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Points Interview: “US Foreign Relations and the New Drug History”

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today, and for the next few weeks, we’re excited to present interviews with the authors of the first issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs to be published with the University of Chicago Press. Even better, the articles are all available to read for free until May 1. Today we talk with contributing editor Dr. Matthew R. Pembleton, who served as guest co-editor of this issue with Daniel Weimer (more from him on Thursday!). You can read their editors’ note here. We hope you enjoy these interviews, and we also hope you’ll consider subscribing to the journal to read all the great ADHS scholarship to come!

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I’m an adjunct lecturer at American University, where I finished my PhD in 2014. I’m also a Fellow at DC Policy Center and a consultant at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, where I’m working on a project about the 150 year+ history of the Academy complex. I’ve been in the DC region for most of my life, which I guess make me a swamp creature–just not one of the well compensated ones.

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

I actually came to the history of drugs from the angle of enforcement and control (womp womp) as a grad student. I was (and am) particularly interested in the dilemmas that accompanied foreign drug enforcement and the overlap with national security, in terms of both operations and ideology. That was basically the initial impulse that resulted in my first book, Containing Addiction: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Origins of America’s Global Drug War (UMass, 2017) – which just won a prize and is available at fine retailers now!

As I started to dig into the misadventures of American drug cops poking around in places like post-WWII Turkey and Italy, I realized that US counternarcotic strategy was premised on a particular theory of drugs and if I wanted to understand how the US government saw drugs, I had to understand the history of addiction. So I kind of started from US foreign policy and the US in the world and backed into the history of addiction, science and medicine, and public health etc. And as I started to examine the question of why some drugs are policed but others are not, I feel like that’s when my scholarship really began to open up.

At one point in this journey, one of my advisors explained how grad students and early career academics are associated with their dissertation topics and what historical subject that do, and he warned me that I would be known as a historian who does drugs. He was very pleased with himself at the time. And to which I would now reply: we are all of us drug users of one kind or another, which is part of what makes this field so interesting and useful.

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Matthew R. Pembleton

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

Because many drug products are global (or at least regional) commodities, there’s a fundamental foreign relations component to the history of drugs. And because the United States has long been one of the most prolific consumers of drugs–both legal and illegal–as well as the most active proponent of global control, the US has a special role in this history.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of great work on drugs as an element of US foreign policy as well as those international and global dimensions of drug history. So the project, which I edited with my colleague Dan Weimer, features some of the most interesting and promising scholarship on the intersection of these two subjects. In the volume we cover US colonial drug control in the Philippines, the national security dimensions of the Marihuana Tax Act, the way drug enforcement tends to overlap with counterinsurgency in places like Mexico, the mutual impact of failed 70s-era decriminalization debates in Colombia and the US, and the environmental and ecological challenges of drug control in Afghanistan.

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

Indeed it is. This first half features more in-depth archive driven case studies. There’s a second half that’s more about theory, methods, and historiography making its way through the review process. So stay tuned for more. Meanwhile, I’ve got a couple of new projects of my own in development… (he answered cryptically).

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

We actually address this directly at the end of the intro, because this was one of the elements that Dan and I were really interested in when we first set out on this project a few years ago. I’ll point out two areas for now.

One is a global accounting of the US drug war. The DEA currently operates 90 offices in 69 countries all around the world. There are American drug cops on every continent but Antarctica. That makes it a real challenge to understand the full, local impact of the drug war. I think a drug war version of something like Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War (Cambridge U, 2007) is super necessary, but DEA records are essentially nonexistent and the level of foreign language/archive research that would be needed is daunting. One day perhaps…

The other major frontier, as Dan and I see it, is something that ADHS has been actually working on for a while which is the historically contingent line between legal and illegal drugs, and we were really interested in pushing beyond the legal category of “narcotics” or Schedule 1 controlled substances as an element of US foreign policy. We kind of struggled with that, because US foreign policy is primarily interested in illegal drugs. But I’m encouraged by recent books like Nan Enstad’s Cigarettes, Inc (U Chicago, 2018) and think that would be a fruitful direction for scholarship on drugs as an element of US foreign policy. What will a global history of the opioid epidemic look like and what influence does Big Pharma have on the role of the US in the world?

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

My humor can run kinda dark so it would be fun to sit down with Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken and bemoan the state of the world. It would interesting to try to explain Trump to two of the greatest and most cutting satirists in American history, though I’d almost certainly be horrified by Menken’s racism and wouldn’t want to plan any research trips with Bierce.


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