Dispatches from London: “Under Control?” Conference

This past weekend alcohol and drug scholars across the globe descended upon London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to learn from each other about what they know best, alcohol and drugs.  The interdisciplinary conference does much to encourage scholarship across lines of disciplinary specializations, but also, the nation-state.  Below please find assorted notes from my time abroad:


Perhaps most noted for his work Andean Cocaine, Paul Gootenberg gave a keynote speech addressing the concept of blowback.  Entitled “Controlling Cocaine?  1900-2000,” Gootenberg began with what might be considered an obvious truth for drug historians—that is, that if read from an historical perspective, the term “drug control” is an oxymoron.  Throughout the 20th century, drug control often perpetuates the antithesis of control.  Drug control efforts by the United States have bred more chaos, more illicit trade, more use, and worst of all, more violence.  In supporting his claim, Gootenberg examined the ways in which United States efforts to control the global supply of cocaine produced various unintended consequences.

Originally an economic historian by trade, Gootenberg makes good use of global commodity chains to explain the story of cocaine and attempts at its control.  In framing the long history of cocaine commodity chains and blowback, Gootenberg broke down the century into several distinct phases, each with specific unintended consequences.  In the first forty years of the 20th century, particularly after 1914, the United States attempted to push anti-cocaine measures onto the international agenda.  During this period, Andean trafficking in cocaine remained relatively benign, marginal, and nonviolent.  Between 1948 and 1973, cocaine came to be increasingly criminalized as illicit networks began to shift outward from the Andean region in response to FBN attempts to crush production in the region.  A pivotal moment in cocaine commodity chain development passed in 1960 when traffickers were exiled under the Cuban Revolution.  These exiled traffickers quickly became a Pan-American Network of traffickers, thereby expanding the commodity network for cocaine traffic.  Still though, Gootenberg carefully noted, the trade remained small and fairly peaceful through 1970. 

How then, do we explain the Wild West style violence which would later erupt in Southern Florida and become the stuff of legend with documentaries such as Cocaine Cowboys?  How did Medellin become the murder capital of the world?  How did border violence in Juarez Imagereach the dizzying proportions of the present?  While we cannot assign all of the blame to one causative factor, one major player has been, and continues to be United States drug control policy.  In the 1970s, as the War on Drugs bureaucracy became more expansive and professionalized, so too did their opposition.  Cocaine began to steadily increase in the United States as wholesale cartels built massive commodity chains in the process.  In the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. efforts helped turn Columbia into a wild center of trafficking and violence.  So much so that Medellin, noted for its own Drug Kingpin Pablo Escobar, became the murder capital of the world.  Throughout the drug control narrative, increased efforts upon repression are met with increased violence, expanded cocaine commodity chain networks, and increased consumption.  Such trends might drive any rational historian towards the claim that “drug control” operates as an oxymoron throughout the 20th century.

In the mid-1990s, United States efforts attempted to cut off routes from Columbia to South Florida.  As with any other specific attempt at repression or control, the new emphasis upon trade routes from Columbia to South Florida produced unintended, troubling consequences.  Traffickers responded as we might imagine—they adapted.  Routes began to shift through Central America to California.  These shifts naturally re-located centers of violence and traffic closer to the U.S./Mexico border, to places like Juarez.  The U.S./Mexico border stretches over 2,000 miles making it nearly impossible to control—even with the mind-boggling security measures discussed in recent immigration reform.  An estimated 19 well-stocked semi-trucks can supply U.S. illicit consumption for one year.  Roughly two million unchecked semis cross the border each year.

In short, U.S. intervention has helped form a new and intractable cocaine commodity chain which increasingly bypasses Columbia altogether.  As consumption and traffic networks continue to expand and globalize, the picture for drug control appears grim.  Countries such as Brazil, and other bastions of inequality (like the United States) are consuming more and more cocaine.  Trafficking networks are likely already finding new routes through poor countries that simply do not have the resources to combat the trade.  In places like Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti and Puerto Rico we may see new, increasingly sophisticated trade routes.

The sum parts of Gootenberg’s talk led me to ask: Are over 100 years of disastrous, unintended consequences enough?  Drug historians have long answered this question with a resounding YES.  The time is long overdue for policymakers to take stock of the long history of unintended consequences and change course.

In a well-attended panel on representations of addiction, Ingrid Walker, Robert Stephens, and Steve Earnshaw used art, print, television and film to broaden our understanding of popular narratives surrounding addicts and addiction.  Lending her keen eye for cultural studies, Ingrid Walker began with an exploration into user agency as she questioned the ways in which advertising has shaped images, opinions, and beliefs about addicts and addiction.  In particular, Walker noted the dichotomy between pharmaceutical advertisements and anti-drug advertisements.  Pharmaceutical advertisements—whether they are for birth control, anti-depressants, or even erectile dysfunction—emphasize choice and control while promising both health and pleasure.  Anti-drug ads—comparatively—emphasize destruction, dependence, failure and loss.  Increasingly, anti-drug ads have also turned towards the grotesque to dissuade drug use.  Undoubtedly, such advertisements effect expectations surrounding substance use, health, and agency.

In all, such advertisements have created a framework where there are either “good drugs” or “bad drugs,” or what Nancy Campbell aptly titles, “problem solving” and “problem causing” drugs.  Much of said designations rely on whether the drug in question has been medicalized or criminalized, which leads me to my next question:  Might previously labeled “bad” or “problem causing” drugs find themselves rehabilitated in the public mind should we move towards medicalization?  Would those addicted to said drugs be less stigmatized?

Robert Stephens began his thought-provoking talk by discussing the “visual grammar” of portraying addiction.  In essence, Stephens rightly argues that most all depictions of addicts in film and other assorted media model each other.  In a nod to Walker’s earlier contention, Stephens first presented an anti-drug advertisement which leaves little grey area.  Youth are either drug-free, beautiful and happy, or they are headed down the path to destruction.  Case in point, an anti-drug ad chronicling the case of heroin chic Wendy: “Once upon a time there was a girl named Wendy who was very beautiful and very happy and had lots of friends but then one day she did some heroin and got addicted and lost everything and then she died. The End.”  Well, there you have it folks.  A nuanced, full accounting of the path towards drug addiction.

ImageBecause of ads like this, most young men and women do not take anti-drug PSA’s seriously.  They do however construct much of their knowledge surrounding drugs, addiction, and addicts from flawed popular media representations.  If this is in fact the case—and I’m inclined to agree that it is—scholars need to pay more attention to the ways in which television, television news, print media, and popular film effect beliefs and behaviors in writing histories of both alcohol and drugs. As Stephens asserts, we ought to be concerned about the patently inaccurate portrayals of drugs, drug use, and addiction in popular film.

Stephen’s offered several examples to support his claims.  For the sake of efficiency, I’ll recap one prominent example. In the classic MTV generation film Less Than Zero, Robert Downey Jr. goes through what appears to be a standard, brutal process of heroin withdrawal with one small problem—Downey’s character is purportedly addicted to crack.  For ImageStephen’s we can chalk this up to “visual grammar.”  Based on past representations of addiction and withdrawal, audiences expected to see the withdrawal process offered by Less Than Zero.  Given that Hollywood is very much in the business of giving audiences what they want, veracity came to be an ancillary cost of boosting box office numbers.

Ultimately, Stephens offered a few conclusions worth noting.  First, that visual narratives are mostly all the same, constructing a “visual grammar” that future representations are expected to follow (thereby perpetuating the same inaccuracies).  Second, that popular media representations or drugs, drug use, and addiction have enormous power to shape perceptions of addiction and will continue to define the sorts of messages allowed to be portrayed.  Third, audiences appear to demand moral melodrama within these narratives.  As such, we will likely see the persistence of zero-sum narratives where addicts either clean up on the path to redemption or destroy themselves as irredeemable lepers.  Finally, Stephens reiterated that we ought to take movies seriously for their social, cultural, and policy-shaping power.  Indeed we should.

1 thought on “Dispatches from London: “Under Control?” Conference”

  1. Thanks for the terrific reporting from the London conference. The meeting was well attended, and offered yet another reminder of how much really terrific work is being done in what were once-lonely fields of drugs and alcohol history. For me, however, it was impossible not to be struck as well by just how much really important work remains to be done. First-rate potential projects abound. Per Paul Gootenberg’s cocaine keynote, I would suggest that no one has yet produced the authoritative scholarly study of cocaine’s re-emergence in 60s/70s United States, particularly from the demand side of the story. Perhaps this is because alcohol historians remain savvier about consumption, more interested in drinkers as consumers, while drugs historians remain more comfortable with drug-takers as objects of control and representation. Anyway, that’s just one of many good projects to be undertaken someday. Hopefully Points will include even more reporting from London.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: