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The Points Interview: Isaac Campos-Costero

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s note: Today’s entry in the Points Interview series is number twenty-seven, and features Isaac Campos-Costero discussing his recently published Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Between the 1840s and 1920, marijuana was overwhelmingly associated with two effects in

Cover of Isaac Campos' Home Grown

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Well drug and alcohol historians already know about set and setting but this is the first historical monograph to deeply explore the likely consequences of these factors in the past.  Furthermore, the literature on marijuana’s early history in the U.S. claims that marijuana came to the U.S. with Mexican immigrants who used the drug as a “casual adjunct to life,” and suggests that the use of this substance was a kind of mundane part of Mexican life before being demonized by racist Americans once it came across the border. But my book shows marijuana use in Mexico was relatively unusual (thus probably not that prevalent among migrating workers) and that Mexican ideas about marijuana began shaping U.S. discourses well before the big waves of immigrants started coming north during the 1910s. So the book raises a lot of questions for historians on the U.S. side of the border as well. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I’m still fascinated by the historical impact of set and setting. If we know that the behavioral effects of drugs (and even phenomena like addiction) are dictated by psychology and culture as much as pharmacology, then the history of illicit drugs must have involved an important element of self-fulfilling prophecy (and I don’t just mean that prohibiting drugs makes drug users criminal by definition). Can we somehow show that changing discourses increased other kinds of drug-related behaviors? For example, did the stereotype of the “junkie” actually produce “junkies”? Did the stereotype of the “crackhead” produce “crackheads”? This is fascinating stuff. It’s the behavioral and even biological (in the case of addiction) impact of culture and discourse.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Who was the first person to smoke marijuana in Mexico and what inspired them to do so? The first reference I have to the practice is from 1846 and I show quite clearly that, if it was being smoked before then, the practice was extraordinarily rare. But someone had to be the first person. Was the idea to smoke the stuff introduced from outside or did someone just decide to add some of it to his or her cigarette? Cannabis already had a medicinal and divinatory reputation in late 18th century Mexico even though it was not yet smoked (people drank it in an infusion). Since Mexicans pioneered the cigarette (another drug development with world historical implications), it seems  plausible that someone at some point just decided to try smoking it. But the answer to this question remains a mystery and, unfortunately, I don’t think this stone will be unturned anytime soon.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

I’d like to do it so I could go off on long tangents about the research process and the sources and so forth which is as interesting to me as anything else.  I’m sure the audio book publishers would love that.

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