Points Interview: “The History of Inhalant Use in Mexico City, 1960–1980” with Sarah Beckhart

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 Sarah Beckhart, a doctoral candidate in the history department at Columbia University. For a short while, you can read Beckhart’s article for free here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to any other article from SHAD’s history.

Tell readers a little bit about yourself.

Screenshot 2020-06-08 at 7.19.02 PMI was born and raised in Mexico City and lived there until I left for college. When I got to college, I felt I was always missing Mexico. I took a Latin American history class to feel closer to home. I also thought that I already knew everything about Latin America, and so the class would afford me an easy A. I was wrong. I realized I wanted to learn more about Mexico and Latin America. I have followed that passion and will soon be graduating with a PhD in History that focuses on Latin America from Columbia University in the Fall. 

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

It was an archival accident.  I was in Mexico City doing preliminary research on what was going to be a dissertation on urban history in Mexico City in the 1960s and 1970s. In the archives I came across boxes full of files on drug use among Mexican minors in this period. I was surprised that there was so much concern on behalf of Mexican authorities for Mexican drug use and I wanted to know more. Of course, the reality of my country also made me more interested in understanding how domestic drug use shaped Mexico’s current drug policy. 

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

Did you know that the use of inhalants (industrial chemicals like contact cement and paint thinner) for personal consumption was not illegal in Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s? Even though it was not illegal, the police still arrested more inhalant users than users of any other illegal drugs. My research highlights the predominance of inhalant use in Mexico City, drug policy, and application of drug laws in the 1960s and 1970s. I look at these aspects to understand why inhalant use became a criminalized practice, although it was legal according to the law. 

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

Yes, this article is a conglomeration of information from my dissertation. My dissertation discusses the history of drug use in Mexico City between 1960 and 1970, with inhalants as the focus.

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

I would love to see a discussion of two things: 

    1. One, how scholars define drugs, keeping in mind the ones that are not illegal and do not fit traditional prohibitionist models. 
    2. Two, that domestic drug use (i.e. the demand for drugs within Mexico) had a decisive effect on Mexican drug policy. Traditional scholarship has emphasized that the demand for drugs in Mexico came from the United States, and that the United States imposed its drug policy on Mexico. I hope my research will show that this is not necessarily true and that more research needs to be done to shed light on this. 

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

Gabriel García Márquez, Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize winner. I would love to just listen to his train of thoughts and gain insight into his imagination.