Few commodities are as global as drugs. Cannabis, opium, heroin, amphetamines, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), khat, psychedelic cacti and mushrooms as well as an interminable list of other natural or synthesised substances travel and are consumed around the globe for all possible reasons. Human migration, trade, cultural trends, medical practice, political repression: together they constitute the drug phenomenon today – and indeed in much of human history. In this, drugs are spirit-like commodities, their value resting upon a fundamental ambiguity made up of individual, psychological, social, cultural, economic and medical circumstances. Defining a drug is an attempt at defining a spirit on the edge, which metamorphoses in time and space. At the same time, drugs remain a fundamentally political object. They are substances controlled by states, through mechanisms of policing, legitimated by judicial and medical evaluation, condemned often on moral grounds. Situated between a fluid social existence and a static legal dimension, drugs can become inspiring hermeneutic objects of study.

Yet academe has systematically left scholarship dealing with drugs to a corner of the whole, especially in the social sciences. Drug scholarship is met with curiosity and anecdotal interest. These feelings are a reflexive spasm at the heart of which stands a formalistic understanding of social sciences and humanities, one that narrows the scope of social and political phenomena to univocal manifestations. The ambiguous nature of drugs in the modern world and their transversal effect are seen as dispensable oddities in a world made up of institutional records, leadership personalities, econometric stats and epidemiological surveys. Can social scientists and humanities scholars dispense drugs as a side note of bigger questions around the social and the political?

In October 2016, 12 scholars coming from different disciplinary backgrounds gathered in Oxford at St Antony’s College to test the potentials and perils of interdisciplinarity in drug research. The event, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust Small Grant for Society & Ethics, took the form of a symposium titled ‘Drugs, Politics and Society in the Global South’, which later gave the name to this special issue. The primary objective was not that of simply producing new analytical and descriptive knowledge to be added to the annals of drug studies. The goal, instead, was to build through an interdisciplinary platform fresh insight into the study of the modern and contemporary world. Historians, political scientists, urban and cultural anthropologists, geographers, criminologists and medical anthropologists enlivened the discussion for two days. Rather than gathering a list of the usual suspects working on drugs, the symposium enabled a venue for the encounter of a unique blend of multiple disciplines. The blending of these different approaches resulted in a polyvocal and multi-faceted engagement around and within the phenomenon of drugs. Drugs became a frame, a lens, through which one could interpret and relocate broader historical and epistemological questions. 

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