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Book Introduction
Drugs and Culture: New Perspectives
by Beatriz Caiuby Labate1, Maurício Fiore2 and Sandra Lucia Goulart3
Translated from Portuguese by Glenn Shepard, Revised by Clancy Cavnar
v2.0 - Sep 10, 2011
Original text in Drogas e Cultura: Novas Perspectivas, 2008
Citation:   Labate BC, Fiore M, Goulart SL. "Introduction to Drugs and Culture: New Perspectives". Original in Portguese in: Labate BC, Goulart S, Fiore M, et al., (Eds). Drogas e Cultura: Novas Perspectivas (2008). Sep 9 2011. Online edition in English:
This translated introduction to the Portugese-language book Drogas e Cultura: Novas Perspectivas (2008) explores how consumption of psychoactives goes beyond the physiological question of individuals interacting with certain molecules.

Drogas e Cultura: Novas Perspectivas was supported in part by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture and edited by researchers of the Nucleus for Interdisciplinary Studies on Psychoactives (NEIP). Skip to a translation of the book's table of contents with chapter summaries or the Foreword by Brazil's former Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil, with the current Minister of Culture, Juca Ferreira.

A pressing social question, a major area of scientific inquiry, a topic of heated dispute among researchers, activists and law enforcement agents, a constant news headline and a point of concern in everyday conversations: This is the broad field of debate that surrounds everything involving the production, commercialization and consumption of certain substances conventionally (and not inconsequentially) known as "drugs";4 thus constituting the "drug problem". It was not always this way. A wide range of substances capable of altering behavior, mood, and consciousness have been used systematically by humans for millennia. However, their elevation to the status of "social problem" is relatively recent: at the most, just over a century old. Since then, however, a whole series of social actors and state and private institutions have concerned themselves with the drug problem directly or indirectly. Like violence, misery, and disease, drug use has been assigned to the category of evils afflicting humanity over the past century. And yet, much of what we know about drug use has been provided from the point of view of those who confront and combat a supposed "social evil". In other words, ever since "drugs" became a relevant social question, most of the debate and inquiry (with a few notable exceptions) has been framed in the logic of negativity and repression: You cannot study, think about, and talk about drugs if you are not in a clearly entrenched space, determined to stop the spread of this evil.

Drugs and drug consumption became an object of scientific study largely through their perception as a public health problem.
Science has not played a merely passive role in this process. On the contrary, science has not only been a protagonist, but has taken on contradictory roles; on the one hand actively seeking to discover, isolate, and synthesize new psychoactive molecules, but on the other hand publicizing their deleterious effects and advocating their legal proscription. Whatever the case, drugs and drug consumption became an object of scientific study largely through their perception as a public health problem. This emphasis has had important consequences, including the predominance of biomedical sciences in framing both academic and public debates. This has resulted in significant progress in understanding the biochemical and physiological properties of psychoactive substances, while leaving social science research in the field significantly weakened, especially those perspectives that do not treat the consumption of psychoactive problems as a problem in and of itself.

Resisting the supremacy of health sciences in framing the debate, dissatisfied by public discourses marked by oversimplification and sterile dichotomies between those "for" and "against" drug use, and dismayed by the lack of attention given to the topic in the humanities, a group of researchers with diverse disciplinary orientations and interests began to organize regular meetings to debate the questions surrounding drugs, drug use, and the "drug problem".

Although there have been many anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, historians, and other social scientists who have studied the consumption of psychoactive substances from a variety of perspectives, these efforts have been scattered, further weakening the involvement of the humanities in the debate. For this reason, after a series of initially informal meetings that became frequent, regular and systematic, the Nucleus for Interdisciplinary Studies on Psychoactives (NEIP) was established in 2001.

in the sense that it engenders a patently biomedical point of view, it carries fewer moral presumptions and thus allows more objective analysis than that permitted by the loaded, sometimes contradictory meanings implicit in the word "drug" [...]
The result of our first collective reflections already appears in the title of the organization, abandoning the charged and ambiguous term "drugs", which predominates in both scientific and ordinary discussions, in favor of the more precise and less morally laden term "psychoactive substances", or "psychoactives" for short. Though the chosen term is not entirely neutral, in the sense that it engenders a patently biomedical point of view, it carries fewer moral presumptions and thus allows more objective analysis than that permitted by the loaded, sometimes contradictory meanings implicit in the word "drug" (toxic, narcotic, impairing, addictive, bad, etc.). By the very choice of its name, NEIP reveals one of its main objectives: to qualify the debate and demystify its underpinnings.

And yet, from its inception, NEIP has been a heterogeneous group. Besides maintaining thematic, disciplinary, and geographical diversity among members, the group has not always agreed on the desired contours of its own activities. In any event, the group was formed around two basic axes of activity: planting itself in a field of research that has been little, and at times poorly, explored and thus consolidating a durable thematic focus within the humanities; and at the same time maintaining an active, at times militant, engagement in the public debate and seeking to influence it. If certain internal conflicts have not been fully resolved, such disagreement has lent NEIP two of its lasting characteristics: first, as a place for debate, articulation, and dissemination of qualified academic research, and concomitantly, as a forum for political activity opposed to the predominant stance advocating prohibition and repression. "Prohibitionism" should be understood not only as a set of laws and policies implemented by states in response to the "drug problem", but as an overall negative, warlike attitude that has shaped research and public debate on this topic.

It is worth noting that diverse, and at times opposing, theoretical and political positions with regard to the use of psychoactive substances cohabit within NEIP, and this diversity is itself a basis for reflection. But there is a common denominator among the associated researchers: an interrogation of the tacit division between licit and illicit substances that predominates internationally. Indeed, much of what constitutes the "drug problem" does not arise from the inherent principles of the substances themselves, but rather from the current prohibitionist policies. Another point of agreement across different perspectives is the importance of respecting the ethical right of individuals to have autonomy over their own bodies, including the consumption of psychoactive substances. Although NEIP is, in a word, anti-prohibitionist, this does not mean it promotes a simplistic "pro-drugs" ideology, or that it is an apologist for drug use. It is important to recognize that there is no unity of vision within the group as to a single formula or solution for drug law and policy (i.e., "legalize", "decriminalize", "de-penalize", "regulate", "liberate"), nor is there support for direct alignments with other political positions, associations or networks at the national or international scale. NEIP is committed, above all, to scientific research about psychoactive substances, abstaining as much as possible from preconceived ideas and maintaining an attitude of constant reflection on the issue.

By treating the consumption of psychoactive substances as a complex phenomenon requiring diverse perspectives, and at the same time remaining skeptical of the prejudices that sustain prohibitionism, NEIP has built its trajectory through various activities like courses, debates, symposia, website construction, participation in public events, and establishing collaborations with other institutions. Moreover, the establishment of periodic meetings has increased opportunities for academic discussion and reflection and required researchers to subject their opinions and findings to critical intellectual evaluation.

To date, NEIP does not maintain formal ties to any universities or other academic or funding institutions. Group members finance their own activities and much of the contact and debate occurs through the NEIP website, though periodic gatherings do occur. There are three categories of membership: founding members, collaborating researchers, and correspondents. Founding members are those who conceived of and created NEIP, and for this reason are more fully committed to its activities. Collaborating researchers participate actively and systematically, while correspondents interact and participate mostly through the website in order to remain connected with the group's goals and objectives. The NEIP network currently comprises 39 researchers spread among various regions of Brazil as well as in Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Canada, the United States and Peru, including 7 founding members, 18 collaborating researchers and 14 correspondents.5

The "drug question", however, has emerged as a field of research not only because it constitutes a relevant social problem, but also because the phenomena surrounding the consumption of psychoactive substances goes much beyond the physiological question of individuals interacting with certain molecules.
The main areas of research are: religious use of psychoactive plants (e.g., ayahuasca, iboga, San Pedro, coca); secular use of substances, both legal (alcohol, tobacco, coffee, etc.) and illegal (marijuana, cocaine, crack, Ecstasy, etc.); the politics and policies of harm reduction; drug trafficking; medical and media discourses on drugs; and the therapeutic uses of some substances. NEIP maintains a website6 containing a list of publications, thesis and book abstracts, papers presented at conferences, course syllabi, web links, texts in various languages, the curricula of members, and photographs of psychoactive plants and substances and their universe of consumption.

In 2003 and 2006, NEIP organized university extension courses7 on current perspectives in drug studies at the Department of Anthropology of the University of São Paulo (USP), and held a public debate8 on drug legislation at USP in November of 2006. A 2005 symposium, "Drugs: Controversies and Perspectives",9 hosted by NEIP with support from USP's History Department, Social Anthropology Department, and School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences, included 25 researchers from different areas who met for two days to share their findings and evaluate the current state of research on drugs and drug use. Several associations involved in harm reduction also collaborated with the event.

This book brings together the papers presented at this symposium as well as a few additional contributions.10 While it might be understood as a kind of annals of the symposium, we consider the book to have attained a more ambitious goal. The inclusion of works by additional contributors not only enriched the team of authors, but also broadened the scope of debate and discussion.

Still, we recognize important gaps in the coverage, for example the topic of compulsive or uncontrolled consumption, typically referred to as "dependency" (though it may or may not be an accurate diagnostic term). While this may indicate lacunae in social science research on the topic, it also suggests that compulsive patterns of consumption of both licit and illicit substances, which certainly occur and cause both personal suffering and social problems, may be less universal than widely believed.

There is another important shortcoming. Being a book that attempts to bring together work in different areas of the human sciences, it may seem strange that it doesn't include chapters on psychology or psychoanalysis. Independent of the question of whether psychology should be considered a human or biological science, and for reasons beyond the scope of this introduction, psychology has already established a degree of recognition and legitimacy for addressing the topic of drug use that has never been afforded to anthropology, sociology, history and so on. Since psychological and psychoanalytical approaches to drug use are already well known and widely disseminated, we chose to privilege social sciences and history and thus broaden the consideration of political, economic, and cultural dimensions; perspectives that facilitate exploring articulations between knowledge systems, interests, institutions, policies, aesthetics and subjectivities.

Although we don't pretend to cover the whole gamut of humanities research on the topic, and taking into account the admitted deficiencies, we consider this book to be a step in the direction of consolidating the field of "drug research" within the human sciences by bringing together and making known a set of important contributions to the academic and public debates.

The reluctance within the humanities to accept the "drug question" as a legitimate topic of research seems to result from three common misunderstandings. First, there is basic tension in the social sciences regarding the difference between a social problem and a theoretical problem, since the former does not necessarily constitute the latter. Though we do not attempt to resolve this tension here, when it is taken to an extreme it can prove paralyzing and non-productive. It cannot be denied that social problems have shaped the humanities, especially the social sciences, during their short history as a scientific discipline. By means of various theoretical perspectives that serve to distance the observer from the object of study, social problems have often been analytically contextualized and denaturalized, which does not by any means negate their importance as such. If this were not the case, then how else could we explain the political and theoretical importance of human science's contributions to our understanding of social class, racial and cultural identity, and gender, to name but a few? The "drug question", however, has emerged as a field of research not only because it constitutes a relevant social problem, but also because the phenomena surrounding the consumption of psychoactive substances goes much beyond the physiological question of individuals interacting with certain molecules.11

While it would be wrong to deny the possibility of legitimate research where the author is the focus of experimentation and observation regarding these substances, it would also be wrong to assume that all research about drugs is done by "drug users" disguised as academics.
Directly related to this first one, a second kind of misunderstanding stereotypes the researcher as being personally interested or involved in drug use, or at least political advocacy thereof. Many are suspicious about the researcher's degree of objectivity or theoretical motivations, assuming that research efforts in this area are mere political militancy in search of scientific or intellectual legitimacy. Worse still is a perverse focus on the personal characteristics of the author rather than on text, arguments, and empirical validation, as should be the case in scientific discussions. As is the case for discussions about race and sexuality, where, for example, Afro-Brazilians are especially involved in the study of racial discrimination or gay scholars are particularly drawn to study homosexuality, it is assumed that "drug users" are the ones who are mostly involved in this area of research. Whatever the actual relationship between the object of study and the researcher, taking on a political stance, as long as it doesn't compromise objectivity, is not only inevitable but desirable. The supposition of absolute scientific neutrality has long been questioned, and we affirm that accumulated experience in academic research should indeed influence and enrich debate. On the other hand, we feel it is legitimate to defend a researcher's empirical experimentation with psychoactive substances as a tool for better understanding the "drug question". While it would be wrong to deny the possibility of legitimate research where the author is the focus of experimentation and observation regarding these substances, it would also be wrong to assume that all research about drugs is done by "drug users" disguised as academics.

A third type of misunderstanding tends to minimize the relevance of the humanities as a whole in this area of research. This attitude presumes a kind of division of intellectual labor in which the biological and medical sciences are responsible for studies of drug properties and consumption, with the humanities devoted to studying only the more obvious social consequences such as drug trafficking and violence. Even more pernicious is how the social sciences, especially anthropology, are often viewed as synonymous with qualitative research, and thus merely complementary to the objective laboratory work or epidemiological research done by the "hard sciences".12 This hierarchy among the sciences belies the truism that "all disciplines are created equal", while in fact conferring to social sciences a status somewhat like the cherry on the cake: that quaint or politically correct aspect of a phenomenon that is not, however, of fundamental importance to truly understanding it.

It is worth remembering that the human sciences employ a wide range of methodological tools, from the study of primary historical sources to large-scale representative surveys, including, but not limited to, qualitative studies. Although some research in health sciences has made use of "ethnographic" techniques--a kind of catch-all term applied to any qualitative approach--this appropriation and vulgarization of the concept of participant observation has lead to further obfuscation and marginalization of the role of human sciences in the study of psychoactive substance use. We remind in passing that ethnography is not merely a methodological tool, but a whole conjunction of field research techniques situated within a field of theoretical discussions; for example, the relation between subject and object in the production of scientific knowledge. This problem is especially apparent in some psychological and medical literature on drug use, where anthropological or sociological concepts are banalized and applied to such topics as "drugs and culture" or the problem of "social integration". Such terms end up being used in contradictory fashion, sometimes having a positive or defensive connotation, while sometimes being applied to negative behaviors that should be combated.

This book attempts to overcome some of these misunderstandings, reaffirming the importance and seriousness of the tradition of research that has been established around the topic of psychoactive drug use. More and more, researchers from diverse areas of the humanities are making themselves heard, not only through their academic titles and responsibilities, but also through substantive and revelatory research. We emphasize that this is not some kind of "tug of war" between the human and biological sciences (which in any case are quite diverse internally) where each field locks itself within its own disciplinary prism and dismisses or ignores the importance of interdisciplinary understanding. Our choice to include articles produced by researchers based in the humanities should not be seen as a battle in an ongoing war. On the contrary, these contributions make us realize clearly how these phenomena are much more complex than the divisions and relatively innocuous disagreements among different professionals and disciplines. Following a general tendency, we attempt to avoid the kind of hyper-specializing that shuts out interdisciplinary dialog and becomes irrelevant in the face of such a multi-faceted phenomenon.

Many daily activities involve necessary risks: driving cars, practicing sports, travel, eating, and having sex. The same is true about drug use. If drug consumption may unleash compulsive behavior in some cases, in other cases it can take place within stable, healthy social relations integrated with multiple other dimensions of people's lives.
We also see fit to discuss various models of "prevention" for illicit or unwanted drug use. There is a growing consensus among specialists that policies of repression and demonization of drug use have proven to be ineffective. More recent strategies have involved education and making more accurate information about drugs and their effects available to society, especially young people. A whole arsenal of technicians and specialists, alongside the emerging figure of the "professional user", have argued for space and resources in the public and private realms to develop prevention programs both primary and secondary. In this work, we suggest that another possibility for avoiding the problematic use of drugs--a real problem that affects many and brings cruel and often irreversible consequences--is to bring a more diverse set of visions to the topic, taking it out of the site of discourse where it has been typically relegated. This involves not mistaking the specificity of the "drug question" with its tacit isolation and marginalization; in other words, its unquestioned and apparently natural status as something negative and morally wrong. Many daily activities involve necessary risks: driving cars, practicing sports, travel, eating, and having sex. The same is true about drug use. If drug consumption may unleash compulsive behavior in some cases, in other cases it can take place within stable, healthy social relations integrated with multiple other dimensions of people's lives.

Despite their diversity, the articles in this book converge on several points. First, drugs cannot be reduced to a set of pharmacological or other inherent properties: they always imply relationship; they mean something in opposition to something else. To paraphrase Paracelsus, there is no medicine without poison--and vice versa. This understanding is not exclusive to the human sciences: According to certain medical studies, "dependency" on certain substances can be a form of self-medication for some other problem, for example, depression. Second, by observing how diverse peoples across the globe and through history classify substances, establish forms of social control, and deal with abuse, we can perhaps arrive at new and better policies for control and regulation of drugs within our own society.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "A History of Drug Use and Prohibition in the West", includes three chapters that reflect on the emergence and guiding principles behind the prohibitionist logic that shapes current drug legislation. The chapter by Eduardo Viana Vargas and Thiago Rodrigues elaborates a detailed analysis of the historical roots of this regime. Vargas develops what he calls a "genealogy of drugs" in the Western world. The author problematizes the notion of "drugs", beginning in the final part of the Medieval period and continuing through the ideology of the Crusades and conquest of the East, situating the emergence of this notion in the context of Europeans' contact with cultural "others". Thus, the meanings currently associated with drugs are closely related to the West's ambiguous fascination with these exotic "others" and a whole series of substances. With the development of the pharmaceutical sciences in the 19th century, these substances are seen both as panaceas for certain problems and as causes of many other problems and evils.

Rodrigues focuses his analysis on the temperance movement in the United States, which began in the late 19th century and achieved ascendency in the early 20th century.
Rodrigues focuses his analysis on the temperance movement in the United States, which began in the late 19th century and achieved ascendency in the early 20th century. He picks apart the deep logic and motivation behind what was to evolve into the "war on drugs". Arguing that this war is motivated by both moral intentions and geopolitical interests, the author details the emergence of diverse international treaties regulating psychoactive substances throughout the 20th century. He points out the central role of the U.S. government in this process, emphasizing how the war on drugs represents a crusade against specific social and racial minorities and economically marginalized groups. Thus, we are again faced with question of alterity, of how cultural "others" are represented, since substances considered dangerous, toxic or poisonous are often associated with certain marginal or threatening social classes.

The chapter by Henrique Carneiro traces the unfolding of prohibitionsism in the personal sphere, thus touching on the principle of individual liberty so dear to the cultural formation of the United States, somewhat ironically also the nation at the forefront of the war on drugs. Carneiro includes psychoactive use within a broader discussion of the respect of individual rights, the dispositions of human subjectivity, the body, perception, and taste. In the final analysis, the topic of substance consumption and the criteria for classifying them as licit or illicit reflects on the complex relationship between the force of social pressure and the plane of human autonomy.

Maria Lucia Karam closes this section with a fine analysis of the most recent Brazilian legislation on this topic, Law No. 11.343/06 from 2006. Karam examines this law from various legal perspectives and points out how, despite being championed as innovative and unprecedented by its authors and supporters, the law continues in the typical prohibitionist vein to characterize the production, commercialization, and consumption of illegal drugs as crimes. The law also imposes an authoritative penal process that violates the fundamental principles of human rights.

The second section of the collection, "Drug Use as a Cultural Phenomenon", touches on the interdisciplinary nature of the subject. The three chapters propose a diverse combination of perspectives involving different disciplines. The discussion, found throughout the book but highlighted especially in this section, involves the very historical basis of modern science, namely the timeless Cartesian impasse between the role of subjectivity and objectivity in the production and definition of scientific knowledge. The discussion points out how no science is completely neutral or exempt from value judgments.

The section begins with an interview by Maurício Fiore with anthropologist Gilberto Velho who, in the 1970s, undertook an innovative study about the use of illicit psychoactive substances among the urban middle class of Rio de Janeiro.13 In the interview, Velho revisits this study, goes over his main theoretical points and highlights the urgency of political reflection on the "drug question" at the global level.

The second chapter in this section, also by Maurício Fiore, examines aspects of medical knowledge about drugs. He focuses on notions of risk and pleasure which, in his analysis, are the crucial presuppositions in medical practices and understandings of drug use nationally and internationally. Fiore points out that medical knowledge is also power, a product of particular contexts and also a producer of realities. In this latter sense, he attempts to problematize certain medical concepts which permeate the public debate despite inadequate reflection on their meanings and assumptions.

The chapter by Stelio Marras is the one that most directly relativizes the research of biomedical sciences. Delving deeply into the core of the biomedical universe, Marras analyzes the logic and the procedures that shape the synthesis of so-called "medicinal molecules". His arguments highlight, on the one hand, the relevance of the placebo effect and, on the other, the tests that try to neutralize this effect in pharmaceutical production. Marras points out how medicine assigns the placebo effect a subjective meaning and targets its elimination as the primordial mission of medical research, thus proposing a reflection on the subject-object and nature-culture dichotomies that both challenge and delimit contemporary science. Based on these arguments, the author speculates that the resistance of certain molecules to "stabilization" (in the sense used by Bruno Latour), threatening the supposed separation between the conscious individual and the organized society around him, is the very basis of their being declared illegal.

The last section of the book, "Drug Use: Cultural Diversity in Perspective", contains a larger collection of articles highlighting different approaches to the topic. Contemporary as well as past phenomena are analyzed from the perspectives of anthropology and history, sometimes establishing parallels between past and present meanings that orient drug use.

Guarinello's central argument is that the economic and cultural centrality of wine in the cradle of Western civilization helps to illuminate contemporary debates about the role of the state in regulating substance use.
The first chapter, by historian Norberto Guarinello, presents the cultural context of wine production and consumption in the Mediterranean during ancient times. He points out the multiplicity of meanings, implications, and classifications surrounding wine in antiquity. Emblematic of classic civilization, wine was food, psychoactive stimulant and social marker. Guarinello's central argument is that the economic and cultural centrality of wine in the cradle of Western civilization helps to illuminate contemporary debates about the role of the state in regulating substance use. Taking the classical context as a counterexample, he points out how the current debate tends to overlook the role of various substances, including, but not limited to, alcohol, in social cohesion. Alexandre Varella's chapter further enriches the historical vision, analyzing the work of Guaman Poma, an Andean "ladino"14 chronicler who lived around the turn of the 17th century and wrote not only about his times, but about the pre-Colombian history of the Inca Empire. He focuses on Guaman Poma's presentation of psychoactive substances like coca leaf and chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented corn. Through these chronicles, Varella seeks to understand aspects of the indigenous worldview by means of their contact with and adaptation to the Christian world. As he points out, Guaman Poma attributes his own people's cultural backwardness and moral decadence to drunkenness, associated with addiction and bodily pleasures in opposition to Christian virtues and scientific reason. Likewise he blames coca, associated with the Inca dynasty, for idolatry and witchcraft. The chapter makes clear how attitudes about the consumption of psychoactive substances were central in the construction of negative identities, from the point of view of the colonizer, as well as positive identities in the form of resistance to colonization.

If these two chapters reflect on different meanings of psychoactive consumption through history, the chapters by Laércio Fidelis Dias and Renato Sztutman serve to frame conventional perspectives and approaches through the lens of contemporary ethnology. Dias analyzes the consumption of alcoholic beverages among the Karipuna, Galibi Marworno, Palikur and Galibi in the northern part of Amapá state, Brazil, near the border with the Guianas. He highlights the profound symbolic importance of alcoholic beverages in these indigenous cultures in relation to social values and hierarchy as well as for structuring interpersonal relations and personal subjectivity. Examining the meanings these groups confer on excess and drunkenness, and their own debates as to what constitutes desirable as opposed to pathological consumption, this chapter offers insights into our Western concepts of dependency, addiction, and abuse. Sztutman's article takes on the concepts of indigenous Tupi-Guarani-speaking groups about their traditional fermented beverages. Using historical documents and contemporary ethnography, he analyzes native concepts from the 15th and 16th centuries through the present. While providing a rich variety of ethnographic data on the modes of preparation and use of alcoholic beverages among Tupi-Guarani peoples, he also develops an original approach by examining what he calls the "native theories" about psychoactive substances. His chapter points out how the classification of these substances and their effects depend on a radically different conception of the natural world in which humans as well as non-human beings are seen as agents; which is to say, as being imbued with consciousness, subjectivity, and will. The personification of psychoactive substances implicit in this kind of classification goes beyond the Cartesian dualisms or the categorization of substances according to their objective chemical properties, their external sociocultural context or the internal mental state of the user.

Recognizing coca as an historical subject that co-evolved with humanity, [Henman] sharply criticizes the anthropocentric attempt found within the war on drugs to extirpate a plant species from the face of the earth.
Anthony Henman's chapter, based on the plenary lecture for the symposium that inspired this collection, presents his own unusual trajectory,15 combining an academic career with intense activity in international anti-prohibitionist organizations, organizations working towards harm reduction, and systematic empirical experimentation. He discusses some of the uses of coca leaf in the Andean region over the past fifty years. Drawing on philosophical reflection and contemporary anthropological theory, he contrasts the current prohibitionist logic with the meanings attributed to coca and other psychoactive substances by traditional Andean populations. In these contexts, one finds an ethic of spiritual and intellectual valorization which is ignored by Western policy makers. Traditional attitudes are summarized in terms like "master-plants", used to refer to psychoactive and other plants that are imbued with special powers and capable of transmitting practical and spiritual knowledge. Recognizing coca as an historical subject that co-evolved with humanity, he sharply criticizes the anthropocentric attempt found within the war on drugs to extirpate a plant species from the face of the earth. At the same time, he points out the potential uses of coca leaf in treating the abusive use of cocaine through substitution therapy.

Two of the articles deal with the Brazilian religions that use the psychoactive beverage known as ayahuasca, yagé, daime or vegetal among other local names. Sandra Goulart's chapter takes on a synthetic description of the characteristics and differences between the "Santo Daime" and "União do Vegetal" religious traditions. She begins her analysis by looking at two crucial moments in the history of these groups: their historical emergence in the Amazon interior in the first half of the 20th century, and a contemporary phase marked by rapid expansion to urban areas. She examines the prejudice and social stigma suffered by members of ayahuasca religions in these different historical moments, seeking to contextualize the relationship of these religions with the state and the broader society. In this sense, the chapter makes an important contribution by showing how these religions have been perceived and classified by government agents, the media, and intellectuals from the academic, legal and medical professions, from the 1930s when Santo Daime was born in Acre through the present, with new government regulations concerning ayahuasca consumption. Goulart shows how these groups were persecuted in the first half of the 20th century and associated with charlatanism, black magic, and racial stigma, and relates these notions with contemporary discourses that seek to classify ayahuasca as a "drug" or as "toxic". She also examines accusations of commercialization and ayahuasca tourism, and the fear that new forms of ayahuasca use in urban Brazil and elsewhere in the world might pervert the "authentic" Daime tradition. Goulart also points out the rise of medical vocabulary within the domain of ayahuasca regulation, repression, and persecution, placing the debate at the intersection between religion, politics, and medicine.

Edward MacRae's chapter maintains a close dialog with Goulart's. His analysis focuses on recent regulatory activity by the Brazilian government in reference to ayahuasca, especially the resolution by the National Anti-Drug Council (CONAD) released on November 4, 2004, reaffirming constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of religion and reinforcing the legality of ayahuasca used in religious rites. This right had already been established by a decree from the 1980s, but it came under discussion again in 2002 with regards to the problem of regulation within this polemical zone of intersection between church and state. In consonance with Goulart, MacRae highlights the relevance of medical discourses in the classification and legitimization of ayahuasca use, pointing out an analogous situation in the history of afro-Brazilian religious cults like Umbanda in the early 20th century. This comparison between two historical moments suggests important transformations in the classification, regulation, and repression of religious groups considered outside the mainstream.

The two chapters that close the volume take on use of drugs in the contemporary sense, referring to controlled substances. Both chapters contemplate the use of designer drugs (synthetic psychoactive substances born in laboratories), particularly MDMA.
It should be remembered that MacRae, Goulart and also editor Labate took part as anthropologists in the process of state regulation of ayahuasca in Brazil. Thus it is pertinent to examine the role of social sciences in the public debate about drugs which is, as we pointed out earlier, dominated by health science discourses. While the chapters by MacRae and Goulart both analyze the presence of medical knowledge and discourse in the process of legal legitimization of ayahuasca use, both also make clear that scholars from the human sciences, especially anthropology, played an increasingly significant role through time. By means of a detailed historical narrative, MacRae points out how ideas like the religious authenticity of ayahuasca use in the Amazon and, more generally, the existence of alternative cultural patterns for psychoactive use, became more accepted within the legal, medical, and military professions and government agencies. Together, these two articles highlight the growing importance of the ayahuasca groups themselves in developing public policies, both through the adoption of their religious discourses by governmental and legal agencies and through the direct inclusion of representatives from these groups in the commissions charged with developing these policies.

The chapter by anthropologists Edilene Coffaci de Lima and Beatriz Caiuby Labate do not deal directly with the ayahuasca religions, but evoke some of the major personalities in this universe, since some of these same actors were involved in the growing popularity in urban centers of the use of kambô or kampo, a toxic secretion from the frog Phyllomedusa bicolor that was traditionally used by Amazonian indigenous populations such as the Katukina, Yawanawa and Kaxinawa. Their chapter reflects on the process of migration and transformation of the meanings of kambô use. Among the Katukina of the upper and middle Juruá, for example, the frog toxin was used as a stimulant, tonic, and hunting medicine to cure the condition known as panema: bad luck in hunting. Now, the same potion is being administered in urban centers in southern Brazil, especially among "New Age" or alternative spirituality practitioners. Kambô has awakened a double fascination in this urban context, both as a "scientific remedy", whose biochemical properties are exalted, and also as a "remedy for the soul", emphasizing its indigenous origins. Some treat kambô as a kind of "master substance" and source of shamanic power, analogous to ayahuasca or peyote. As with studies about ayahuasca, the analysis by Lima and Labate makes us reconsider the relationship between the traditional and the modern; a dichotomy that becomes increasingly questionable in a world where habits and traditions are ever more widely shared and interconnected. The expansion of kambô use in urban contexts calls for important reflections about our assumptions regarding "tradition" and "modernity", and the relevant legal statutes and criteria of scientific validation.

The two chapters that close the volume take on use of drugs in the contemporary sense, referring to controlled substances. Both chapters contemplate the use of designer drugs (synthetic psychoactive substances born in laboratories), particularly MDMA, widely known as "Ecstasy" and used in the rave scene and other recreational settings. The chapter by Maria Isabel Mendes de Almeida and Fernanda Eugenio compares the meanings of drug use in two generations within the urban middle class: the current generation and the so-called countercultural generation of the 1960s. Their study thus enters into dialog with Gilberto Velho's work, Nobres e Anjos (1998), reflecting on changing constructions of subjectivity and the meanings attributed to different substances in these two time periods. Using ethnographic data, the authors point to a new relationship with the body and the ingested substances. Attempting to understand the emergence of new, so-called "bio-identities", they argue that new meanings have been imparted to various substances, including but not limited to psychoactives, based on a kind of "pharmacological" construction of the self that employs pragmatic concepts such as "calculation" and "competency". While the 1960s counterculture postulated an existential political project based on rupture and self-discovery, the current use of drugs like Ecstasy in nightclubs and raves, anabolic steroids in body-building circles, and various prescribed mood-altering drugs, are linked to a concept of instantaneous personal realization that fits with the spirit of the times, an emphasis on well-being and the vertiginous competition stipulated by capitalism.

The "drug question" can be compared to the Hindu parable in which a group of blind people are allowed to touch various parts of an elephant's body but who, individually and in isolation, cannot identify this large and unmistakable creature.
The chapter by Tiago Coutinho Cavalcante focuses on "raves", large electronic music festivals that unite globalized esoteric currents with multi-faceted technological stimulation in a climate of collective rapture. Inspired by perspectives that reflect on the construction of identity through bodily performance, Coutinho describes the rave setting as being like a giant stage. The use of psychoactives as part of such performance can have diverse meanings depending on many variables. The chapter enters into an active debate with the previous chapter by pointing out the heterogeneity of the contemporary electronic music scene, which varies across a range of settings from frenetic (night clubs and urban parties) to more transcendental (open air festivals in natural settings). This comparison points out that the meanings attributed to psychoactive use can vary within the same generation, among users of the same substance (like Ecstasy or marijuana), or according to other variables like the kind of music ("techno" vs. "electronic" vs. "house" vs. "psychedelic trance"). In another example of ethnographic richness, Coutinho introduces "native" categories like fritar ("fry") associated with stimulants, and derreter ("melt") associated with hallucinogens, which allow us to understand how, even in these contemporary contexts, there exist means of social control to inhibit excessive or abusive consumption of these substances. He argues that this control is maintained through performance and bodily presentation to others, thus establishing pattern and structure in a context generally assumed to be utterly chaotic.

The book also contains a broad and carefully researched collection of images which, although they were not chosen with any specific narrative intention, introduce additional significant elements for reflection and open up new perspectives and perceptions on the problems that are raised (and often not resolved) by the various contributions. This shuffling of photographs and diverse visual references expresses in and of itself the breadth and multiple ramifications of the book's theme.

The "drug question" can be compared to the Hindu parable in which a group of blind people are allowed to touch various parts of an elephant's body but who, individually and in isolation, cannot identify this large and unmistakable creature. Neither excessively relativistic approaches--which negate the empirically incontestable and scientifically documented physiological effects of different substances--nor reductionist biopharmacological perspectives--which view these substances as mere chemicals interacting with physiologically identical individuals, independent of their historical, symbolic, political, and moral context--are capable of overcoming the persistent and yet largely sterile dichotomy between human and biological sciences, between constructivism and realism, between subjectivity and objectivity, and so on. We hope this collection will help not only consolidate this topic as a relevant research area in the human sciences, but that it also helps to advance public debate by stimulating interdisciplinary interaction and deep, critical, responsible discussion about drugs and drug use.

The authors would like to thank Julio Assis Simões and Renato Sztutman for useful comments on an earlier draft of this text. Glenn Shepard translated this text from the published Portuguese version, and Clancy Cavnar revised it.

Notes #
  1. Beatriz Caiuby Labate ( holds a doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), and is Research Associate at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Heidelberg University and Associate Researcher at NEIP - Núcelo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos - Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (
  2. Maurício Fiore is a PhD Candidate in Social Sciences from UNICAMP, Research Associate at the Centro Brasileiro de Analise e Planejamento (CEBRAP, Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning), and Associate Researcher at NEIP.
  3. Sandra Lucia Goulart holds a doctorate in Social Sciences from UNICAMP, and is a professor at Faculdade Cásper Libero and Associate Researcher at NEIP.
  4. The word "drugs" is used here and elsewhere in the text in quotation marks to highlight the imprecise nature of a term conventionally used to refer to illegal or abused psychoactive substances. For a more thorough discussion see the articles by Cameiro, Vargas, Fiore amd Marras in this collection, and also Fiore's chapter 3 in Uso de Drogas: Controvérsias Médicas e Debate Público (Campinas, Editora Mercado de Letras, 2007).
  5. Members are located in the states of São Paulo (São Paulo city), Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro city), Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte, Uberlândia and Santa Luzia), Rio Grande do Sul (Porto Alegre), Santa Catarina (Florianópolis), Paraná (Curitiba, Londrina), Bahia (Salvador), Alagoas (Maceió), Rondônia (Porto Velho), Campo Grande (Mato Grosso do Sul), Aracaju (Sergipe), Brasília (Distrito Federal), Pernambuco (Refice), Pará (Belém), Rio Grande do Norte (Natal), and Acre (Rio Branco). Since the book's publication, the distinctions between NEIP founding members, collaborating researchers, and correspondents has been dropped and the NEIP roster has doubled.
  6. On the web at
  7. See (2003 course) and (2006 course).
  8. Presentation abstracts and audio recordings are available at
  9. The complete program is available at
  10. The chapter by Maria Lucia Karam, who took part in the 2006 debate on drug policy; Maurício Fiore's interview with Gilberto Velho; and the chapters by Eduardo Viana Vargas and Stelio Marras, who were not part of the symposium but entered NEIP afterwards.
  11. A more detailed discussion of the relevance of studies about psychoactive use can be found in the interview by Mauricio Fiore with Gilberto Velho, included in this volume.
  12. This is the classic division of scientific labor that, since the rise of positivism, has relegated to human sciences the study of society and cultural phenomenon, leaving objective, physical phenomena up to the natural sciences. See the chapter by Stelio Marras in this collection.
  13. The study was subsequently published in Gilberto Velho, Nobres e Anjos: Um Estudo de Tóxicos e Hierarquia (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Fundação Getúlio Vargas, 1998).
  14. "Ladino" was a term used to refer to natives in Spanish colonies who mastered the language of the colonizer.
  15. Regarding his career, see the interview by Beatriz Caiuby Labate with Anthony Henman, "Uma Antropologia que Floresce fora da Academia: Anthony Henman e el Cactus San Pedrito," available at
Revision History #
  • v1.0 - 2008 - Labate, Fiore and Goulart - Portuguese text published in Drogas e Cultura: Novas Perspectivas.
  • v2.0 - Sep 10 2011 - Erowid - English translation by Shepard and Cavnar, minor Note additions.