The Points Interview: Lina Britto

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Lina Britto. Britto is a Colombian journalist and historian who teaches Latin American and Caribbean History at Northwestern University. She received a PhD in History from New York University, and was a postdoctoral and faculty fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University. Her work was been published in the Hispanic American Historical Review, the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, NACLA, and El Espectador (Colombia), among others. Her book Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise came out in spring 2020 with University of California Press. She’s currently working on her second book project on the role of medicine, science and technology in the violent transition that her hometown Medellin, Colombia, underwent during the second half of the twentieth century, when it became one of the murder capitals of the world.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

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Dr. Lina Britto

Having worked as a waitress in NYC before I went to graduate school, I know how incredibly hard is to get the full attention of your bartender. I think my best chance would be to mention the most recognized pop culture icons of global drug history, namely Pablo Escobar and Scarface. I’d say my book tells the story of the Colombian smugglers and American hippies who flooded the United States with marijuana a decade before suppliers like Escobar in Medellín and wholesalers like Scarface in Florida did the same with cocaine. It’s a forgotten story of how small-scale smugglers, during the golden years of the counterculture, paved the way for a more entrepreneurial and violent approach to the international commerce of drugs, and why such a transition wreaked havoc in the Americas.

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Points Interview: “Sacred Places, Sacred Plants, and Sacred People: Carving Out an Indigenous Right amid the Drug Wars,” with Alexander Dawson

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 Alexander Dawson. Dawson holds a PhD in Latin American History from SUNY Stony Brook, and is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Albany. Until 2017 he was Professor of History and International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of four books and numerous articles, and for most of his career has written about indigeneity and indigenous-state relations in Mexico.  His most recent book is titled The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs, and was published by the University of California Press in 2018.

You can see Dawson’s article here for free for a limited time. 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.

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Dr. Alexander Dawson

I was trained as a historian of Mexico. I don’t always realize this as I am researching and writing, but my work invariably focuses on inequality. For many years that was inequality in Mexico, but in the past decade or so my focus has spread, as I have tried to link what I understand about Mexico to a larger concern about where we are heading as a planet.

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

I came to drugs (and especially peyote) inadvertently. I was working on a project comparing the experiences of indigenous peoples in Mexico and the US (the project was going to be about boarding schools) when I came across a file titled “peyote” in the US National Archives. As I read the file, I realized that I could do a much more interesting project on peyote than on the boarding schools, and began a decade long project that resulted in my 2018 book from the University of California Press. Along the way, I realized that the history of drugs represents a really important and fascinating window into the history of race, science, the law, and society more generally.

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

I think you underestimate the average bartender. They tend to be very good listeners, and are extraordinarily good at not looking bored, even when they are. But if I were to attempt to explain it to someone who really did not care, I would say that there is this word, “sacred”, that we use a lot these days, especially in the context of environmental activism. We all think we know what it means, but if we really look closely at how we are using it, we might not be so comfortable with what we see. What we see has troubling implications both for how we think about environmentalism, and the way we place indigenous peoples into the environmentalist movement.

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

Screenshot 2020-06-10 11.06.45This is more like a loose end that I did not resolve in a larger book project that I just completed. Well, not just that. In the book I tell a number of stories about peyote and race, about the border and its history, but I never really got a chance to fully think through this particular theme. In writing a paper about it, I realized I had a little more to say.

My new project is a little different. It picks up on the environmentalist aspects of this work, as well as the transnational interest, but the book is about bike lanes. Specifically, the book is about the controversies that surround the creation of bike lanes, and what they can tell us for the nature of contemporary environmentalist practices.

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

Well, I think there are a lot of different frontiers in the field. Obviously, we are still in a moment where the connection between drug history and decriminalization is critical. This is especially from a Latin Americanist standpoint, as scholars working in these fields play a central role in reminding readers in the principle consumption markets of the costs associated with the Drug Wars. Social history makes the victims of these conflicts more visible.

More than this though, I think that those who work on psychedelics like peyote have an important role to play in re-centering these substances as a part of alternative therapeutic practices. The work being done by historians in these fields is critical in both de-stigmatizing these substances and in generating better understandings of how prohibitions came to be during the 20th century.

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

I am a bad person to answer this question. I don’t really like to talk to strangers, and when I do, especially if they are someone I want to impress, I am more likely to say something that makes me look like an idiot than I am to have a good time. I like to have dinner, I love to have dinner, with my teachers, in particular Paul Gootenberg, Barbara Weinstein, and Brooke Larson. I may look like an idiot talking to them too, but I trust that they won’t tell anyone.

Points Interview: “Serrano Communities and Subaltern Negotiation Strategies: The Local Politics of Opium Production in Mexico, 1940–2020,” with Nathaniel Morris

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. Nathaniel Morris, whose article you can see here. Dr. Morris is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow attached to the History department at the University College London. 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

Screenshot 2020-06-01 at 7.34.59 PMI’m a historian, and sometimes I pretend to be an anthropologist, I suppose. I’m from London, England – or Great Britain, or whatever else this strange old island is calling itself at the moment. I’ve been interested in Latin American history, politics, cultures and all the rest of it since I was an undergraduate – which I now realise is way longer ago than I would like! – and I’ve always been drawn to Mexico in particular. I’m halfway through a 3-year postdoc at University College London, researching the history of indigenous militia groups in Mexico and trying to work out the links between armed community guard units that emerged during the Revolution in the 1920s and 30s, and the contemporary ‘autodefensa’ militias that are playing a key role in the ‘Drug War’ ongoing in many parts of the country. This research has followed on from an earlier project on indigenous relations with the Revolutionary state in a particularly rugged, diverse and beautiful bit of western Mexico, which – completely shameless plug alert – is coming out as a book with Arizona University Press this autumn. It’s called ‘Soldiers, Saints and Shamans: Indigenous Communities and the Revolutionary State in Mexico’s Gran Nayar,’ and you can pre-order a copy here.

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The Points Interview: Nancy Campbell

Editor’s Note: Today we’re thrilled to feature SHAD co-editor Nancy Campbell discussing her new book, OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose (The MIT Press, 2020). Campbell is Professor and Department Head of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer in Troy, New York. Her other books are: Gendering Addiction: The Politics of Drug Treatment in a Neurochemical World (co-authored with Elizabeth Ettorre; Palgrave, 2011); Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research (University of Michigan Press, 2007); The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts (co-authored with JP Olsen and Luke Walden; Abrams, 2008); and Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice (Routledge, 2000). Although she has a PhD in the History of Consciousness from the University of California at Santa Cruz, she has been granted a green card as a historian.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Screenshot 2020-05-18 21.01.53Some of my favorite bartenders include grad students and PhD alums. They’ve had rough days “pivoting” to incorporate COVID-19 into their dissertations. I’d introduce my book as dense, dark, and handsome, like the cover. OD is spelled out in old-school Franklin Gothic Condensed type—headline type. But scribed through the letters is a 45-degree angle, signifying the US opioid overdose death rate from 2000-2017.

OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose is a lively book about death. Preventable deaths haunt its pages. The protagonists of OD all have a touch of mordant wit tinging their heartfelt dedication to harm reduction. Their badassery has been quite effective—these compassionate cynics were galvanized to remodel their social worlds over the past 30 years. Many were touched by profound losses. Many knew people who died because naloxone and the knowledge to use was not ready to hand. Their stories intertwine with those of policy and public health, wars on drugs and drug users.

Every bartender knows that people grieve their losses differently. Some drown their sorrows. Others turn them into art, poetry, protest, or testimony. Some turn them into science, research, evidence. I included as much of the cultural production that has occurred in response to overdose as I could muster. There are 40 illustrations, some 20 of which came from Santa Cruz Needle Exchange’s ‘zine Junkphood. These keep the book’s pulse strong. You can learn a lot from people who believe, as Lee Hertel of Lee’s Rig Hub in Minneapolis, that “nobody deserves to die because of how they choose to navigate life.”

That’s something every bartender needs to hear and pass along.

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The Points Interview: Kerwin Kaye

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Kerwin Kaye, an Associate Professor of Sociology, American Studies, and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University. Dr. Kaye’s new book, Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State, was released this month by Columbia University Press. He also writes about issues pertaining to male sex work. He currently lives in New York City. 

Screenshot 2019-12-12 08.49.32Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

In Enforcing Freedom I take a close look at drug courts – courts that offer court-supervised drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for drug-related crimes – and the nature of the treatment programs they rely upon. Drug courts have often been touted as an alternative to racialized mass incarceration, and certainly the idea of treatment instead of incarceration has a lot of appeal to many people.

My research shows that they have a more problematic impact than is at first apparent. The good is that anyone who completes treatment as part of drug court will have the charge removed from their record – that’s a good deal. The bad is that only about 50% succeed at drug court while the other half fails. Even worse, most courts require participants to plead guilty prior to participating in the court, meaning that the half that fails has no opportunity to strike a plea bargain – they plead guilty to the most serious charges that can be leveled at them. So after failing at treatment – how does one fail at treatment? does not treatment fail you? – this half gets sentenced to incarceration times that are significantly longer than they would have received if they had been able to strike a plea bargain.

In other words, drug courts actually intensify the war on drugs for half of the population, even as they mitigate it for the half that succeeds. And unsurprisingly, the half that fails is disproportionately black and disproportionately impoverished. So rather than entirely mitigating racialized mass incarceration, drug courts act as a sorting mechanism, escalating and aggravating social exclusions for precisely those populations that most need relief.

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Fiction Points: Susanne Davis

SusanneDavisSusanne Davis is the author of The Appointed Hour (Cornerstone Press 2017), a linked short story collection and her first book. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where her thesis won the Hemingway First Novel Award. Davis teaches creative writing at the University of Connecticut and via the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT. Her stories and essays have appeared in American Short FictionCarve, Feminist Review, Harvard Law Bulletin, and elsewhere, including as a Special Mention story in Best American Short Stories 1998. She also self released the instructional writing book A Writer’s Voice: Indelible on the Page (Amazon Digital Services 2013).

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

To the nuns I say my characters are people in the pricker bushes so to speak, Farmers, strippers, carpenters, tattoo artists—even a nun, Mother Agnes, who gave up Hollywood fame to marry God. They are all trying to make meaning of their lives. And I would tell them Mother Agnes was the last character created for my linked short story collection The Appointed Hour. With her authentic love for humanity, she tries to make a dramatic save in a corner of rural Connecticut where the wound of violence done in their midst hasn’t fully healed. 

To the penguin, I would say I write about the environment and that my writing has a strong sense of place. The environment means a great deal to me and I would ask the penguin, who lives much closer to the humming tune of the earth than I, what more I can do to help? What stories need to be told that aren’t being told?

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

In my story collection, The Appointed Hour, a handful of stories have rural characters struggling with drugs and alcohol addiction and a sense of despair that brings them to the brink of self-destruction. The stories illuminate the damage done to others as a result. Often, though, in rural America, manual labor jobs and jobs on the land itself are like a redemptive act for those in the midst of struggle with addiction. Continue reading

The Points Interview: Michelle Drozdick

Editor’s Note: Today we interview the playwright and performer Michelle Drozdick, who is a self-described “comedian, improviser, performer, and cat lover moonlighting as a human being.” She is best known for her solo shows Message in a Bottle and The Gimmick and You. She’s performed at countless theaters across NYC, is on too many improv teams to keep track of, and would love for you to follow her on Twitter at @drozphallic. Message in a Bottle will have a three-run show at QED Theater in Astoria, Queens, from 8/18 to 8/20, all at 7pm. In anticipation of these performances, we talked to Drozdick about the mysteries of talking penguins, personifying objects, and what it’s like to love a bottle of vodka.

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Michelle Drozdick

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer and performer. When they ask you what your play is about, how do you answer?

First I’d chat with the penguin, because how often do you meet a talking penguin? I’d love to know how it came to talk, and if it’s the only one of its kind or if there’s more. If it’s the only one of its kind, is it lonely? Does it have trouble interacting with other penguins? If there are more, what kind of society do they have? Why is it hanging out with nuns? Is it because they’re both black and white, or is the penguin religious? Are there Catholic penguins? What is their view of the afterlife?

Once I got past the penguin thing, and apologized to the nuns for overlooking them, I’d tell them Message in a Bottle is a dark comedy/drama about alcoholism, portrayed as a romantic relationship between a woman and a self-aware bottle of vodka with googly eyes, plastic forks for arms, and a necktie. I’d warn the nuns that it can get a little adult at times, but nothing stronger than a PG-13 rating, tell them the show covers the first date all the way to what comes after the “end,” then offer them all comped tickets.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

I love exploring the personification of objects in art, especially over time. It’s really interesting to see how we portray inanimate things that don’t actually have thoughts or personalities based on attributes of our own culture and society. I recently saw a great engraving by John Warner Barber from the 1820s called “King Alcohol, and his Prime Minister,” and there are lots of wonderful cartoons from the Prohibition-era (and the time leading up to it) that portray alcohol as an actual person wreaking havoc.

My show is a definitely inspired by this sort of art, and I spent a lot of time reading up on these older portrayals of alcohol, while trying to adapt it to a modern-day, personal story.

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Points Interview: David Courtwright

Editor’s note: Points author interviews begin with a set question: Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. David Courtwright said he preferred conversations with bartenders. He talked to his about The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business (Belknap Press, 2019). 

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.40.48Bartender: I hear you have a new book.

Courtwright: Just came out in May. I’ll have the draft IPA.

What’s the book about?

How addictions multiplied throughout human history. Even before civilization people discovered pleasurable drugs and pastimes like alcohol and gambling. They went on finding new ones. They traded, refined, manufactured, and digitized them to the point that we live in an age of addiction. Think about it. When you heard the word “addiction” forty years ago, what came to mind? 

Drugs. Heroin. Junkies. Juicers, only back then we called them alcoholics. 

Google the word now and you’ll find addiction to sugar, video poker, computer games, social media, internet porn, shopping, tanning, you name it.

Could be hype.

Some of it is. And some of it is science. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, promotes food-addiction studies.  

What’s food got to do with drugs?  

Our brains—well, some brains—react to food packed with sugar, salt, and fat like it was booze. People can lose control over eating the way they lose control over drinking. They join groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

They’re like AA? 

Right down to the lingo. And it goes beyond eating.  When I told friends I was writing a history of addictions, they all said, “You’ve got to include kids glued to their phones.” So I did. Behavioral addictions have become social facts.

What’s history got to do with social facts?

Historians explain their origins and how they changed over time. In The Age of Addiction, it’s a long time.

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Points Interview: Bradley Borougerdi

Editor’s Note: Today we have an interview with Points and ADHS friend Dr. Bradley Borougerdi, an associate professor of history in the Department of Global Studies at Tarrant County College in Arlington, Texas. Dr. Borougerdi is the author of Commodifying Cannabis: A Cultural History of a Complex Plant in the Atlantic World (Lexington Books, 2018). 

Screenshot 2019-05-28 at 8.08.01 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

My main concern when writing this book was to try and de-scramble the loaded meaning that has surrounded cannabis as a commodity throughout history ever since people from all over the world started making there way into, across, and around the Atlantic Ocean.  Cannabis has meant so many different things to different people, so I wanted to try and provide a better understanding of why this is the case, and to explain how and why the plant has transformed in meaning so many times.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I hope they find it interesting how Europeans and U.S. Americans went from seeing this plant as such an important strategic commodity, to a valuable medicine, then to a not-so-valuable medicine, then a sinister banned intoxicant, and now (for some, at least) to a commodity with value again.  Of course, not all of the changes in perception of the plant’s utility fit nicely into separate and distinct categories over the course of all this history, but rather these changes in meaning overlapped with each other through time and space.  This shiftiness that cannabis has endured is fascinating.  Not all drugs have went through so many complicated transformations, and very few commodities in general have fallen in and out of favor so many times as this plant.  Investigating the cultural roots behind these changes is interesting and deserves more focus.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

It was interesting to find that some of the source material I discuss in the chapters regarding cannabis use as a medicine in the United States during the 19th century have not really been investigated in detail by others who’ve mentioned them in their books.  For example, I found that an organization called the American Provers’ Union published a pamphlet in 1859 titled On Cannabis Indica.  Most authors who have cited this source ever since Ernest Abel’s popular book on marijuana came out in the 1980s have repeated the same mistake that he made regarding the date of this source, which he claimed came out over a decade before it was actually published.  Rather than go to the source themselves, authors simply regurgitated what he said without critical analysis.  I also think the short medical “dissertations” on cannabis from the mid-19th century that I used are interesting, and the material about the history of gardening and the intersection between hydroponics cultivation and cannabis prohibition was fun to work on.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Some of the material I encountered about the League of Nations has inspired me to look further into the concept of transnational drug control cultures as a neo-imperialist tool in the 20th century, and a lot more needs to be done regarding the history of hemp in Russia and the Soviet Union.  I also like the idea of looking more into the role of clandestine cannabis cultivation in the United States during the second half of the 20th century.  I think telling the story of these “Guerrilla Growers” and the cultivation cultures they established is a fascinating idea, but obviously a difficult one due to the nature of the source material.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Jim Dale all the way.  Anyone who can narrate the entire Harry Potter book series as masterfully as he has done, would be great to listen to with any book, regardless of the subject.

Points Interview: John O’Brien

Editor’s Note: Today we present an interview with John O’Brien, a lecturer in sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland, and author of the new book States of Intoxication: The Place of Alcohol in Civilization (Routledge, 2019). Enjoy!

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The ‘publican’ who runs the ‘local’ is part of an ancient tradition of masters of ceremony who oversee drinking rituals. The public house is open to all, but a space of limits, where a ‘bar’ separates those in charge from the participants and a threshold is crossed to enter in a different space, with different rules from ordinary society based on controlled decontrolling. Pubs, bars, cafés, saloons have long been a source of anxiety as threats to the moral and political order. However, in the age of vertical drinking in superpubs, bar staff on short-term and insecure contracts who are unlikely to feel deep ownership over the space, concentrated ownership in pubcos with shareholders who may not even live in the country, preloading with cheap supermarket bought alcohol, they may begin to be seen as havens of informal social control, in contrast to anonymous, unstructured and individualised drinking. The book is interested in the role of ritual in structuring drinking occasions, and the threats to this. These always have masters of ceremony, rules and expectations, traditions and norms around reciprocity and excess that are obligatory to follow, and to make a generalisation, they hold problems in check. Government policy has an ambivalent effect on such rituals, tending to disturb and destroy them to various degrees, despite state’s supposed goal of minimising problems.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I am a historical sociologist, and my interest is not so much in a precise and detailed account of a particular era, but rather to try to get under the surface of events to identify the processes that shape them. The book is looking at the process of state formation and the role that alcohol has played in this. What sets states apart from other types of organisations is that it holds a dual monopoly of violence and taxation, as it establishes itself as the only agency that can legitimately use force and raise revenue. Alcohol and other psychoactive substances have played a very important role in this mechanism, funding the growth of states to a very significant degree, particularly before the mid-20th Century. But this created a contradiction, as states have been dependent on alcohol to fund themselves, thus promoting the alcohol industry, while at the same time fearing drinking establishments and their role in subversion, undermining the moral order, and health of the populace. The result is simultaneous promotion and repression, which produces ambivalence, contradiction and disturbances in how we relate to alcohol. As a contrast, many anthropologists have noted the relatively unproblematic relationship with alcohol that the small-scale societies they have researched have. These non-state societies universally use some psychoactive substance, but because their use is ritually structured rather than governed through policy, problems seem to be much less.

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John O’Brien

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What I found surprising in the course of researching the book was the extent to which alcohol and psychoactive substances have been critical sources of revenue for states. That the figure could be over 60% of revenue raised in certain periods of certain states is astonishing. Modern states literally were built on alcohol.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would love to write something on how spiritual and philosophical movements relate to alcohol. The book is very much focused on the institution of the state and its logic. Doing a proper study of the Abrahamic tradition, Greek philosophy and Asian philosophies and their contrasting perspectives on alcohol would be fascinating. There is such a dramatic contrast in attitudes towards and outcomes from drinking alcohol between the different civilizational areas, and this seems to be clearly based on the contrasting moral foundations that the worldviews based on their differing philosophies give. It is an intimidatingly huge and difficult topic though. But I will do it someday!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I’ll go for Cillian Murphy, but in the Birmingham accent he uses in Peaky Blinders. I’m sure he wouldn’t charge too much.