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Beyond Andean Cocaine: Excess Ideas for Further Cocaine Research

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editors’ Note: Graduate students, pay attention!  This guest post from SUNY-Stony Brook historian Paul Gootenberg lays out a series of dissertation-worthy research questions in cocaine’s modern history.  Readers of all sorts will observe that many of the unanswered questions have to do with trends in cocaine’s consumption.  Historical studies of consumer behavior (in the “drug” field, anyway) lag far behind studies of state policy or the construction of addiction/disease models.  Thanks to Paul–an outstanding historian of cocaine–for helping to take us further.

By now, I hope that many of you who follow this blog have read my 2009 book  Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (UNC Press).  I urge those who haven’t to immediately buy it.  As an historian who put about fifteen years of my life into its research and writing, I have to admit being truly gratified by its reception by other drug historians, social scientists, world historians, fellow Latin Americanists and even a few stray drug-reform pundits. Reviewers and readers seem to grasp and keenly appreciate the book’s core aims: discovering new sources, actors, and narratives around the drug, putting them into a cohesive new global perspective, and tracing cocaine’s long-run transformation, from its rise as a novel world commodity in the 1880s to its descent into an illicit good and drug culture by the 1970s.  I hoped it would extend transnationally Joseph Spillane’s magnificent monograph on the turn-of-century United States, Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menance (Johns Hopkins, 2000), the book that pioneered serious historical scrutiny of cocaine after long neglect and mountains of cliche.  Or nuance with archival depth David Courtwright’s lucid world commodity treatment of drugs, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (Harvard, 2001).

Take my research ideas...please!

So let me express my personal discontent with Andean Cocaine, which has less to do with its conceptual frames (which are bound to shift as more historians study the drug) and more to do with gaps and topics that could not be adequately addressed in the book’s admittedly grandiose global reach.  Andean Cocaine could only suggest where these topics might fit into the larger synthetic puzzle, based on the scant available evidence.  Attention all grad students eager to pursue drug-history dissertation topics (or any interested colleagues): these themes are ripe for further research!

Just a few worthy historical problems to dig around in, in a roughly chronological order:

French 19th-century coca culture:  Angelo Mariani’s Vin Mariani beverage has been cited  and vaunted in countless works, but the pioneering commodity, and the underlying 19th-century French botanical,  neo-incan, and medical cultures that bequeathed it are, to my knowledge, totally unstudied. Why the special French obsession with herbal Andean coca leaf?

The disappearance of American cocaine cultures, 1920s-40s:  We still do not know why U.S. cocaine consumption, vibrant in both medical and recreational roles before 1915, precipitously fell thereafter. Skeptical of triumphal prohibitionist claims—cocaine as a resounding “success-story” of the Harrison Act–I advanced in the book a political-economy model involving supply control by corporate agents of Coca-Cola and Merck.  Yet we need to grasp the hidden social and cultural history of cocaine’s long recession and cocaine memory lapse in American society.

Illicit cocaine in India, 1920s-30s: While it is tenuously argued that Japanese firms peddled cocaine across inter-war Asia, it seems there was a truly widespread and exceptional cocaine abuse among subaltern groups in colonial India during the 1920s-30s.  A recent essay on the phenomena was short on original archival research.  There were also a vast number of small or ephemeral pharmacy-leakage coke scenes scattered across the globe (Argentina, Malaysia etc.), which may have kept knowledge alive of the drug during its dry era , 1920-1970.

Bolivian coca nationalism, 1900-1960s:  Today under leftest President Evo Morales, Bolivia is outspoken in its defiance of international anti-coca norms, including the UN’s archaic coca-phobia.  But Bolivia has a rich unexplored history of embrace of indigenous coca and political resistance in international fora, such as the League of Nations, often led by elites, for much of the 20th century.  My book focused on the long genealogy of Peruvian cocaine nationalism to the relative neglect of coca in Bolivia, and its modern spread across the country’s social and ethnic spectrum.  More could be done, also, on the country’s pioneering role in a new peasant-led cocaine capitalism of the 1960s.

The prohibitions effect:  My book built upon unused FBN archives to show that cocaine began coalescing into Pan-American trafficking patterns only during the 1950s and 1960s.  I saw a  correlation between the final erection of a global cocaine prohibitions “regime” (in the UN and in compliance by Andean states) and illicit activity from prior legal cocaine outlets.  The years 1948-50, 1960-61, and 1972-3 were particularly sharp racheting points of illicit coke, as new U.S. policing and diplomatic interventions stirred new smuggler strategies and routes.  A  more social scientific study than mine might truly analyze these correlations (using price data and critically assessed seizure data) to probe the eternal drug policy chicken-or-egg question: which came first, the dangerous trades or repressive law?

Latin American urban cocaine scenes, 1950s:  I found rich evidence of burgeoning usage of recreational cocaine in many Latin American and Caribbean cities during the 1950s—in clubs from Havana to Rio to Buenos Aires and Santiago. I believe this use and the local Latin-inflected diasporas spreading it, let’s call it the “Mambo cocaine” culture, redefined or modernized the drug’s consumption as a sensual pleasure drug, a vital prelude to its expansive trafficker export north in the decades to come.

The rise of Colombian traffickers in the 1970s:   My book shows that the precursor networks to modern cocaine trafficking—now one of the biggest and most native “industries” of all Latin American history–came from Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Cuba during the 1950s-60s. Colombia  played no role and had little indigenous coca or cocaine experience. I sought to explain the larger geo-political factors behind the sudden rise of dynamic Colombian trafficker groups during the 1970s, yet there remains surprisingly little serious research (journalism aside) on their birth.

The return and cultures of cocaine consumption in the United States, 1970s:  A major theme of U.S. culture and politics of the 1970s has eluded research, though I bet some is brewing in cultural or American studies theses underway.  I used a political model for the “construction” of this new and soon insatiable demand for the drug, but it was just that, and surely reflected my (youthful) animus for the regime of Richard Nixon. Similarly, save for a few trade books on the arts (Hollywood), and for drug policy per se, the profound cultural imprint of cocaine on late 20th-century United States—especially during the Reagan-Bush I era—would make fascinating work,  in everything from its musical footprint (Disco to Hip-Hop), the American incarceration complex, and in the origins of that deservedly maligned social group: the Yuppies of the 1980s.

The political-ethnic recuperation of Andean coca-leaf, 1970s-80s:  I’ll end on a purely Latin Americanist note. From the 1920s-60s, indigenous coca use and the leaf were subject to a modernist scientific and political demonization from abroad, institutionalized by the nascent UN, a stance largely adopted by Andean elites (if least passionately in Bolivia). However, the past 40 years has seen another sea-change for coca, in which previous toxicological, degeneration, or addiction claims about the leaf became discredited as pseudo-scientific, if not politically or racially inspired.  But what political shifts and actors drove Mama Coca’s recuperation as a harmless, even beneficial and essential indigenous cultural artifact?  I suspect this shift relates to ethnographic interests (such as global anthropology) intersecting after the 1970s with the cultural politics of new indigenous  movements.

I realize now in writing this blog that these seem like a lot of topics beckoning in cocaine’s stimulating history, and some left unsaid.  The greatest payoff for my attempt to sketch out the global contours of cocaine is if newer scholars rush in to fill a few more pieces of the puzzle.


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