War, Prohibition and Narcotics – A Historical Look at Drug Policy

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Two new books aim to reorient understanding of the foundations of drug policy: the first a nuanced exploration of the historical intersection of drugs and war, the second a fiery broadside against drug prohibition and Washington’s futile attempts to enforce it.

From the conquests of Alexander the Great to the Afghan insurgency of the past decade and a half, “Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs,” written by Brown University professor Peter Andreas, details the way wars have intersected with six substances — alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, he identifies five ways in which drugs have interacted with war: Taxes on their consumption fuel conflict; they are consumed by soldiers in combat; markets for them serve as the spoils of war; war is waged against their production; and war drives enduring changes in how these drugs are consumed.

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Andreas covers enormous historical and thematic ground in this book. Some of the conflicts included were inevitable, such as the Opium Wars of the 19th century, or Colombia’s cocaine trade over the past 50 years. But many of the wars filling his pages are lesser known to English speakers (say, the Manchu conquest of China) or not often associated with drugs. In the latter category, the recasting of the American Revolution as a failed struggle to rein in drug smuggling — namely, that of tea and tobacco — was an inspired recasting of a war typically discussed as a conflict pitting imperial prerogatives against local rights.

Andreas has a particular gift for identifying obscure tidbits. For instance, one key asset aiding the rise of the Royal Navy was its adoption of grog, which included a splash of lime that dramatically reduced sailors vulnerability to scurvy, a deficiency of vitamin C. Wine-swilling Frenchmen had no such inoculation, leaving British warships at a distinct manpower advantage in their historic 1805 victory at Trafalgar. In Andreas’s telling, the demise of Napoleon ultimately owes a large debt to the alcoholic intake of British sailors.

Similar historical curiosities abound. During World War I, a London firm began manufacturing a pill form of cocaine, marketed as “forced march” and promising to help soldiers overcome the natural physical limits of their endurance.

Or take coffee and World War II. The global conflagration birthed the concept of the coffee break as a way to wring more production out of factory workers, and, incredibly, coffee beans accounted for 10 percent of total US imports during the war’s duration. Americans’ ongoing love of Java represents one of the most salient examples of how conflicts can influence consumption habits.

Andreas’ research demonstrates that military intervention explicitly to tamp down on drug markets has time and again proven a dubious strategy. Indeed, conflicts have shown much more success advancing the opposite goal — spreading the popularity of recreation substances. In some cases, conquering armies retain a taste for local delicacies: The Russian invasion of Napoleonic France left some of the former nation’s soldiers with a lasting love of champagne. In other cases, such as with the US Army and Coca-Cola in World War II, the victors help spread the appetite for a homegrown product to a far larger group of consumers.

“Killer High” is primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive, and it avoids drawing policy conclusion from its findings.

Andreas, however, sounds a cautionary note about the longstanding belief about the potential of legalization to reduce violence. He points out that drug prohibition has long coexisted with a high volume of traffic. But prohibition typically does not produce the leaps in violence witnessed in Mexico over the past decade, or Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. This observation suggests an important lesson that somehow is often missed in analyses of the drug trade: that one policy that warrants greater consideration is a simple reduction in funding for interdiction efforts, rather than legalization per se.

If one of the striking features of Andreas’s book is its level-headedness, the opposite is true of “Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs,” which is red meat to the most fervent opponents of drug prohibition.

Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein — who is candid that he views himself as an activist and that his opposition to US drug policies largely motivated this book — takes readers to a succession of far-flung locales and introduces a parade of officials, activists, and regular people to argue his case. Rather than just strolling along well-covered terrain in Cali or Juárez, he travels to Guinea-Bissau, the Philippines, and Honduras — an admirable departure from the typical settings of a book of this type.

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Loewenstein’s interviews with assorted Filipinos provide genuine insight into the roots of President Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity. Over the course of his four years in power, Duterte has accrued a deserved reputation as something of a cartoon villain, with bombastic pronouncements about stamping out the drug trade. His crackdown, however, has led police and unknown gunmen to kill thousands of drug suspects. Loewenstein shows how — and to a lesser degree, why — this approach has earned Duterte the support of such a wide swath of Filipino society.

Some of his examples do not resonate. While his criticism of DEA sting operations is well worth exploring, the primary victim he puts forward — a Guinea-Bissau official caught on tape discussing an arms deal with the FARC — is not hugely sympathetic. The drug trade recedes into the background for much of the chapter on Honduras. His criticisms deal largely with the delicate political situation following the 2009 coup and the predatory oligopoly dominating the nation’s economy, issues in which US drug policy plays, at most, only a tangential role.

Loewenstein’s insistence on seeing the United States as the definitive malign actor also prevents him from assigning any real agency to the officials of what he sees as US client states, which renders him unable to truly explore the motivations driving current policies. Loewenstein speaks with high-ranking officials around the globe, but none of these conversations provide a nuanced dissection of the reasoning underlying their beliefs and policy preferences. Instead, his interlocutors hew toward simplistic archetypes — misguided drug warriors, right-minded activists, and noble victims — particularly in the non-English speaking countries. This is a shame, because there is scant appreciation among tradeoffs that foreign policymakers must weigh while engaging with American power, a void that Loewenstein’s book could have done more to fill.

Another frustrating habit is the author’s frequent expressions of self-regard juxtaposed with his disdain for mainstream journalists. The book would have readers believe that journalists from publications like The Guardian and New York Times have bought into the Washington narrative, while Loewenstein and others see it for what it is really worth.

But the coverage of Mexican security from major US newspapers has been laced with skepticism of get-tough policies and detailed abuses by government agents. And while there are certainly valid critiques of drug war reporting to be made, Loewenstein doesn’t seem to have studied the industry well enough to make them.

This is part of a broader shortcoming: Loewenstein often engages in massive leaps of logic and occasionally uses distorted statistics, leaving some of his conclusions with little support. For instance, he tells readers that foreign investors were thrilled about Plan Colombia, with no evidence to back the broad assertion. According to the World Bank, foreign direct investment into Colombia dropped during the first three years of the agreement’s existence.

Elsewhere, he writes that US support for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan fed a subsequent boom in US heroin use. While consumption ticked up during the 1990s, it was domestic medical regulations, and not foreign policy, that were the principal driver of the historic heroin boom that took flight around 2010, roughly two decades after the United States stopped funding the Afghan mujahedeen. He also discusses Washington, DC’s marijuana policies at length, but he seems oddly unfamiliar with the capital city. He repeatedly refers to Washington as a state and expresses dissatisfaction at Congress’s meddling in local governance, which is perhaps unusual to the newcomer but nonetheless a well-established part of the nation’s public life.

Ultimately, Loewenstein’s slack approach to crafting an argument does his thesis a disservice. In documenting the inanity and destructiveness of global drug policies, the book has lined up a juicy target. Loewenstein identifies a succession of very troubling aspects of the current regime, from Australian politicians’ willful self-deception to the DEA’s aggressive foreign investigative tactics. But the author’s conspicuous advocacy, often built on a dubious factual basis, undercuts the force of his reporting.

One of Pills, Power, and Smoke’s saving graces is the palpable sympathy it displays for its subjects, from a dog-loving denizen of the London streets to a Washingtonian whose life sentence for drug charges was commuted by Obama just prior to the end of his term. It is clear in Loewenstein’s treatment of these characters and other in his other portrayals that he envisions a more just and humane world.

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