The Past and Future of the Global War on Drugs (Prologued, Season 2, Finale)

About this Episode

Today, on our season finale, on we reflect on the stories we’ve heard about drug wars around the world, to determine how knowing where we’ve been in our past can direct us in our present and future.

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Brionna Mendoza , "The Past and Future of the Global War on Drugs (Prologued, Season 2, Finale)" , 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)


Brionna Mendoza 

Previously, on Prologued...


Alexander Aviña 

So it's a really, like, complex, messy matrix, right? So I don't want to say that there was no drug interdiction effort in Guerrero - there was. But it wasn't the primary motive. The primary motive was to eradicate this, particularly the party the poor movement that was growing and that demonstrated the potential to expand beyond the state of Guerrero.


Brionna Mendoza 

We examined how policymakers and practitioners entangled fighting the drug war with fighting the Cold War in Mexico and Thailand. The conflation of drug trafficker with revolutionary underscores a pattern that we have found over and over again, in the story of the global war on drugs. There are often many factors at play when a country chooses to control drugs, and those who deal in them. Factors that extend far beyond a simple concern for public health. Today, on our season finale, we reflect on the stories we've heard about drug wars around the world, to determine how knowing where we've been in our past can direct us in our present and future. I'm Brionna Mendoza, and this is Prologued. Over the past five episodes, we've learned about a variety of different countries and their connection to drug wars over the 19th and 20th centuries. And there are many other case studies that we simply didn't have the time to examine and address: charges of trafficking against communist Cuba, for example, or the long history of drug prohibitionism in the Philippines from US occupation to today. Still, there are clear themes and connections that arise from these stories, ones that all point to the importance of approaching the history of and solutions to the war on drugs from a global perspective.


Dan Weimer 

The drug war has endured for as long as it has, because it performs a lot of functions that are not always distinctly related to what you would say is drug control.


Brionna Mendoza 

First, we've seen how drugs as a concept have often operated as a convenient camouflage to obscure other motives of those waging the so-called war.


Michelle Paranzino 

The criminalization of different drugs in the United States was directly tied to racial prejudice. So, you know, we see the enactment of opium bands as a response to an influx of Chinese immigration. And then later ... we see the same thing with marijuana with the influx of Mexican immigrants into the southwest and California. And so prejudice against Mexican immigrants is what led to the enactment of bans on marijuana as well. So, you know, there was around the turn of the century, a lot of these drugs were legal, and they were, you know, prescribed by doctors, and they, you know, were ingredients in products like Coca-Cola. But as immigration picked up and that contributed to the culture wars, which we tend to think of as originating in the 60s and 70s, but really go much further back in history than that.


Brionna Mendoza 

This is true not only for the United States, but also for other places like Mexico during its Dirty War and Japan in the aftermath of the Opium Wars.


Miriam Kingsberg Kadia 

I think it's also really important to note that, above all terminology matters. That the words we use about drugs are so saturated with other meanings and that have come into our lexicon over time based on the sort of connotations attached to those meanings. So earlier I mentioned the word addiction. This is a really controversial term right now because it is so overladen with ideas about what addiction is and who can be addicted and what the sort of the image of the quote unquote addict, that it becomes a really unhelpful term or at least it has less medical relevance than it does cultural relevance. So I think in order to be able to discuss drugs or the drug wars with any sort of validity, we really need to be very careful of the language that we use to a much greater extent than we are. And we really need to spend some time  unpacking the biases that come into these terms, particularly in the field that I've worked in: racial biases,


Brionna Mendoza 

The question of drug production and use today in 2022 cannot be separated from all of the connotations associated with it in the past. Our modern minds may not jump directly to accusations of communist or foreign interloper when we hear about drugs, but the more abstract feelings and impressions that come to mind - fear, crime, danger, mistrust - are the manifestations of the deeper history of the global war on drugs. Second, we've seen how drug wars pursued around the world throughout history are deeply interconnected. For the fullest understanding of the global war on drugs, observers must examine domestic, regional, and international contexts all at once.


Miriam Kingsberg Kadia 

I think the global approach to drug history is really essential. And I'm really happy to see that being recognized in the scholarship that's been published more recently. I think that the, sort of, the fact that drugs are not contained by borders and seem to thrive ... in areas where sovereignty is contested or uncertain, really means that it's impossible to study them as a strictly local issue. I think that global history really offers us the best chance of looking at drugs in all of their complexity and making sure that we don't discount actors that on first glance don't seem as important.


Brionna Mendoza 

The story of drugs, development, and the Cold War in Afghanistan particularly underscores this point.


James Bradford 

So I think a global perspective of drug control really shows how interconnected we are. Not only in these products, but also sort of politically, and how, sort of, the consequences of a decision in one country can have, sort of, ramifications elsewhere. When the Afghan government starts to impose stricter penalties on drugs in the mid-1970s, this is also when the Afghan government faces increasing resistance to its broader attempt to control Afghanistan. The grand story of that is in 1978, Afghanistan goes socialist, 1979, it goes to war. And since then, Afghanistan has been in sort of a perpetual state of war. I think ... the point of sort of understanding that is that the attempt to root out drugs from this moral basis, which, you know, drugs can be bad and I agree with that. Like, you know, no one wants addiction, no one wants to go to that space. But that sort of very narrow lens of viewing it, in when applied in a country, like Afghanistan and other parts of the world, that we don't fully understand the consequences of that. That that ends up having much bigger consequences for issues of politics and economic development, and I would argue, ultimately, for the human sanctity of life, because what you have over the last 40 years of war, six and a half million refugees, hundreds of thousands of people have died from war and conflict and instability. Afghanistan has almost a million drug addicts. Yes, drugs have contributed to it, but the policy has as well. And again, I think that goes back to viewing it as a symptom. And if we view it as a symptom of these problems, ... the idea is to sort of recognize that maybe the aim of sort of the global war on drugs has been too narrow in viewing drugs exclusively as a problem and not sort of encouraging and developing  those features of politics, and, arguably, economics and culture that would sort of mitigate sort of the growth of the illicit markets, growth of drug addiction, etc., etc. So I think it's, in that sense, when a country like the United States tries to impose these bans, there has to be a recognition of the consequences that can have not only sort of geographically in space, but also in time, right? Like, if this generates resistance, and this generates political resistance, will that destabilize the state? And if that destabilizes the state, and you end up with a chaotic arena of, you know, multiple actors using drugs to produce, to finance their civil war, that ultimately comes back and influences the United States. And in other words, we're, you know, we're all in this together, sort of borrow a COVID phrase, right? But the sort of thing about it to sort of understand that the drug trade functions globally, it's adaptable, it evolves, most commodities do, and I think that the policies have largely not reflected that and need to reflect sort of the global interconnections that exist between countries and sort of mutual dependence that exists.


Brionna Mendoza 

Still, it is undeniable that some countries by virtue of their political and economic might shaped the trajectory of the war on drugs more than others.


Alexander Aviña 

Like what gave the US that right, right? And to answer that question, I think we go back to Suzanne Reese's book and what she refers to as "US systems of imperial control", constituting something that she refers to as the "alchemy of empire". Like the US does this because it's an empire. And this is, I think, an important starting point for analysis. I think when we think about the more recent history of the war on drugs and drug production.


Brionna Mendoza 

The United States is absolutely responsible for creating an international framework to wage its particular war on drugs abroad. A global perspective, though, as Dr. Aviña describes, emphasizes the contingency of US power on other nations' participation. Finally, the history of anti-drug movements around the world drives home something that is already widely acknowledged: the Global War on Drugs has failed.


Isaac Campos 

One of the most important things to remember about drugs and drug policy is that we know that prohibitionist drug policies don't work.


Brionna Mendoza 

Which brings us to the next logical question: what should we do instead? One of the most discussed solutions that is already underway in some countries is legalization, particularly of marijuana.


Sarah Brady Siff 

My idea about the legalization of cannabis is that it should end up being like our stunningly successful and wonderful consumer's delight of a craft beer industry. I really don't understand why we couldn't model cannabis and the cannabis industry on the very successful and highly localized craft beer industries of Ohio, and for example, Michigan has a great craft beer industry. It provides expensive but very good products. And a lot of different brewers are involved in the production. And it is regulated and taxed at the state level. So I think that the craft beer industry could be a model for cannabis. Nobody wants industrial cannabis.


Brionna Mendoza 

In addition to legalization, there has been a notable shift in tone surrounding drug use and abuse from criminalization to harm reduction.


Isaac Campos 

The right way to deal with drugs, I think, and I think what's been so smart about the reformist movement over the last 30 years or so, has been the turn to the idea of harm reduction. So how do we reduce the harms, drugs are always going to create harms, and that's also another really important thing to keep in mind. All drugs produce harms of some kind or another. Cannabis is not harmless. Caffeine is not harmless. Obviously, heroin is not harmless. All these substances produce harms of one kind or another. However, they also all produce benefits of one kind or another for certain users. So the key is how do we, and people are going to continue using drugs as long as we ... have a commitment to civil liberties and free trade, international trade. As long as that happens, stopping the flow of drugs, forget about it, it's not going to happen. So the most important thing to recognize is that we can do an enormous amount of harm with the policies that we pursue. And so we have to think very carefully about how do we reduce the harms of both drugs and the policies that we are pursuing?


Brionna Mendoza 

For some, ending the war on drugs must start with the decriminalization of drugs.


Alexander Aviña 

The question I always get asked when I give like a public talk on it is like, how do we fix this? And I'm like, look, because somebody always brings up decriminalization, I'm like, well that's, yeah, that's obviously that's, for me, it's a given that you decriminalize everything, all drugs.


Brionna Mendoza 

And while complete decriminalization may seem like an immediate remedy, remember, the war on drugs is often not about drugs at all.


Alexander Aviña 

But that's only a first step, right? Because, again, if this is a gateway drug, then this is going to expose a lot of the problems with neoliberal capitalism. And the decriminalization is not a silver bullet. It's a start. But then that's only going to further expose some of the existing economic structures that generate the very inequality that lead people to grow and produce drugs in the first place. So it's not just a drug problem, I would always say it's a capitalism problem as well and there has to be a rethinking of this to rectify or to change our system in order to provide for the wellbeing of all, as opposed for the concentration of wealth for a few. With the ecological crisis that only further intensifies it, the urgency of this type of rethinking.


Brionna Mendoza 

If the goal is to end the war on drugs, once and for all, what to do about the drugs themselves is just the beginning. Unraveling the War on Drugs requires grappling with an uncomfortable past - one filled with violent repression and dispossession around the world. Ultimately, it is not a question of ability, but one of willingness to acknowledge and correct these historical legacies. For Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspectives, I'm Brionna Mendoza. Thank you for listening to this season of Prologued.


Brionna Mendoza 

This season a prologue 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 Department 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 the episode descriptions for citations to background reading and sources that informed the creation of this podcast. Season one of Prologued on “The Myth of the Women’s Bloc” has all episodes 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. Thanks for listening.