SHAD Interview: “The Drug War Dialectic in Early Twentieth-Century Chicago” with Richard Del Rio

Editor’s Note: Points continues its series of interviews with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 34, no. 2; Fall 2020), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Richard Del Rio, a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow within the Department of Behavioral Science and Social Medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine. You can see his article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history. 

Dr. Richard Del Rio
Richard Del Rio

Tell readers a little bit about yourself

Yikes! In my view you’re starting with the hardest part of this interview. In the professional sense, I am a historian trained in the social history of the United States and the histories of Latinx and African American peoples. My academic specialty and research focus is to contribute to these fields of history through the stories of pharmaceuticals and drugs. In case you’re asking for something a little more personal, I’ll just mention that I’m a lover of Caribbean culture, admirer of martial arts, enjoy building community/fellowship, and always try to learn from others. And just in case there are any gamers checking this interview, when I have the time for it (and I rarely do), I really enjoy a competitive bout of Super Smash Bros.!

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

Scholars across academic disciplines have recognized the pervasive influence of the United States’ policy regime known as the “War on Drugs” in the late twentieth century. Along wIth the more recent “War on Terror,” the War on Drugs has served as an important pretext for American foreign interventions and international ambitions. Domestically, I think the broad public calls for reforms to our drug laws and the complete legalization of cannabis highlight the recognition that the War on Drug’s impact on the public’s health and wealth was mostly damaging. Its emphasis on punishment and supply side controls contributed to the militarization of police, the alienation of the citizens they serve, and the controversial growth of publicly traded corrections companies. There is a growing recognition that we need some new ideas about how to approach or shape the public’s consumption of strong, potentially addictive, psychoactive drugs. I am part of a generation of historians in my field who have been working to understand “how did things get so bad in the first place?”

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

I have not been to a bar in over a year! Now-a-days most of my beer purchases are made at the grocery store. But if I were to bump into my bartender at the supermarket I would explain that in order get an understanding of how things get so bad in the twentieth century, my research led me to study moments from over one hundred years ago.

The idea was to understand how drug markets enforced rules before the police ever became involved. What I found surprising was that the term “Drug War” was older than any government regulation over narcotics. Thus I titled my article the “Drug War Dialectic” to capture that historical moment when the term “drug war”—while still describing the struggle to control the movement, sale, and consumption of modern manufactured drugs— now did so within a new social dynamic that involved institutions of criminal justice. And, while it is surprising to discover that the concept of drug war existed without police involvement, my article also supports the argument that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In seeking to explain our present opioid crisis, twenty-first century journalism has done a good job of pointing out that the policies and incentives across the legal/illegal divide of the dual drug market system are interrelated. My piece serves to show how that interconnectedness is not a new trend—but a fairly old one.

And if that explanation doesn’t whet my bartending friend’s reading appetite, then I guess I would say the story explores the broad social/political networks created by the needs of our dual drug market system. Kind of like “The Wire” but set in the gilded age/progressive era. Assuming they are old enough to remember that show of course!

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

I’m happy to say that yes it is! I’m currently working on a book that connects important historical changes in the American pharmaceutical industry, the institutions of criminal justice, and the political economy of race in the business of drug dealing. I look forward to sharing my progress in the near future!

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

I’m happy to report that I am part of a highly interdisciplinary and growing field! I think we are going to see a lot of new methodological approaches that will teach us history from all over our planet; and I’m excited to learn from them!

From my perspective, the biggest frontier appears to be in the history of psychedelics from traditional or ancient applications to modern medicalized administrations. The historiography seems to suggest that there is a growing interest within my academic community to learn more about psychedelics, human historical understandings of the mind, and their relationship to cultural conceptions of mental and spiritual wellness. I’m also certain that this scholarship will spur a lot of arguments over terms and definitions. I anticipate arguments about what qualifies as a “psychedelic” and renewed arguments over quackery and conceptions of “drug abuse.” All of which I think will serve the public interest and heighten the sophistication of this growing historiography.

Regarding historians who share my current interest in the history of the drug industry and the “War on Drugs,” I think that we are starting to recognize the importance of locally grounded stories. So much of the historiography has been written from a national or international perspective, and I think we can get a better understanding of the timing of changes within our drug markets by researching localized histories, including, of course localized histories that tell us stories from other countries!

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

After nearly a year of sheltering in place, my biggest ambition would be to have dinner with friends and colleagues, new and old. I’m one of those people who learn a great deal at conferences and really miss socializing with the academic community. I especially miss the meetings of The Alcohol and Drugs History Society! I really look forward to sitting down and breaking bread with my colleagues once we turn the corner on this pandemic.

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