Yesterday, the Alcohol and Drugs History Society‘s biennial conference began in Shanghai, China, and will last until tomorrow. The theme for this year’s meeting is “Changing Minds: Societies, the Sciences and Psychoactive Substances in History.” It marks the first time ADHS has met in Asia, at Shanghai University in China, one hundred and ten years after the Opium Commission in the city that did so much to shape future control regimes, and a remarkable new chapter for our organization.
Over the last two decades or so physiological models of drug and alcohol use have claimed to provide definitive accounts of the actions of these substances on human bodies, and how they function to literally change our minds. In much the same period ideas about certain substances, from alcohol to cannabis, have begun to fundamentally shift and with this has come political change as many consumers, scientists, doctors and policy-makers change their minds, even as others refuse to do so. The conference stops to ask ‘haven’t we seen this all before’?
After all, experts offering definitive accounts of such substances, vacillating bureaucrats and politicians, unyielding moralists and fickle consumers are all among the figures familiar to historians from other periods and a range of places. The conference brings together those working in the field to examine the latest research into why ideas, attitudes and approaches towards intoxication and psychoactive substances have changed in historical contexts, and why they have not. It will also establish how far these historical understandings can provide a clearer sense of just what lies behind practices, perceptions and policies today.