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The Points Interview: Lina Britto

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Lina Britto. Britto is a Colombian journalist and historian who teaches Latin American and Caribbean History at Northwestern University. She received a PhD in History from New York University, and was a postdoctoral and faculty fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University. Her work was been published in the Hispanic American Historical Review, the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, NACLA, and El Espectador (Colombia), among others. Her book Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise came out in spring 2020 with University of California Press. She’s currently working on her second book project on the role of medicine, science and technology in the violent transition that her hometown Medellin, Colombia, underwent during the second half of the twentieth century, when it became one of the murder capitals of the world.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

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Dr. Lina Britto

Having worked as a waitress in NYC before I went to graduate school, I know how incredibly hard is to get the full attention of your bartender. I think my best chance would be to mention the most recognized pop culture icons of global drug history, namely Pablo Escobar and Scarface. I’d say my book tells the story of the Colombian smugglers and American hippies who flooded the United States with marijuana a decade before suppliers like Escobar in Medellín and wholesalers like Scarface in Florida did the same with cocaine. It’s a forgotten story of how small-scale smugglers, during the golden years of the counterculture, paved the way for a more entrepreneurial and violent approach to the international commerce of drugs, and why such a transition wreaked havoc in the Americas.

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

That said, one of the aspects that alcohol and drug historians would appreciate is the argument that emerges out of that story, which I fleshed out in the initial chapters. According to the academic consensus, the drug trade business in the Americas is the product of the absence of the state in peripheral regions. Marijuana Boom demonstrates that is quite the opposite. The contradictions of long-term processes of nation-state formation is what created the ideal conditions for the emergence of drug economies and cultures. This aspect of my book contributes to a long-lasting conversation among drug historians about how states are permanently formed and reformed through complex processes of construction of a divide between legal and illegal, as well as legitimate and illegitimate.

In the following chapters, and using the musical folklore of the region as main source, I delved into the ethos of these drug trafficking pioneers. My goal was to shed light on their search for recognition, status, and reputation as a constitutive aspect of the formation of a new entrepreneurial class. Alcohol and drug historians would value this exploration of the ideals, aspirations, and gendered codes behind the production and commerce of marijuana, and the way in which I connect this ethos with the violence that we now associate with the drug trade business. In sum, I contend that the disruption of these cultural codes of masculine honor that took place after the Colombian and US states militarized the region to curb marijuana activities is what unleashed a spiral of indiscriminate violence. Drug historians would find these last chapters illuminating in terms of how the intentional use of force is not the sine qua non of the illegal drugs business, but a byproduct of the criminalization and militarization instituted with the “war on drugs.”

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

At the personal level, I love how my extended family has responded to its publication. My father and my father’s family are from the Guajira, the epicenter of the marijuana boom. My personal connection with the region is what inspired me to undertake this project. Some of my relatives played very important roles in the research, especially during the earliest stages more than a decade ago. It’s been a wonderful experience to see how proud they are that one of us put the Guajira on the academic map.

At an intellectual level, I’m satisfied with how I combined the three disciplines in which I’ve been trained, that is, journalism, anthropology and history. I like to compare my book’s collage of methods, approaches and questions with a sancocho, a traditional soup that mixes various ingredients and has dozens of variations all over the insular and continental Caribbean. I think is the perfect metaphor for a book that is about what happened in a corner of the Caribbean basin when apparently disparate processes combined to produce a novelty that changed the game for all.

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

I’m working right now on an essay that aims to turn over one of those stones. It’s a collective biography of the American hippies who bought the Colombian marijuana and transported it to Florida and the Gulf Coast. All of these intrepid young men were white, some used to be sport fishermen or commercial pilots, many were trained by the Air Force to fight in Vietnam, and quite a few were eager to publish their stories once they were released from jail or the statute of limitations of their offenses had expired. I’m using their autobiographies and memoirs to understand how the ideal of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and adventure that characterized the white counterculture in the United States bred a cohort of ambitious entrepreneurs who ultimately paved the way for a new generation of drug traffickers on both sides of the supply-and-demand chain.

On the Colombian side, I’d love to see scholars get inspired by the gender analysis I did in my book—in terms of how masculinity was a crucial organizing principle in the marijuana export business—and examine the role of women and femininity in the emergence of drug economies and cultures in Colombia. And last but not least, we still do not know how the transition between marijuana and coca crops happened in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which was the marijuana belt in the 1970s and since the mid-1980s has been one of the greatest cocaine laboratories in the Americas, even until today. Part of the reason is safety. Doing fieldwork on this topic would be extremely dangerous because powerful criminal organizations control the cocaine facilities that use these coca crops as raw material. A research project like this would be a challenge to both courage and imagination.

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

I’m torn. I’d like the idea of having the voice and accent of John Leguizamo, my fellow Colombian, reading a story that takes place in our homeland but also involves the United States, our adopted country. Because the trafficking of marijuana was an exclusively male activity that was anchored in a code of masculine honor, a male voice makes a lot of sense. His flair for drama and comedy would capture well the spirit of the story.

On the other hand, I, the author, identify as female. Thus, I also like the idea of having a female voice as narrator. I think Lulu García Navarro, a fellow Latina journalist who works for the National Public Radio would be perfect. She has been a war correspondent in Latin America and beyond, a master radio hostess with an impartial and warm voice, and a great companion to thousands, if not millions, of listeners. She knows how to communicate difficult news without losing sight of the humanity behind them.

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