By Bia Labate and Sergio Vidal
Translated by Luana Malheiro; Revised by Brian Anderson
From the 1st to 4th of June in Porto Seguro, Bahia, Brazil, the largest Latin American event in anthropology took place – the 26th Meeting of the Brazilian Anthropology Association (ABA). This year the organizers of the ABA brought two proposals to life: one a Round Table discussion and the other a Working Group to discuss the “War on Drugs”.
On June 2nd, Dr. Edward MacRae, one of the founders-researchers of NEIP (the Interdisciplinary Group for the Study of Psychoactives) led the Round Table discussion entitled “Formal and informal controls of psychoactive substance use”. The room of the Round Table was packed and the discussion featured commentaries by the researchers Thiago Rodrigues (PUC/SP; NEIP), Paulo César Pontes Fraga (UESC), and Eduardo Viana Vargas (UFMG;NEIP), one of the most recent addition to NEIP.
Eduardo Vargas suggested that we should go beyond the categories as “substance itself”, “set” and “setting” to think about the question of drugs and, from a reading of the theory of Bruno Latour, to think about the notion of the “event” in drug use, about the ecstasy in agent-making and not just in agency. Paulo Fraga discussed the symbolic logic and material of marijuana’s polygon, and Thiago Rodrigues drew a wide network of historical and political relations and policies that make possible the establishment of the prohibition of drugs, considering also “the success of the policy failures of the war on drugs” (e.g. in whose interest it is and why to continue Prohibition and complete its goal of banning the consumption of psychoactive substances the world over).
June 3rd was the launching of the book “Religiões Ayahuasqueiras: um balanco bibliografico” by Bia Labate, Isabel de Rose and Rafael Guimarães dos Santos. On the same day was also the beginning of the Working Group on Psychoactive Substances: Culture and Politics, which included presentations of different works on the topic, with emphasis on the religious use of psychoactive plants, especially in modalities related to ayahuasca and jurema.
June 4th saw the last two sessions of the Working Group take place with presentations on various topics, such as drug use among academics, at rave parties in the Northeast of Brazil, public service measures for treating the drug-dependent, the new Brazilian law on narcotics and the discourses of physicians about drugs, among others.
Sergio Vidal discussed the need for more institutionalization of the discussion on drugs within the Brazilian Association of Anthropology and the need for a more effective dialogue between anthropology and other disciplines in order to help guide the development of public policies ands laws on the subject. The researcher noted that the issue of drugs has not been part of the discussion of the themes of the standing committees of the ABA.
Moreover, it was emphasized that in 2004 the ABA had refused an invitation to attend the Cannabis Sativa and Cannabinoid Substances in Medicine Symposium in order to take part in the debate “Should Cannabis Sativa remain in Tier IV of the Convention of 1961?”. It was suggested that the ABA’s absence may have influenced the decision contained in Decree 5.912/06 that allows the anthropologist representative of the National Anti-drug Council (CONAD) to not be appointed by the ABA, but rather by the President of CONAD, General Jorge Armando Felix, Chief Minister of Institutional Security in the Cabinet of the Presidency of the Republic.
Some of the topics that have preoccupied researchers in this area relate to legal and ethical issues. In relation to the former, was the concern that several prominent researchers in the field are being prosecuted or threatened with legal action on the grounds or their research activities. Regarding the latter, are the challenges that researchers in this area must face in their day-to-day efforts, such as the difficulty to obtain “informed consent” from their informants (normally a signed document stating that the research subject is aware of what the research entails and that they agree to participate), the frequent demands of the councils of medical ethics, which limit the activities of anthropologists, especially those related to the study of illicit activities.
This meeting of the ABA was a particularly fruitful time – we’d venture to say, even historic – because the ABA accepted to host a Round Table and a Working Group on psychoactive substances. Before that, at least as far as our colleagues can remember, only one such event had occurred previously – that of the Working Group on Psychoactive Substances at the 20th meeting of the ABA in Salvador in 1996 (also organized by Edward MacRae).
Remember that even if social scientists address the excessive medicalization of the debate about the use of psychoactive substances in society, the theme of “drugs” is still quite marginalized within their own social sciences. Apparently, this is beginning to turn around.
Sources: Alto das Estrelas e ANANDA