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.

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SHAD Interview: “Harry Anslinger Saves The World: National Security Imperatives and the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act” with William McAllister

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 talking to William McAllister, the Chief of the Special Projects Division, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State and also Adjunct Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History (Routledge, 2000), as well as many articles and chapters in edited volumes about the historical development of the international drug control regime and U.S. drug policy. You can read McAllister’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

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

How I applied my research to real life: When my children reached double digits, I followed a consistent line whenever the topic of drug use came up. I told them the statistics indicated they would probably consume some controlled substance in an illicit manner at some point. Therefore, my goal was not to prevent entirely, but rather to delay onset of first use as long as possible. My reading of the literature indicated that was the best way to decrease the chances of significant problems over a lifetime.  For example, I was a single parent throughout those years, so they had to attend aftercare at the end of the school day. I explained that I wouldn’t allow them to go home unsupervised because that was “prime time” for kids to get into trouble. They didn’t much like it, but they appreciated the honesty. Although one never knows, at ages 23 and 26 they both seem to be doing OK, so I think it worked well enough.

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

In the mid-1980s I taught a juvenile crime and delinquency prevention program to 5th-6th graders in Tulsa-area schools. The students asked a lot of questions that more or less boiled down to rulemaking and gatekeepers, such as, “How did they decide that alcohol and tobacco were legal while marijuana and heroin aren’t.” I didn’t think the canned answers we supplied were sufficient, and I couldn’t find any books at the library that answered my growing list of questions, especially about who “they” might be. So, I decided to get a history Ph.D. and make this the subject of my dissertation research. I focused on the how the international treaty structure evolved over the 20th century on the premise that the global regime informed and governed national policies and local practices. Although that’s not the whole story, I’d argue it’s an essential one to account for in doing drug history/policy research.

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William McAllister

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

You may think the government prohibited marijuana way back in the 1930s because they were prejudiced against minorities and didn’t see any value in the plant, but you’re wrong! Washington actually wanted a lot of cannabis to be grown because they were going to need fiber for the coming global war, but that was a national security secret they couldn’t tell anybody.  At the same time, they didn’t want to facilitate trafficking in dangerous items. So, if my next drink is on the house, I’ll tell you how they pulled it off…

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

This is something I discovered late in the process of producing my “Drug Diplomacy” book, published in 2000. I included reference to it in one paragraph, but there was not room to tell the whole story in depth. In subsequent years I got as far as I could with additional research and included that material in this article, but I’m still not done searching archives, so I created this site where I can explain the lacunae in the current historiography in great detail and add more material to support my argument as I discover it. It’ll take a while to build out, so be patient.

I’m next working on finding out more about Elizabeth Washburn Wright, a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1925 Geneva conference that produced the first international drug control treaty featuring substantive provisions. She was the first woman granted plenipotentiary powers by the U.S. government, but we know very little about her. Her family papers reside in Northwestern Maine, so I’m putting that trip off until winter is well past. I’m also investigating the extent to which it is possible to verify Harry Anslinger’s claims about his early career accomplishments before his appointment as FBN Commissioner in 1930; I’ve become skeptical regarding the story he tells about himself. For example, the first nine documents in Anslinger’s State Department personnel file are missing. This void includes the entire period during which he claimed intelligence and espionage exploits as a Consular officer in the Netherlands. I’ve never seen that magnitude of documentary omission in the many other files of this type I have researched at NARA. Kinda makes you wonder…

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

It is my policy as a professional historian never to make predictions that could be proven wrong in my own lifetime. Assuming I live to age 100, everybody reading this will be retired by then anyway so it doesn’t really matter what I think. Just ask new questions with a dedicated eye to how you can make your findings relevant to multiple audiences (i.e., don’t just talk to fellow eggheads who read Points).

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

I’d love to observe Socrates and Oscar Wilde go at it. Problem is, if we are to be historically accurate, it wouldn’t be much of a conversation unless Wilde possessed some fluency in Ancient Greek (or perhaps Socrates could acquire modern English from some of Elysium’s recently-arrived residents).

Drug War Critique: What Critics Get Wrong About Marijuana Legalization

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, and discusses the brown bag talk he gave at Utica College earlier this week. 

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a talk entitled, “Drug War Critique: What Critics Get Wrong About Marijuana Legalization.” The talk is part of a monthly brown bag speaker series sponsored by Utica College’s Center for Historical Research. In light of New York State’s recent efforts to push for the legalization of marijuana as part of Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 Justice Agenda, I decided to present Cuomo’s legalization proposal and respond to a series of critiques of Cuomo’s plan presented by public officials and parent groups last week, who cited a threat to public safety as a justification for their opposition.

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World War II and Drug Prevention

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

Screenshot 2019-02-12 at 9.30.23 AMIn 1937, as the first director for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry J. Anslinger eliminated any possibility that cannabis, or “marihuana,” could be a gateway drug. When asked during Congressional hearings if “the marihuana addict graduates into a heroin, opium or cocaine user,” Anslinger responded, “I think it [marijuana] is a different class. The marihuana addict does not go in that direction.”  This definition of the “marijuana menace” denied pot’s stepping-stone relationship to “harder” drugs in the nascent debate over its prohibition. During War World II, however, Anslinger lost considerable ground in his effort to criminalize cannabis. Most influential in this set-back to his strategy, World War II created a détente in his incipient war on pot.

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Points Roundtable, Part 4: Bob Beach on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the fourth installment of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. This post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up my copy of Alex Berenson’s new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence to review for Points. I was following the media coverage of the book’s release with some interest and had some idea of what I might encounter, having already written a bit (here and here) on this forum on Berenson’s propagandistic forebear, Harry Anslinger.

But as I trudged into Dunham Public Library in Whitesboro, NY, on a rainy Thursday morning to get my copy, the focus of my review here today became immediately clear. I’m an ABD adjunct and it’s January. That means I’m between appointments and, more importantly, between paychecks. I wasn’t going to count on the speed of the interlibrary loan at my college library, so I checked out the Mid-York Library System, a cooperative network of 45 public libraries in three counties in central New York.

Having had longstanding access to college/university libraries for most of my adult life, I had to renew my public library card to check out Berenson’s tome. Armed with my renewed card and the Dewey decimal call number (how quaint!), this well-heeled library user went directly to the stacks and couldn’t… find… the book. I scanned the shelves, thinking it may have been put back in the wrong place, and while doing so I took note of the library’s selection of other books on drugs, drug use and drug policy, few of which I was actually familiar with. I subsequently checked the Mid-York catalog and, sure enough, there was nothing from Points co-founder Trysh Travis, nothing from co-founder Joe Spillane. Nothing from the new team of editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

The library was clearly censoring historians.

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Points Roundtable, Part 2: Isaac Campos on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the second of four installments of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceThis post comes from Isaac Campos, history professor at the University of Cincinnati and good friend of Points. He discusses Berenson’s use of his research, as well as issues Campos has with Berenson’s larger argument.

First, we’ll run an interview with Campos, followed by an unpublished working paper that Campos first presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference in Scotland last April. This paper, titled “Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra and Marijuana’s Great Historical Disjuncture,” elucidates on the ideas that Berenson used in Tell Your Children, but gives much greater historical context for Campos’s claims. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00Points: First of all, did you know that Berenson was going to cite your work in Tell Your Children?

Isaac Campos: I had no idea. I’d never heard of him until a journalist wrote to me asking about his treatment of my research.

What was your reaction to the book?

I find it kind of depressing, actually. And I’m not talking about his argument. It’s the approach and the response that I find depressing. He looks at an exceedingly complex issue, finds a lot of conflicting evidence, only uses the evidence that supports his thesis, then writes a really sensationalistic account that get lots of attention in a media landscape that rewards sensationalism and shock value. A lot of very serious and ethical scholars have been carefully studying these questions for many years. There are significant disagreements about what’s going on, but serious scholars are looking at this stuff carefully and meticulously, all the while keeping in mind that real people are affected by what we publish, so we need to respect the data.  

And then you get this former journalist and fiction writer who comes in, writes a sensationalistic book without a single footnote, but he says that the research is at this point clear, that “everything you’re about to read is true,” and characterizes those who don’t agree with him as the “cannabis lobby.” And he’s rewarded with a bunch of media coverage and book sales. So, yeah, I find it a little depressing. It’s also frustrating because I do think it’s important to take the potential risks of cannabis very seriously, as the paper we’re posting here demonstrates. But those risks need to be assessed within the whole complex of issues related to drugs, drug policy, and harm. Historically, a lot more harm has been done by bad drug policy and the propaganda used to justify it than by the drugs themselves. This book is closer to propaganda than a useful contribution to the discourse.

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Points Roundtable, Part 1: Emily Dufton on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: A new book about marijuana was released earlier this month. Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence has been met with vocal critiques and admiration, and we here at Points wanted to respond. Over the next two weeks, we’re going to run a roundtable on Berenson’s book, starting with my response and then featuring Points writers and friends Isaac Campos, Brooks Hudson, and Bob Beach. Feel free to participate in our roundtable by commenting below or engaging with us on Twitter

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00Emily Dufton: Ever since I had my first book published in December 2017, I’ve been interested in the path that books, especially non-fiction books, take as they journey from an idea in an author’s mind to a finished project available on the shelves. After all, as anyone who has gone through the publishing process knows, crafting a book requires two things: time (generally at least a year or two), and other people’s support. From agents to editors to copyeditors to designers to marketers to publishers, there are a lot of individuals involved in the creation of a book, and a lot of people who need to sign off along the way.

Which makes me wonder exactly what the publishers at Simon and Schuster were thinking when they purchased the rights to Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, which was released earlier this month, on January 8.

Tell Your Children is a relatively short book that ties the increased use of increasingly potent marijuana to a variety of negative conditions, including, as the title suggests, mental illness and violence. Berenson cites evidence, like a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, that relates marijuana use to different forms of psychosis, including depression, social anxiety, and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, schizophrenia. He also shows connections between marijuana and violent crime, suggesting that heavy pot users are hardly the couch-surfing stoners we’ve come to believe. Instead, Berenson argues, heavy marijuana users engage in violent acts (including, among his many horrific stories, ax murders, child abuse and corpse mutilation) at higher-than-average rates — often while experiencing the psychotic episodes that the marijuana originally caused. This could easily become a mounting problem, Berenson warns, as more states legalize recreational and medical use, often without putting any limitations on the strength of the cannabis available. “The higher the use, the greater the risk,” he writes in his introduction. “Marijuana in the United States has become increasingly dangerous to mental health in the last fifteen years, as millions more people consume higher-potency cannabis more frequently.”

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