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Q & A with Paul Gootenberg

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editors’ note: Paul Gootenberg’s recent guest post proposing some new directions for research into cocaine’s history generated some very useful comments.  Paul replied to these comments in the original post, and we’ve dug them up and posted them here:

Kawaldeep Kour: Thanks Dr. Gootenberg for the illuminating piece. It surely sets as a precedent for educators, academicians and scholars on the underlying need to disseminate research ideas which would not only facilitate greater intellectual engagement with issues you point out but also as you anticipate “fill a few more pieces of the puzzle.”

Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug

Paul’s reply: KAWALDEEP—I hope professors openly share their research, their ideas, and questions, as knowledge should be a collective enterprise. But I’m also self interested: writing Andean Cocaine, convinced me that drug history is an exciting and serious field that I want to actively promote. Especially the surprisingly neglected area of Latin American drugs (surprising because of the oversized role of illicit drugs in many Latin American and inter-American contexts today).

Julia:  In your post you note that “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?”  Is that really a chicken-or-egg question? As you say, there is a correlation between global prohibition and illicit activity from prior legal cocaine outlets. Is there really any doubt that it was the act of criminalizing the outlets that made them dangerous? There is a reason why the alcohol industry was dangerous during prohibition but not before or after.

Take Your Pick: Dangerous Trade or Repressive Law?

Paul’s reply: JULIA—I know where you’re coming from, as I basically agree that “prohibitions” are a source of much social harm. Yet, what made the narrative in Andean Cocaine (for the post-war era) compelling was being able to minutely trace these connections between the ending of a licit commerce in cocaine and its explosion and dynamic as illicit trafficking. Social scientists remind us “correlation is not causality.” Wouldn’t it be great to have rigorous studies that proved (especially to those stubborn souls in the Washington anti-drug establishment) what most of us suspect?

Spillane on Cocaine (1999)

Historians seek to nuance through research.  For example, Joe Spillane in his Cocaine: Medical Marvel to Modern Menace showed that shadow markets and shady subcultures had already arisen in the United States before the drug’s prohibition between 1914/22. Even so, one could contend that prohibitions made drugs even more problematic over the long haul. Some historians argue, citing your own example, that even 1920s alcohol Prohibitions may have had social benefits, such as drops in cirrhosis and wife-beating, though such benefits need be weighed against the crime, corruption, and mayhem spurred by criminalization, or historically, against the long-term diversity of local alcohol regulatory regimes that emerged from the ashes of prohibition.

Maybe you’re right, and politics/ideology trump truth. Does anyone in our present government recall sponsoring the 1990s Rand report, exceedingly scientific, that found that every dollar spent on domestic “demand reduction” had 10-times the impact of spending on overseas drug interdiction?

Matthew Meyer: Thanks for the stimulating research topics. I do fieldwork in Acre state, Brazil, and have found references to recreational use of cocaine there in the 1940s, as well as to local pilots bringing loads over. What piques my curiosity is just the kind of social side of things that you find so underdeveloped in general. How did people in the Andean border regions view cocaine in the 20th century before the advent of “narcotic drug” discourse about it, and by what means did these discourses supplant local understandings of cocaine?

Paul’s reply: MATTHEW–Yes, these post-war cocaine scenes and dealers pop up almost everywhere, prior to the 1970s drug trail north. I like your notion of thinking about how coke was perceived in pre-narcotic discourse. Keep digging. Drugs are scattering again: Brazil is today the 2nd largest consumer nation of cocaine after the United States (partly the deflective effect of U.S. pressures on Colombia after 1990) with a host of associated social ills.

Resende, Cocaina (2006)

Brazil is also the world’s 5th largest country, with nearly 200 million people, one with very active drug cultures.  Yet, returning to theme of fostering research, I recently sought historians working on Brazilian drug history, and found not a one. A fascinating exception: Cocaína: literatura e outros companheiros de ilusão, a 2006 selection, by cultural studies scholar Beatriz Resende, of early 20th-century cocaine-inspired writings in Rio.

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