The “Modern” War on Drugs (Prologued, Season 2, Episode 1)

About this Episode

On the season premiere, we explore the idea of the "modern" War on Drugs waged by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s. 

As we will see, the development of the US drug war was deeply informed by experiences abroad...and to understand why the War on Drugs drags on, we have to trace those experiences back in time and across the globe.

Cite this Site

Brionna Mendoza , "The “Modern” War on Drugs (Prologued, Season 2, Episode 1)" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective


Theme Music: Hotshot by Scott Holmes

Alex Aviña, Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

James T. Bradford, Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019).

Nicholas Breyfogle, “The Global War on Drugs,” History Talk, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, February 2022.

Dylan Cahn, “The Acid Tests,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, December 2015.

Isaac Peter Campos, Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Kathleen J. Frydl, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Steven Hyland, “The Shifting Terrain of Latin American Drug Trafficking,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, September 2011.

Miriam Kingsberg Kadla, “The Second Opium War,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, March 2022.

Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (Berkley: University of California Press, 2014).

Michelle Paranzino, “Narcoterrorism: How Real is the Threat?” in Counterterrorism: From the Cold War to the War on Terror, Volume One: Combating Modern Terrorism (1968-2011), edited by Frank Shanty, (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012).

Michelle Paranzino, “The Evolution of Narcoterrorism: From the Cold War to the War on Drugs,” in Beyond the Eagle’s Shadow: New Histories of Latin America’s Cold War, edited by Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Mark A. Lawrence, and Julio E. Moreno, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013): 281-306.

Patrick R. Potyondy, Mark Sokolsky, “Hooked: Drugs, Prohibition, and American Cities,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, October 2016.

Sarah Brady Siff, “Targeted Marijuana Law Enforcement in Los Angeles, 1914-1959,” Fordham Urb. L.J. 49 (2021): 643.

Sarah Brady Siff, “Burn, Sell, or Drive: Forfeiture in the History of Drug Law Enforcement,” Ohio State Law Journal 80 no. 4 (2019): 859-886.

Stephen Siff, “The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, May 2014.

Aileen Teague, “Mexico’s Dirty War on Drugs: Sources Control and Dissidence in Drug Enforcement,” in “U.S. Foreign Relations and the New Drug History,” Special Volume of The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 33 no. 1 (2019).

Aileen Teague, “The War on Drugs in Mexico,” in The War on Drugs: A History, edited by David Farber, (New York: New York University Press, 2021).

Matthew Pembleton, Containing Addiction: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Origins of America’s Global Drug War (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

Daniel Weimer, Seeing Drugs: Modernization, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Narcotics Control in the Third World, 1969-1976 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2011)


Episode 1: The "Modern" War on Drugs


Denise Schiavone

The weapon that was used to educate young people and to discourage them from using drugs was fear.

Brionna Mendoza

My mom was born in Fresno, California, in 1975.

Denise Schiavone     

And I grew up in, I think, kind of the last idyllic age where I had the typical nuclear family. Most of my friends’ parents had both their mom and dad in the house. We lived in a neighborhood where we could, you know, leave the house and not really have to come back until it was time for dinner. We could ride our bikes around the neighborhood. And yeah, it was awesome.

Brionna Mendoza

Underlying the classic 1980s childhood though, she remembers a lot of fear when it came to telling kids what they should and shouldn't do.

Denise Schiavone

I was reading this ridiculous--it wasn't ridiculous. I loved it. At the time, it was called Sweet Valley High. It was basically like this Beverly Hills 90210 series. And I love to read, so I was always reading. I read this one story about this, like, amazing young woman, high school student, high achiever, like popular, beautiful, you know, great resume on her college at a party, she decides to give in and have some fun and does drugs and dies.

Brionna Mendoza

(laughing) Oh my god. What kind of drug does she do?

Denise Schiavone

It was coke. I'm pretty sure it was cocaine. If I'm remembering--I should try and find the book. Because I can see the picture. She had black hair, she was white and had beautiful white porcelain skin and black hair. And if I'm remembering this correctly, and it hasn't been distorted, she had like some kind of underlying heart condition. And basically because she did drugs that just like threw her heart rate off, and she went into cardiac arrest and died. And so like I was telling Jon, I was like, yeah, that's why I never did drugs, I was afraid that I had like some kind of heart condition. And if I did it, I would just die right then and there.

Brionna Mendoza

My dad, also an 80s kid, recalls that same atmosphere of fear.

Michael Mendoza

Well, the big thing was, you know, avoid strangers. That was the big, I remember, for me that being a predominant, fear, you know: don't talk to strangers. There was just this feeling, this paranoia that they were driving around schools just giving free candy. But one thing I do remember about the drugs, was hearing a story of a kid taking something, it was some drug, like, probably some acid or something, I guess, would have started tripping or whatever else. But the effect was that they felt like they thought there were spiders running across their body. And so that kid went and jumped in the swimming pool to get them off and drowned as a result of that. And I don't know why I remember that. But that was probably the image that that was strongest in my mind about like, how bad drugs could be.

Brionna Mendoza

The War on Drugs pervades U.S. society, no longer just a policy package, but in many ways a cultural symbol, a shared experience for millions of people. From political proclamations, to “Just Say No”, to TV shows like Cops and Narcos to the ubiquitous Red Ribbon Week in the nation's schools, drug prohibition has become as American as apple pie.

While visceral images of police raids, gang violence, and the effects of drugs on the body that characterized the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s linger, drug control in the opening decades of the 21st century has gravitated towards reform through health-focused approaches. These new approaches are driven especially by books like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, books that draw attention to human cost of the military campaign against illicit substances that characterized the drug war in recent decades. What's clear is the consensus between policy experts, historians, social scientists, and much of the public: the War on Drugs has failed.

As the United States further explores the idea of marijuana legalization, it's time to reevaluate what we know and what we think we know about the War on Drugs. When and where did it really begin? What has it been trying to achieve? Why is it persisted for so long? And will we ever be able to quit it? On this season of Prologued, I talk with experts on drug history about the global roots of the drug war, how it evolved, and its consequences. Together, we will uncover how the centuries-long history of drug control prologues today's discussions of drug use, abuse, and legalization.

For Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, I'm Brionna Mendoza, and this is Prologued.



Brionna Mendoza

Despite the widespread criticism that it has failed, the War on Drugs drags on.

In March 2020, Attorney General William Barr unsealed charges of narcoterrorism and drug trafficking against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and others in his regime. Allegedly, members of Maduro’s military regime had used Venezuelan airspace to transport cocaine. These charges emerged after months of pressure from the Trump administration on Maduro to step down following his election victory that the international community deemed illegitimate. The U.S. has also historically been opposed to socialist governments in Venezuela since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1999, further compounding diplomatic tension.

The charges were and, still are, unlikely to amount to anything. So why bring drugs into this political and diplomatic situation at all? To answer that question, we have to examine how and why drugs became a foreign policy issue for the United States in the first place.

Many present day discussions of the War on Drugs are isolated to the question of use and decriminalization within the United States, and the United States alone. But as we will see, the development of the War on Drugs at home was deeply informed by experiences abroad, and coalesced around the understanding that identifying drugs as an enemy empowered the U.S. to harass people in places that really weren't about drugs at all.

This is a story that starts many decades before Nixon and Reagan, even before the idea of a so-called drug war became synonymous with the United States of America. It winds its way through familiar settings like 1970s Mexico and Afghanistan, and takes surprising detours to World War Two-era Japan and colonial China. But first, we must begin at its final destination with what experts refer to as the “modern” drug war.

Michelle Paranzino

So if we're talking about declaring war on drugs, I would say the War on Drugs begins with the Nixon administration. But if we're looking at the creation of a prohibitionist legal regime, and a prohibitionist ethos surrounding the issue of drug use, then we have to go much further back in time, even before the 20th century in the United States.

Brionna Mendoza

I discussed the origins of the drug war with Michelle Paranzino, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College.

Michelle Parazino

But if we're talking about declaring “war” on drugs, that doesn't really happen until Nixon. I think part of the reason is just due to the Cold War and the state of constant militarization.

Brionna Mendoza

Aileen Teague, Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the Bush School of Texas A&M, agrees.

Aileen Teague

And then fundamentally with like Vietnam in U.S. history, this is a period of great instability and generational change, with the United States being involved in Vietnam and this idea of not just showing pure reverence to the government, but also with many of these people using drugs actively feel against what the government was doing. This was seeming to politicians like Richard Nixon as a threat and so I think drugs definitely fit into the framework of quelling the instability of this 1960s period.

Brionna Mendoza

As part of his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon emphasized the need for “law and order” amid the tumult of that decade, singling out control of illicit substances as a way to maintain security and control not just at home, but also abroad.

It is important to keep in mind that since its founding, the U.S. has viewed its place in the world geographically, politically, culturally, as exceptional. Threats to the “city upon a hill” didn't come from within; they came from without. From foreign powers and people seeking to undermine its freedom and democracy, buzzwords that, in the American lexicon, have largely come to mean white, Christian and capitalist.

American paranoia about these foreign threats has taken many forms. Witch hunts in Salem, for example, or Japanese-American internment during World War Two, and interrogations before that Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare. Whether based in fact or not, the fear about “others” infiltrating our border to extinguish America's light—that fear is quite real.

American anxiety about drugs is best understood within this context. And it explains why when it came to combating drugs, the U.S. favored an approach that took the fight straight to the source: the countries where the drugs themselves were cultivated.

Michelle Parazino

So in the 70s, and 80s, what we see in U.S. foreign policy is a turn towards supply side strategies of narcotics control. Rather than treating the demand side, what supply side strategies aim to do is to prevent the importation of drugs into the United States by either destroying the drug crops at the source or interdicting the traffic before it can reach U.S. territory.

Daniel Weimer

The reason that source control has been the favorite approach for the United States regarding drug control—on one level, it's it's kind of simple.

Brionna Mendoza

This is Daniel Weimer, a scholar of US foreign policy, especially concerning the role of drug control in its relations abroad.

Daniel Weimer

So I think on the most basic level, it keeps the focus outside of the United States, rather than really having to deal with what are the myriad reasons that go into demand for whatever drug you want to talk about. So that emphasis on externalizing the root of the problem, seeing the origins as coming from places, you know, whether it's the French Connection involving Turkish heroin or later on Mexico or Afghanistan or cocaine from South America. I think that's one really big reason for an emphasis on source control. Seeing it as in that way, then you can characterize drug use as something that's not American, or that it’s foreign born.

Brionna Mendoza

So, Nixon was sworn into office in January 1969, with drug use and trafficking as one of his top policy issues. And the way he initially talked about the topic suggested that his administration intended to balance the care and rehabilitation of American drug addicts with action abroad against drug cultivation and trafficking to reduce the overall illicit drug supply present in the U.S.

Matt Pembleton

Nixon is a far more complicated character in the story than anyone really appreciates and, you know, it's like shocking, but Nixon is the only president and all of American history who's ever had anything close to a balanced drug policy, which only lasted for about 18 months. But credit where it's due. He's the only president to send equal resources to treatment and rehabilitation and public health as to law enforcement in all of American history.

Brionna Mendoza

But in reality, diplomatic action during Nixon's first year in office indicated that the emphasis would be on blocking drugs from entering the United States.

One of the largest sources of heroin and marijuana trafficking into the U.S. was from its immediate southern neighbor: Mexico. During the 1960s, Mexico maintained a cordial, if somewhat distant, relationship with the U.S., ever mindful of maintaining its economic and political sovereignty. Despite Mexican officials’ professed disinterest in escalating drug control efforts on Mexican soil, U.S. officials insisted that behind closed doors, Mexican officials could not contain their desire for a joint approach to eradicating opium and marijuana cultivation in their country.

To draw this rumored Mexican governmental support out into the open, White House senior adviser John Ehrlichman recommended that the Mexican government be “forced into action through a campaign of strict enforcement and customs inspection at the border.” Dr. Teague emphasizes the importance of the late 1960s and the expansion of the modern War on Drugs.

Aileen Teague

It definitely escalated with the U.S. government. And it was when, as I see it in my research, the U.S. started to coerce Mexico—or I guess I use the word, more, “co-opt” Mexico into beginning a more intensive anti-drug program. And it started to do so by using sort of carrot-and-stick approaches where the carrot approach would be more along the lines of giving military aid and policing assistance, but the stick approach would be measures like Operation Intercept in 1969, when the United States actually closed down the border in order to get Mexico to pay more attention to drug control and to escalate its own policies and policing efforts.

Brionna Mendoza

Unilaterally planned and implemented by the United States on September 21, 1969, Operation Intercept halted and searched all traffic at the U.S.-Mexican border to capture illicit drug shipments while also exerting immense economic pressure on Mexico.

The Mexican government, press, and public reacted with swift hostility to the near closing of the border. The local press in Hermosillo, the American Consulate reported, charged that Intercept was politically motivated, an action seeking to undermine Mexican sovereignty and an expression of “subconscious hate.”

But after 20 days, during which time tourist traffic across the border had declined by nearly 70%, US officials got what they wanted: Intercept drove the Mexican government to the negotiating table.

Alexander Aviña

Eventually the Mexicans are really pissed, they have a conversation, and they announce something called Operation Cooperation, in which both countries agree to work together in this broader drug prohibition regime, international regime that focused on eradicating the supply side of this entire economy. And throughout the 1970s, these different drug campaigns that get launched by Mexico during the 1970s, they’re a response to US pressure and they more or less are following US dictates particularly with the DEA being organized in 1973.

Brionna Mendoza

U.S. and Mexican officials emerged from joint talks on October 10, 1969 with a new bilateral commitment called Operation Cooperation. Both countries agreed to “pursue with increased vigor” the production, trafficking, and consumption of narcotics and other dangerous drugs.

Aileen Teague

For the purposes of drug control, I think that the fundamental architecture was developed obviously here in the United States. There were a number of laboratories across the 20th century where drug control was actually militarized and it became framed or shaped around the concept of war.

Brionna Mendoza

Mexico constituted one of those laboratories throughout the 1970s and 80s, thanks especially to operations Intercept and Cooperation which opened the door to millions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid to train Mexican police forces in surveillance, security, and eradication techniques, techniques simultaneously applied to drug trafficking within the United States.

Michelle Paranzino

In the 70s, the Mexican government actually implemented its own eradication program using paraquat to destroy marijuana plants.

Brionna Mendoza

Paraquat is an herbicide that is used to control weeds and is, as we now know, highly toxic to mammals. It has been banned in 32 countries, including the European Union, but is still widely used in developing nations.

Sarah Brady Siff

So then there was this big scare, like a paraquat scare, and people who were buying cannabis from Mexico were afraid to smoke it and didn't know if it would damage their lungs—because paraquat is extraordinarily toxic.

Michelle Paranzino

The Nixon administration, and later under Carter, they actually took note of Mexico's program, and then later implemented a domestic paraquat spraying program where they actually sprayed paraquat onto marijuana that was growing wild, that was not actually cultivated. And it had, you know, negative environmental effects. And residents nearby complained about contamination to their water and their fields. And again, this was marijuana that nobody was actually cultivating. It was just growing wild.

Sarah Brady Siff

So the Reagan administration in the early 80s determines to use paraquat domestically in national forests where caches of marijuana are being found to be cultivated.

Brionna Mendoza

This is Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, a historian for the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

Sarah Brady Siff

Right now, I'm working on a book called Weed Killers about cannabis eradication, both through legal means and sort of the botanical means.

So, you have the development of aerial surveillance by helicopter greatly buttressed by experience in Vietnam, right, so lots of helicopters flying around in Vietnam. So this is a wartime tactic that gets transplanted—or not necessarily transplanted—but also used in the United States. So they can find cannabis growing illicitly outdoors. And they now also have these new pesticides that will kill it.

So the Reagan people think that if people buy cannabis, and it's contaminated with paraquat, that's their problem. The state of Florida agrees to use paraquat in domestic eradication. This is early 1980s. And the state of Georgia actually says no, we don't want you to do this. So a couple of lawsuits into and NORMAL, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is very much opposed to the US using paraquat domestically to kill caches of cannabis.

So if the United States hadn't fought in the Vietnam War, they might not be so willing to both use helicopters for aerial surveillance and to use paraquat on a place where people live nearby, right? Because in Vietnam, they've had this experience with using chemical agents to fight a war. They seem like economically prudent and highly effective solutions to the U.S. government.

One of the reasons that Reagan wanted to use paraquat on the national forests in Georgia, where DEA agents had found plants being cultivated is to make a demonstration to South American countries that the United States was willing to use these chemicals domestically. So they should be willing to accept the use of these chemicals in their countries. And I think this is probably Colombia, Bolivia, Peru at this time. And they're trying to get these countries to undertake their own policing and their own eradication. And to use these chemicals. I found this handwritten notes from Reagan, and he's responding to a press release or news brief about paraquat and he writes in the margin, aren't we just doing this to show Colombia that we are willing to do this. It's very transparent in the documentation that the purpose of doing it domestically is to push use of that abroad.

Brionna Mendoza

While the U.S. approach to drug prohibition became more militarized as early as the 1960s, the term “War on Drugs” wasn't invoked until October 1982 by Ronald Reagan during one of his weekly radio addresses. He outlined his plan for a campaign against drugs using language cloaked in military metaphors.

Ronald Reagan

(“The Reagans’ Joint Radio Address on Federal Drug Policy on October 2, 1982”)

The mood toward drugs is changing in this country and the momentum is with us. We're making no excuses for drugs hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad and we're going after them. As I've said before, we've taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag, and we're going to win the War on Drugs.

Michelle Paranzino

I tend to think of the Reagan administration as being this period where the U.S national security complex is moving toward a new paradigm for national security. Because as it becomes apparent that the U.S. public is—that fears of communist subversion no longer animate the US public, the sort of lodestar of Cold War strategy of containment of Soviet Communism is jeopardized, because the public will just doesn't exist to contain Soviet communism. It's not a tangible threat to them. And after the Vietnam War, it was just very unclear how that war contributed to containing Soviet communism. I think the American public became convinced that—well, some of the American public became convinced that we should have never been there in the first place.

What we see is this kind of gradual shift toward the rhetoric of drugs and drug control, and this is formalized in 1985, when the when drugs are clearly established as a national security threat, and then that opens the path toward, you know, things like militarizing the drug war, and just basically being able to divert more resources toward anti-narcotics efforts, which were of course linked to communist or leftist insurgencies, especially during the 80s.

Brionna Mendoza

Communism containment, Vietnam, the Cold War…what do these things have to do with the War on Drugs?

Great question.

Over the course of this season, we'll see how the drug wars both predate and outlive the Cold War, and several other international wars, in fact. For now, though, all you need to know is that beginning in the early years of the Cold War, drugs and communism were inextricably linked in the minds of American policymakers: dual dangers that required constant vigilance and, over time, more surveillance and more policing.

Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, and today widely regarded as the first “drug czar” of U.S. federal narcotics policy, was one of the most visible voices warning against the way that drugs might erode the “moral fiber” of the United States and leave the country vulnerable to Communist subversion.

Kathleen Frydl

He used the drug war to enact a very crusading and missionary version of the Cold War, where, for example, Communist China was always wrong and always the bad guy and Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang and Nationalist allies were always good. The problem for Harry Anslinger was that the truth was exactly the opposite: it was Chiang Kai-Shek’s allies who were trafficking in drugs.

Brionna Mendoza

During the Kennedy years, Anslinger was largely silenced by critics as a more compassionate understanding of drug addiction as a medical issue became more popular. But his inflammatory method for making the Cold War and drug prohibition one in the same would resurface a few decades later.

After Nixon's years of detente with the Soviet Union, and Carter's years of reducing the penalties for drug possession, Ronald Reagan reignited both the Cold War and the War on Drugs. In a letter to his Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, written in October 1985, Reagan opined that “over the past year, I have become increasingly concerned about the growing threat to our national security from the international narcotics trade.” Reagan noted the dangers to the “military readiness” and “fabric of US society” posed by cooperative alliances between insurgent terrorist groups and local criminal syndicates. He encouraged Weinberger to consider how the U.S. military could further support the country's War on Drugs, both domestically and abroad. Just six months later, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 221, which officially designated drug trafficking as a matter of U.S. national security warranting militarized counter-narcotics efforts to combat the violence, political corruption, and rural insurgency that accompanied drug operations, especially in Latin America.

Is it starting to become a little clearer why Trump brought those drug charges against Maduro in 2020?

Yeah, I thought it might. The Trump administration's actions against Maduro in the name of the War on Drugs was not a new strategy. Rather, it was a continuation of the American worldview that closely links drug trafficking activity with international foes working to undermine U.S. national security. For Trump, the enemy was Maduro, just as for Reagan, the enemy was Soviet Russia.

Michelle Paranzino

As the Soviet Union itself is in the process of transformation, and particularly after Gorbachev comes to power and starts deprioritizing aid to these communist or leftist insurgencies in places like Asia and Africa and Latin America—some of them do turn toward greater involvement in drug traffic as a way of replacing those funds that had dried up from the Soviet Union. So it's not that, you know, the Reagan administration was completely inventing the threat of narcoterrorism. But it was using it in an unhelpful way in its rhetoric because it failed to distinguish between the motives of very different actors in drug trafficking. And the rhetoric of narcoterrorism conflated all of these actors in a way that that didn't really lead to coherent policy.

Brionna Mendoza

So even though the Soviet Union was in decline, and reducing its funding for political groups seeking to implement their own revolutions, the U.S. believed that those rebels would simply turn to drug trafficking to fund their operations, ultimately driving the escalation of the War on Drugs both abroad and at home in the United States.

The 1970s and 1980s brought the rise of large transnational illicit trafficking networks, like the infamous Colombian drug cartel from Medellín, an alliance among notable traffickers including the Ochoa family, Pablo Escobar, Carlos leader, and José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha. Their growing power and rival competition introduced an extreme level of violence both in their home country and in South Florida, a key entrance point for drug shipments. This new violence necessitated increased law enforcement efforts both domestically and abroad to keep it under control. Concurrently, crack cocaine emerged in the United States in the mid-1980s, offering its users a cheap, highly addictive trip. As emergency room admissions for cocaine overdoses soared, and complications such as crack babies entered into the American consciousness, the U.S. public panicked over this new threat to the nation's children and future, as it was framed by the American policymakers.

 Michelle Paranzino

Drug prohibitionism has always been part of the culture wars. So the culture wars have been fought over immigration, of course, and the whole race issue of what should the United States look like? And who are really Americans, right? That's really the question at the heart of the culture wars: how do we define America? 

And so we see the rise of prohibitionist sentiments as being connected to perceptions of racially undesirable groups. Cocaine, for instance, was legal; with the rise of, of cocaine in the late 70s, in the 80s, and then the whole crack scare that was associated with African Americans. Of course, not. Immigrants are not, you know, not immigrants by choice. But it still goes to the heart of the issue of drugs being connected in the minds of American public opinion with certain groups that are defined in racial terms.

Brionna Mendoza

During this time, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which implemented much stricter punishment for the possession and use of crack cocaine them for the powdered version, introducing a legal disparity that targeted low income, often Black, Americans more than affluent white Americans. Out of the authorized $1.7 billion for drug control efforts at home and abroad $1.1 billion was allocated towards law enforcement measures. Reagan had chosen to stay the course set by his predecessors: the War on Drugs would be fought through interdiction and foreign source control.

The Reagan Administration moved forward with its plans to use “enhanced military and law enforcement activities to shut off the narcotics supply from Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.” A favorite technique in these foreign source controlled campaigns was eradication of drug crops through the use of herbicides, fire, or manual uprooting. Of course, this wasn't a novel strategy. Earlier we talked about the use of paraquat in Mexico and the United States.

Reagan's use of U.S. military troops to provide ground support for eradication efforts in foreign source countries, though, distinguish his drug war from others. You can see this at work during Operation Blast Furnace, a bilateral operation executed in Bolivia in July 1986. Blast Furnace aim to destroy cocaine production labs in the Chapare and Bení regions of Bolivia, areas that were historic strongholds of coca cultivation and trafficker operations. If forces could destroy the production labs, the ideas went, then campesinos, those who cultivated coca, the raw plant ingredients essential to the production of cocaine, would more willingly stop supplying the drug producers.

U.S. military personnel were sent in to support the Drug Enforcement Administration and The Leopards, the Bolivian Drug Enforcement task force, in their operation. Past violent campesino reactions against the Leopards often succeeded in halting eradication efforts and pushing them out of the region. Bolivian public backlash against the presence of the U.S. military on their country soil was huge. Many viewed it as an invasion and violation of their sovereignty.

Overall, the joint us Bolivian effort made temporary gains. They pushed traffickers out of the region and dropped the price of the coca leaf. But the industry quickly recovered when the U.S. forces withdrew at the end of the operation. A more lasting consequence of Blast Furnace was the strengthening of campesino opposition to coke control and eradication efforts, a pattern that was replicated in other Andean countries. In Peru, for example, the rebel groups Sendero Luminoso, The Shining Path, established its network of operations in the Upper Huallaga Valley, a traditional area of coca cultivations that the United States targeted with eradication and agricultural development. To consolidate support for its movement. the Senderos presented themselves as “advocates for the rights of campesino coca growers,” and provided protection to growers and traffickers alike in exchange for protection fees.

With a reliable base of support from campesinos and drug traffickers, guerrilla groups strengthen their hold over rural areas of the Andean nations, which prompted the United States to pressure the governments to implement aggressive, militarized measures to combat the rebels and traffickers simultaneously. Doing so only fueled the vicious cycle already in motion, since escalated action further isolated campesinos from their governments. But if drug control efforts are only worsening the political, economic, and social situation in your country, why get involved at all?

Michelle Paranzino

I think Colombian and Peruvian officials collaborated with with the United States in the hopes of obtaining counterinsurgency assistance. And because of U.S. congressional restrictions on such assistance, again, as a result of the Vietnam War, the attempt by U.S. national security officials was to package this assistance in terms of anti-narcotics policies.

Brionna Mendoza

The United States, it seemed, was not the only country that pursued a war on drugs for reasons other than reducing the production, consumption, and trafficking of illicit substances. As we will see time and again, in many ways, the War on Drugs isn't about drugs at all.

But we'll come back to that later.

When George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency in 1989, he continued the policies he had supervised as Reagan's vice president: a military approach to the War on Drugs. The end of the Cold War freed up copious military resources that could be refocused elsewhere at home and abroad.

Michelle Paranzino

The War on Drugs provided the national security paradigm that bridged the Cold War and the War on Terror.

So we see that during the Reagan administration, even though the Cold War was very linked to the narcotics issue, it started to move away from that as the decade progressed, and as the threat from the Soviet Union declined and then vanished altogether. Drugs took the place of communism as the lodestar around which U.S. national security policy revolved. It enables the continuation of interventionist foreign policies abroad. And it also enables, you know, the continuation of the punitive regime at home. The United States currently incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other nation on Earth. By elevating drugs to the level of a national security threat, justifies ever harsher penalties for drug users and drug traffickers.

Brionna Mendoza

The War on Drugs was also intensified at home, not just with the militarization of local and state police forces, but also with the creation of a more permanent legal framework that continues to frustrate today's reform efforts. The Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, better known as the 1994 Crime Bill provided massive amounts of federal funding for states and localities to build more prisons. It also created tougher sentences at the federal level which in turn encouraged others to, as the ACLU perfectly phrases it, “lock up more people and for longer periods of time.” Thus, in many ways, the 1994 crime bill was the culmination of the tough on crime approach to fighting the War on Drugs both at home and abroad. The legacy of this method, though, according to many, is complete failure and disproportionate damage

Isaac Campos

The War on Drugs, has been a very misguided policy that created significantly more harm than it has prevented. It's also important to recognize that the War on Drugs has not just been a creation of the United States. And its origins are not simply in racism or an imperialism. Rather, its development was a very complex process that occurred on a global scale and involved many different countries, and involved certain discourses and ideas about drugs that were really shared across many countries. And to simplify it to kind of demonizing the United States or demonizing certain actors I think, misses the complexity of the story.

Brionna Mendoza

We spent a lot of time talking about the United States in this episode, and for good reason: arguably, no country has poured as many resources into the creation of a global War on Drugs than the United States. But as we'll see, the United States didn't invent the idea of drug prohibition. Nor did it build this global apparatus alone.

Next time on Prologued, we unearth the colonial roots of the drug war.

Isaac Campos

But I think really to understand the development of the modern War on Drugs, you have to go back a little further. And really the most important moment is the story of opium in China, and the relationship between China and Great Britain in the so-called the Opium Wars.




Brionna Mendoza

This season of Prologued was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication created by the Public History Initiative, the Goldberg Center, and the History Departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Special thanks to The Stanton Foundation for their ongoing support.

Our editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn, and Nicholas Breyfogle. Researched, written, and hosted by Brionna Mendoza. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our production specialist is Brandon MacLean at Oranjudio. Our theme song is Hot Shot by Scott Holmes.

If you like what you hear, please leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts—it helps others find our show. As any good historian should, we encourage our listeners to visit episode descriptions for citations to background reading and sources that informed the creation of this podcast

Season 1 of Prologued on “The Myth of the Women’s Bloc” has all epsiodes streaming now on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, and SoundCloud, as well as wherever else you get your podcasts. For additional podcasts, articles, and videos, all of which approach events happening in our world today from a historical perspective, follow us on social media @OriginsOSU.

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