SHAD Interview: “A Small Distinction with a Big Difference: Prohibiting “Drugs” but Not Alcohol, from the Conquest to Constitutional Law,” with José Domingo Schievenini

Editor’s Note: We’re continuing our series of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, ADHS’s journal, published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. José Domingo Schievenini, whose article you can see here. Schievenini (PhD, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2018) is an assistant professor of history at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro (UAQ). His research focuses on drug policy in Mexico and the history of drugs in Latin America. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history. 

Tell readers a little bit about yourself and what got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

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Dr. José Domingo Schievenini

I am a Mexican historian. When I was an undergrad, a decade ago, my thesis attempted to explain why the use of medical marijuana was treated as a crime in Mexico. At that time, four states in the U.S. had already legalized the medical use of cannabis, and the scientific evidence in support of such use was overwhelming. Among other things, I chose this subject because it seemed irrational to me that the use of cannabis for medical purposes was a crime in Mexico. Undoubtedly, it was an injustice. There were even arguments to affirm that this prohibition was a crime, but not on the part of those who consumed marijuana, but rather an unconstitutional act on the part of the Mexican state. 

When I was working on my undergrad thesis, writing the first chapter, which focused on the historical process of drug prohibition in Mexico, it became clear that there were huge historiographic gaps on the subject. I decided to continue that research as part of a Master’s in Historical Studies, and then continue with a Doctorate in History at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), which I completed in 2018. Throughout this entire process, I have constantly been surprised by the amount of interesting and previously unknown information that exists around the history of drugs. I am currently an assistant professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro (UAQ) where I am continuing with the research I started a decade ago, focusing now not only on marijuana but on a broader spectrum of substances, incorporating new theoretical-methodological perspectives.

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring

Let’s assume I’ve ordered a beer and a shot of mezcal, and that we’re in the middle of a conversation where the question arises as to whether these drinks are more harmful to my health than, let’s say, a joint or a small dose of hallucinogenic mushrooms, peyote or LSD. The alcoholic beverages served by the bartender are a potentially dangerous drug, but they are not treated as such. At any rate, the government is not using its police and punitive power to punish those who produce, sell or consume alcoholic beverages, as opposed to what is happening with other narcotic products (some of which are considered to have medicinal value). However, I want to think that our dialogue would take on new nuances if we were to address the question from a historical perspective. That is, by delving into the historical process through which certain dangerous drugs became legal and socially accepted, and wherein other drugs, equally or less dangerous, became illegal and highly stigmatized. It is a historical process, rife with economic interests, and abounding in politicians with pseudoscientific pretensions who, drawing on their racist and classist backgrounds, got together to write laws and decided that weed and certain other narcotics were more dangerous than alcohol, even though many other people who actually knew what they were talking about disagreed. 

Is this part of a larger project?  What else are you working on?

This paper is a rewritten and expanded section from one of the chapters in my PhD dissertation. After completing my dissertation in 2018, I realized that there were several potential research paths open to further exploration. The history of drugs is a broad subject and is directly related to social and cultural history. The larger project within which this paper is inserted seems boundless. As previously mentioned, I am currently a professor and researcher at the Autonomous University of Querétaro where I continue to explore this subject, doing so now with a focus not only on the historical aspects, but also focusing on current and contemporary affairs. Mexico bears the stigma of the narco. Sadly and unfortunately, it is a country that is experiencing a serious crisis of violence and a lack of security; a crisis in which drugs (legal and illegal) are a problematic factor. Therefore, it is imperative to gather scientific evidence in all fields relating to this problem, including history and other social sciences, in order to provide rational inputs and arguments for the design of legislative alternatives and the development of new public policies.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

In the introduction to this special issue of SHAD, which focuses on Mexico, Isaac Campos mentions that there were several “Mexicanists” at the ADHS Conference held in Shanghai during the summer of 2019, thus underlining the relevance of the history of drugs and what is currently going on in Mexico. As I have already mentioned, the stigma of the narco has greatly influenced the global perception of Mexico. Although this perception has worsened over the past decade, many of the problems arising from drugs in this country have been festering for decades or even longer. Within this historical process, I see a vast potential for further research. In this regard, the frontier is not exclusive to the case of Mexico, but rather extends to the entire Latin American region. Even more so when it comes to a region where drugs have been a determining factor, not only in socio-cultural, but also in political and economic terms. The various methodological proposals set out by Paul Gootenberg and Isaac Campos in “Toward a New Drug History of Latin America: A Research Frontier at the Center of Debates,” published by the Hispanic American Historical Review, strike me as being a good reference for visualizing the future for this field of research. In addition, each one of the articles published in this spring 2020 edition of SHAD sets specific coordinates and general guidelines on which it will be possible to advance in future works within the field of drugs in Mexico and Latin America.

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

I would like to have a long dinner with the Spanish philosopher, Antonio Escohotado, whose work covers a wide range of topics, not only in the field of philosophy, but also in the social sciences, law and history. Among his more than twenty books I would highlight Historia General de las Drogas (General History of Drugs), which was my first contact with this subject, during my teenage years in the late 1990s. At that time in Mexico there was very little information available about drugs, even on the Internet. The General History of Drugs (which actually consists of three volumes, each one more than 500 pages, written primarily during the years Escohotado spent in prison in the early 1980s) offers a thoughtful and weighty history of various drugs. Many of the ideas appearing in the book have been quoted and paraphrased not only in the academic field, but also in thousands of everyday conversations. Escohotado’s prose is notable for its depth and freedom. One of my favorite quotes—which fits in nicely with the subject of my paper—is the following: “The arbitrary demonization of certain compounds is an iniquity, and is an evidently shameful act by humankind; it is a crime against humanity disguised as a hygienic crusade, paid for by the taxpayers, while paying no heed to the vicious cycle created thereby.” Escohotado’s work was—and, it seems to me, still is—very important for much of the Spanish-speaking world interested in countercultural issues. 

There’s one other scholar I would like to invite to join us for dinner: Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, a Mexican psychiatrist who occupied important positions in the national healthcare system in the 1930s and early 1940s. Back in those days he supported the pro-legalization efforts in Mexico, directly confronting the political and ideological influence of the US government. He was a progressive with avant-garde ideas in the middle of a Mexican twentieth century mired in conservativism. For Salazar Viniegra, the magnitude of the problems that exist today in Mexico in terms of organized crime, drug trafficking and public safety would have been unimaginable. However, during our conversation, we would agree that these manifestations of violence are not the result of an inherent evil in the country’s population, but rather have been caused by decisions made by specific people acting in accord with specific interests; they are problems arising from government decisions tainted by decades of institutional corruption and immersed in centuries of socio-economic inequality.