For the historian, drugs (including alcohol) are Janus-faced. In some respects, they are eminently ordinary commodities, produced, transported, consumed, and taxed like any other consumable. Even high-profile illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin appear almost mundane with respect to the laws of supply and demand. But in other respects, drugs are almost unique in their ability to rouse visceral responses in people, attracting some, repulsing others. Drugs are culturally volatile, and thus their historical trajectories tend to reveal much about the specific historical contexts through which they have passed.

Alcohol, despite often being distinguished from other intoxicants (i.e., “alcohol and drugs”), is no less controversial or historically useful in this respect. Indeed, in Mexico, a country laden with fascinating drug histories, alcohol is ubiquitous and deeply meaningful. Tied at fundamental levels to preconquest culture and religious practice on both sides of the...

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