Teaching Points– Myrna Santiago on “Cocaine…and US Latin-American Relations”

Editor’s Note: Professor Myrna Santiago talks about her undergraduate history seminar on the cocaine-fueled drug war, the detailed syllabus of which appeared yesterday.

Myrna Santiago, St. Mary’s College

Three objectives drove the development of a course on the drug trade in Latin America.  The first was to revise a course on U.S.-Latin American relations that was on the books and I had never taught.  I wanted to change the class from a standard diplomatic history to something broader.  Saint Mary’s College has only 2500 undergraduates and all Latin American history courses are upper division without pre-requisites, so I design courses that will intrigue students not otherwise interested in either history or Latin America.  Given that the “war on drugs” takes so much air time, I figured a class that looked at U.S.-Latin American relations through the lens of the drug trade would catch students’ attention and still cover the traditional topics covered in such a class.  This resulted in 25 student class that was heavily discussion based, with mini-lectures as necessary.

The second objective was, frankly, to learn about the topic myself. News coverage by its nature tends toward snapshots of whatever happens on a given day.  There is no room for context or analysis, much less for history, in the daily media, so I was quite frustrated by what I did not know and sought to educate myself.  And, as all teachers know, there is no better crash course on a topic than having to teach it!

The third objective was to speak to students’ experience. There is no young person in the United States today who does not have some personal experience with drugs.  Illegal substances are tightly woven into the fabric of American society today, so no one escapes their influence or impact.  Yet, what we know about illegal drugs generally comes from fiction.  For young people, in particular, the source is the movies.  The number of films about drugs or with drugs in them grows every year.  Focused on telling a good story, however, the context in most films is limited to the immediate environment surrounding the main characters.  The center of the genre is the individual; the story is personal. There are assumptions about history and socio-economic and political structures but they are left unexamined.

Thus, the course set out to investigate as many aspects of the drug trade as possible in historical context. 

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Teaching Points– Cocaine, the Drug Trade, the War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations

Editor’s Note: We close out our back-to-school Teaching Points series this week with Myrna Santiago’s upper division undergraduate history seminar “Cocaine, the Drug Trade, The War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations.”  Professor and Chair of the History Department at St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, Santiago comes to drug history through border, economic, and environmental issues, a nexus of ideas represented in her prize-winning book The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (Cambridge, 2007).  Here she looks at another commodity fetish–cocaine– across a span of a hundred years.


For the last thirty years, one of the dominant themes between Latin America and the United States has been the drug trade, specifically the trafficking in cocaine. The policy of successive US administrations has been to wage a “war on drugs” to the exclusion of alternatives. The question then becomes, what has such a war accomplished? How has it affected relations between the United States and Latin America? What effects has the war had on production, transportation, and consumption patterns? This course will examine these questions by looking at the history of cocaine production from the late 19th century until today, tracing the changes the humble coca leaf underwent to become a powerful addictive substance.

We will follow the trajectory of cocaine production and transportation through the countries most affected over the course of the late nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth century—Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and now Mexico—paying attention to the impact such illicit trade has had on politics, economic development, and democracy.
Objectives. The primary goal of this course is to have students develop an informed and sophisticated analysis of the impact the drug trade has had on U.S.-Latin American relations and within Latin American countries themselves, in addition to gaining knowledge about the history of cocaine and a developing a more critical view of media representations of drug matters in general.

Required Readings

Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug
Gabriel García Márquez, News of a Kidnapping
Roberto Escobar, The Accountant’s Story
Coletta A. Youngers and Eileen Rosin, Drugs & Democracy in Latin America
Jeffrey A. Miron, Drug War Crimes
Articles from e-reserve

Schedule of Classes

Mon Aug 31 Introduction

Wed Sept 2: Coca and the first wave of cocaine, to 1890

  • Gootenberg, Introduction, ch 1
  • Learning objective: understanding the historiography
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Weekend Reads: Tragedy, Then Farce Edition

When Karl Marx claimed that history repeats itself twice, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” he didn’t have synthetic testosterone or Major League Baseball in mind. Nonetheless, the American public has seen Marx’s principle on full display in their sports coverage over the last two weeks. Mirroring last March’s moral pandemic about Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun, we have seen, over the past fortnight, a succession of similarly irate commentaries about San Francisco Giants’ drug-using outfielder Melky Cabrera. Oddly, however, the anger shown toward Cabrera morphed into an almost carnivalesque bemusement when, just a few days later, Oakland Athletics’ pitcher Bartolo Colon was also found using illicit substances. What are we to make of these recent baseball drug scandals? Frankly, by focusing our attentions on the public’s mercurial attitudes toward Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), we can learn quite a bit about popular conceptions of trust, morality, and punishment.

Last spring, Ryan Braun, coming off a career-best year that saw him win a National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and make the playoffs, found himself embroiled in controversy. Accused by the Commissioner’s Office of breaking Major League Baseball banned substances policy, Braun’s lawyers successfully argued for an overturning of his 50 game suspension based on a mishandling of Braun’s urine sample by the drug tester. While Braun did not serve a suspension – he was “not guilty,” after all – pundits flayed the ballplayer for getting off on a “technicality,” as if procedural protections were simply a hindrance to the proper functioning of law. A number of busybody journalists, clearly embarrassed by Braun’s presumed PED use, went so far as to demand a re-vote for MVP, based on the presumption that Braun had hoodwinked everyone and sullied the good name of baseball. Or something.

Hank Aaron used PEDs (“greenies”). Just saying…

L’affair Braun caused a furor among the media and baseball watching public seen few times before in the game’s history. Many felt aggrieved because a “cheater” wasn’t punished (remember, he was found “not guilty”). They would never get their pound of flesh, it seemed, though it looks as if fans and the media will retroactively punish Braun anyway, ostentatiously changing drug-testing policies and denying him future MVP votes he clearly deserves. The Braun case starkly showed the lengths to which fans and the media would go to denounce drug use – but only if that drug use wasn’t loveable – in hopes of preserving their totally invented “sanctity of the game.” While the hypocrisy of such a stance is laughable on its face, it also suggests some interesting issues relating, generally speaking, to public views on drug use and abuse. 

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Breaking Blog

Editor’s Note: We here at Points are happy to welcome back guest blogger Ross Aikins, a self-proclaimed sports-nerd, journalist, teacher, and postdoctoral fellow at the National Development and Research Institutes in New York City.  A recent PhD from UCLA’s School of Education, Ross blogs at www.yourblogondrugs.com. Today, he provides us with a meditation on one of television’s great drug-related programs, Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad might be the greatest TV show ever about drugs.  And it’s about to end[1].

For those not familiar, Breaking Bad is an exceptionally high-quality AMC drama about a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who, after discovering that he has terminal cancer, resorts to cooking meth in order to provide for his family’s future.  His (literal) partner in crime is Jesse Pinkman, a former student of Walter’s and amateur meth-maker.  Needless to say, the story gets complicated from there. You can read a fuller synopsis here.

What you need to know about Breaking Bad is that it is a critical hit, having won Emmys to date.  It’s days are numbered, though, as it’s just entered the halfway mark of its fifth and final season that concludes next year[2].

Drugs, meet television. Television, drugs.

Now read that completely loaded first sentence again and consider the pedantic lunacy of what I’m about to argue.  What does it mean to be a qualitatively “great” show?  And what makes a show “about drugs” anyway?  Granted, these are hopelessly subjective classifications, but this is a drug history blog. For the sake of argument, let’s consider the entire history of television within our purview.  I’ll respond to those two questions in reverse order.

  1. A show is “about drugs” either if its central plot revolves around drugs or if the main characters are addicts, dealers, cops, an anthropomorphic pothead talking towel[3], or otherwise primarily involved in the drug trade.

A good “about drugs” litmus test would be if somebody who had never seen a particular show were to ask an ardent fan “what’s that show about?”  The first words in any credible response would have to include “drugs.”  Lots of people love Sons of Anarchy, where drugs are a recurrent theme.  But SOA fails that test since it is primarily about “biker gangs.”  Similarly, The Sopranos is about a mafia family.

This is Jessie Spano on drugs. She’s so excited…

A show is also not “about drugs” if drugs or addiction are only an occasional subplot or multi-episode arc.  For example, just because Jessie Spano was hooked on pep pills and The Pointer Sisters does not make “Saved By the Bell” a show about drugs.  Same goes for the time Roger Sterling dropped acid[4], or the time Homer Simpson ate a hallucinogenic chili pepper

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Feminism and Addiction– An Interview with Sandra Morgen

Sandra Morgen

Editor’s Note: In my ongoing attempt to locate a Second Wave Feminist discourse on women’s substance abuse and addiction, I turned to the Women’s Health Movement– a logical place, it would seem, to find the issues conceptualized as public health problems with disproportionate effects on women and children.  How did the Women’s Health  Movement think about addiction? To answer the question, I interviewed Sandra Morgen, author of Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990, about her experiences–both as a participant and as a researcher–in that movement.

For the benefit of people who haven’t read your book, can you explain your interest— personal and scholarly—in the Women’s Health Movement (WHM)?

I was involved in various forms of civil rights and anti-war activism in the late 1960s and then, in the early 1970s, began working with early women’s groups, including a socialist-feminist group in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I was a graduate student.  I was also personally affected by the emerging politics of women’s health in a number of ways.  One of the important early insights of feminism, “the personal is political,” helped me take what felt like a giant step back then— to combine my interest in anthropology (I was a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill) with my growing interest in and commitment to women’s health and women’s reproductive justice.  I identified a community-based feminist clinic in the northeastern U.S  to join as a researcher, but before I got there they underwent a huge political crisis and decided they did not want an outsider in their midst just then.  I set about to find another clinic to study, and although there were dozens of possibilities, my choices were somewhat limited because my interest in race and class, along with gender and sexuality, directed me to the smaller group of clinics that served a broad client base, including women of color and poor and working class women. (Quite a number of feminist clinics, especially in university towns, attracted a more politicized, middle-class and white client base. ) So I bought the Amtrak equivalent of a Eurail pass and travelled around to about twenty clinics on the east coast trying to find a site that served a diverse population and was open to researchers.

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Teaching Points– Jim Leitzel Comments on “Regulation of Vice”

Jim Leitzel is
Neither Physician nor Lawyer

Editor’s Note: Today, anything-but-dismal economist Jim Leitzel talks about Regulating (and Teaching) Vice, the syllabus of which appeared yesterday. Read on to find out why he did what he did, why he quit doing it and what he did instead, and, by way of conclusion, the market forces that just might make him do it all again.

On opening day, I try to meet my moral (and legal) duty to the students by emphasizing that I am an economist, not a physician or a lawyer, and they should not mistake anything we discuss in class as constituting medical or legal advice! I also indicate that the Regulation of Vice class addresses public policy, not private policy, and that I will not ask anyone to share their personal vice experiences – though some students do, anyway. (Last year in the Teaching Points series, Sarah Carnahan discussed a course with a much different approach to classroom self-disclosure.) Another point I try to make concerns the (perhaps surprising) centrality of vice policy within public policy more generally; for instance, in the US, Supreme Court vice-case decisions help delineate the bounds for speech controls and police search and seizure practices.

Regulation of Vice, cross-listed between economics and public policy, follows Phil Cook’s mid-1990s course at Duke University in placing the focus on concepts, not vices: I try to avoid a “Tuesday is heroin, Thursday is pornography” syllabus.

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Teaching Points– Regulation of Vice

Editor’s Note: This week’s Teaching Points entry takes a turn for the dismal, as we showcase the work of economist Jim Leitzel, Senior Lecturer in Social Science and Director of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago.  Don’t let the wonkishness fool you though: Leitzel is also the founder of TWO blogs, Vice Squad and Self-Exclusion, and quite possibly the first Points contributor to have given a TEDx Talk (on “Re-Legalizing Drugs”).  Here he moves beyond drugs qua drugs and discusses the larger question of the “Regulation of Vice.”

I taught versions of this undergraduate Regulation of Vice course nine times at the University of Chicago between 1999 and 2008. Since then, I have offered an independent study version, and might reprise the regular course someday. I got the idea for a vice policy class from Phil Cook, who taught a similar course beginning in the mid-1990s when I was his colleague at Duke University. In the early years I surely borrowed quite a bit from Phil’s syllabus, too.  In general, I take a “less is more” approach to assigned readings, in an effort to simplify the triage problem facing students. Economics is a popular major at Chicago, and as Regulation of Vice is an Economics elective, the typical student is a third- or fourth-year Economics major.

Brief Description: This course concerns government policy with respect to the traditional vices of drinking, smoking, gambling, illicit sex, and the recreational use of drugs. Among the policies that will be considered are prohibition, decriminalization, taxation, licensing, and marketing controls. The intellectual framework employed for the evaluation of various policies is primarily economic and legal, though other disciplines also will be drawn upon.

J.S. Mill

Text: There is no required core text for the class. Books that might be helpful include Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter, Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, & Places, Cambridge University Press, 2001; Jim Leitzel, Regulating Vice: Misguided Prohibitions and Realistic Controls, Cambridge University Press, 2008; and Mark A. R. Kleiman, Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, Basic Books, 1992. John Stuart Mill’s essay, On Liberty, opens the course. 

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The Points Interview — Howard Padwa

Editor’s Note:  “For an otherwise law abiding morphine addict struggling to overcome addiction in the late 1920s, Britain was a more welcoming place than France.”  So begins Howard Padwa’s Social Poison: The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821-1926 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).  A graduate of the University of Delaware, Padwa continued his studies at the London School of Economics and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris before securing a doctorate in history from UCLA.  In our interview, Padwa highlights the place of  differing conceptions of proper membership in a national community as a deep source of Britain’s and France’s differential responses to illicit drugs. 

1.  Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

I started with two simple questions: First, why did opiates become so tightly controlled in the early twentieth century? Second, were the reasons the same everywhere? While a lot of scholars have looked at these questions, most have focused on studying things either globally (why did drugs become tightly controlled everywhere), or nationally (why did drugs become tightly controlled in this country or that country). In Social Poison I blended these approaches, looking at things internationally, but with a detailed focus on two countries (Great Britain and France).

As for the first question—why did opiates become so tightly controlled? I approached this question by looking at what people were afraid would happen if they didn’t control opiates. What would society look like if everyone could use them as much as they liked whenever they liked? I found that two fears were particularly common in the nineteenth century. First, people feared that opiates would take a toll on physical and mental health, eventually making users unable to care for themselves or contribute to society. Second, they feared that people who used opiates would essentially “tune out” of society, neglecting their duties to their friends, families, and countrymen when they were under the influence. In both cases, what made opiate use problematic was not just that use was considered “immoral,” but also that it seemed to compromise users’ abilities to act as good citizens. Drug use was understood as more than just a medical or psychological disorder—it was also a threat to the normal functioning of social relationships.

This led to the second question—were the reasons drugs became tightly controlled the same everywhere? The kind of social problem opiate use could become depended, to a large degree, on how “society” was defined. In Britain, where the national community was imagined as individuals functioning in a free market, fears focused on the impact drug use could have on self-sufficiency and commerce. In France, on the other hand, the nation was understood in a more collectivistic way, and engagement of citizens with society was considered most important. So, in the French context, fears that drugs would make users disengaged or disloyal were much stronger. Each country developed its own specific brand of what I call “anti-narcotic nationalism”—reasons for opposing drug use that were particular both to opiates and to specific national concerns.

Anti-narcotic nationalism went beyond the ways that the British and French talked about opiate use in the nineteenth century; it also influenced the development of drug control in the early twentieth century. In Britain, concerns about the effect the drug trade could have on commerce facilitated the landmark piece of legislation that established opiate control on the British mainland during World War I. In France, concerns about drug use, treason, military discipline, and national security were the driving forces behind drug control initiatives that took effect in 1908 and 1916. Once drug control was established, anti-narcotic nationalism also influenced how British and French authorities treated their addicted citizens. In Britain, when it became clear that opiate use was not necessarily incompatible with self-sufficiency or productivity, the government sanctioned maintenance treatment for some addicts. In France, on the other hand, associations of drug control with national security remained in place, as did strict regulations limiting the provision of drugs to confirmed addicts.

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