Today’s post features an interview with Athos Vieira, a historian from Brazil, who recently completed a Ph.D. in sociology from Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro. Athos recently authored ‘Cocaine and the night: The social life of a drug in Rio de Janeiro during Brazil’s First Republic, 1885-1920s‘ in the upcoming Fall 2022 issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Find out more about Athos’ background and article in this interview.
Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.
My PhD was in sociology, but I am a historian, and my undergraduate degree was in history. This article is from my thesis in sociology that I finished in 2020, talking about the discourses around cocaine in Rio de Janeiro during the transition from the Imperial regime at the beginning of the 19th century to the Republican regime. When it arrived, in the 19th century, it was just a commodity. It was a new drug without any judgment or any problems, just a new product in the pharmaceutical industry. I followed the changes of this discourse for about three decades, to the beginning of the Forbidden era, or the first law against cocaine from 1951. At that moment, cocaine became connected to criminality and sexual behavior.
What got you interested in the history of drugs and pharmaceuticals?
When I was doing research for my master’s, I found a case of a woman who was caught by the police because she asked for cocaine in the pharmacy, but the worker did not give it to her. So she got mad, went into the street, and got into a fight with someone, asking for cocaine. This led to the police discovering someone selling cocaine. This type of story appeared in the newspaper often, but this one caught my attention because it showed the start of people using cocaine in a way that was totally out of the control of the pharmaceutical or medical industries. After that, I discovered more stories about the use of drugs in the 20s – drugs were a romantic and fashionable thing to do once they became forbidden. And for my Ph.D., I dug deeper.
What motivated you to write this article specifically?
When we start researching history, we try to find the perfect documents that encapsulates all the ideas in our research. In this research, I tried to achieve the mentality of the people. I looked at all the discourse around cocaine – physicians, journalists, etc. But my main goal was to understand what people who used cocaine thought about it. I always try to find the perception of the regular people, in short stories, in news, in articles, et cetera. But after this law it became impossible to find this perception from the people, because we started to create all these processes to put people in jail – as selling cocaine became a crime.
Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.
I researched in the newspaper first, by reading all the news about cocaine from these decades in the 19th century. The majority of it is propaganda and things that are not so interesting. But I found some stories about the people who used cocaine at the beginning, who were prescribed it by the physicians. In the 20th century, journalists describe its use becoming popular, and that’s an interesting point, because the people discovered the potential of cocaine by following physicians.
Like, if you have pain in your tooth, in your nose, in your throat, even when giving birth – a lot of women had a lot of pain – physicians gave them cocaine. So people started to use it for a lot of medical things, and realized all the good effects. Your thoughts run really quickly, you don’t want to go to sleep, you stay awake and you enjoy the moment.
All this is happening around the beginning of nightlife. During the 19th century, the nightlife in Brazil, in Rio and all around the world, revolved around smoking. Technology made it easy to see at night – at the end of the 19th century, we started to see the electric system arrive. Large public spaces could have light, and people started to enjoy nightlife. It’s that same moment that cocaine became popular. The use of cocaine and the emerging nightlife was changing the fabric of society itself. People are starting to enjoy things that decades before were not even imagined. You could stay awake all night enjoying yourself. It’s a really fast-paced life, and it became a quick and intense society. We saw a multiplication of possibilities, environments and behaviors. And I think cocaine played a role in all this.
Was there anything that you found in your work that really surprised you?
In one document in the archive, I found there were two girls. They were in the tenements, probably using cocaine together and maybe having sex, and one file in the archive indicated they were subjected psychological analysis. When men were caught by the police, they would go to jail, after being accused of selling cocaine, but it’s not so common – or I didn’t often find in the archive – that they underwent a psychological analysis. But these two girls that had sex were sent to a mental hospital. So the idea of this article is to follow the changing discourse around cocaine, from cocaine as a marvelous tool for the pharmaceutical industry, to the proliferation of crime and marginal behaviors.