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Points Interview: Dr Reiko Kanazawa

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Today’s post features an interview with Reiko Kanazawa, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is a contemporary historian of global health, international development and drug control, with a particular focus on South Asian Studies.

Reiko recently authored ‘Governing Drugs Globally: The World Health Organization and Public Health in International Drug Control‘ within the Spring 2022 issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Find out more about Reiko’s background, article and future research plans in this interview.

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.

I am a contemporary historian of global health, international development and drug control. I just joined the Graduate School of International Development (GSID) at Nagoya University in September 2021 as an associate professor in the Poverty and Social Policy Program. Established in April 1991, GSID is the first department in Japan to focus on international development, and we just celebrated our 30th birthday J I was raised in Japan, did my undergraduate degree in the United States, and completed my MA and PhD in Britain, during which I had extended research stays in India and Hong Kong. Before settling in Nagoya, I did two post docs in China and Scotland. I’m excited to continue working with scholars around the world in a wide range of disciplines from GSID in Japan.

What got you interested in the history of drugs?

My PhD was a history of India’s AIDS response during which I conducted fieldwork in New Delhi. Through chance, I connected with individuals who worked at the cusp of the burgeoning drugs and AIDS fields in India. One, currently running an NGO in Delhi, was a JNU student in the 1980s and instrumental in the development of India’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (1985) (he personally spoke to PM Rajiv Gandhi about the country’s growing drug problem, esp. in the youth). Another was an individual who, despite his young age, had successfully led several important studies at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for South Asia Office. Through listening to these individuals, it struck me that there are a lot of people in positions of power and influence, acting with integrity and compassion to make a difference. So it was important for these important stories to be communicated to the international community.

The interviews also opened my eyes to the complexities of governing substances, particularly in India. India has a colonial legacy of opium production (ie: Ghaziapur, where Britain exported to China causing the Opium Wars), including a sophisticated legal infrastructure for licit production. It is also sensitively geopolitically located between two illicit drug production regions: the Golden Crescent (states of Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan – see Udta Punjab (2016) with Alia Bhatt, released just before I arrived in India for fieldwork) and the Golden Triangle (Northeastern states, esp. Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh). Finally, it has since the 1990s been reliant on global health aid in its HIV response (see my 2020 Medical History article “Disease in a Debt Crisis”). Despite the complexity and political sensitivity of the issue of HIV transmitted through drug injection (as it was in many countries), in 2007 the country still successfully included opioid substitution therapy under its National AIDS Control Programme. As a global health historian, I tried to capture the entangled trajectories of the HIV and the drug control fields in the sixth chapter of my PhD, but it was clear there was a lot more going on: I remember leaving it at “drugs had a trajectory beyond HIV and beyond India.”

After my PhD (passing my viva with no corrections – yay!), I was a postdoc from Jan-Sep. 2019 on Professor James (Jim) Mills’ “The Shanghai Initiative” project. I got to interact more with the drugs history field through Jim, who has recently released Cannabis: Global Histories with Lucas Richert. While I was in Shanghai, he kindly allowed me to present in the last panel of the Alcohol and Drugs History (ADHS) Annual Conference 2019, which was luckily held that year at Shanghai University. Through my presentation, I got to meet established and upcoming drugs scholars such as David Courtwright and John Collins. After Shanghai, I decided to make this my next major post-PhD project and began my next position as Research Fellow in Global Health Governance at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society (CBSS). Edinburgh turned out to be a great place to start researching this, because, like many urban centers of Europe, it was a very important city for global drug policy. A month after starting at Edinburgh, I got to visit WHO Archives in Geneva in Oct. 2019, which was the main data source for the SHAD article and the book. After this, the COVID pandemic unfolded and I began intensively searching for a position in Japan. I then finished off this project throughout my transition from Edinburgh to Nagoya, ending with the Brocher Residency in Switzerland in March 2022, another important place for international drug policy with the Heroin Trials of the 1990s. For more information, see my blog:

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

If someone died in your bar from over drinking today, would you change how you run your establishment tomorrow? What if they died in their own home after visiting your bar – would you consider that your responsibility? What if they had other health complications that you didn’t know about? Basically, how would you react if something as serious as death occurred under your supervision, as the owner responsible for this establishment and its customers?

This is WHO’s dilemma as an international health agency. You may have heard of it recently in the news regarding COVID but it also happens to be an important agency in international drug control. Based on what you’ve heard, what do you as a member of the international community think is WHO’s responsibility to prevent crises like opioid overdose deaths and HIV transmitted through injecting drugs? [By the way, your taxes help fund organisations like the United Nations and WHO, so your opinion matters – you are a member of the international community]. You might not be particularly interested in WHO right now because as a multilateral UN agency, it may not directly impact your day to day life. But the concept of governance and responsibility to prevent pain and death and promote health and wellbeing within a given community is a concept I think we as individuals all understand and think deeply about. And who knows, you may get bored of bartending in a few years and change careers to go into public health, civil society advocacy, consultancy or international civil service!

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

Yes! I am writing a book titled Boundaries of Addiction, Treatment, and Disease: Global Drugs Governance from Post-war to AIDS under advance contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press as part of their Intoxicating Histories Series. I just finished and sent off the manuscript end of March 2022 to my editor Richard Baggaley while I was in Switzerland where I got to interview some key figures in Swiss drug policy, such as Ambros Uchtenhagen, and in WHO’s Mental Health Programme, such as Norman Sartorius. In addition to the SHAD paper “Governing Drugs Globally,” I’ve got a paper in the works titled “Addiction Experts and Pharmacology Consultants: WHO’s International Drug-Health Diplomacy in Thailand and India, 1961–1981” for the British Journal for the History of Science “Asia in Histories of Science Diplomacy” special issue, organised by Aya Homei (UManchester) and Gordon Barrett (Oxford).

A few more non-peer reviewed pieces relating to this project are a mini-workshop series throughout April 2021 that I organised at UEdinburgh called “Scotland in the Global: HIV through Injecting Drugs and Beyond”: it includes presentations from Dr Ray Brettle (HIV thru IDU doctor in 1980s) and Kirsten Horsburgh (coordinating naloxone programme, Scottish Drugs Forum), see recordings here: I’ve written about the workshop in The Polyphony: Hopefully I’ll have a post out soon through the Scottish Centre for Global History blog on Scotland’s importance in global drug policy. So please do check those out: they are telling different parts of the same story.

At the same time, I have joined a development department, where we have recently renewed our mission in light of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, recognising that the meaning of economic development needs to be reevaluated in light of new circumstances – and COVID has only reinforced this. As a native English-speaking Japanese, my experiences studying and researching overseas have strengthened my perspectives on Japan’s development experience. So while I hope to continue my work on AIDS, India, and global drug policy, my next major project will be a contemporary history of Japan’s development financing from the 1980s, focusing on three-way dialogues with India and World Bank regarding economic liberalisation in 1991 (see my presentation at the Modern Japanese History Workshop:

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

This is an interesting question. I think in general, there is an emphasis on integration – less specialisation and telling stories in a vacuum, more encompassing and holistic narratives that addresses fundamental and universal questions about historical continuity and change. I hope to continue to be part of that dialogue from GSID in Nagoya, where I am trying to bring a focus on global health and global drug policy into a development department.

Topically, I think the drugs field has recently been and will continue to focus on the overlap between governing narcotics with other therapeutic substances. Drugs historians seem to be drawing from pharmaceutical histories, which has its own historiographical tradition and culture. I’m getting into that field with my article “Pricing Retrovir: Wellcome PLC and the Role of Pharmaceutical Companies in the Global AIDS Crisis, 1986–1991” accepted to the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences – it basically asks why this company felt its pricing of this critical drug was fair, despite criticisms by American gay activists and politicians. I’m also currently following up an archival trail on the Burma Pharmaceutical Industry during the authoritarian government (1962–1988).

Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia – I admire his commitment to data-gathering through fieldwork in Southeast Asia, especially through interviews with key historical actors, and ability to bring a wide range of diverse data sources to inform his analysis. He doesn’t shy away from geopolitically sensitive questions, which is critical, not just in histories of drugs and illicit narcotics, but in any kind of historical storytelling. So I would like to achieve this someday, maybe with my next Japan-India-World Bank in economic liberalisation project!


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