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.