Introducing the Oxford Companion to Global Drug History

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Today she reports on the ADHS conference held last week in Shanghai, China, and the upcoming publication of a potentially very useful new book for drug and alcohol scholars around the globe. 

In its earliest phase, the historiography of intoxicants generally focused on (inter)national attempts to bring troublesome substances under state control, particularly in western Europe and the United States. The past twenty-five years or so have witnessed the rise of the “New Drug History,” which breaks free of this legal and diplomatic history chrysalis to consider social, cultural and ideological issues pertaining to both licit and illicit substances. This New Drug History is not simply history, but rather an interdisciplinary mobilization of approaches and insights from anthropology, sociology, economics, ethnography, medicine, science and technology studies, literary studies, religious studies, and other disciplines. Recent scholars have taken up topics such as the constructed nature of “addiction,” attempts to alleviate and intervene against narcotics dependence, urban communities of users, and the significations of intoxicants in fiction, film, and the media. Illustrating the reach of narcotics into every aspect of public and private life, the diverse sources for these projects include (but are not limited to) newspapers, periodicals, statistical surveys, travel narratives, eyewitness accounts, personal testimonies, medical journals, clinical records, advertisements, photographs, and art.

Of equal importance to the making of the New Drug History is the long overdue representation of the non-West. No longer does research on Europe and the United States dominate the field. By examining Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, historians (including those born and employed in these regions) have not only brought previously unstudied drug cultures to light, but have also challenged colleagues to rethink the traditional narration of the history of intoxicants as a telos toward Western power and domination.

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Paul Gootenberg

The forthcoming Oxford Companion to Global Drug History attempts to synthesize the increasingly rich and deep historiography of drugs of the twenty-first century. The editor of this project, Paul Gootenberg, is Professor of Latin American History at Stony Brook University and president-elect of the ADHS. He is the author and editor of several seminal works of drug history including Cocaine: Global Histories (Routledge, 2002), Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), and The Origins of Cocaine: Colonization and Failed Development in the Amazon Andes (Routledge, 2018). Gootenberg began recruiting contributors to the Companion at the 2017 ADHS meeting in Utrecht, ultimately bringing thirty-five scholars based in seven nations on board.

The volume is divided into seven parts, each featuring three to seven essays covering different geographic regions over a similar time frame. The first part, “Ancient Drug Worlds,” traces the discovery and early use of plant intoxicants in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. “From Pre-Colonial to Colonial Drugs: Commerce and Cultures” follows mind-altering substances into the early modern world, with a particular focus on the impact of empire-building. “The Long Nineteenth Century: Transitions to Dangerous Drugs” explores the origins of state attempts to control circulation, setting the stage for the next part: “Modern Prohibition and its Drug Culture Aftermaths.” In this section, the longest in the book, scholars of the United States, Great Britain, Mexico, (Soviet) Russia, Germany, and Japan discuss the failure of drug suppression and its spiraling impact in the years around the two world wars. The late twentieth-century War on Drugs is addressed in the two subsequent sections: one focused on the United States and Europe, and the other on Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Finally, “Current Dilemmas with Global Illicit Drugs” highlights shifting patterns of trafficking and the challenges of reform. Virginia Berridge (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), whose Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England (Yale University Press, 1987) may be considered a very early exemplar of the New Drug History, concludes by offering some possible lessons for today from the past.

At the recent ADHS meeting at Shanghai University, Gootenberg and six Companion contributors united for a roundtable to introduce their forthcoming work. From the perspective of religious studies, James McHugh (University of Southern California) spoke about his research on the ritual use of soma (a hallucinogenic plant) in ancient India. Isaac Campos (University of Cincinnati) presented his chapter on early twentieth-century prohibitions in Mexico and Latin America. Haggai Ram (Ben Gurion University) discussed the institution of the coffeehouse, a public space that transformed the early modern Middle East. Robert Stephens (Virginia Tech) highlighted the slow genesis of the historiography on narcotics in twentieth-century Germany, emphasizing the need for additional study of divergent drug cultures in socialist East Germany and capitalist West Germany. Nancy Campbell (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), whose contribution to the volume deconstructs the concept of “addiction,” confided her initial skepticism regarding the mission of the Companion. Although her discipline of science and technology studies often dismisses handbook-style compendia as “ossified” knowledge, she was eventually convinced of the importance of the project. Following Campbell, David Herzberg (University of Buffalo) shared insights from his chapter on the early history of drugs and medical cultures in the United States. Talking last, I called attention to the importance of refined narcotics to the rise and fall of the Japanese empire in the early twentieth century, and to the establishment of ideologically useful, race-based distinctions between putatively “addicted” imperial subjects and “abstinent” national citizens.

Following the remarks of the roundtable participants, four additional Companion contributors in attendance also ventured thoughts and ideas. These authors included ADHS president Timothy Hickman (University of Lancaster, on prohibition and addiction in the nineteenth-century United States), James Bradford (Berklee College of Music/Bentley College, on the War on Drugs in Afghanistan), Maziyar Ghiabi (Oxford University, on modern drug cultures and policy in the Middle East and North Africa), and Alexandre Marchant (ENS Paris-Saclay, on the French Connection and its legacies).

Gootenberg anticipates that the Oxford Companion to Global Drug History will be available from Oxford University Press in mid-2020.