been at the heart of U.S. drug policies. And it’s not just history: the latest reincarnation of the biomedical approach, tied to a softer version of drug war, is exemplified by the highly public brain-scan drug science of Dr. Nora Volkov, the head of the NIDA, the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse. [7] (Latin Americanists will be fascinated to discover that Volkov is also the Mexican-born, UNAM-trained great-granddaughter of Leon Trotsky!) Our government’s attempt to remold drug policy in this biomedical neurological “disease” direction is, in my view, as questionable and misguided as the punitive and militarization strategies of the 1980s. It also deflects from grasping how criminalization has historically intensified the public harms of drugs.

    In any case, the balance of biology, culture, politics, medicine, and the social that we bring to drug history research will always be shifting and open to debate. This is exactly what we meant by drug history’s inherent inter-disciplinarity. We are delighted to have provoked such an informed and lively dialogue.

    [1] Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Peter Andreas, Smuggling Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

    [2] Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace, A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” (New York: OR Books, 2015).

    [3] But see my ‘border” essay “Talking like a State: Drugs, Borders, and The Language of Control,” chap. 3 in Willem van Schendel and Itty Abraham, eds, Illicit Flows and Criminal Things: States, Borders, and the Other Side of Globalization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).

    [4] Elaine Carey, Women Drug Traffickers: Mules, Bosses, and Organized Crime (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Pres, 2014); Elaine Carey and Andrae Marak, eds., Smugglers, Brothels, and Twine: Historical Perspectives on Contraband and Vice in North America’s Borderlands (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011).

    [5] For just one marvelous example of his work, see Joseph Spillane, Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Menace in the United States, 1884–1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

    [6] David T. Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

    [7] For a critique, se Timothy C. Hickman, “Target America: Visual Culture, Neuroimaging, and the ‘Hijacked Brain’ Theory of Addiction,” Past and Present (2013), supplement 9, 1–20. Courtwright has been fostering a broader debate about bringing drug science and history together; in this case, see David T. Courtwright, “The NIDA Brain Disease Paradigm: History, Resistance, and Spinoffs,” Biosocieties 5, no. 1 (2010): 137–47; or debate of his propositions in Points: The Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society, March 2012, at

  6. Response by Isaac Campos

    Peter Andreas asks an excellent question: why, until recently, has writing on the history of drugs in Latin America been mostly left to the social scientists?

    It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember, but prior to the recent bloodletting in Mexico, drugs were generally seen as weird topic that, for a historian, maybe wasn’t sufficiently “serious.” Since 2006, things have obviously changed. Nothing like 100,000 violent deaths to help clarify things. But, of course, drugs were important in Mexico and the rest of Latin America before Calderón or Reagan or even Nixon. The previous status of the topic I think says a lot about how the present informs our historical inquiry and what we consider important. Ironically, and as all historians know, the weight of the present can seriously restrict the apparent “limits of the possible” in a given field of history. This surely has been the case with “drugs.” Indeed, the term itself, which since the early twentieth century has tended to exclude alcohol, has produced a significant divide within the field between those who study alcohol and those who study “drugs.” [1] That divide is of course both illogical and ahistorical, but the pull of the present can be relentless, particularly when research needs to be succinctly justified to broad audiences for funding or employment or book sales.

    Since Nixon escalated the War on Drugs in the early 1970s, the present has suggested a lot of things about drugs–that, for example, the United States has been the progenitor of all drug-related policies and attitudes in the Americas; that in Latin America the story is one of production and trafficking rather than policy or ideology; and most recently that drug abuse is a pharmacological question alone, and that we now know what *really* happens when individuals consume these substances. In my view, the presumption that “drugs” are a relatively circumscribed domain of certain illicit intoxicants, and the related belief that their significance in Latin America is relatively recent, are two key factors that have kept historians away from what Paul Gootenberg and I would define as “drug history”–that is, works written on drugs that are in conversation with a much broader literature on psychoactive intoxicants. Thus while there has been quite a bit written about coffee in Latin America, not much of it has been written as “drug history.” And while a lot has been written about the history of drugs in the region, very little of it has been penned by historians. I hasten to add that this is not merely the case in Latin America–the historiography on marijuana in the United States, for example, has been constructed without a single major contribution from a history PhD. [2]

    A second explanation for the lack of attention to drugs by historians is a more practical one: often taken in surreptitious ways by subaltern historical actors, researching the history of illicit drugs, especially in Latin America, has always presented significant challenges. But every day these obstacles become less daunting. New digital technologies that allow word searches in both archival and published documents, or new mapping techniques, etc., have made once impractical topics suddenly feasible, offering opportunities for path-breaking experiments in the “digital humanities.” [3]

    This brings me to a few final comments on the thoughtful and very much appreciated contributions to this forum. First, with respect to David Courtwright’s points about neuroscience, I want to emphasize that we hardly come from a standpoint that rejects the latest science. Indeed, it’s been work in psychopharmacology and other medical research, along with anthropology and sociology, that has served as the foundation for my own work on the social construction of drug-taking outcomes. We simply caution against taking the latest findings–declarations that “we now know”–without a very healthy dose of skepticism, particularly when there are powerful financial and political interests behind them. As drug Historian Tim Hickman has quite brilliantly demonstrated, some of the claims made in the name of the most recent neuroscience have been dubious. When, for example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse presents one of the latest brain scan images as “literally a brain on drugs,” Hickman notes,

    Perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but a brain scan is not “literally the brain on drugs.” It is a visual representation of a hypothesis about brain response that is produced by a complicated process of statistical computing. Such heavy manipulation is necessary because the data produced by neuroimaging machines is, in the first instance, quantitative. It appears as a set of numbers that register the reactions of tiny units of brain analysis called “voxels.” Brain researchers must determine in advance the numerical threshold that will mark a significant reaction. In doing so, they programme their computers to decide when a voxel will “light up” on the scan, and when it will remain dark. The consequent image, therefore, is a conversion into visual form of quantitative data whose significance has already been decided by neuroimaging researchers. [4]

    These images are usually produced in experiments in which substance abusers are presented with stimuli intended to induce cravings for their drug of choice (a picture of someone snorting cocaine, for example). When presented with the stimuli, the brains disturbingly “light up” in response, apparently demonstrating how the brain has been “hijacked” by drugs. But the significance of these now famous images remains controversial despite all the confidence with which they are often forwarded. A recent study by NIDA head Nora Volkow herself has suggested that addicts can prevent their brains from “lighting up” on these scans in the face of normally craving-inducing stimuli simply by being asked to suppress those cravings. [5] This of course again suggests what decades of scientific and other research have already taught us: that drug-taking outcomes, even addiction, are governed by a complex interplay of drug, set, and setting, not simply by diseased brains.

    However in some ways I quite agree with David, who has previously admonished drug historians for “getting too comfortable in [our] social-constructionist ways.” [6] History as a discipline is better placed than most to demonstrate how different times and places produced very different reactions to the same drugs, yet most of our knowledge on the subject has come from other fields. This speaks to Joe Spillane’s call for more work on the experience of drug taking in history. Latin American historians have been at the forefront of work seeking to tease out the two-way relationship between power and everyday life, and this is precisely the kind of drug history that we need more of. How have the “sets” and “settings” of Latin American history, intimately related as they are to relations of power, molded the specific responses of individuals to the very real pharmacological properties of these substances? David is absolutely right when he pithily notes that “the drug war is not much ado about nothing. It is too much ado about something.” But it’s precisely there, in the realm of that “too much ado,” where fine-grained historical research is needed, and that research must recognize that “drug, set, and setting” are all crucial historical factors.

    Finally, the comments and research of Elaine Carey and Andrae Marak highlight how Latin American drug history, especially of the twentieth century, is so thoroughly intertwined with the history of the United States that its study can help to break down some of the artificial, yet very tenacious, disciplinary boundaries that separate the “Americas” north and south of the Rio Grande. This divide, in my view, has produced many blind spots in the much more extensive historiography of drugs in the United States, where often, as noted above, it has been taken for granted that US policies, ideas, or consumption are at the root of every development. Indeed, that historiography has also been overly influential on writing about drugs in Latin America, where these gringo-centric paradigms are often uncritically accepted. That of course is odd in a region where Latin agency is normally touted, though in this case, where Uncle Sam gets most of the blame for a century of drug-war disasters, it is perhaps less surprising, and probably speaks once again to the excessive influence of the present on the work that we do.

    In closing, I’d simply like to express my gratitude to Peter Andreas (political scientist), Elaine Carey (historian of Mexico), David Courwright and Joe Spillane (U.S. drug historians), and Andrae Marak (Latin American Studies and borderlands), for their thoughtful and enlightening commentary. If this forum did nothing more than bring together this diverse group of scholars, it accomplished quite a lot.

    Isaac Campos, University of Cincinnati

    [1] This was the topic of a recent plenary session (David Courtwright and I participated) at the biennial meeting of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS), where the ahistorical redundancy in the organization’s very name (alcohol AND drugs) was discussed. There I used the following analogy to demonstrate the absurdity of the “alcohol and drugs” label: “It’s like a guy with a prodigious sweet tooth who knows he needs to cut down on eating sweets for the good of his health but can’t bear the idea of giving up chocolate cake, so he constantly refers to this category of food as ‘sweets and chocolate cake.’ It’s redundant and also probably bad for his health.”

    In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that all these years of referring to “alcohol and drugs” have been bad for our own health, both from an epidemiological and political perspective. This distinction, it seems to me, has been a critical linguistic sleight of hand that has helped to anchor the War on Drugs since at least the end of Prohibition in the United States, helping to disguise the enormous hypocrisy and even morally problematic practice of simultaneously jailing, say, marijuana users, while, at least at some level, through policy, or commercial promotion, or pop-cultural celebration, encouraging alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use.

    For a fascinating look into the development of this phrase, and the powerful interests behind it, see David Courtwright’s, “Mr. ATOD’s Wild Ride: What do Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Have in Common?,” *Social History of Alcohol and Drugs* 20, no. 1 (2005): 105–24.

    [2] Sociologists and law professors have dominated the field. David Musto, who made a major contribution, was of course an excellent historian, though he was a physician with an MA in the history of medicine. I suppose the ninth chapter of my book, which deals with the United States, broke that unblemished record, but the point is the same.

    [3] For example, prior to about 2008, the newspaper research on which I based the fourth and ninth chapters of my book would have taken a whole career to accomplish.

    [4] Timothy A. Hickman, “Target America: Visual Culture, Neuroimaging, and the ‘Hijacked Brain’ Theory of Addiction,” *Past and Present* 222, Supplement 9 (2013): 9.

    [5] Volkow, ND, et al., “Cognitive Control of Drug Craving Inhibits Brain Reward Regions in Cocaine Abusers,” *Neuroimage*, 49, no. 3 (2010): 2536–43.

    [6] See the forum in *Social History of Alcohol and Drugs*, 20, no. 1 (2005).

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