Incomparable? George Floyd, Adama Traoré, and the War on Drugs in the Sister Republics

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore.

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In late May massive protests erupted in the U.S. and France in response to police brutality against people of color. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on 25 May, which compounded tensions already heightened by the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery weeks earlier, prompted demonstrations in dozens of cities across the U.S., many of them met by militarized police units deploying flashbangs, tear gas, and rubber bullets in the name of “law and order.” In France, the government’s official denial on 29 May of an appeal for justice by the family of Adama Traoré, murdered by French police in July 2016, sparked a protest at Porte de Clichy in northwest Paris, where 20,000 people chanted the shared last words of Floyd and Traoré in French, “Je n’arrive pas à respirer.” A key organizer of the protests, Assa Traoré (Adama’s sister), declared in a speech, “Today, when we fight for George Floyd, we fight for Adama Traoré (…) What is happening in the United States is an echo of what is happening in France.”

Though the similarities between the lives and deaths of Traoré and Floyd are many and striking, the French government, through its spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye, officially declared that the men’s deaths and resulting mass demonstrations were “not exactly comparable, neither in terms of history nor in terms of the organization of society.” In France, Ndiaye argued, “there is no instituted state violence.” President Emmanuel Macron also chimed in, arguing on 10 June that universities were to blame for “ethnicizing the social question” for financial gain, radicalizing students, and “breaking the Republic in two.” 

While there have been comparably fewer deaths in police custody in France in recent decades, drug policing in the Hexagon, as in the U.S., is deeply rooted in the nation’s colonial past. And the cases of Floyd and Traoré, and 1000s of others who suffered similar fates, are unfortunately the latest chapters in the still-unfolding histories of colonial policing in both republics. Continue reading

The Power of U.S. Decertification Policies in the 1990s

Editor’s Note: Today we continue this week’s focus on Colombia and its role in America’s war on drugs. Contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School, writes about his experience returning to Colombia, the country of his birth, and witnessing the effects of American drug policy on that country. 

Screenshot 2020-07-01 14.37.26I returned to Colombia after my undergraduate years in the early 1990s.  At that point the U.S. War on Drugs had penetrated deep into the social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and environmental realities of Colombia.  The presence of the CIA, DEA, and Marines was evident; it was no secret that the country’s domestic and foreign policy agendas were directly and indirectly impacted by U.S. political and economic interests.  Parallel to this, Colombia’s society was adjusting to the aggressive structural changes that resulted from the implementation of neoliberal policies that centered around the privatization of production, the reduction of government intervention and regulation, and the implementation of free market policies that would eventually result in the bilateral Free Trade Agreement between the two countries in 2012.

It was under these circumstanced that President Bill Clinton’s administration took advantage of the 1980s foreign policy tool that required nations receiving U.S. Official Development Assistance (ODA) to combat the War on Drugs, to pass annual certification requirements as a precondition for receiving the aid.

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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 Bookshelf: Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He adds to our Points Bookshelf series, where we examine and review recent books about alcohol and drug history.

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In Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University, probes the “symbiotic relationship between drugs and war,” or “how drugs made war and war made drugs.” Over the last two years, this area of interest has garnered tremendous attention. Two blockbusters that come to mind are Shooting Up: A History of Drugs and War, a general history of drugs and war throughout the ages, and Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which, as the title suggests, hones in on Nazi Germany’s love-hate relationship with psychoactive substances, particularly methamphetamine. Shooting Up has some close parallels with Killer High, as the two dip their toes in the same stream so to speak, but Killer High is different in its approach, emphasis and aim. Andreas concentrates on six drugs—alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamine, and cocaine—detailing his interpretative lens through five types of relationships, including the complementary and often contradictory link binding war with drugs throughout history. 

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The NJWEEDMAN Saga Part 2: The bittersweet triumphs of Ed Forchion, Activist

Editor’s Note: Today’s post finishes a series from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

In my last post, I covered the 1997 arrest and subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Robert Ed Forchion, also known as NJWeedman. As I write, we remain in the midst of sustained nationwide protests and an emerging public discussion about policing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Watching a police officer callously assault and eventually kill a man while being filmed has led to a sea change (though still severely limited) in public acknowledgement and critique of poor police behavior. But watching the subsequent coverage of the police response to this critique (which has been to double down on their brutality) keeps bringing me back to Ed Forchion, whose post-release story (though not as tragic as George Floyd’s) highlights the depths of the systemic problems of modern policing.

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The Mark of a Criminal: “Vag Addicts,” Police Power, and Civil Rights in Postwar America

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. 

In 1950, twenty-eight-year old Bettye Coleman, a black Los Angeleno, was arrested by police for being an “addict” in public. Bettye lived close to the downtown Temple district, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood—and one that the Los Angeles Police Department patrolled more heavily than nearly any other in the city, except for black neighborhoods south and west of downtown.

One afternoon, Bettye and her friends Ray and Manuel sat in a parked car, waiting to spot someone on the street who could sell them heroin. Suddenly, LAPD officers knocked on their door. “What are you doing here?” As Bettye stammered an excuse—“I think we’re having trouble with the car”—the officer reached through the window, grabbed her arm, and forcibly pushed up her sleeve. Revealed underneath were “fresh” hypodermic needle marks from an earlier fix. “Get out,” the officer said. Manuel took off running, but the police pinned Ray to the ground. Both Bettye and Ray were taken into custody. In the interrogation room, officers tried to flip Bettye against Manuel, whom they believed to be a distributor. After discovering that Bettye had no criminal record, the police let her go—with a warning that she should “get out of Temple Street” or would live to regret it. They would “get that little son of a bitch,” Manuel, another way. 

Two years later, Bettye was arrested on the same charge. That time, she went to jail for 90 days. 

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The NJWEEDMAN Saga Part 1: The Making of an Activist

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

On January 27, a 20-year old Spencer Alan Boston walked into a Wilson County, Tennessee General Sessions court, to discuss sentencing on a simple marijuana possession charge. Tennessee law penalizes possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana as a misdemeanor, subject to as much as a year sentence. But instead of discussing his case, Boston started to make an argument in favor of legalizing marijuana in the state as he reached into his pocket, pulled out a joint, and lit it up.

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Spencer Alan Boston lights it up

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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.

New Book Series: “Intoxicating Histories” from McGill-Queen’s University Press

New book series coming from McGill-Queen’s University Press: “Intoxicating Histories,” with series editors by Virginia Berridge, Erika Dyck, and Noelle Plack.

Whether on the street, off the shelf, or over the pharmacy counter, interactions with drugs and alcohol are shaped by contested ideas about addiction, healing, pleasure, and vice and their social dimensions. Books in this series explore how people around the world have consumed, created, traded, and regulated intoxicating substances throughout history. The series connects research on drugs and alcohol with diverse areas of historical inquiry, including the histories of medicine, consumption, trade, law, social policy, and popular culture. Its reach is global and includes scholarship on all periods. Intoxicating Histories aims to link these different pasts as well as to inform the present by providing a firmer grasp on contemporary debates and policy issues. We welcome books, whether scholarly monographs or shorter texts for a broad audience focusing on a particular phenomenon or substance, that alter the state of knowledge.

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Authors are invited to submit manuscript proposals by e-mail to the series editors and/or acquisitions editors:
∙ Virginia Berridge, Series Editor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,
∙ Erika Dyck, Series Editor, University of Saskatchewan,
∙ Noelle Plack, Series Editor, Newman University-Birmingham,
∙ Richard Baggaley, Acquisitions Editor,
∙ Kyla Madden, Acquisitions Editor,

For more information on submitting a proposal and publishing with McGill-Queen’s University Press, visit the Publishing With Us page at

McGill-Queen’s University Press is a scholarly publisher that defends, refutes, and creates fresh interpretations of the world. With over 3,000 books in print and numerous awards and bestsellers, our goal is to produce peer-reviewed, rigorously edited, beautifully produced, intelligent, interesting books.

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. 

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