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Reefer Madness and the War on Drugs

History professor Isaac Campos-Costero presented his research on the history of cannabis in North America at the American Historical Association annual meeting.

Date: 2/22/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Assistant Professor Isaac Campos-Costero has spent his few short years in the Department of History at the University of Cincinnati studying the history of Latin American drug trade. In January, he presented “Cannabis, Commodity Chains, and the Origins of the War on Drugs in North America” at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting.

Tell us a bit about your research.
My research investigates the history of cannabis (marijuana) in Mexico from its introduction there in the 16th century down to its prohibition on a national scale in 1920. In the process my work looks at the origins of the war on drugs in Mexico and, in some ways, in North America as a whole.

Isaac Campos-Costero.
'I think future generations will one day look back on (the war on drugs) with horror much like we today look back on segregation,' says Isaac Campos-Costero, a history professor with a research interest in the Latin American drug trade.

What were some key findings you presented at the American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting?
At the AHA I presented my work on the origins of what we might call the “reefer madness” idea in the United States. That is, the idea that marijuana causes a kind of furious and violent madness in its users and leads to terrible crimes. This was a notion that was widespread in the 1930s in the United States and helped inspire marijuana’s prohibition in this country in 1937, thus elevating marijuana to its current position as one of the “big three” drugs (along with the opiates and cocaine) of 20th, and now 21st century, drug wars. At the AHA I demonstrated that, contrary to popular and scholarly belief, these ideas largely originated in Mexico. Thus Mexico played a key role in the origins of the War on Drugs in the U.S.

What got you interested in studying the history of marijuana?
Well it’s simply a fascinating and absurdly understudied subject that has been of critical importance to the shape and character of modern drug wars in North America. It’s arguably the most important drug among the “big three,” supposedly providing the lion’s share of profits for today’s drug gangs in Mexico. And it of course is a fascinating subject as a component of the “culture wars” in the U.S. since the 1960s. So marijuana’s early history and the development of ideas and policy related to it are important and fascinating matters that deserve further study.

Were you surprised by any information you uncovered about the origins of reefer madness in the United States?
I don’t think I was really surprised. The findings certainly go against the grain, but that isn’t so surprising given that earlier theories on this phenomenon in the U.S. did not have the benefit of any original research on the subject in Mexico.  

Why is it important we study the history of drugs?

There are too many reasons to count but I suppose we could just settle on the remarkable fact that the war on drugs, a policy that causes much more harm than good, and whose structure and dynamics essentially doom it to failure, nevertheless marches forward with widespread support from legislators and their constituents in this country. I think future generations will one day look back on these policies with horror much like we today look back on segregation. They’ll wonder, “What were they thinking?” And of course the answer is that most people aren’t doing much thinking about this. But if you become at all informed about the costs of fighting the war on drugs, whether from an economic, political, environmental, or human rights perspective, it’s hard to believe that we allow these policies to continue. So it’s worth studying drugs to try and figure out how we got here and why we can’t seem to get out.

What are you working on next?
My next work will be on drug users and policy in Mexico City during the 1930s. After that I’m considering embarking on an international history of the war on drugs in the Americas beginning after World War II.

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