SHAD Interview: “Legalización o Represión”: How a Debate in Colombia Steered the Fate of the “War on Drugs” with Lina Britto

Editor’s Note: Today marks our last interview with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Lina Britto, an assistant professor of History at Northwestern University where she teaches on the history of the drug trade and the war on drugs in the Americas, among other subjects. You can read Britto’s article in its entirety for a bit longer here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I’m Colombian, and recently became U.S. citizen as well. I began my career as a journalist, and I still write journalism when I manage to carve time between teaching and other responsibilities. I did a Masters in Anthropology, which made me to fall in love with History, so I decided to became a historian. My PhD in Latin American and Caribbean History is from New York University, and before coming to Northwestern University, where I work as an assistant professor in the Department of History, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University.

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

The reality of my country, which is still one of the main producers of cocaine in the world, and my own lived experience as a member of a generation who grew up in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín in the 1980s and early 1990s. But because I’ve always liked to swim against the tide, my interest was never really to understand the history of cocaine, which I found so pervading and asphyxiating. My curiosity was directed toward my father’s homeland, the Guajira, the northernmost section of Colombia’s map in the Caribbean coast, where the country’s first drug boom took place in the 1970s around marijuana, not cocaine. Trying to connect with that other side of my family and with my own roots, I began to explore that story almost 15 years ago. Now it’s a book.

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Dr. Lina Britto

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

Before marijuana became mainstream and half of the states in this country legalized it completely, a group of young economists in Colombia, the country that supplied most of the weed that the hippies smoked in the United States at the time, proposed legalization. The idea was presented during a publicized conference in Bogotá that U.S. diplomats and scientists attended. The goal was to provide policymakers with an alternative solution other than the bloody war that Washington and Bogotá waged together against producers and traffickers in Colombia. But the time was not ripe yet. In 1979, such a bold idea only served to infuriate those who believed in the “war on drugs.” So, before consumers and their advocates got crushed here in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, the forces that called for a less punitive solution to the drug problem got silenced in Colombia. Their political defeat during this month-long debate marked the end of the idea of marijuana legalization in both countries. Only in the last decade, this idea resurfaced again, this time under a completely different set of circumstances and results.

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

Yes, this is a small section in one of the chapters of my forthcoming book, entitled Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise, which will be published by the University of California Press in 2020. Additionally, I’m in the phase of conceptualization and exploration of my second book project, which will examine the history of my hometown, Medellín, during its transition from an industrial pole of development to a cocaine dystopia, but from a counterintuitive perspective. Again, swimming against the current.

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

I see colleagues doing all kinds of things, some of them quite creative. As a Latin Americanists, what I would love to see more of are twentieth-century regional and national histories of countries that are apparently peripheric for the transnational drug trade business in the Americas, however central in ways that we don’t understand yet, such as Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile.

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

First, I’d go out for brunch with Elena Poniatowska, one of the greatest Latin American thinkers of our times, a journalist, a novelist, a trailblazer, a true artist in the widest sense of the term. And then I’d have dinner with E.P. Thompson to pick his brain about my second book project. That’d be a good Sunday.

SHAD Interview: “The Philippines, the United States, and the Origins of Global Narcotics Prohibition” with Anne Foster

Editor’s Note: This is our last week of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Anne Foster, an associate professor of history at Indiana State University and co-editor of the journal Diplomatic HistoryYou can read Foster’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I teach a variety of courses in History at Indiana State University, where I have worked since 2003.  I also co-edit the journal Diplomatic History.  I’m interested in the varieties of ways that the United States has exerted power, with a particular focus on imperialism and Southeast Asia in the late 19th to mid-20th century.

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

I was in the archives in The Hague, researching for my dissertation, which had nothing to do with drugs, and in a box I pulled, saw a number of folders headed “opium.”  I had to read those! One document, from the 1910s, featured a Dutch official complaining that the US prohibition of opium in the Philippines was leading to increased smuggling of opium in the region, including into the Netherlands Indies, where opium was perfectly legal.  The Dutch official was irritated because this smuggling was undercutting Dutch profits from taxing opium. I thought that was interesting, and a different take on the effects of efforts to control or prohibit drugs. I have ever since been interested in the period of transition about opium in colonial Southeast Asia, from the 1880s, when opium was legal nearly everywhere and highly profitable to the colonial governments, to 1940, when opium was prohibited in some places and to some peoples, and highly regulated throughout colonial Southeast Asia.

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Dr. Anne Foster

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

Did you know that if you lived a bit more than 100 years ago, that opium was perfectly legal and widely consumed in most places?  Probably you did know that. Yes, lots of patent medicines in the United States contained opium, and yes, Coca-cola did contain cocaine.  I’m really interested in how opium went from being so widely accepted and consumed to prohibited within only a few short years. I mostly study how that happened in the colonial Southeast, where the U.S. colony of the Philippines was. Opium was consumed in Southeast Asia for both recreational and medicinal purposes in the late 19th and early 20th century, and provided from 15% to as much as 50% of government revenues for colonies there.  The United States worked to prohibit opium in the Philippines pretty soon after acquiring the colony, even before opium was prohibited in the United States itself. And then the United States tried to get the other colonial governments to prohibit opium too, which they mostly didn’t want to.  But for the U.S. officials, legal opium in the areas near the Philippines meant that people could easily smuggle opium into the Philippines. I argue that this means the U.S. “war on drugs” approach starts all the way back in the early 20th century.

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

I am working on a book about the transition from legal, profitable opium in 1880s colonial Southeast Asia to highly regulated, often restricted or prohibited opium in that region in 1940, on the eve of World War II.  I am looking not only at the transimperial politics of opium regulation, but also at smuggling and the transimperial efforts to stop smuggling.

The book also explores the context for discussion of opium of changes in medical knowledge and practices, which is significant.  Finally, racial, ethnic and gendered components shaped the politics of opium consumption and regulation. The book is a little unwieldy at the moment, but I am hoping to finish the manuscript in the next year.

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

I am excited to see how drug history is exploring the ways that drugs are linked to so many various aspects of life, from how drugs are related to broader histories of consumption, to how drugs and health and developments in medicine are interrelated, to the environmental implications of source control efforts against illicit drugs.  These histories don’t neglect the powerful political effects of the war on drugs, but demonstrate how drugs are integrated into our lives in ways we don’t (yet) fully understand.

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

This is a harder question than I thought it would be.  I am most tempted by the ability to resurrect scholar friends who have recently died, and have one last dinner.  But in what I take to be the spirit of the question, I will name someone I don’t know whose work I have always admired.  My choice is idiosyncratic: Jean Gelman Taylor, who wrote one of my favorite books: The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia.

SHAD Interview: “Mexico’s Dirty War on Drugs: Source Control and Dissidence in Drug Enforcement” with Aileen Teague

Editor’s Note: This week we’ll continue our series of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re excited to talk to Aileen Teague, currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. After her fellowship, she will begin her appointment as Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. She completed her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University in 2018. Aileen specializes in the history of U.S.-Mexico (Latin America) Relations, Drug Control, and National Security. Her work has been supported by a number of fellowships and grants including Fulbright and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. She is currently revising her dissertation into a book manuscript. You can read Aileen’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I am a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and will begin as Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service next year. I was born in Colon, Panama, traveled the world as part of a military family, and served in the Marine Corps prior to my academic career.

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

As someone who has lived or worked on a number of overseas U.S. military bases (Panama Canal Zone, Guantanamo, Okinawa, the Philippines, etc.), my larger interest has always been U.S. interventionism. By the 1970s and 1980s questions of U.S. anti-drug interventionism become entangled in U.S. domestic policy issues in a singular way that drew me in, and I haven’t looked back!

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Aileen Teague

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

Many of us are familiar with Mexico’s more recent drug violence and powerful drug cartels. My work provides a historical explanation of how we got here. It points to the 1970s as a critical period in establishing U.S. and Mexican drug enforcement policies, strategies, and tactics, which have played a role in shaping current antidrug issues and the landscape of border security.  

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

My article draws from my dissertation, which I am currently revising into a book manuscript.

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

I think the future of the field, especially with respect to contemporary drug history in Mexico, will involve a lot more oral history gathering, engagement with journalistic narratives, and will thrive with the declassification of archival materials in the coming years.

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

Mark Twain; he was such a keen observer and commenter of society and culture during one of the most interesting periods in American history.

SHAD Interview: “‘It’s That Difficult of a Terrain’: Opium, Development, and Territoriality in US-Afghan Relations, 1940s-1970s” with co-editor Daniel Weimer

Editor’s Note: Today we present the second interview in our SHAD series. Dr. Daniel Weimer co-edited the newest issue of SHAD with Matt Pembleton and was, until recently, an associate professor of history at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the author of Seeing Drugs: Modernization, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Narcotics Control in the Third World, 1969–1976 (Kent State University Press, 2011) and “The Politics of Contamination: Herbicides, Drug Control, and Environmental Law” (Diplomatic History, Nov. 2017). His article is in the newest issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, published with the University of Chicago Press, and can be viewed in entirety (until May 1) here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell our readers a little bit about yourself

I’m a historian of drugs and foreign relations, the main topics I’ve investigated for two decades now. For the past thirteen years I’ve taught at Wheeling Jesuit University, but the wave of higher ed. “disruption” has recently brought that to a close. However, I’ll continue to pursue history as an independent scholar, as there’s so much left to explore.

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

In grad school (Kent State University) I studied U.S. foreign relations and came at drug history from that angle while reading about the “G.I. heroin epidemic” during the Vietnam War. My adviser, Anne Heiss, suggested I contact Bill Walker about my interests. Bill was super supportive in helping me with my dissertation (and book, Seeing Drugs) that looked at modernization theory and drug policy during the 1970s. Interestingly—one of those quirky moments of synchronicity—when I was first working on my dissertation, I was using Bill’s book Drugs in the Western Hemisphere. Bill had dedicated the book to Richard Craig. I didn’t know Richard Craig, but across the hall from the history department was the political science department and I happened to notice the name “Richard Craig” on the faculty list posted on the wall. Well, I walked in and it was the same person. Bill’s work on Latin America and Richard’s work on 1970s Mexican drug policy led me to later focus on herbicides in drug control and to the larger issue of how environmental history and drug history overlap. Which gets to my SHAD piece on Afghanistan.

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Daniel Weimer

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

We hear a lot about opium and heroin production in Afghanistan and that despite the U.S. and others devoting a lot of resources to suppress opium cultivation and trafficking, the rate of production hasn’t budged. Why is that? There’s many reasons, but the economic realities of most poppy farmers’ lives and the environments (topography, climate, ecology) in which they live have long been powerful forces that the U.S. and international community can’t counteract. In short, Afghanistan sits in a poppy-friendly environment and creating other means of livelihood for opium producers, particularly in light of nearly four decades of political instability and violent conflict, is a monumental (if not) impossible task. And this is not something officials have only realized since the U.S. invasion in 2001, or even during the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. U.S. and UN officials have recognized these challenges since before World War II.

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

As Matt mentioned, this special issue of SHAD is part of two-part project with related articles on drugs and foreign relations still in development (but hopefully on the near horizon). Since the last question in this interview is about dinner with scholars, I need to mention that this project all began at the 2015 SHAFR (Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations) Conference. It was then that Bill McAllister assembled the “cartel” for dinner—with myself, Matt, and Aileen, along with others, discussing our various projects. About a year later, Matt contacted me and since then we’ve worked on this project through various iterations and rosters. It’s very gratifying, then, to see the culmination of everyone’s work and I’m grateful to everyone for persisting and doing what they do.

As for my own investigations, I’d like to keep with the drugs and environmental history theme. One idea I’ve been kicking around for a bit is seeing if there’s any connections between the volumes of drug-crop production data and the charting of climate change.

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

I’ll first reference Matt’s statements about the need for a “global accounting” of the U.S. drug war and the integration of legal drugs (not just illicit) into foreign relations scholarship. But beyond that (and the other topics we mention in our introduction), I see the continuing de-centering of the U.S. as the only/main driver of global drug control as an important thread in drug history. Also, the demand/treatment side of drug history and the lived experiences of users and drug-trafficking workers are two other areas in need of investigation.

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

I’m convinced Emma Goldman and Michael Taussig would make for great dinner companions.

SHAD Interview: “US Foreign Relations and the New Drug History,” with co-editor Matthew R. Pembleton

Editor’s Note: Today, and for the next few weeks, we’re excited to present interviews with the authors of the first issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs to be published with the University of Chicago Press. Even better, the articles are all available to read for free until May 1. Today we talk with contributing editor Dr. Matthew R. Pembleton, who served as guest co-editor of this issue with Daniel Weimer (more from him on Thursday!). You can read their editors’ note here. We hope you enjoy these interviews, and we also hope you’ll consider subscribing to the journal to read all the great ADHS scholarship to come!

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I’m an adjunct lecturer at American University, where I finished my PhD in 2014.  I’m also a Fellow at DC Policy Center and a consultant at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, where I’m working on a project about the 150 year+ history of the Academy complex.  I’ve been in the DC region for most of my life, which I guess make me a swamp creature–just not one of the well compensated ones.

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

I actually came to the history of drugs from the angle of enforcement and control (womp womp) as a grad student.  I was (and am) particularly interested in the dilemmas that accompanied foreign drug enforcement and the overlap with national security, in terms of both operations and ideology.  That was basically the initial impulse that resulted in my first book, Containing Addiction: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Origins of America’s Global Drug War (UMass, 2017) – which just won a prize and is available at fine retailers now!

As I started to dig into the misadventures of American drug cops poking around in places like post-WWII Turkey and Italy, I realized that US counternarcotic strategy was premised on a particular theory of drugs and if I wanted to understand how the US government saw drugs, I had to understand the history of addiction.  So I kind of started from US foreign policy and the US in the world and backed into the history of addiction, science and medicine, and public health etc. And as I started to examine the question of why some drugs are policed but others are not, I feel like that’s when my scholarship really began to open up.

At one point in this journey, one of my advisors explained how grad students and early career academics are associated with their dissertation topics and what historical subject that do, and he warned me that I would be known as a historian who does drugs.  He was very pleased with himself at the time.  And to which I would now reply: we are all of us drug users of one kind or another, which is part of what makes this field so interesting and useful.

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Matthew R. Pembleton

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

Because many drug products are global (or at least regional) commodities, there’s a fundamental foreign relations component to the history of drugs.  And because the United States has long been one of the most prolific consumers of drugs–both legal and illegal–as well as the most active proponent of global control, the US has a special role in this history.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of great work on drugs as an element of US foreign policy as well as those international and global dimensions of drug history.  So the project, which I edited with my colleague Dan Weimer, features some of the most interesting and promising scholarship on the intersection of these two subjects. In the volume we cover US colonial drug control in the Philippines, the national security dimensions of the Marihuana Tax Act, the way drug enforcement tends to overlap with counterinsurgency in places like Mexico, the mutual impact of failed 70s-era decriminalization debates in  Colombia and the US, and the environmental and ecological challenges of drug control in Afghanistan.

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

Indeed it is.  This first half features more in-depth archive driven case studies.  There’s a second half that’s more about theory, methods, and historiography making its way through the review process.  So stay tuned for more. Meanwhile, I’ve got a couple of new projects of my own in development… (he answered cryptically).

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

We actually address this directly at the end of the intro, because this was one of the elements that Dan and I were really interested in when we first set out on this project a few years ago.  I’ll point out two areas for now.

One is a global accounting of the US drug war.  The DEA currently operates 90 offices in 69 countries all around the world.  There are American drug cops on every continent but Antarctica. That makes it a real challenge to understand the full, local impact of the drug war.  I think a drug war version of something like Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War (Cambridge U, 2007) is super necessary, but DEA records are essentially nonexistent and the level of foreign language/archive research that would be needed is daunting.  One day perhaps…

The other major frontier, as Dan and I see it, is something that ADHS has been actually working on for a while which is the historically contingent line between legal and illegal drugs, and we were really interested in pushing beyond the legal category of “narcotics” or Schedule 1 controlled substances as an element of US foreign policy.  We kind of struggled with that, because US foreign policy is primarily interested in illegal drugs. But I’m encouraged by recent books like Nan Enstad’s Cigarettes, Inc (U Chicago, 2018) and think that would be a fruitful direction for scholarship on drugs as an element of US foreign policy.  What will a global history of the opioid epidemic look like and what influence does Big Pharma have on the role of the US in the world?

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

My humor can run kinda dark so it would be fun to sit down with Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken and bemoan the state of the world.  It would interesting to try to explain Trump to two of the greatest and most cutting satirists in American history, though I’d almost certainly be horrified by Menken’s racism and wouldn’t want to plan any research trips with Bierce.

Interview: Meet the New Editors of SHAD

In January 2018, Nancy Campbell, David Herzberg, and Lucas Richert assumed responsibility for Social History of Drugs and Alcohol: An Interdisciplinary Journal. They took on the role of co-editors in chief and began planning for the future. In April, the ADHS signed an agreement with University of Chicago Press.

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SHAD’s new co-editors, L-R: David Herzberg, Nancy Campbell, and Lucas Richert

1.) Tell us about your history as a scholar. What got you interested in alcohol and drug history?

Nancy: As the daughter and grand-daughter of small-town doctors, I was fascinated by the drug room and amassed a large collection of pharmaceutical giveaways. I was struck by how dismissive people were toward “druggies,” so at a tender age, I announced my intention to write a history of drugs. I’m just sticking to the plan.

Luc: I didn’t have a plan. Far from it. But I did figure out that I wanted to focus on the field of history in my third year of undergraduate. I started scheming and scrambling after I finished up at the University of Saskatchewan – and then I traveled to Edinburgh and London for graduate school. Early on, the American pharmaceutical policy grabbed my attention for a number of reasons; ultimately, this seemed a useful way of understanding the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

David: One of my closest friends in college had a very severe anxiety disorder. He was a very charismatic guy and liked to hold court and hold forth while medicating himself thoroughly with the one drug that he said eased his mind, alcohol. A favorite subject of his was Big Pharma medical journal ads. He had somehow come into possession of a huge stack of old journals, and he would flip through the images of smilingly healed people, deconstructing them freestyle, brilliantly but also bitterly–those drugs had let him down, but there they still were, mocking him with their shiny and, to him, fake promises. It stuck with me, this acute, intense version of consumer culture promises and human realities. My friend died while I was in grad school, making the questions more urgent right around when it was time to pick a dissertation topic.

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Points Interview: Stephanie Schmitz, Purdue University Archives & Special Collections

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted and written by Lucas Richert, Chancellor’s Fellow in Health History at Strathclyde and co-editor in chief of Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Enjoy! 

Stephanie Schmitz is the Betsy Gordon Archivist for Psychoactive Substances Research at the Purdue University Archives & Special Collections, where she is responsible for building collections pertaining to psychedelic research, and ensuring that these materials are discoverable and accessible in perpetuity.  

The conversation took place on June 8, 2018. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Stephanie and I sat down to talk in the Purdue Memorial Union’s coffee shop early on a Friday morning and immediately realized we couldn’t stay. There was far too much activity. It was incredibly loud. “I know another spot,” she told me.  

Five minutes later, we found ourselves in an adjacent building. Stephanie was sipping coffee, as was I. We were set. Except not. A speaker on the floor beside us unexpectedly started up and the Kongos’ song “Come with me now” boomed. So we swiftly collected our belongings and moved across the room to a quieter table. 

“Alright,” Stephanie laughed. “Now I can think.” 

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