A macrohistory view of psychoactive drug use is a reminder that in all cultures, throughout mankind’s history, mind altering behaviours and substances have shaped and been shaped by society’s views at the time, and responses to that use.

In this discussion, where we explore just two drugs, alcohol and cocaine, we unavoidably confront the question of how these drugs, both with harmful and beneficial properties, both with a propensity to lead to addiction, both widely used across the entire social spectrum and both being accepted and rejected by society on many levels, have ended up with cocaine being classed as illicit, and alcohol not.

As Paul Gootenberg reflects in “Andean Cocaine”, there is “cultural and symbolic weight of intoxicants across human societies” which can drive the “relative ways in which different societies embrace or reject altered states of consciousness”.

“These unstable cultural boundaries between legal drugs, (tobacco, alcohol) and illegal ones (cannabis, opiates) or between healing medicines and recreational ones (Prozac and Viagra) has compelled scholars to ask how such boundaries and categories were created and fixed in the first place”. And it is through the interdisciplinarity of macrohistory that we can begin to understand this question. The attached pages plot the history and development of social attitudes towards the two drugs, alcohol and cocaine.