A kettle with Ayahuasca brewing
A kettle with Ayahuasca brewing

Poison, Medicine or Magic Potion?

Shifting Perspectives on Drugs in Latin America (1820-2020)

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“Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotics? It is almost the history of ‘culture,’” Nietzsche famously stated. The conception of drugs has differed greatly over time, and the distinction between ‘illegal drugs’ and ‘legal medicines’ continues to be contested (Courtwright 2001). An increasing number of scientists claims that it is necessary to demythologize drugs and to revise their perception as a threat to society. Latin America plays a key role in this debate, as psychoactive substances are part of its natural resources and Indigenous cultural history.

The main aim of this project is to analyse the changing perceptions of 'drugs' in Latin America from the continent’s independence to our present day (1820-2020). The project focuses on the representation of ayahuasca, peyote and coca(ine) over time, and introduces an innovative theoretical model combining three approaches from cultural theory, leading to three sub-questions: a) decolonial studies: what is the connection between the perception of psychoactive substances as drugs and persisting structures of coloniality? b) affect studies: what is the role of affect and emotion in the representation of these substances? c) critical posthumanism: how is the relationship between these plants as material substances and the human subject perceived? 

The project uses a partially unexplored corpus of discourses on 'drugs', including literature, ethnography and travel writing. Insights from tourism and cultural heritage studies are integrated in order to analyse how these substances are represented in tourist practices and museums. The project will nuance the complex yet often reductive link between drugs and violence by studying the multifaceted perceptions of these substances from a cross-cultural, diachronic and interdisciplinary perspective. Two workshops and a symposium with stakeholders will examine how cultural perceptions influence policy making related to drugs and vice versa.

Team & Subprojects

The research team will consist of two PhD candidates, two postdocs and the principal investigator (PI). The project consists of six interrelated subprojects. The PI is in charge of two subprojects.

  • Subproject 1, Paloma David: Shifting Perceptions of Ayahuasca, 1820-2020, Amazonian basin (Ecuador, Perú, Colombia)
  • Subproject 2, Ana Camacho: Shifting Perceptions of Peyote, 1820-2020, Northern Mexico
  • Subproject 3, Brigitte Adriaensen: Shifting Perceptions of Coca(ine), 1820-2020, Andes region: Bolivia, Peru and Colombia
  • Subproject 4, Christian Tym: Drugs and Tourism (2000-2020); Amazonian Basin, Andes region, Sierra Madre Occidental and the Netherlands
  • Subproject 5, Nidia Olvera: Drugs and Cultural Heritage (2000-2020); Mexico, Colombia, Peru and the Netherlands
  • Subproject 6, Brigitte Adriaensen: Poison, Medicine or Magic Potion: Shifting Perspectives on Drugs in Latin America (1820-2020)




  • Adriaensen, B.Y.A. (2023). Coca(ine). In L. Plate, L. Munteán & A. Farahmand (Eds.), Materials of Culture. Approaches to Materials in Cultural Studies (pp. 157-165). Bielefeld: Transcript doi: 10.14361/9783839466971-017. Full text
  • Adriaensen, B.Y.A. (2023). Gold, cocaine, montage. Latin American sacrifice zones in Michael Taussig's My Cocaine Museum. Textual Practice, 37 (10), 1524-1542. doi: 10.1080/0950236X.2023.2264678Full text


NWO VICI project, number VI.C.211.064

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