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The History of Drugs In Society
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The History of Drugs In Society

Author: Eugene Leventhal

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The History of Drugs in Society explores the history of different substances and how we’ve lived alongside and interacted with them. This season, we’re going to look at opium in one of three ways: opium as a medicine, opium as a commodity that is traded, and opium as a drug that is consumed and people become addicted to. Each episode will have one of these three as the primary focus. We will start with the first signs of the opium poppy through the current opioid crisis in America and the major issues surrounding opioids globally.
18 Episodes
This week I got to speak to Professor Anna Sergi, who is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Essex. We got to cover a few main areas of her research, including Italian organized crime overall, the ‘ndrangheta (both in Italy and internationally), as well as the role of shipping in global cocaine markets, an area in which the ‘ndrangheta is personally involved. If you’ve heard the ‘about the podcast’ episode, you might remember that Italian organized crime groups in the NY, particularly the Sicilian La Cosa Nostra, was what initially piqued my own interests in the world of organized crime and drugs. So it was particularly interesting for me to get to talk to Anna about the state of Italian mafias today and just how prominent the ‘ndrangheta has become in the last few decades. Some links:Anna's professional profileAnna's twitterHer e-book, The Port Crime InterfaceNot her's, but here's the article on EncroChat and the one linking Wirecard and the 'ndrangheta I reference in the intro
This week, I speak to Professor Angelica Duran-Martinez, who teaches Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. We explore a few of the ideas and case studies in her book, The Politics of Drug Violence. The book explores the interaction of political structures, security structures, and drug markets and what the results on violence are, specifically in terms of the visibility and frequency of violence.  More on Angelica - to her book - Also, please expect some delays with the subsequent episodes. Still not feeling my best but hoping to get at least one more interview out this month. Be well!
In the fourth episode of the season, I'm going over addiction in the East and the West. The episode starts by talking about addiction briefly before laying out some basic history of addiction and intoxication. From there, I cover issues with opium smoking in China before shifting to how addiction differed in the West at the time. I also talk about morphism, the Civil War, and where usage stood heading into the 1900s. In the next episode, I'll cover some medical history relating to morphine and heroin and then will cover Prohibition.  If you have any questions, feel free to reach out on or on Twitter, @DrugsHistory.
Sorry I've gone radio silent the last two weeks. Thanks to some lovely Lyme disease, I've been really out of it and needed to take it easy for a bit. I'm hoping to release the next season episode in a week or two.  I also want to create more of a focus for the interviews. If you have ideas, feel free to reach out - or @DrugsHistory on Twitter.  Be well! 
This week’s ep features Nidia Olivera, who is a professor at the National School of Anthropology teaching history and drug history specifically. She is also a current PhD candidate at the Mora Institute, where she is looking at the ancient and modern history of psychoactive substances and drug policies in Mexico. We talked about the history of drug prohibition in Mexico from the time the Spanish arrived through the 1950’s. We covered a wide swath of history and we couldn’t cover everything, so I’m including some additional resources below. Feel free to reach out on @DrugsHistory or on email, Nidia’s suggested resources: others:If you like Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, check out season 9. A Narco History is a short book that gives a good high level political history. Dawn Paley’s Drug War Capitalism provides an interesting theory in terms of the economic role of deciding specific drug policies.
Late announcement, but it looks like I'll be joining the list of speakers at Intelligent Speech Conference which is taking place virtually on Saturday, June 27th. Tickets are only $15 and you'll get to see a bunch of great, different podcasters. The topic for this year is Hidden Voices and there are a lot of panels that I'm excited to catch. I think I'll be on 12:15p. There's a trailer for Intelligent Speech that starts around 1:24. See you there! Schedule:
For this week's bonus episode of the History of Drugs in Society, I spoke to Jirka Taylor about synthetic opioid policy. Jirka is currently a Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. A social scientist by training, his research portfolio mainly focuses on drug policy and criminal justice more broadly and he explores where those systems intersect with healthcare and social services. We talk about policy responses to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Feel free to reach out on Twitter (@DrugsHistory) or over email ( can read more of Jirka’s research here:
For this week's bonus episode of the History of Drugs in Society, I spoke to Andrew Cunningham who heads the drug markets, crime and supply reduction section of the EMCDDA, which stands for European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and is the main drug-focused agency across the EU. This interview is focused on a recent report titled “EU Drug Markets Impact of COVID-19“ that was co-authored by Andrew, his colleagues at the EMCDDA, and colleagues at Europol. Report:
This episode, the second of two exploring opium as a commodity, focuses on the British role in the opium trade in the 1700-1800s and an overview of the market as we head into the 1900s. I focus on the expansion of the British in India, the Opium Wars, the opium trade overall, and how this sets the stage for prohibition.  Suggested podcasts: Hong Kong episode More on Chinese perspective? Book: Imperial Twilight by Stephen Platt for context leading up to and through the first Opium War
Short Announcement

Short Announcement


Just explaining why I didn't publish last week and what to expect in the coming weeks. I hope you're doing well
Hello and welcome to the History of Drugs in Society, where we explore the history of different substances and how we’ve lived alongside and interacted with them. I’m your host, Eugene Leventhal. If you’re interested in learning more about how fentanyl markets came about and how they look like today, you should enjoy this discussion. In this episode, I interview Jon Caulkins, who is a University Professor Of Operations Research And Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. Our interview focuses on fentanyl in the United States, looking at both the history and current state of fentanyl market. We talk about the impact of COVID-19 on fentanyl markets, what evidence there has been of fentanyl being mixed with other drugs, and what a term like morphine equivalent dose means and why it’s important to know. We also touch on safe supply, regional and international trends in synthetic opioid usage, and where data on overdoses come from. Pulling from his bio on the Heinz College site, “Jon Caulkins has been on the Heinz College faculty since 1990, with leaves of absence to be co-director of RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica (1994-1996), to found RAND’s Pittsburgh Office (1999-2001), and to teach at Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Doha, Qatar (2005-2011).  Here is the link to the UN report mention links:
My guest this week is Clayton Ruley, who is the Director of Community Engagement and Volunteer Services for Prevention Point Philadelphia. We talk about harm reduction overall as well as how these services have been affected as a result of COVID-19. We also get into questions regarding community, policy, and what makes Clayton most hopeful in terms of harm reduction.  In case you want to learn more:Prevention Point PhiladelphiaSite - - - - Up To The Plate Campaign - What is prevention point and what do they do - 1:58 What’s your background - 2:56 What brought you to Phill - 3:52Importance of community in terms of managing addiction - 4:15Internal vs external community - 5:52How has Covid affected needle exchange services - 6:38 How have the operations changed - 9:00Is prevention point involved in the mail home narcan program - 10:13How might harm reduction change moving forward - 10:52Any concerns of increased usage during social isolation - 14:15Policy changes you want to see change - 15:23What makes you most hopefully in terms of harm reduction - 16:16Anything that makes you least hopeful - 17:31Any organizations to highlight - 19:32How can people support prevention point - 20:36Outro - 22:03
Opium has been traded for a long time. It was part of a variety of goods that have been bought and sold for millenia. In this episode of the History of Drugs in Society, we start by exploring the early evolution of opium being traded, Marco Polo and the Silk Road, and European colonization in Asia through the 1600s. Feel free to reach out on Twitter (@DrugsHistory) or email ( audio used for the intro comes from The Great Age of Exploration (1400-1550) Documentary from Discovery Education Documentary and The Distant Drummer: Flowers of Darkness as posted on C-SPAN. Credits on the music goes to Blue Dot Sessions. 
In this episode, I interview Prof. Carolina Acker. She is a historian, professor emerita at Carnegie Mellon's Dietrich College, and author of the book Creating the American junkie. We touch on topics ranging from the history of psychiatry to the laws that started drug prohibition to the changing nature of who was using opiates from the 1890s through the first half of the 20th century. We talk a lot about the context around drug usage and the study of addiction, though a few questions are directly related to opium and its usage. You can learn more about:Caroline AckerCreating the American Junkie Prevention PointFeel free to reach out on Twitter (@DrugsHistory) or over email ( 
This episode will review the impacts of the coronavirus on both illegal and legal drug markets. In terms of illegal markets, this includes how drug trafficking organizations and street-level drug markets have been affected. As far as legal markets go, we'll take a look at how harm reduction and medical support services and opioid prescriptions overall are dealing with the pandemic, and an example of disinformation. You can find the full transcript with citations here. Audio used for the intro: free to reach out on Twitter (@DrugsHistory) and email (
In the first full episode of the History of Drugs in Society, we explore opium as medicine. This will take us from its origins thousands of years ago until the early 1800s. One of the main points of this episode is to see when opioid usage started in the doctor's office. Intro clip takes audio from Dr. Lydia Kang's talk entitled Origin of Opium and Heroin Treatment from C-SPAN on 12/11/2017. Some main sources used include: Opium by John Halpern and David BlisteinMilk of Paradise by Lucy InglisOpium's Human History by Lucy Inglis, Natural History, Mar 2019You can find a full list of sources here. 
About The Podcast

About The Podcast


In this episode, I go over why I am doing this, what you can expect from the podcast, some context on where this journey ends, and some terms. All of this is meant to provide some additional context but isn't necessary to follow the podcast. Feel free to reach out over email HistoryofDIS@gmail.comCredit to Blue Dot Sessions for the music. You can find the audio used for in the intro on C-SPAN.For a full list of citations, you can go here. 
This is a brief introduction to the History of Drugs in Society podcast, which is launching on April 7th. This podcast explores the history of different substances and how we’ve lived alongside and interacted with them. I hope you'll join along for the journey. Feel free to reach out at 
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