ADHS Presidential Address: “Why are We in México? 5,000 Years of Pivotal Drug Histories in Las Américas”

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of Paul Gootenberg’s Presidential Address at the Alcohol and Drugs History Society 2022 Conference, delivered at Universidad Nacional Autónima de México (UNAM) on 15 June 2022.


Thank you/mil gracias for the kind introductions and especially to UNAM and and its renowned Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales for hosting and welcoming us to our international biennial ADHS conference.

It is a deep privilege to deliver this ADHS Presidential Address, particularly here at UNAM, the intellectual heart of Mexico, and even of “las Américas”

So, why are we here in Mexico?

The easy answers, being a beautiful, peopled, world cosmopolis, wonderful food and tequila, and everyday links with drug wars, need not be addressed!

Of course, we’re here mainly for the serious biennial purpose of intellectual exchanges — through new papers, roundtables, and exciting keynotes — around our booming, increasingly recognized field of global drug and alcohol history.

I need to stress the word global, because over the last decade the ADHS has rapidly transformed into a global enterprise (beyond its Anglo-US roots); our last 3 meetings were in Utrecht, Shanghai, and now Mexico City, reflecting the shifting geographies of drugs research. 

So here we are, hundreds of us, including many Latinoamericanos y mexicanos, for the first time in what is now called “the Global South,” – the latest frontier of drugs history.

This morning, to answer the question: “Why are we here in México?,” I’m repurposing a very broad essay that captures some 5,000 years of drug histories in las Americas. I aim not just to situate and illustrate the long, shifting, crucial roles that the Americas have played in our revised narratives of global drugs, but also draw out key dynamics that connect that deep history to our historical present of global drug dilemmas.

Today, if asked to imagine “drugs” in las Américas, certain hot and menacing images come immediately to mind!:

Untold billions in addictive, criminal coke, meth, and weed flowing across borders; infamously brutal drug lords like Colombia’s Pablo Escobar or Mexico’s wily escapist “El Chapo” Guzman; massive corruption and horrific violence, such as the so-called never ending “Mexican drug war” that has cost 100,000s of lives since 2007.  But here I want to offer a much longer history through a much wider lens and in doing so emphasize two key take-aways:

First, that las Américas have in fact made the deepest or most diverse impact of any region on global drug culture (for peculiar ecological, geographic, and historical reasons).

Second, that the drug cultures of “Latin” America are best seen as changing forms of “commodities”and their kinds of global integration.

Let’s start with Psychedelic Civilizations (5000BCE-1492)  (technically, title aside, it’s more like 7,000 years of drug histories)

Many thousands of years ago, early Americans, in isolation from rest of humanity, discovered and developed the world’s most diverse and wild set of mind-altering substances & practices.

Ethnobotanists (anthropologists who study people, plants, & drugs) call this “The American Drug Complex”; scores of stimulants, hallucinogens (from intoxicating cacti, fungi) to alkaloidal rich plants such as the Solanaceous (nightshade) family, as well as unique alcoholic brews based on agaves or maize, were discovered and developed.

Eighty percent of the world’s top used varieties of plant drugs came from what is today called “Latin America” (especially today’s Mexico, and western Amazonia, lowland Colombia) and became part and parcel of local, indigenous, small-scale, “shamanistic” (holy & medicinal) drug cultures.

These include well-known stimulants like tobacco/nicotine, cacao, hallucinogenic mushrooms like psilocybin, toxic datura and ayahuasca brews, and even the skins of poisonous frogs & toads (please don’t try that at home).    

This rich diversity of mind-alterants became integral to the ritual, medicinal, social, and ecstatic lives of small-scale societies throughout Mesoamerica and the Amazon-Andes

However, as in other realms of culture, a big mysterious change in drug usage came between 500BCE & 500 CE with the rise of stratified state societies in the Americas (the legendary Mayas and  Aztecs of Mexico, or the scores of more obscure Andean state-civilizations prior to the Incas). Mind-drugs became subsumed and essential to their institutionalized power hierarchies. The mind-powers of drugs fed into other kinds of power and state-authority ideologies (though mostly of a non-monetary nature).  Highly mercantilized and traded mesoamerican cacao beans were the rule-proving exception.

The Sonoran Desert toad that produces 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin, known amongst native cultures for generations

The big shift over time with exploitative states and empires was from psychedelics (relegated now to highly specialized elites) to lighter mood-altering or labor enhancing drugs, such as regulated and gifted coca leaf, tobacco, or low-grade social alcohols such as Andean chicha or Aztec agave pulque beer (octli)

So, what were the contributions of such “Psychedelic Civilizations” (beyond powering ideologies)?

As well see, some like tobacco and chocolate would soon become world-changing hybridized global commodities in the coming post-conquest era. Others, mostly hallucinogens, would move deep underground scattered into small societies (such as remote Indian villages of Mexico or mobile Amazonian bands). Let me suggest something bigger: Our ongoing fascination with American “High Cultures” (pun intended) —the intellectual, cosmological, architectonic, aesthetic complexities of Mayans and Teotihuácans, is in part unknowingly an (orientilized) fascination with the drugs that powered them.   

Let us turn to the second big shift: Psychoactive Colonialism, 1492/1520–1820

After 1492 (or 1520s fall of Tenochitítlan.) most of the Americas was conquered by European empires, and the majority Spanish-Portuguese colonies would last a formative three centuries until the early 19th century.

This world-shaking event not only broke the world isolation of core Amerindian civilizations, but also (as ecological) historians insist, began the iconic “Columbian exchange” of plants & germs that for better or worse forever changed our planet.

The same happened with drugs — now dubbed (by David Courtwright in Forces of Habit) the “Psychoactive Revolution” of the 17th century: previously scattered isolated stimulants and drugs flowed together, propelled by European conquest and commerce.

These revolutionary soft-drugs (or “drug foods” in Mintz’s term), tobacco, coffee, and teas, quickly encircled the globe, along with Europe’s stronger alcoholic drinks, habituating millions, building world empires, and changing modern cultures and consciousness forever.

Many of these bitter alkaloidal drinks or smokes came from the Americas (cacao, tobacco) or were forced transplants of colonialism (coffee and rum).

Spread via colonial charted companies, these became — along with their sweetener, sucrose — among the first and foremost global commodities of the modern world.

To be sure, Spanish authorities (or Portuguese or other imperials) were first appalled or perplexed by the paganism or plain weirdness of the high drug cultures encountered, and the Catholic church worked militantly to suppress them and replace them with ritual wine or acceptable workday alcohols.

However, within a half century, taking three or four prime examples, some exotic American drugs became culturally hybridized and then repackaged as highly profitable habit-forming world commodities, with new and differing meanings (historians like Norton and Breen debate these “transculturation” processes).

For example,cacao, that cold, bitter, spiced-up luxury beverage of Mesoamerican elites, by 1600 became “Mexicanized” and then exported as the warm sugary drink of Catholics and Kings, emblematic of Mediterranean lifestyles (centuries before its next transformation into the solid sweet “candy” of the Protestant north).

Tobacco, that bizarre, pernicious nicotine-filled alkaloid factory (and once the most pan-American of social lubricants and vision drugs) was repackaged by Europeans into their cigars, snuff boxes, and pipes (novel forms of drug ingestion and paraphernalia), becoming a pan-European, even middle-class practice by 1750. A key colonial good in Spanish finances, tobacco was soon widely planted, traded and taxed by Portugal, English, and Dutch merchant states, penetrating Africa and China, to become, in effect, the first true global commodity, precious coin aside.

Coffee was a fascinating colonial implant in reverse.  Originally from East Africa via Islam, Portuguese merchants globalized it by the 18th century and the French virtually monopolized world supply from their hellish massive Caribbean slave colony of St. Domingue (Haiti).

As Schivelbusch shows, in northern Europe coffee and coffeehouses meanwhile became the clarifying and rationalizing temperance drink of rising Protestant bourgeois business classes, with thousands of shops (like Lloyd’s of London) in intellectual capitals like London, Antwerp, and Paris.

These are just a few exemplars of the 16-18th century “Psychoactive revolution,” supplied by pioneer colonial and commodity routes and cultural webs from the Americas.  

Historians trace their multiple contributions and reverberations:  for example, coffee and tobacco, deeply rooted in Afro-Caribbean slavery, was to revolutionize the way European elites thought and treated their bodies. Such drugs helped trigger modern capitalist “mentalities”—even (in another irony) the French Revolution of 1789, hatched allegedly in the cafes of Paris in the name of rationalism and liberty. Drugs, like other colonial trades, helped usher in the modern world.

We come to the third shift: The Drugs of Nations (1820s-1960s)

At the start of the 19th century, Spain (and then other) hemispheric empires collapsed, splitting into 20 or more “national” states in the Americas (nations, as Benedict Anderson shows, that were pioneers of the political genre). I term this era—from the 1820s-1960s—”the Drugs of Nations”—a nod to Smith’s 1776 Treatise.  It was Latin America’s classic export and development era, and a century of bifurcation when certain American drug commodities became tied to national wealth, progress, and identities, while others, by 1900, became antithetical to national elites and racial values.

Coffee is an ongoing exemplar. Brazil became a “Caffeine Superpower” (even “cartel” if you like) by 1900, supplying Santos beans for 80% of world supply and three quarters of its national exports. In a novel Western hemispheric “commodity chain,” half of Brazil’s coffee flowed to the United States, with its burgeoning “mass” democratic and frontier markets for new consumer goods like coffee, and its expanding power across the Americas.

Mariani & Company, and Adolphe Lalauze.
Portraits From Album Mariani.
Hathi Trust Digital Library>

In other ways, coffee proved central to the politics of Colombia and the struggling mini-states of Central America. Furthermore, caffeine endures:  it’s still by far, including new teas, commercial forms (Starbucks), and novel energy drinks, the world’s most indulged drug.

Many other drugs helped form national identities.  For example, in “Argentina” (basically a newly-formed “white” country of the 19th century) the Guaraní Indian, colonial Jesuit-traded Xanithine rich tea known as Mate was reinvented into the “guacho” tinged marker of Argentine culture.  

Similarly in Mexico, one very special regional mescal, distilled liquors of the agave cactus, Tequila from Jalisco state, became whitened up into the emblematic Mexico’s national drink, and later, tipsy touristy commodity.

Andean Coca remained fascinatingly changeable:  a late 19th century French entrepreneur, Angelo Mariani, enhanced it in a delux popular wine drink, which in 1887, in turn, was transformed into a dry energy cocktail by an Atlanta (GA) pharmacist.  Coca-Cola, which still uses leaf in its (not so) “secret formula” became the century’s iconic American soft-drink commodity—then globalized as the American “way of life.”

Yet, for all the drug contributions to national commerce, states, and allegiances, by the 20th century other drugs began to stir anxieties among Latin America elites, becoming racially downgraded goods in their increasing unequal national communities.  Andean coca, for example, became seen locally by medical-men as an Indian “vice,” even addiction. Ganja/marijuana/maconha, an Asian-African labor import to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Brazil, became negatively associated with blackness, poverty, or even insanity, and opiates (from Chinese migrants) everywhere became linked with anti-Chinese racism and phobias.

So, 150 years of nationality exalted and packaged certain drugs as national or export quality, and began to deplore and restrict others (a prelude to drug wars) as degenerative of modern national character or hygiene.

Finally, the fourth shift: From Drug Wars to Drug Peace? 1960s-present

Unlike this hazy, if rich, long drug history, the historical present since the 1960/70s is the one we’re most familiar with: the decades when Latin America becomes synonymous, even notorious, for trafficking drugs to the United States (and now beyond). Cocaine; marijuana, heroin, meth, even fake pills: The era of hemispheric “Drug Wars.”

I’ll zoom in on a few key historical points, that provide some sense of where we now stand.

1st: The ideal of prohibiting certain drugs, whatever its merits, is historically new, dating to the start of the 20th century, and mostly pushed (excuse the expression) by US authorities. Indeed, one prominent historian of drugs (Musto) originally termed drug prohibition: “The American Disease”, i.e., we’re that former protestant nation that led the world in desires and demands for all sorts of drugs/alcohol, but in extreme political ambivalence, has also puritanically clamped down on them, and moreover, elevated these values and laws to global (now UN) conventions.

This is not to say, however, that Latin American elites and states did not join this crusade; they did, for their own racialist or later cold war reasons, in places like Peru, Colombia, and Mexico — an embrace they are now beginning to regret.

2nd: While the Americas (as just shown) have always been ground zero in the global emporia of mind drugs, and the high-end tequilas, coffee, and new age psychedelics keep on coming, these trades pale in magnitude and ferocity compared to today’s illicit streams or torrents of drugs.

Illicit recreational drugs—once criminalized into Black Markets—became bare, mean, savage commodities, without the legalities or social niceties surrounding or containing other goods.

And for a host of reasons, including proximity to the world’s hottest market (the USA), a history of marginalized peasantries and regional entrepreneurs, and by the 60s, the wild price incentives of prohibition, traditional small-scale border smuggling during the 1970/80s mushroomed into one of the most “successful” homegrown profit industries in Latin Americas history – one strangely in sync with the era’s neo-liberal capitalism model.

Today, the OAS estimates hemispheric drug consumption at $150 billion (a suspiciously round number!). In short, these are now huge global goods, though with deep local roots.

 3rd: Another massive generalization about the age of Drug Wars: .

Many folks in the USA and elsewhere (those with excess of cash) have had their fun partying with imported goods; some remote peasants have gotten by off supplying them (barely); and our cultures have become infused by songs, films, and other cultural products about drugs, reflecting and glorifying the money-making cultures of drug lords and their minions (many of these cultural artifacts, I’m afraid, consumed as racist close-the-border discourses in the North).

But we know the steep costs of these hemispheric drug chains and their aggressive prohibition: Corruption of entire governments (even a few true narco-economies); militarization and repression of destitute farmers; degradation of fragile biodiverse rainforests; and millions of people who are addicted, ruined, racially profiled and imprisoned over illicit drugs.

11/18/1988 President Reagan and Nancy Reagan at a signing ceremony for HR 5210 Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988

Since the 1980s Reagan-era escalation of these drug wars, a torrent of violence, has hit first Colombian cities, US communities of color, and by the 2010s a huge swath of Mexico. The suffering and costs in blood, and chaos, and ruin, of illicit drugs and drug wars has been astronomical.

To their credit, since 2010 or so, a series of Latin American nations, Bolivia, Uruguay, Colombia (and now Mexico, Jamaica, Chile..), have articulated a  growing opposition to the violence and insecurities of hemispheric drug war. This call for a pragmatic harm-reducing “drug truce” is being felt at the highest tiers of the UN. Popular overturning of drug prohibition has also spread to half of the US states.

We’ll see if this anti-puritanical movement, another possible Latin American contribution to drug culture, continues to build and help resolve a half millennium of tensions around mind-altering drugs.   


I’ve tried to draw an extremely big picture of drugs in las Américas, going beyond today’s headline “Narcos” to a broadly-defined sweeping historical array of mind-altering plants and derivatives.

The Ancient Américas gave the world the shamanist botanical diversity of the “American drug complex”—at its pinnacle expressed in the intellectual power of civilizations like the Méxica (i.e., Aztecs).

The Colonial Americas saw three centuries of European domination that launched some stimulants into pioneering global goods with notable impacts on Western mentalités and early modernity.

 New nation states, from the 1820s on, elevated some drugs and drinks into symbolic goods of “national communities,” and expanded drug-like export commodities, while casting suspicion on others of lowly origins.

But the age of illicit drugs and militarized drug wars (the 1960s-2010?) has overshadowed this rich prior history with its stark black-market commodification of mind and pleasure drugs, its terrible violence, and sensationalized global drug cultures.

Gracias, Thank you; Obrigado

Paul Gootenberg
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Paul Gootenberg is SUNY Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology at Stony Brook University in New York.  He is a global commodity and drug historian trained as a Latin Americanist at the University of Chicago and St. Antony’s College, Oxford.  His works include Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (UNC, 2008), Cocaine: Global Histories (Routledge, 1999) and with Liliana M. Dávalos, The Origins of Cocaine: Peasant Colonization and Failed Development in the Amazon Andes (Routledge, 2018). From 2011-14 he chaired the Drugs, Security and Democracy fellowship (DSD) of the Open Society Foundations and Social Science Research Council. Gootenberg is General Editor of The Oxford Handbook of Global Drug History (Oxford 2022) and 2021-23 President of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS).

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