Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canadian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.
Growing up in Colombia during the 1970s and early 1980s was an eye-opening experience. As a teenager living through the daily tensions of a country in constant social turmoil and violence, the thought of worrying or even thinking about marijuana, heroin, or cocaine, and their impact on the world was irrelevant. Illicit drugs and awareness campaigns were not part of the country’s social, health, or educational policies. The internal use of drugs, from my perspective at the time, was almost nonexistent. This was a problem of the marginalized and the homeless—at least that is what my Grandmother used to say. The real problems were poverty, political violence, and corruption. I quickly learned in the mid-1980s, though, when I started to travel to the United States in order to live with my Dad in Brownsville, Texas, that Colombia’s internal social, political, and economic problems (not to mention environmental problems, which I did not think about back then) were mostly repercussions of the US War on Drugs.
I vividly remember a trip to the United States when I was just 14-years old. Soon after landing at the Miami airport, I was asked by the immigration officer to step aside and follow the other officers who, out of nowhere, appeared next to me to accompany me to another section of the baggage claim area where they opened my suitcase, searched me, and questioned me about bringing in drugs into the country. The stigma of having a US passport that says that I was born in Colombia still haunts me today—and perhaps will for the rest of my life. Since then, I have been stripped and deep-searched by US customs and Colombian customs officers on so many occasions that I have built some sort of travel paranoia.
The recurring experiences of being targeted and psychologically abused while traveling inspired me to constantly reflect on the local and global impacts of illicit drugs and, more particularly, on the social, cultural, economic, and political constructs that have resulted from the American War on Drugs. My overarching conclusion when it comes to illicit drugs is that American and other Western societies are hypocritical when facing the impacts of their own addictions and relationships to drugs. With the blessing of their governments, Western societies have lived, continue to live, and will live under a social construct that advances the idea that the problem with drugs is foreign and external. When in reality, the problem is deeply rooted in Western culture itself.
Cultures and civilizations across time have had relationships with mind-altering substances that have defined their collective experiences and have ultimately shaped social, cultural, political, and economic ideas—including relationships with nature and the ecosystem. Western societies are no exception. D. C. A. Hillman, for example, argues in his book, The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization, that mind-altering drugs were one of the pillars of the Roman and Greek empires. Ergotism a fungal infection resulting from wheat, may have influenced the ideas as well as the social and economic dynamics of the Renaissance period. Yet, this aspect of Western development has been intentionally ignored by many historians who have preferred to downplay the role of mind-altering drugs on the development of Western civilization.
Through processes of colonialism and expansionism, Western powers have exported their own cultural drug practices, and they have also adopted and redefined the relationships that other cultures have with mind-altering drugs. Ultimately, many Euro-American societies imported non-Western drug traditions while secularizing and redefining their use for local consumption. It is how the pre-Columbian tradition of chewing coca leaves and the use of the poporo was replaced, thanks to Western science, by a concoction of chemicals that ultimately turned coca base into cocaine.
Through science, Western societies replicated the chemical composition of natural narcotics and created new man-made mind-altering drugs, as in the case of Albert Hofmann and his chemical cocktail LSD—derived initially from the same fungus that caused ergotism. Through the centuries, the relationship between humans and mind-altering drugs has shaped the social, cultural, environmental, political, and economic landscape as Western hegemony spread across the planet. Over time, Western relationships with drugs became normalized and part of the daily lives of people around the world.
In Brownsville, I first came face-to-face with marijuana, another sacred plant of pre-Columbian civilizations. It was a culture shock to see classmates gathering before school to get high behind the football field or to hotbox in their cars and to see adults smoking weed casually and leisurely while carrying out their daily lives. It seemed to be part of the daily routine of the blue-collar worker, the service-industry worker, and the professional. In the end, my grandmother was wrong, in the United States marijuana was not a problem of the homeless and marginalized, it was part of the culture.
Although the British had learned to live with opium after the nineteenth-century Opium Wars and incorporated the drug into the dynamics of their international—and domestic—trade networks, it was capitalist entrepreneurs in the United States who transformed unprocessed narcotics into consumer products. At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, many patent medicines and other products—including Coca Cola—contained cocaine.
Drugs became important cultural touchstones, too. The early-twentieth-century Jazz scene had a symbiotic relationship with heroin, and, in the 1960s, marijuana and hallucinogens were part of the counterculture movement. Western pop culture became a promoter of mind-altering substances, normalizing drug use through popular bands like The Beatles, The Doors, and thousands of other ambassadors of the arts and culture. By the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of pop culture incorporated drugs into the music scene. Bands like Mötley Crüe celebrated their relationship with drugs, making it part of their image and marketing strategy.
Mind-altering drugs were also a key component of the Beat Movement and of Gonzo journalism. Cocaine became a part of the business culture of Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange. Drugs were also a key component of Western military experimentation, and even part of the dynamics of contemporary wars, as in the case of the Vietnam War. In times of peace, opioids became an indispensable part of the industry of pain relief, helping to fuel the pharmaceutical industry’s recent business success. Western capitalism took the raw materials and converted them into a multibillion-dollar industry. Thanks to Research and Development, they constructed a new way for modern societies to deal with pain.
Today, the Western propaganda machine justifies and glorifies its relationship with drugs, ultimately reaching every corner of the world with its imagery. Films, music lyrics, literature, poetry, art, and other cultural expressions continue to construct the idea of how Western cultures live side by side with their addictions. Movies like Pulp Fiction, The Hangover, Trainspotting, and any of Pedro Almodóvar’s movies, for example, normalize and give agency to a drug-dependent culture.
Ironically, though, the enemy, threat, and danger from drugs is often portrayed as coming from the non-Western world. In the most recent case of the American opioid crisis, the problem is often framed as being the Afghans, Mexicans, Colombians, and other producers across the developing world that supply Western markets with raw materials—and not the pharmaceutical industry and the capitalist machine that feeds from it. Yes, Purdue Pharma has been prosecuted by the US Justice Department, forcing the company into a settlement, but the company has not received the full force of the War on Drugs. Perhaps the story would have been different if the pharma company had been from Colombia or another developing country.
The fact that some opioids continue to circulate in the legal market implies that opioids are only good in the hands of transnational Western pharmaceutical corporations. The same could be said about other mind-altering drugs. Western propaganda continues to focus its energy on the capos of the developing world, but what about the capos operating inside Western markets? Why are the white-collar criminals across the Western world not targeted? Why is the Sackler family not treated like the Escobar family? Why is the common enemy constructed outside of the Western world?
Nevertheless, this dynamic might change if Western markets decriminalized drugs, as in the recent case of marijuana in countries like Canada and Portugal. A new construct could emerge. Developing countries could become suppliers to advanced industrial Western nations—like Colombia supplying cannabis for the Canadian Market. Western countries could then use their capabilities to inject added value to the raw materials and export the products back to new Westernized consumers in the developing world. One thing is clear, though, the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana—and other drugs—could change the social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental landscapes of those countries and regional markets that move in this direction.
My first body search at the Miami airport reminds me that the measurements of security imposed on a fourteen-year-old were part of the war-on-drugs construct. Perhaps if my passport did not indicate that I was born in Colombia, I would have been welcomed back to my country without questions. In the end, it is all in service of preserving and sustaining the façade of security constructed for the American public. A façade that has ultimately cost taxpayers billions of dollars. A government propaganda message continuously reminds us that the enemy is the supplier and the victim is the consumer—an idea that has been consistently sold to the Western public for more than fifty years. Meanwhile, unless we change course, Western society will continue to push forward, shaped by the creations, innovations, and changes inspired by a collective use of drugs in social, cultural, political, and economic circles.