Conference Report – ADHS Shanghai, 12-15 June 2019

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. He presents his conference report from the biennial ADHS conference, held last month in Shanghai. It was the meeting’s first gathering in Asia.

From the 13th through the 15th of June, nearly 100 scholars from 14 countries gathered at Shanghai University in China for the biennial conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, beefily titled “Changing Minds: Societies, States, the Sciences and Psychoactive Substances in History.” Jointly sponsored by the Sir Henry Welcome Trust, the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies at Shanghai University, and the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare at the University of Strathclyde, the conference marked the first meeting of the ADHS in Asia and an important next step in the organization’s ongoing efforts to globalize drugs and alcohol history. I trust I speak for all in attendance in extending sincerest gratitude to the organizers and sponsors, the staff of the New Lehu Hotel and Conference Center, and the many graduate student volunteers for putting on a great four days of stimulating conversations, fascinating presentations, and productive networking. 

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The Shanghai Conference opened proper on Wednesday morning with a formal ceremony featuring speeches by key organizers, including Timothy Hickman (President of the ADHS, Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University), Jim Mills (CSHHH, University of Strathclyde), Yong-an Zhang (Director of the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies at Shanghai University), and several Chinese government officials, notably Yu Haibin, Director of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission. The hardline prohibitionist message of the latter’s remarks notwithstanding, the opportunity to convene in Shanghai, establish ties with Chinese scholars, and with them freely discuss a range of progressive and even controversial topics in drugs and alcohol history together demonstrate a commendable commitment of the host nation and university to academic freedom and debate. 

As always, the conference program teemed with activity, packing 3 keynote addresses, 2 roundtable sessions, 21 presentation panels, and several SHAD and ADHS board meetings into a highly enjoyable, if hurried, three days. 

Keynote speakers included Zui’liang Su (Professor and Director of the Research Center on Urban Culture at Shanghai Normal University), Nancy D. Campbell (Professor and Department Head of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and Robin Room (Professor at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University in Melbourne). In the first keynote Zui’liang Su discussed the International Opium Commission held in Shanghai in February 1909, which laid the foundation for the formal creation of the first-ever international opium controls at The Hague in 1912. He argued that the lasting importance of the Shanghai Commission lie in its achievement of international cooperation on drug control policy and in “drawing other nations into China’s prohibitionist movement.” 

Closing out the conference’s second day, Nancy Campbell’s talk entitled “Just Say Know: A Social History of How Naloxone Came to Matter,” examined the socio-political dimensions of the harm reduction movement. Specifically, Professor Campbell discussed the bottom-up history of naloxone, a narcotic antagonist used to counter opiate overdose and first developed in the early 1960s, and its transformation from a harm reduction tactic controlled by doctors to a global public health strategy built from patient and grassroots community activism. Campbell showed how clinicians and community activists in Italy, Germany, Britain, Australia and the U.S. piloted addiction programs during the 1990s centered around the idea of “community-based naloxone availability” for opiate addicts, and convincingly argued that their efforts engendered a shift in thinking about naloxone that led to innovation (e.g. the development of a nasal mucosal atomizer in 2005) and a growing, global acceptance of the drug as a take-home “technology of solidarity.”  Robin Room’s keynote on the final day likewise plotted a global course, exploring the variations, challenges, and benefits off state alcohol monopolies across four continents. Room argued that governmental-controlled monopolies, and particularly retail-level monopolies, still offer flaws and all the most effective solutions to the public health challenges posed by the consumption of alcohol.

The panel presentations, which included two roundtable discussions on recent publications in alcohol and drugs history, were interspersed between the keynote addresses and numerous coffee breaks. Unfortunately, I did not attend the roundtables and cannot give an accurate accounting here of what was discussed. However, Miriam Kingsberg Kadia (University of Colorado, Boulder) wrote an excellent post for Points on Paul Gootenberg et al’s forthcoming Oxford Companion to Global Drug History, and the roundtable discussion in Shanghai on the book that included many contributing authors. The other roundtable produced (what I heard was) a lively debate over David Courtwright’s new work, The Age of Addiction (Harvard UP 2019), and we at Points welcome any participant(s) to offer a report of the conversation or, better yet, a review of the work that include insights from those discussions. 

The panel presentations I attended in Shanghai were enjoyable, highly informative, and often at the cutting-edge in terms of method and historiographical intervention. The geographic and temporal range of the papers likewise impressed, covering topics in drugs and alcohol history across 5 continents and 4 centuries (well, 25 centuries if we include James McHugh’s paper on sura in pre-modern India). 

Together, the papers also highlighted and advanced ongoing efforts to gender, queer, and decolonize drugs and alcohol histories. As the aforementioned Nancy Campbell and David Herzberg argued in a special issue of SHAD on “Gender and Critical Drug Studies” from 2017, “drugs demand attention in gendered ways.” Several panels and papers heeded this important call and explored the historical intersections of drugs, sex, and gender in Canada,  South Africa, France, Germany, the UK and US during the 19th and 20th centuries. Andrea Ens (University of Saskatchewan) gave a fascinating paper on the use of LSD during psychiatric sessions attached to conversion therapies conducted at Hollywood Hospital in British Columbia during the 1960s. Drawing from a newly-made available cache of patient files from LSD therapies conducted at Hollywood, Ens showed how a sample of white, male patients viewed their homosexuality as  a crisis of masculinity, generally linked to an “unhealthy relationship” between son and mother, and LSD and auto-writing as effective means of exploring and treating the “condition.” 

Erika Dyck (University of Saskatchewan), co-editor of the recently published Psychedelic Prophets: The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond (2018), introduced us to the story of Doug Hepburn, a Canadian powerlifter from the 1950s and recipient of LSD therapy at the aforementioned Hollywood Hospital in Vancouver. Pulling from Hepburn’s patient files and personal writings about LSD therapy, Dyck concluded that Hepburn and his doctors believed LSD an effective means of treating both alcoholism and toxic masculinity. Taken together, then, Ens’s and Dyck’s papers connivingly demonstrate that the medicalization of LSD during the 1950s and 1960s was a gendered affair and intimately tied to competing constructions of masculinity during the Cold War era. Two additional panels on the second day also examined the gendered, sexed, and queered histories of drugs and alcohol. I believe this work would make for an important special edition for an upcoming issue of SHAD on “a queer time for, sex, drugs, and alcohol,” the provocative title of Maurice Nagington’s (University of Manchester) paper from the second day.

Another SHAD special issue should be culled from the well-organized panels from the conference’s last day on “a century (and more) of Mexican drug wars,” chaired by Paul Gootenberg (SUNY Stony Brook) and Isaac Campos (University of Cincinnati). Campos led off the presentations with a discussion of historiography, arguing that it was time for a “revisionist” school to emerge and push discourse on the history of drugs and alcohol in Mexico, and Latin America more broadly, in new directions. Campos urged scholars of drugs in Mexico to move beyond the “cult of pharmacology” and the production of sensationalized stories of cartels fighting the DEA and examine the ways in which intoxicants, as commodities, cultures, and symbols, factored into broader developments in the modern histories of Mexico and Latin America. 

As we all know, the first step toward revisionism is admitting you have a problem. The papers that followed Campos not only named key problems in the historiography but also provided practical steps for ways forward. Aileen Teague (Texas A&M University), for example, examined the early television coverage of America’s war on drugs in Mexico, arguing that militarized and racialized cowboy-and-Indian tropes were used to “mobilize the American imagination” against a foreign Mexican enemy. Carlos A. Pérez Ricart (University of Oxford) argued in his paper that even the DEA fell prey to these stereotypes, pursued heavy-handed and often ineffective “Kingpin” and herbicidal strategies against drug trafficking, and in so doing violated the human rights of many innocent Mexican citizens. In using television news as a source and placing the history of the DEA in colonial, transnational, and human rights contexts, these scholars are giving a new lease on the study of the most notorious prohibition enforcement agency in modern history.

Papers from the Mexican Drug Wars’ second session similarly postured toward revisionism. Alexander Dawson (University of Albany), author of the recently published Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs, gave a fascinating paper on how the Mexican government came to prohibit peyote use during the 1960s but granted a legal exception to indigenous populations who used the intoxicant for religious purposes. Pulling from philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s notions of the “homo sacer” and “states of exception,” Dawson argued that in codifying indigenous peyote users as “sacred” and confining their use of the intoxicant within a legal space of exemption, the Mexican state did more to circumscribe than advance the sovereignty and rights of the population in question. Nathaniel Morris (University College London) likewise explored the unintended and often ignored consequences Mexico’s War on Drugs for small poppy-growing communities of La Sierra de Guerrero in southwestern Mexico. Combining historical research with anthropological field work, Morris convincingly showed how these local communities, caught between the government and cartels, deploy “weapons of the weak,” such as speaking in indigenous dialects and mocking soldiers during carnivals, to live through the push and pull of Mexico’s war on drugs, maintain autonomy and tradition, and maximize profits. Taken together, these papers signal a successful first step in the revisionist project to localize, decolonize, and commodify drugs and alcohol history in Mexico and Latin America moving forward. 

As if the three days of cutting-edge scholarship, sincere camaraderie, excellent food, and gracious hosting were not enough, the organizers treated conference participants to a riverboat cruise on the final evening, providing arguably some of the best views one could ask for of central Shanghai.  

Once again, I’d like to thank the organizers, sponsors, and participants of the Shanghai Conference for such an amazing experience. I look forward to seeing how these and other research projects further develop— please remember SHAD when thinking of a place to submit! — and to seeing you all in Mexico City in two years!