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The War on Drugs and its Alternatives

This session examines the nature of the War on Drugs and its consequences for Latin America, and asks whether there are realistic alternatives on the horizon. To do so, we consider the history of the War on Drugs as both a U.S.-led crusade but also as a home-grown effort, linked to racial and gender inequalities, neoliberal economic policies and the very consolidation of the nation-state. We also address the evolution of drug cartels and their violent interaction with the state since the 1970s, interrogating the underlying logics of this history. Finally, we look at recent attempts at drug policy reform, and assess their political viability. Examples are taken from the two most prevalent illegal drugs in Latin America: cocaine and cannabis.

Key issues

  • The logic of the War on Drugs
  • The prohibition system
  • Drug policy reform

Required readings:

  • Castro, G. (2014). From Punishment to Markets: Social Movements, the State, and Legal Marijuana in Uruguay, Trabajo presentado en el Quinto Congreso Uruguayo de Ciencia Política, Asociación Uruguaya de Ciencia Política, 7-10 de octubre de 2014. 
  • Lessing, B. (2017). Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 11 - Conclusion).
  • Gootenberg, P. (2021). Shifting South: Cocaine’s Historical Present and the Changing Politics of Drug War, 1975–2015. In Desmond Arias, E. & Grisaffi, T., Cocaine: From Coca Fields to the Streets. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Rodrigues, T. & Labate, B. (2016). Brazilian Drug Policy: Tension Between Repression and Alternatives. In Labate, B., Cavnar, C., & Rodrigues, T. Drug Policies and the Politics of Drugs in the Americas. Switzerland: Springer.

Further readings:

  • Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, The New Press.
  • Beckmann, N. (2021). “Luces para entender el prohibicionismo: los orígenes sudamericanos de la ‘guerra contra las drogas’”, Revista de Estudios Sociales, 77, 21-39.
  • Bewley-Taylor, D. (2003). “The American Crusade: The Internationalization of Drug Prohibition.” Addiction Research & Theory, 11:2, 71-81
  • Bewlyer-Taylor, D. (2012). International Drug Control: Consensus Fractured. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Boiteux, L. (2006). Controle penal sobre as drogas ilícitas: o impacto do proibicionismo no sistema penal e na sociedade. PhD Thesis, Law Department, University of São Paulo. (
  • Bourgois, P. (2015). “Insecurity, the War on Drugs, and Crimes of the State: Symbolic Violence in the Americas.” In Auyero, J., Bourgois, P. & Scheper-Hughes, N. (eds.). Violence at the Urban Margins. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Corva, D. (2008). “Neoliberal globalization and the war on drugs: Transnationalizing illiberal governance in the Americas.” Political Geography 27 (2): 176-193.
  • Denyer Willis, G. (2015). The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Feltran, G. (2018). Irmãos: Uma História do PCC. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.
  • von Hoffman, J. (2016). “The international dimension of drug policy reform in Uruguay.” International Journal of Drug Policy, 34: 27-33.
  • MacRae, E. & Alves, W. C. (2016). Fumo de Angola: canabis, racismo, resistência cultural e espiritualidade. Salvador: EDUFBA.
  • Livingstone, G. (2018). “The Drugs Trade.” In Riggirozzi, P. & Wylde, C. (eds.) Handbook of South American Governance. London: Routledge.
  • Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.