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Points Interview: Matt Pembleton

Updated: Aug 29

Editor’s Note: Today we present the second interview in our SHAD series. Dr. Daniel Weimer co-edited the newest issue of SHAD with Matt Pembleton and was, until recently, an associate professor of history at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the author of Seeing Drugs: Modernization, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Narcotics Control in the Third World, 1969–1976 (Kent State University Press, 2011) and “The Politics of Contamination: Herbicides, Drug Control, and Environmental Law” (Diplomatic History, Nov. 2017). His article is in the newest issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, published with the University of Chicago Press, and can be viewed in entirety (until May 1) here.

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I’m a historian of drugs and foreign relations, the main topics I’ve investigated for two decades now. For the past thirteen years I’ve taught at Wheeling Jesuit University, but the wave of higher ed. “disruption” has recently brought that to a close. However, I’ll continue to pursue history as an independent scholar, as there’s so much left to explore.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

In grad school (Kent State University) I studied U.S. foreign relations and came at drug history from that angle while reading about the “G.I. heroin epidemic” during the Vietnam War. My adviser, Anne Heiss, suggested I contact Bill Walker about my interests. Bill was super supportive in helping me with my dissertation (and book, Seeing Drugs) that looked at modernization theory and drug policy during the 1970s. Interestingly—one of those quirky moments of synchronicity—when I was first working on my dissertation, I was using Bill’s book Drugs in the Western Hemisphere. Bill had dedicated the book to Richard Craig. I didn’t know Richard Craig, but across the hall from the history department was the political science department and I happened to notice the name “Richard Craig” on the faculty list posted on the wall. Well, I walked in and it was the same person. Bill’s work on Latin America and Richard’s work on 1970s Mexican drug policy led me to later focus on herbicides in drug control and to the larger issue of how environmental history and drug history overlap. Which gets to my SHAD piece on Afghanistan.

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Daniel Weimer

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring.

We hear a lot about opium and heroin production in Afghanistan and that despite the U.S. and others devoting a lot of resources to suppress opium cultivation and trafficking, the rate of production hasn’t budged. Why is that? There’s many reasons, but the economic realities of most poppy farmers’ lives and the environments (topography, climate, ecology) in which they live have long been powerful forces that the U.S. and international community can’t counteract. In short, Afghanistan sits in a poppy-friendly environment and creating other means of livelihood for opium producers, particularly in light of nearly four decades of political instability and violent conflict, is a monumental (if not) impossible task. And this is not something officials have only realized since the U.S. invasion in 2001, or even during the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. U.S. and UN officials have recognized these challenges since before World War II.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

As Matt mentioned, this special issue of SHAD is part of two-part project with related articles on drugs and foreign relations still in development (but hopefully on the near horizon). Since the last question in this interview is about dinner with scholars, I need to mention that this project all began at the 2015 SHAFR (Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations) Conference. It was then that Bill McAllister assembled the “cartel” for dinner—with myself, Matt, and Aileen, along with others, discussing our various projects. About a year later, Matt contacted me and since then we’ve worked on this project through various iterations and rosters. It’s very gratifying, then, to see the culmination of everyone’s work and I’m grateful to everyone for persisting and doing what they do.

As for my own investigations, I’d like to keep with the drugs and environmental history theme. One idea I’ve been kicking around for a bit is seeing if there’s any connections between the volumes of drug-crop production data and the charting of climate change.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

I’ll first reference Matt’s statements about the need for a “global accounting” of the U.S. drug war and the integration of legal drugs (not just illicit) into foreign relations scholarship. But beyond that (and the other topics we mention in our introduction), I see the continuing de-centering of the U.S. as the only/main driver of global drug control as an important thread in drug history. Also, the demand/treatment side of drug history and the lived experiences of users and drug-trafficking workers are two other areas in need of investigation.

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

I’m convinced Emma Goldman and Michael Taussig would make for great dinner companions.

#Afghanistan #internationaldrughistory #Interview #SHAD #diplomacy


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