About this Episode
On this episode of Prologued, we turn our attention back to the nation that ultimately made a global War on Drugs possible: the United States. Learn with us how, during the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. began to establish a global model for pursuing drug prohibition both at home and abroad.
Cite this Site
Theme Music: Hotshot by Scott Holmes
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Miriam Kingsberg Kadla, “The Second Opium War,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, March 2022.
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Episode 3: Devising a Drug-Free World
Previously on Prologued…
Miriam Kingsberg Kadia
I would actually submit that the war on drugs with a lowercase W and a lowercase D would have started with the first Opium War, which was fought between China and England, from 1839 to 1842.
As we’ve seen thus far, the story of the War on Drugs didn’t begin with Nixon or Reagan. When we approach the topic of drug prohibition from a global perspective, we find that actually, it originated much earlier and involved a more diverse cast of characters than is usually acknowledged.
But when we think about the War on Drugs, it isn’t colonial China or Japan or Mexico that comes to mind…it's the United States. And for good reason. The United States cannot be ignored due to its political might and copious resources.
Today we turn our attention back to the nation that ultimately made a global War on Drugs possible. Country-specific drug wars may have evolved first, but starting after WWII, the United States began to stitch them into a cohesive international project deeply informed by its particular worldview and underwritten by economic and military funding from the United States.
Simply put, without American money, equipment, and guidance, a worldwide War on Drugs would not have been possible.
I’m Brionna Mendoza, and this is Prologued.
Like other countries we've discussed so far, the United States’ drug war first developed at home within its own particular political, social, and cultural context.
As Dr. Sarah Brady Siff previously explained, California was a critical site of development for drug prohibition beginning with the opium tariff in the late 1800s which taxed opium imports at a staggering 100% with the intent to not only block it from coming into the state, but also to express a clear rejection of growing Chinese migration to the West Coast.
But an import tax is meaningless without someone to enforce it.
Sarah Brady Siff
So the fact that opium is considered kind of a luxury and is taxed at maybe 15%, as it's imported into the United States, becomes a little bit sticky, because it's so small, you can just shove it in your pocket or conceal it. And one of the ways that the United States deals with this is they institute pretty invasive searching practices
And this is immediately after the Civil War, which gives greater enforcement powers to customs agents when they're dealing with Chinese immigrants and trying to search them for all these things. Those are the sort of first indications of how the United States is going to conduct its drug war. It's going to use the the taxing power of the federal government, and it's going to do things that are invasive and challenging to the especially to the Fourth Amendment
In the United States, drug control developed closely alongside policing. From our current perspective now in 2021, this seems painfully obvious. But, as historians like to say, nothing is inevitable. Here’s Dr. Kathleen Frydl, author of The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973.
Initially what we see with policing here in the United States and the way in which the drug war interacts with an evolving model of policing, is that the drug war is a way in which certain abusive practices that belong to older models of policing can survive. One of the most under-told stories, I think, is the professionalization of the police profession. I think people are very critical of the police these days, and for very good reason. And I think we lack an understanding of how the police used to police, and where they've come since then.
The police used to be called in for things like to break up a strike. I mean, they were nothing more than a personal security force for the richest man in town. The police in the South used to be called in to assist with lynching. And starting with World War Two, and following World War Two, a model of professionalization that actually started in the West, and specifically in California, started to spread throughout the rest of policing. That is, police officers should wear a uniform. They should get training; they should get training that teaches them certain kinds of rules. They shouldn't beat people. They should, for example, the Supreme Court dictated in the mid-1960s read a criminal suspect their rights prior to arresting them. So there are all kinds of ways in which police were being asked to do their jobs in a new way. And the drug war became this, let's say sidecar to that story, where you put things like beating a suspect, that you could put things like no knock searches. All of these, let's say older practices, survived in narcotics units, and remained impervious, frankly, to civil rights jurisprudence throughout the era.
So the drug war, as I say, became this way for the police to preserve older models of policing that had been rejected in other settings.
Despite efforts to bolster the fairness of U.S. jurisprudence, many tenets of “liberty and justice for all” were overlooked where drugs were concerned.
I think something that gets missed a lot, the Jones Miller act in the early 1920s. Congress said anyone found with a drug that belongs to the Harrison Narcotic Act, so morphine or heroin or codeine, any of these drugs, the presumption would be of guilt, not innocence. And that person would have to explain why and how they came to have that drug. That's an extraordinary moment. That really changes and puts on its head the entire common law tradition of the United States and of Anglo American law, which is presumption of innocence. And the state has to prove someone's guilty but not with drugs. If you possess drugs, you're guilty just when you have them, and you have to explain to the state how you came to have it. Just think about it.
Even with new efforts to professionalize policing in the United States, though, regional differences often blocked the implementation of a uniform federal policy across the country. This was apparent in the early years of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the grandfather organization to the DEA.
The Bureau of Narcotics started their policing of narcotics in the United States in a very haphazard fashion. They were most concentrated in the District of Columbia. In fact, some of the most egregious tools of the drug war, like mandatory minimums, no knock warrants, were originally imposed on the District of Columbia before they were exported elsewhere. So the Federal Bureau of Narcotics police D.C. as if it were it own, because for all intents and purposes, it was in a jurisdictional sense. But elsewhere, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics were not always warmly received by local police.
The United States, geographically, is a large country with lots of political, cultural, and demographic variation. Police in New York City faced very different circumstances than their counterparts in small Midwestern towns, for example. Thus, as late as the 1930s, American police may have heard of drugs like heroin, but they didn't know how to identify or control them.
And so there was a way in which the Federal Bureau of Narcotics mirrored the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was kind of a model agency in developing a coaching relationship with local police forces. And they just tried to coax them local police into caring more about narcotics and policing narcotics more.
I can't underscore the importance of the 1950s as a crucible moment in the development and the trajectory of American policing. That was a moment in which Harry Anslinger, who is at this time still running the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, would reach out to local police forces and try to coach and teach them how to police for narcotics and the value of doing so. Just as important, Harry Anslinger undertook a parallel effort to persuade different states to adopt the what was called the “uniform narcotic law.”
A quick reminder here—Harry J. Anslinger was the infamous first “drug czar” of U.S. federal narcotics policy and oversaw the FBN from 1930 to 1962. And he’s notorious for very good reasons.
Sarah Brady Siff
I think of Harry Anslinger as the unreliable narrator of the drug wars, through the middle of the 20th century. So in the meat of all the development of anti-drug stuff. He was a liar; he lied about everything. He made up people's names, he made up events. And this can be shown in his work and in his writing from a very early, early time. So I think his being an “ends justifies the means” type of person…But I think he truly believed in a betterment of people by denying recreational drugs to them.
Methods aside, Anslinger was instrumental in expanding the reach of the federal government’s anti-drug program across the United States.
The universal narcotic code, which was formulated in the mid 1930s. Harry Anslinger was intent on getting each individual state to adopt it, so that what the federal government considered a crime would be replicated in each individual state. And so it was a massive effort on his part, it was a massive effort of coaxing and cajoling state and local actors to follow the path of the federal government. And one of the reasons why—I mean, there are several reasons why local police seized upon the drug war. And I already mentioned one of them, which is it became a very valued way to preserve certain practices that were belonging to a more traditional style of policing, in a totally new era in a totally new context. But they also saw an increased demand from their own constituents to do more about drugs. And so it was a kind of push-pull effort, if you will, where the federal government is pushing in one direction. And on a grassroots level, local police are feeling pressure from politicians, from constituents to do more about the illegal drug supply.
I think it’s important to pause here for a moment to recall why U.S. politicians and citizens pushed for greater drug control over time. As Dr. Siff and Dr. Campos detailed in Episode 2, the press shouldn’t be underestimated as a key facilitator in this shift. As news media around the world became more integrated, U.S. newspapers included dramatic accounts of drug use gone wrong. Though the story might have been from Mexico or some other far-flung location, reading about it in the local newspaper likely made it seem much closer to home…not unlike our experiences with social media today.
Further, these stories were often imbued with judgements on race and class, with unsuspecting white women made the victims of so-called “Indian” medicine, in one example. As Dr. Parazino explained in Episode 1, drug prohibitionism has always been part of the culture wars in America. The tension between who should be an American and who is an American is ever-present. And for a nation and citizenry built through settler colonialism, strict control of that definition is essential. Drug use became another way to distinguish the undeserving from the worthy.
Sarah Brady Siff
Anslinger was a person who gave clear substance to the idea that some people just are irredeemable.
One of the things that he was big on doing was getting people tracked and registered as drug users, right. So one of the aspects of the Harrison Act, which was essentially a tax measure that required people to register if they were going to do business with opium, cocaine and fill out these forms and use prescription blanks and things like that. He embraced that and made it into a kind of list or index of drug addicts, as he called them. But he kept these files that he would distribute to his agents of particular people, right, who are problematic people. Now, I don't know the extent to which those people also are maybe members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, right, that the federal government sees its role as sort of monitoring, I bet a lot of that is going on, too.
He would go to Congress, and he would present these statistics that showed that Black Americans made up the majority of addicts. And he would just show this very simple pie chart without any details. And more or less, he had this air of authority, and he would present the statistics in this very simple, digestible way. And he would always get his legislation for some reason; he was very good at asking Congress for something and receiving it.
For Anslinger, the FBN, and the United States at large, though, it wasn’t enough to regulate drugs at home. To truly protect American citizens from the nefarious effects of drugs, the United States had to take its fight abroad to the countries where drugs were cultivated.
A drug-free America required a drug-free world.
So for me it's about the way that the drug war becomes institutionalized, and that it becomes part of the structure of the American state. And in the post-World War II era, you get a lot of things coming together at once.
This is Dr. Matt Pembleton, a historian, author, and lecturer at American University in Washington DC.
I am the author of Containing Addiction: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Origins of America's Global Drug War.
You've got the laws that are all on the books at the beginning of the 20th century. But I think it's a little bit of a stretch to say that the country is really waging war on either the illicit drug traffic or its own drug-using citizens. And on the global stage, you've got these treaties that are supposed to be holding all of the civilized world to certain standards that are going to limit the amount of poppy that they produced. And they're going to create their own drug control bodies to kind of regulate and keep an eye on how much drugs their countries are consuming and purchasing. But all of that stuff is a little bit weak. It's not until you get World War Two that the United States kind of reaches this geopolitical ascendancy. And it actually begins to have the authority to kind of back some of these measures in a real way.
World War II was a pivotal moment for the United States that reverberates throughout all aspects of its history that followed…including its trajectory on drug control.
One of the most tangible things is that the United States begins to send actual police agents overseas from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. And they began in Italy, which is busy trying to repair its reputation after World War II. And from there, they kind of spread out all throughout the Mediterranean region into the Middle East and then into Western Europe and France. And from there, all throughout the world by the 1960s.
Allowing foreign police agents to operate on your soil is kind of a big deal…so how did the U.S. convince countries to let them in?
The key, it turns out, was a New York mobster.
So you've probably heard of the French Connection, which became famous because of the Gene Hackman movie. The French Connection is a term that encompasses this very long supply chain where you've got opium being produced in the interior of Turkey moving through clandestine networks across the Mediterranean and, along the way, being refined to morphine base, and then eventually into heroin, and then being smuggled out of Italy and France to the United States. That begins to develop relatively soon after World War II. The agents at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics are relatively aware of this. So the first place they try to target for counter-narcotics, for early interdiction work is in Turkey.
But through a number of like, sort of capers and misadventures. There are a couple of busts in Turkey, but they all kind of go sideways, and you've got agents going in there and trying to crawl around their way in a foreign country where they don't have any real jurisdiction and making these relatively minor busts and then turning them into international headlines, and wildly inflating the value of the bust. And that really annoys the Turkish government which is a really important strategic ally in the Cold War. The Turkish Government proves to be really good at holding the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at arm's length, which means that they struggle for over a decade to get into Turkey. That’s where the ultimate source of the supply is that they really want to get to, but they can't reach it.
So they wind up pivoting their efforts in the late 1940s, early 1950s and focusing on Italy. And Italy was a little bit more vulnerable, having just been defeated in World War Two, and trying to be a good member of the community of nations. And there's this convenient confluence of events with a gangster by the name of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who had been a big shot in Manhattan, and was an important figure in organizing the mafia in the 1930s. And again, this is like a long story that could take us off on a side bar here. But there's this whole sideshow thing where the mafia is supposedly providing some assistance to U.S. intelligence during World War II. And the whole thing is kind of exaggerated. The short version is that the mafia did kind of control the docks, and naval counterintelligence wanted to monitor the waterfront and Manhattan for signs of Nazi saboteurs. To do that they needed the Mafia's go ahead to just be around all the time. And that required going to some of the higher ups to get an official okay. And at this point, Lucky Luciano is in jail. He's put in jail by Tom Dewey in 1936 on charges related to running Manhattan's prostitution rackets. And he comes up for parole in 1946 with a letter in his file saying that he had cooperated with U.S. military during World War II. Tom Dewey is now Governor Dewey, and basically decides to just wash his hands at this whole controversy. And he deports Luciano back to Italy.
So as the Bureau's trying to like make sense of all this, they've got this very famous mob boss who's suddenly free, surrounded by rumors that he might be a war hero and helped the war effort. And he gets sent back to Italy as they're trying to put a face on the postwar heroin traffic. And so it's kind of just like perfect aligning of events. And then soon after Luciano is loose, he winds up in Havana, working with the Cuban government there that launched the casino industry, which is this big, famous mob summit in Havana, Cuba. So then he gets chased out of there; the Bureau basically chases him out of Cuba, back to Italy. And then they spend the next several years basically trying to pin him to any evidence that he's involved in heroin trafficking.
And what they managed to uncover over the course of about a year is that there are a series of diversions from legal Italian pharmaceutical industry where heroin remains a legal drug because it's medically useful. But it's something on the order of like 400 tons of heroin or something over the course of three or four years is diverted through a series of illicit channels involving like some shady veterinarian companies and that kind of stuff. And Luciano basically is a guy that can get people together in a room and make some introductions for a fee. But he's too hot to be an international drug lord because he's super-duper famous all over the world.
But the Federal Bureau of Narcotics is basically able to use this publicity around a couple of these busts, the news that there are these diversions from the Italian heroin industry, and then to tie it to Luciano at the same time that Congress is investigating organized crime in the United States. So again, it's like the circumstances in the U.S. are perfect. Globally, they're kind of perfect that they can embarrass Italy. What all this winds up amounting to is that in September of 1951, the Italian government agrees to allow an agent to be permanently stationed in Rome. And that's really the beginning of what will become the DEA’s global footprint. So from those very humble origins, the DEA now has agents on every continent all over the world, except for Antarctica.
Following its successful foray into Italy, the FBN pursued more postings in more countries through the use of two familiar tools: the press and Harry J. Anslinger.
So at the beginning of this period where they launched on this foreign expansion, Commissioner Anslinger, is really explicit about this in 1948, in a true crime magazine, no less: he says there are no national boundaries in our work. You can't afford national sovereignty when you're trying to break up the narcotics racket. So it's really explicit. What's fascinating about that quote is that this comes from a magazine article where he's promoting a movie where he cameos, where it's starring this really famous actor who's based on a real FBN agent and he's traveling all around the world, like breaking up narcotics rings and arresting bad guys, as they are actually planning to send agents overseas to do that very thing. So, it's like they're like willing this into existence.
Other countries, like Turkey, did not necessarily care about drugs in the same way that the United States did. Thus, the FBN and others took it upon themselves to convince both domestic and global audiences that drugs were a universal problem…even if doing so involved blurring the line between truth and fiction.
In June of 1948, they sent Agent White to Istanbul to make this first case where he buys like three kilos of heroin for $6,000. And then it's bust where the Turks are like throwing a police informant at them to just get them out of their hair. He makes this bust, and then he turns around and tells the American press that he just made this bust worth a million dollars—he just took a million dollars’ worth of heroin off of American streets by making this one bust over in Istanbul. And that lie, that exaggeration at the very beginning of the drug war sort of sets it on this entire path. So that sets up this complicated dynamic with the Turkish Government.
In the end, though, the U.S. was able to draw Turkey into its formula for waging war on drugs.
They're kind of able to persuade them through a combination of threatening national embarrassment at places like the UN versus showering police officials with international accolades. They would do things like arrange, prestigious postings at the UN or Interpol and giving all kinds of actual money and equipment and training to these police departments that would partner with them. And that works for about a decade in the 1950s and 60s, and by the time you get to the end of the FBN tenure in the late 1960s, that's beginning to wear off. And agents are beginning to have to come up with new techniques. In the early years, they're literally buying their way into cooperating with foreign police departments with boxes of cigarettes and extra handcuffs and billy clubs and eventually that becomes like sophisticated radio equipment, or early copying machines and filing systems. And then that graduates to specialized training, either in country or bringing police officers back to the United States to receive special training.
But ultimately, it always kind of comes down to this combination of carrot-and-stick, of embarrassing countries on the global stage versus sort of showering them with rewards for their cooperation.
What the FBN lacked in substantial gains in the war on drugs, it more than made up for in crafty PR.
It's easy to knock the Bureau for being bad at its job, right? They didn't stop very many drugs from entering the country. But the Bureau is really effective at shaping the public narrative. And it can't do that without the press and without these true crime writers, who are just soaking up all of these stories about the mafia and about Luciano and about these daring police officers, you know, bending the rules, and going on these adventures overseas in really dangerous circumstances, and working undercover to penetrate Chinese trafficking networks or Turkish smuggling networks, whatever the sort of bad guy of the day is.
And, as we’ve seen time and again, these stories about policing drugs are, in many ways, not about the drugs at all.
So heroin, heroin as diacetylmorphine or diamorphine is a legitimate medicine. When it's heroin, it's a drug. Right? And so you have all kinds of dilemmas like this, where the difference between the drug and the medicine is entirely dependent on the context and particularly who's using it. And the Bureau was able to use these true crime stories in a way to shape that narrative around that context.
These stories are just loaded with all kinds of like racial stereotypes and implicit messaging about American values and about the need to have a very powerful American police state. And without the government protecting you from all these bad guy who are out there in the shadows, all would be chaos and danger. It’s this really interesting synergy with the way that those narratives which have to go through the press sort of matches up between the domestic front and the global front. And that leads to one of the other questions about the relationship between the drug war and the Cold War: they all kind of draw from the same ideological well that you need this really powerful, outward reaching state actively intervening out in the world in order to make Americans safe at home on American streets and in American homes.
For the United States, externalizing its domestic challenges by seeking solutions abroad accomplishes two things. First, it protects its worldview as an exceptional country, a nation unique among the global community for its God-given liberty and democracy. Second, it provides justification for ongoing efforts to expand American influence abroad not only through economic, political, and cultural influence, but also through policing and military action.
Drugs, like, take American society off the hook for the structural problems that we that we refuse as a nation to address. That America is not a consumer of drugs; it is a victim of drugs. Throughout this entire long history, the drug war has acted to reconcile these contradictions in American culture and American identity in our governing political philosophies. Rather than this hegemonic power that actively intervenes in foreign nations without regard for sovereignty, we are a defender of freedom because we protect the American people from the slavery of addiction. Drugs act as this mechanism to paper over all of these contradictions while asserting this very sort of heroic and moralistic and upstanding brand of American identity, which is why it has appealed to politicians of both political parties.
While the United States has arguably been the most productive nation in pursuing drug control, we’ve seen that drug wars are not a uniquely American pursuit.
Countries throughout the world embrace the drug war for reasons that are wholly their own. Mexico is a really good example in that fighting a war on drugs has been a way for countries like Mexico to put down political insurgencies. The Philippines is an excellent example. The Philippines today is fighting a very active war on drugs on its own citizens in which the United States is playing, to my knowledge, a relatively minor role. It's doing that for reasons that are specific to the Philippines and their own interests; it's not that the US is coercing Duarte to fight this war on his own citizens. Communist China is another really good example. Mao cracked down on drug use even harder than the United States did. And the irony was that as the Communist Chinese were basically eradicating drug use in China, the United States was actively trying to tie China to the domestic drug trade because it wanted to be able to blame the communists for the drug trade. So there are lots of examples like that. The militarization that comes with the drug war serves all kinds of useful purposes, not all of which are specific to drugs. And that's true in the United States, and it's true in every other country that engages in drug enforcement.
We must keep in mind, though, that even the United States might not be the most influential character on this stage.
This is another central tension here, right, that the United States is not the only actor on the stage. And it is not even necessarily the most powerful actor on the stage. If it was then the drug war would have been over because the United States would have won, right? I think it's a mistake to cast the drug war, even as we're like talking about all of its consequences and ramifications and influence. We also want to be cautious about to not overstate its power, which kind of ties into like the CIA crack conspiracy. Crack didn't need the CIA to flourish, ight? It's because it's a powerful drug that people sought out. The United States has indisputably played the biggest role in shaping global structures and narratives around drugs—but it's not necessarily the most powerful actor on the stage.
The global war on drugs warrants close examination because many have sought to deploy drugs as an ideological tool to wield influence both at home and on the international stage. But what does it mean if the tool is more powerful than those who seek to use it?
The drug war has taken over the mission of policing in the United States, in so many ways. And a lot of the problems we see that have to do with excessive use of force, police brutality, police lying under the oath, a lot of these things are, first of all, much more common than people think that they are. And second of all, directly related to the legacies of the drug war. The tools of the drug war have become so deeply implicated into modern policing and likewise, abroad. I think it would shock most Americans to learn, for example, if you look at the State Department and its personnel in Africa, almost three quarters of that personnel are deployed there, in one way or another, related to the drug war. This is just a way in which the United States has articulated its power abroad. And it's totally dependent upon them,totally dependent upon the tools of the drug war in order to manifest his power abroad.
Next time on Prologued…
So the United States and so the United States gets involved in Afghanistan, and I suppose the most ironic way possible in that they are buying drugs.
The War on Drugs meets the Cold War.
And I think that the major reason why the Cold War shapes Afghan drug politics is that Afghanistan is neutral.
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.
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