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Points Interview: William McAllister

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This week we’ll continue our series of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to William McAllister, the Chief of the Special Projects Division, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State and also Adjunct Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History (Routledge, 2000), as well as many articles and chapters in edited volumes about the historical development of the international drug control regime and U.S. drug policy. You can read McAllister’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

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How I applied my research to real life: When my children reached double digits, I followed a consistent line whenever the topic of drug use came up. I told them the statistics indicated they would probably consume some controlled substance in an illicit manner at some point. Therefore, my goal was not to prevent entirely, but rather to delay onset of first use as long as possible. My reading of the literature indicated that was the best way to decrease the chances of significant problems over a lifetime. For example, I was a single parent throughout those years, so they had to attend aftercare at the end of the school day. I explained that I wouldn’t allow them to go home unsupervised because that was “prime time” for kids to get into trouble. They didn’t much like it, but they appreciated the honesty. Although one never knows, at ages 23 and 26 they both seem to be doing OK, so I think it worked well enough.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

In the mid-1980s I taught a juvenile crime and delinquency prevention program to 5th-6th graders in Tulsa-area schools. The students asked a lot of questions that more or less boiled down to rulemaking and gatekeepers, such as, “How did they decide that alcohol and tobacco were legal while marijuana and heroin aren’t.” I didn’t think the canned answers we supplied were sufficient, and I couldn’t find any books at the library that answered my growing list of questions, especially about who “they” might be. So, I decided to get a history Ph.D. and make this the subject of my dissertation research. I focused on the how the international treaty structure evolved over the 20th century on the premise that the global regime informed and governed national policies and local practices. Although that’s not the whole story, I’d argue it’s an essential one to account for in doing drug history/policy research.

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William McAllister

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

You may think the government prohibited marijuana way back in the 1930s because they were prejudiced against minorities and didn’t see any value in the plant, but you’re wrong! Washington actually wanted a lot of cannabis to be grown because they were going to need fiber for the coming global war, but that was a national security secret they couldn’t tell anybody. At the same time, they didn’t want to facilitate trafficking in dangerous items. So, if my next drink is on the house, I’ll tell you how they pulled it off…

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

This is something I discovered late in the process of producing my “Drug Diplomacy” book, published in 2000. I included reference to it in one paragraph, but there was not room to tell the whole story in depth. In subsequent years I got as far as I could with additional research and included that material in this article, but I’m still not done searching archives, so I created this site where I can explain the lacunae in the current historiography in great detail and add more material to support my argument as I discover it. It’ll take a while to build out, so be patient.

I’m next working on finding out more about Elizabeth Washburn Wright, a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1925 Geneva conference that produced the first international drug control treaty featuring substantive provisions. She was the first woman granted plenipotentiary powers by the U.S. government, but we know very little about her. Her family papers reside in Northwestern Maine, so I’m putting that trip off until winter is well past. I’m also investigating the extent to which it is possible to verify Harry Anslinger’s claims about his early career accomplishments before his appointment as FBN Commissioner in 1930; I’ve become skeptical regarding the story he tells about himself. For example, the first nine documents in Anslinger’s State Department personnel file are missing. This void includes the entire period during which he claimed intelligence and espionage exploits as a Consular officer in the Netherlands. I’ve never seen that magnitude of documentary omission in the many other files of this type I have researched at NARA. Kinda makes you wonder…

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

It is my policy as a professional historian never to make predictions that could be proven wrong in my own lifetime. Assuming I live to age 100, everybody reading this will be retired by then anyway so it doesn’t really matter what I think. Just ask new questions with a dedicated eye to how you can make your findings relevant to multiple audiences (i.e., don’t just talk to fellow eggheads who read Points).

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

I’d love to observe Socrates and Oscar Wilde go at it. Problem is, if we are to be historically accurate, it wouldn’t be much of a conversation unless Wilde possessed some fluency in Ancient Greek (or perhaps Socrates could acquire modern English from some of Elysium’s recently-arrived residents).


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