Unidad, Servicio y Recuperación: Twelve-Step Recovery in Civil War Guatemala, Part I

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Heather Vrana. Vrana (Ph.D. Indiana University, 2013) is Associate Professor of Modern Latin America in the Department of History at the University of Florida. Vrana’s research interests include disability, social movements, human rights, photography, and youth and student movements in Central America. She is author of the monograph This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala (University of California Press, 2017) and the anthology Anti-colonial Texts from Central American Student Movements 1929-1983 (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). She is co-editor with Julie Gibbings of Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala (University of Texas Press, 2020). Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Genocide Research, the Radical History Review, and elsewhere. Vrana has conducted archival and oral history research in Central America since 2007, focusing first on Guatemala, then on Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series on AA in Latin America; the second part will run on Thursday. 

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its sister fellowship Narcotics Anonymous (NA) arrived in Central America during the region’s nearly four-decade crucible of civil war. Incredibly, at a time when gathering in private was suspicious, if not explicitly forbidden (by countless states of emergency, curfews, and skirmishes), anonymous alcoholics and addicts met in homes and rented rooms most nights of the week. In their move to Central America, very little changed in the texts and practices of the fellowships. The literature and spoken rituals (like the Serenity Prayer, or Oración de la Serenidad) of group meetings were direct translations from the English-language texts. But the mid-1990s saw the emergence of a new and distinct twelve-step program, Neurotics Anonymous (N/A). 

The civil wars have largely been the purview of social movement history. At the same time, social movement history and alcohol and drug history are essentially separate subfields. But together they suggest why twelve-step recovery was so popular in Central America and, in turn, how some Central Americans responded to the trauma, political violence, and religious tensions of the wars and their aftermath. Histories of alcohol and drugs have turned decisively toward transnational and global approaches, a turn the upcoming bi-annual conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society aptly reflects. This research proposes that the same approaches might be usefully brought to bear on transnational and global exchanges of recovery.

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Dr. Heather Vrana

In this and a follow-up blog post, I summarize the history of three central twelve-step recovery groups in Guatemala: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Neurotics Anonymous. Like Stanley Brandes, whose wonderful Staying Sober in Mexico City offers a rare ethnography of AA outside of the U.S., I am curious about the reasons for AA’s impressive expansion in Latin America. But where Brandes emphasizes AA’s adaptability, I find orthodoxy. Through that orthodoxy, twelve-step programs provided an apparently apolitical outlet for affects, thoughts, and outlooks that were outcomes of political turmoil before and during the civil war (1960-1996). I also suggest that meeting spaces and fellowship practices provided a space for community that was largely unfettered by surveillance and political repression at a time when that was hard to come by. 

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From California, With Love: Buying Marijuana Under Quarantine

Editor’s Note: COVID-19 has killed over 40,000 Americans, and is expected to kill tens of thousands more before this pandemic subsides. It has generated a nearly-nationwide lockdown, with many states and communities encouraging those who are able to stay home and avoid public spaces. This has caused delivery services for everything—from standard items like groceries, take-out and medications, to other, less-than-legal, substances—to thrive.

Over the next few weeks, Points is going to explore the effect of the quarantine on drugs and drug use in the United States and abroad. Today’s post was submitted by a guest blogger who chose to remain anonymous, given the illegal status of marijuana in their state, but who wanted to capture a sense of history in action, reporting on what buying cannabis was like during the lockdown.

If you’re interested in reporting on drug and alcohol use under quarantine where you are, get in touch. We believe it’s important to record history as it happens, especially as it involves substances and behaviors that rarely elicit front-page coverage. Email managing editor Emily Dufton at emily (dot) dufton (at) gmail (dot) com to suggest an article idea or for more information.

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I had almost forgotten that delivery was an option. Though the state I live in hasn’t legalized marijuana, I can go across the border into Washington, DC, and find a “CBD store” where, after they scare kids away by asking to check ID, customers can go past the CBD lotions and tinctures to a case in the back where THC products are for sale. It’s fun; because DC legalized in a backward way where cannabis possession is legal but sales are not, you have to talk in code, like at a speakeasy. The customer says, “I’ll take this $80 sticker, please,” and in return, they’ll get a sticker that just happens to come with two pot-infused chocolate bars. Other “stickers” include gifts of infused candy, loose flower, or pre-rolled joints. I always enjoyed shopping for my pot in Washington because the whole experience felt like a knowing charade, where everyone was in on the joke. A wink and a nod, and I had enough pot to last me a couple of months, purchased in an actual store where I was treated like a beloved customer. Still, if asked by a cop, I can honestly say I’ve technically never bought weed in DC. I do, however, have quite a few stickers.

But now I was stuck at home, my stockpile of weed was drying up, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Riding the metro into the city seemed like a foolish way to potentially expose myself to the virus, and besides, I wasn’t sure if my CBD store was considered an “essential business.” Medical marijuana dispensaries and liquor stores had the mayor’s approval to stay open, but a place that sold “stickers” and CBD? Probably not.

So, in a moment of desperation, I texted a friend, who offered to put me in touch with their “guy.” “He’s reliable and nice,” my friend said. “I’ll tell him you’ll get in touch.” They did, and the following day, I had weed delivered to my front door, just like Amazon or groceries.

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Medical waste offers insights into South Africa’s use of pharmaceuticals

Editor’s Note: Today is the last piece in our six-part series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Rebecca Hodes, Director, AIDS and Society Research Unit, University of Cape Town. 

Much of what we know about human history comes from studying things that have been discarded. The archaeology of dumpsites and middens has long informed us about societies and their pasts. This has included how people survived and sustained themselves, what they gathered, made, amassed and discarded.

Histories of rubbish have also shown that beliefs about sanitation, and what makes for a clean environment, change. These changes are, in turn, influenced by developments in technology, forms of governance, and consumer norms.

I conducted a study on an archive of medical materials, collected over three years from public waste sites around South Africa’s Eastern Cape. What I refer to as ‘pharmatrash’ serves as a proxy for which medicines were provided or purchased, consumed, and then discarded. Pharmatrash in post-Apartheid South Africa shows the vast proliferation of medical waste, the result of increased access to healthcare products in both the public and private sectors – and on the formal and informal markets.

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The story of the pharma giant and the African yam

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from William Beinart, professor at the University of Oxford. 

It was a drug produced in Nottingham in the United Kingdom that led us on a journey to South Africa to visit muthi markets, archives, herbariums and nature reserves.

We spoke with traders, healers, scholars and conservationists to learn more about Dioscorea sylvatica.

Dioscorea is a wild yam. Its name in different languages connects to its appearance – its rough skin resembles a tortoise shell. It’s known as ‘Elephant’s Foot’ in English, in isiZulu ‘ingwevu’, meaning grey/old or ‘ifudu’, meaning tortoise; in Sepedi the name is ‘Kgato’ – ‘to stamp’.

In the 1950s, the yam was heavily exploited by the British pharmaceutical firm Boots for the production of cortisone. But provincial conservation officials in South Africa fought back against the plundering of a wild plant that they recognised was in danger of being exploited to extinction.

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A history of how sedatives took hold in white South Africa

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Julie Parle, Honorary Professor in History, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

In the early 1960s, pharmacists and government authorities were of the view that South Africa had experienced key aspects of a ‘pharmaceutical revolution’ over the course of the previous 40 years.

These were fulcrum decades in South African medicines’ history in which newly invented medicines became critically important. Most of the new therapeutic substances in high demand were antibiotics. But the class of drugs comprising synthetic hypnotics, sedatives and tranquillisers were also important.

As early as the 1930s these substances – especially barbiturates – posed challenges to those who sought their control. Enmeshed in multiple issues of chemical, commercial, professional, and regulatory definition, timid controls were proposed in 1937. But even these failed to gain support, facilitating a permissive market for those who could afford the new drugs. These were, by and large, white South Africans.

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Cannabis in South Africa: the duplicity of colonial authorities

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Assistant Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara.

The history of cannabis in South Africa contains two particular trajectories that were sometimes in direct contradiction with one another.

The one, the 100-year-old effort to prohibit its use. The other, a history of colonial governments and administrators trying to develop cannabis in order to make money out of it.

These two paths began to develop in earnest after 1916.

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The highs and lows of the opium trade in southern Africa

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Thembisa Waetjen, Associate Professor of History, University of Johannesburg.

The reach of European empires and of Indian Ocean trade networks drew southern Africa into the global politics of opium around the turn of the twentieth century. Between the late 1880s and early 1920s and there was a shift from economies of supply to regimes of control.

The colonies of Mozambique and South Africa were caught up in these big changes.

In a recent paper I highlight how official and unofficial actors shaped and responded to the global politics of opium and, in different ways, worked to benefit from these developments.

With a focus on Mozambique and, especially, South Africa, I demonstrate how the changing global politics of drug supply and suppression influenced local colonial social and political processes.

I also show how these histories influenced events worldwide, including the first efforts to use the League of Nations to control the international cannabis trade.

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Secret histories of drugs – legal and illegal – in southern Africa

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Thembisa Waetjen, Associate Professor of History, University of Johannesburg, Julie Parle, Honorary Professor in History, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Rebecca Hodes, Director, AIDS and Society Research Unit, University of Cape Town. 

If you want to score heroin in some of the historically black suburbs, or townships, of Johannesburg, South Africa, you need to find yourself a ‘Snyman’. A ‘Snyman’ is a drug dealer. The word is used in tsotsitaal, the creole, urban dialect that emerged during the colonial and apartheid eras of segregation.

‘Snyman’ entered this lexicon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was around this time that cannabis smugglers supplying the gold mining compounds and nearby settlements began to diversify into pharmaceuticals. One drug of choice was methaqualone, also known as Mandrax.

Today, most young people who rely on a Snyman to supply them with a bit of a heroin admixture locally known as nyaope aren’t aware that they are invoking the name of a mid-century professor of medicine at the University of Pretoria, Dr HW Snyman. In 1961 Snyman headed a governmental commission that bore his name. Its recommendations led to the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act of 1965.

This means that, at the height of the apartheid era, black entrepreneurs trading in illicit pharmaceuticals adopted and repurposed the name of a white medical expert who enacted the state’s vision of drug regulation. In calling themselves ‘Snyman’, they showed a hefty dose of defiance as well as ironic humour.

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Challenging the Foundation Myths

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew J. Raphael, a retired professor of English. Raphael is author of Bill W. and Mr. Wilson (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), as well as other books and essays on the place of alcohol in American literature and culture.

Screenshot 2020-03-03 at 4.18.12 PM“Over the years,” observes William H. Schaberg in Writing the Big Book, the image of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith laying the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous “has become deeply encrusted with so many layers of adulation and myth that it is hard to recapture the reality of the moment.” The objective of Schaberg’s book, the most important study of A.A. since Ernest Kurtz’s monumental Not-God, is to challenge the hoary stories of A.A.’s early days, from Wilson’s attaining sobriety in 1935 to the publication of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.

Ten years in the making, based on exhaustive research in the A.A. archives and other collections, Writing the Big Book runs nearly 800 pages: thicker and heavier than the original Big Book. The book is truly definitive – a word thrown mindlessly around – insofar as it will never likely be redone and thus will remain unsurpassed.

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“Cultures of Intoxication: Contextualising Alcohol and Drug Use, Past & Present” Conference Report

Editor’s Note: Today’s conference report comes from Dr. Alice Mauger of the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, School of History, University College Dublin. Dr. Mauger also organized the event.

“Cultures of Intoxication: Contextualising Alcohol and Drug Use, Past & Present”, University College Dublin, Ireland, 7-8 February 2020 – Conference Report

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University College Dublin was delighted to welcome twenty-five delegates to the UCD Humanities Institute on 7 and 8 February 2020 to take part in “Cultures of Intoxication: Contextualising Alcohol and Drug Use, Past & Present”. Sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, this event featured speakers from institutions in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

The conference was part of my three-year Wellcome Trust research fellowship on “Alcohol, Medicine & Irish Society, c. 1890-1970”. Now in its final month, this project has explored social, cultural and political perceptions of excessive drinking and alcohol addiction in Ireland, especially the degree of influence the “drunken Irish” stereotype has had on medical responses to alcoholism. 

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