If only the Propaganda Machine had Paid Attention to the Humanitarian Crisis Emanating from the War on Drugs

The violent impact of the American War on Drugs has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Colombians and the displacement of millions more that have either inundated the urban centers of the country or simply left the Colombia.  Nevertheless, the Western propaganda machine decided, close to fifty years ago, to ignore the humanitarian atrocity and the systemic violation of human rights of Colombians carried out by American foreign policy, opting instead to focus on the magical realism-like stories of Colombian capos and the Hollywood-like stories of “good guys vs. bad guys.”  Now, watching the coverage of the conflict in Ukraine, it is irritating to see how Western media is capable and powerful enough to socially construct one particular narrative for Ukraine and another one for Colombia, denying the agency to the victims of the atrocities generated by Western, and more particularly, US drug policy.

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Cocaine in 1980s America: Fine for the Wealthy & Well-Educated; Bad for the Poor

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

Crack is Wack Keith Haring
New York City “Crack is Wack” mural first painted in 1986 by artist Keith Haring. Image courtesy of cookiespi on Flickr.

The years directly preceding the American “crack epidemic” of the 1980s are worth re-examining. Cocaine was by no means new, and people had been using and sometimes smoking, or freebasing, the drug for years. In the early eighties, however, many cocaine users were well-educated white professionals, wealthy celebrities, or captains of industry. By about 1986, though, dealers began condensing cocaine into “crack” that people could smoke instead of snort. As the perception of people who used cocaine changed from white and wealthy to Black and poor, every aspect of reporting changed, too. We can see this unfold in real time, by tracking news coverage in the New York Times archive.

Hollywood Cocaine

Robert Lindsey’s front-page story “Pervasive Use of Cocaine Is Reported in Hollywood” appeared in the Times on October 30, 1982. It described how drug use had become so widespread that companies insuring movies had begun to amend their policies to reflect drug-related risks. Lindsey quoted an unpublished survey of stuntwomen that claimed more than half of the women asked actively used drugs or knew someone who did.

NYT Headline Cocaine1
New York Times, October 30, 1982.

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Points Interview: David Farber

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Professor David Farber, the author of CRACK: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Farber is the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor at University of Kansas, and is a historian of modern America. His previous books include Everybody Ought to Be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist; Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam and Chicago ’68.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I’ve written a history of the crack cocaine years. In the 1980s and 1990s, crack crews took over swathes of poor, disproportionately Black urban neighborhoods. They set up 24/7 open-air drug markets. In those communities, suffering from the ravages of de-industrialization and the pain of Reagan-era disinvestment, crack use became epidemic.

Across the United States, a moral panic took root. White, middle-class Americans feared that crack was coming for them, too. That moral panic contributed to draconian drug laws that accelerated the rise of mass incarceration in the United States.

Meanwhile, crack kingpins got rich (at least for a while), Gangsta Rap artists celebrated their exploits, and mainstream American society found one more reason to harden its heart against its poorest and most alienated members. The Crack Years changed America.

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Cocaine and Canada in the Early 1970s

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canadian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.

Canadians have been consuming cocaine since the early twentieth century.  They have traditionally been part of the larger western thirst for the stimulant that resulted in a transnational global industry that was initially controlled by European mafias.  Nevertheless, prior to the 1970s, Canadian media repeatedly published articles that highlighted the drug addiction crisis as an American and European problem, not a Canadian problem.[1]  While Canadians consumed cocaine that entered their borders via Europe and the United States, media distracted its readership with the “other’s problem.”  In 1970, for example, the Medicine Hat News reported that New York City authorities had confiscated US$9 million worth of heroin and cocaine.[2]  The arrest included an Argentinean, a Cuban, and two American men linked to a trafficking ring from Vichy, France.[3]  The drugs had been shipped from Marseilles and into the United States via Corsica.[4]  Cocaine trafficking was yet to be constructed as a Latin American problem.

This quickly changed in the 1970s, even though American urban centers along the 49th parallel became the core of the distribution networks for Canadian consumers.  In 1972, for example, Canadian authorities reported that there had been a “sudden jump in cocaine use, with large amounts being imported via Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver directly from South America.”[5]  The advancement of this idea paralleled increasing reports of cocaine related arrests at the borderland, but even these reports gave minimum relevance to the U.S.-Canada dynamic, arguing that these petty crimes were “just side roads to the mainstream of drug trafficking.”[6]

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Living the War on Drugs in Colombia During the 1980s

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.

I was born in Bogotá in December 1969, and raised in a bicultural world, moving back and forth between Colombia and Texas.  My Colombian mother and my American dad introduced me, unintentionally, to a certain complexity that generated in me a unique way of looking at the world. I do not remember much from my first seven years, just some constructed ideas from old photos. There are plenty of foggy memories that are not tied to a story that has a beginning or an end. Surprisingly, one of my first vivid memories from early childhood is a man being forcefully dragged out of his home by two men, as two other men with face covers restrained his wife and daughter. It was a six or seven second scene, before my mom drove away as the traffic light changed, in a busy neighborhood street, in the northern part of Bogotá.  

Ten years later, after one of the many deadly detonations of bombs in Bogotá ordered by Pablo Escobar, I connected the two incidents.  It was then that I realized that I was in the middle of the American War on Drugs.  I was a teenager at that point, fighting for my freedom and independence, and arguing against my family-imposed lockdown. The current COVID-19 situation brought back that feeling of confinement; I could not go out at night and my mobilization was limited to going to school and back home because the danger and threat were invisible, but the consequences were real. 

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Review: “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Elaine Carey, professor of history and Dean of the College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Purdue University Northwest, and a regular contributor to Points. Today she reviews a recent theatrical production that should be of interest to drug scholars.  For this dope scholar, a recent trip to Miami …

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Big Nicotine, Part II: Addiction and the “Cult of Pharmacology”

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to lower the nicotine content of cigarettes to, ideally, “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. Public health advocates celebrated the decision; on the other hand, Big Tobacco investors began dumping shares at the prospect of supplying an ever-more-elastic demand.

Cigarette critics and capitalists alike belong to what Richard DeGrandpre calls the “cult of pharmacology,” a system of belief that dominates American drug discourse. Rooted in modernist faith in understanding the world through scientific approach, by the early twentieth century many considered drug experience to be a straightforward process of brain and body chemistry, without regard for concepts we might recognize today as set and setting. Historically contingent forces divide drugs into “angel” and “demon” categories, but their effects are similarly reduced to biological mechanism: “‘soul’ was reinterpreted as ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit’ was reinterpreted as ‘biochemistry.’”

But cults are given to blind faith, so it is worth considering the extent to which substances are to blame for problem use.

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Donald Trump on Drugs: Election 2016, Part I

In response to Donald Trump’s sniffly debate performances over the last month-and-a-half of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Twittersphere erupted in wild speculation that the alleged billionaire had prepared with lines other than his taking points. “Notice Trump sniffling all the time. Coke user?” ventured Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, one-time …

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