Jacobs School to host international conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society

Graphic displaying different types of drugs and alcohol, each within connected hexagon shapes.

Release Date: June 21, 2024

David Herzberg, PhD.
“As a historian, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I can explain what happened when people did the sorts of things you’re proposing now. ”
David Herzberg, PhD, professor of history
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Leading researchers from around the world will be at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo from June 27-29 for the 8th biennial meeting of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.

UB faculty will join 130 scholars from across the U.S. and the world to showcase their research and accomplishments in an expanding field of interest.

The conference will explore the history and challenges of alcohol and drug use, production, and regulation in ways that analyze and guide our understanding and approach to emerging 21st-century issues, including the decriminalization of cannabis, “the psychedelic renaissance,” pharmaceutical patents, and the utility of policies like “the war on drugs.”

How can the history of drugs and empires, racialization and gendering, social movements, science and medicine, religion and other developments inform current debate and policy?

“The history of alcohol and drugs displays strong patterns that are not at all random,” says David Herzberg, PhD, a professor of history in the UB College of Arts and Sciences and the conference host. “Knowing and sharing this history can help us from repeating patterns that have caused a lot of harm.”

And it’s not just the harm that drugs and alcohol can wreak on people and communities, according to Herzberg, who also co-edits the society’s journal.

“We also must consider the harm caused by ill-informed, poorly designed, or even malevolent drug policies,” he says. 

An exclusive focus on supply-side prohibition is among those lessons.

“The history is unequivocal that, for example, focusing primarily on preventing the illicit smuggling of drugs into the U.S. had serious consequences,” says Herzberg. “The evidence is robust that this approach resulted in the supply increasing; the drugs becoming more powerful and dangerous; and the drug traffic itself becoming both more violent and closer to the U.S.”

The opioid crisis is another example of a pattern that had previously surfaced. Although there is no precedent for a crisis of this magnitude, there have been many times when new marketing strategies and innovations in global supply chains got ahead of systems to protect consumers, Herzberg says.

“Pharmaceuticals like sleeping pills and stimulants, for instance, produced a startling increase in addiction and overdose in the 1950s and 1960s, the largest before what we saw with opioids,” he says. “We could have been better prepared.”

Current debates tend to devolve into partisan politics, but the past offers a critical distance that can allow for more practical and realistic discussions.

“It’s the hope that having these conversations can inform policy makers,” says Herzberg. “As a historian, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I can explain what happened when people did the sorts of things you’re proposing now.”

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