“A New and Deadly Menace” (Prologued, Season 2, Episode 2)

About this Episode

On this episode of Prologued, we discuss 19th-century antecedents to the modern U.S. War on Drugs. As we will see, the United States doesn't have a monopoly on drug wars. Our investigation takes us to late imperial China, colonial Mexico, and turn-of-the-century California. Ultimately, a international perspective helps us to understand why the world was ripe was a U.S.-led War on Drugs in the late 20th century.









Cite this Site

Brionna Mendoza , "“A New and Deadly Menace” (Prologued, Season 2, Episode 2)" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective


Theme Music: Hotshot by Scott Holmes

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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.

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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 2: "A New and Deadly Menace"

Brionna Mendoza

Previously on Prologued

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

The “modern” War on Drugs is a cultural and political touchstone for millions in the United States. But the events of the 1980s and 1990s are just the latest chapter of the story.

Not the beginning.

Drug wars aren’t just the province of the US. If we expand our investigation geographically and chronologically beyond this one country and adopt a global perspective on the history of drugs, we find that stories of drug wars are actually quite commonplace.

Ultimately, these drug wars, waged across different nations and regions for reasons entirely their own, are the foundation upon which the U.S. built and then exported its own drug war. And as we ask how we can finally withdraw from the War on Drugs, this foundation cannot be ignored.


I’m Brionna Mendoza, and this is Prologued.



So how did we get from many localized campaigns against drugs to the capital W capital D War on Drugs?

That particular story began 150 years ago, across the Pacific Ocean in China during the era of European colonial domination.

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.

Brionna Mendoza

This is Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History.

Miriam Kingsberg Kadia

I am a historian of modern Japan, and I teach at the University of Colorado Boulder.

So the immediate provocation was the destruction of a shipload of opium that England had illegally sent to China. But the longer context is that Great Britain had wanted to trade with China under the Qing Dynasty. In the late 18th century, China was not terribly interested in the manufacturers that Great Britain was producing during its first Industrial Revolution. So it declined to intensify contact. Britain then stumbled upon opium as a good that there was demand for in China. And this was, of course linked to the conquest of India where most of this opium was grown.

So sometimes it's called the “triangular trade,” because England, controlling India grew and exported opium to China, which then it was able to sell in exchange for Chinese goods like silks and porcelains and other things that the British public demanded. So this trade was actually banned by the Qing Dynasty in the early 19th century, not out of any concern really for public health, but rather because there was too much silver flowing out of Qing coffers to pay for the opium; the balance of trade had shifted in favor of Great Britain.

So, the Qing Dynasty attempted to ban opium imports from England, but it was unsuccessful in controlling then what became a burgeoning smuggling problem. And ultimately, Great Britain and China came to war over this issue. And it was resolved in 1842—China was defeated, and Great Britain was still not granted the privilege of illegal importation of opium actually, until after the second Opium War, which was fought from 1860 to 1866. But after the first Opium War, the smuggling became more de facto accepted. And this is really the origins of the widespread what was regarded as an opium crisis in China.

Brionna Mendoza

Britain and China weren’t the only countries affected by this conflict; the Opium Wars had global ramifications, especially for the control and prohibition of narcotics.

Here’s Dr. Isaac Campos again—you’ll recognize him from Episode 1.

Isaac Campos

Starting in about the 1840s, you start to see some strong criticisms, in Britain, and gradually, in other places, particularly among Christian missionaries in the Atlantic world about the opium trade, and particularly its effect on China. And really importantly, were very active and energetic in their opposition to the Opium War over the next several decades, so that by the end of the 19th century, most of the world was well-acquainted with the story of the Opium Wars. And there was a lot of sentiment for controlling the distribution of opium and a lot of sentiment for preventing another situation like what had occurred in China. This is the real spurred to both an effort to create an international drug control regime, but also some of the kind of fine foundational ideas behind those regimes. Like for example, the idea that a country that desires to stop the import of a certain drug cannot do so on its own; it actually needs the countries that produce the drugs to also commit themselves to not exploiting those drugs to that country.

Brionna Mendoza

Sound familiar? The solution that Christian missionaries proposed to prevent a repeat of the Opium Wars was a combination of strict controls implemented in the countries where drugs were being produced. This idea echoes the future choice tool of the United States in its own antidrug crusade: source control.

As we discussed in Episode 1, U.S. anxiety about foreign people and power informed a policy of eradicating drug crops during their cultivation using herbicides, fire, and even manually pulling plants out by their roots.

Isaac Campos

But these are the real roots of this kind of supply side idea behind drug control. And that all goes back to this notion that the British were able to force opium on the Chinese, despite the Chinese trying to control its import. So that's where you start to get the development of this international movement. It's both a formal and an informal process. There were international agreements and meetings, particularly beginning after 1909—there was a important conference in Shanghai, and then another in The Hague in 1912. This was the formal part of it. But the informal part of it was probably even more important. And that is these networks of reformers who publicized this problem, and who worked very hard to get lawmakers around the world to do something about the problem. So that's how we really get the beginnings of international drug control. And that starts to work in kind of symbiosis with movements domestically in various countries to control the distribution of these substances.

Brionna Mendoza

Building on missionary networks that extended throughout the U.S. empire in the Pacific, the United States and China, among other powers, organized meetings that would bring countries together to discuss the so-called opium problem.

Not everyone agreed that it was a problem, however.

Isaac Campos

So all this kind of tied together to call for this conference in 1909 where the opium problem would be discussed. Now originally the notion was that perhaps it would be a conference that could produce some kind of international agreement. But the British and other parties were opposed to this—those parties who had very big interest in these markets—were opposed to any kind of binding agreements from the conference in Shanghai.

Brionna Mendoza

Unsurprisingly, the disagreement revolved around money.

Isaac Campos

Great Britain had enormous financial interest in the opium trade; the opium trade was one of the most lucrative if not the most lucrative, international trade in the 19th century. And the British, who were providing most of the opium on the international market through its colonial possession in India had a very, very strong interest in maintaining the continuation of that international market. And I mean, this is really a fundamental element of whether or not countries were going to resist, or were going to sign on to these international agreements. I mean, you can really simplify it down. You suggested that maybe the question was simple, but it really is, in many ways, quite simple. Does that country have a financial interest in these drugs? And if they did have a financial interest in these drugs, they usually resist it to some extent.

But that conference then led in 1912 to an actual real conference that could produce an international convention on the question—and that was at The Hague International Opium Convention which was signed in the beginning of 1912 by all the great powers and that led to these various powers going on and getting other countries to sign on to this agreement. And basically, what that convention was, was a set of rules and guidelines for how countries should deal with the control of the opiates and cocaine and in particular, the international traffic in the opiates and cocaine. So how countries need international cooperation in order to control this, they can't just do it on their own, they need supplier countries to also make efforts to only export drugs to countries that actually want them. Those kinds of guidelines were in The Hague International Opium Convention. And that convention in 1912 was really the cornerstone of multilateral, international drug control for the rest of the 20th century.

Brionna Mendoza

As Dr. Campos described, the International Opium Convention signed at The Hague on January 23, 1912 marked a watershed moment in the history of the global drug wars. And when we look more closely at how some of the signatories came to agree on this first international drug control treaty, we see more clearly how each country’s particular regional and local history informed their decision to do so.

Miriam Kingsberg Kadia

The Opium Wars had a really long shadow over East Asia. In Japan, for example, Japan was at the time closed to contact with the West, but it was able to receive news of the Opium War. And this was quite frightening to Japanese policymakers. They realized that in order to avoid being defeated, like China was during the Opium Wars, they would have to preemptively make some changes.

Brionna Mendoza

The notion that countries wanted to ban drug use to avoid domination by other powers probably seems weird. Today, most discussions around the sale and use of drugs revolve around allowing individuals to engage with psychoactive substances however they may want to.

But keep in mind that the immediate consequence of the Opium Wars was Britain’s successful subjugation of China by flooding it with opium, thereby shifting the balance of trade in Britain’s favor. Other countries with aspirations to global power, like Japan, were thus very wary of allowing the introduction of opium and other drugs into their societies.

Isaac Campos

There's a certain irony that one of the main impulses to call for the control or the regulation or even the destruction of the international opium market, one of the main impulses was kind of an anti-imperialist impulse. But in order to make that work, it was argued that what was required were international controls. And, in the course of creating these international controls, there were certain tools that were that were designed to make that control easier. But that ultimately gave a lot of leverage to powerful countries to impose their will on less powerful countries.

 Miriam Kingsberg Kadia

When Japan banned opium from its shores in 1858 in a trade treaty with the United States, it was also concerned about Western encroachments on its sovereignty, and fearful that if it didn't consolidate and earn a reputation as a modern Western-style, nation state, it would be taken over, or at least subjected to semi colonial status, like China was in the process of undergoing.

So Japan also seized on the exclusion of opium—or exclusion of smoking opium, I should say—as a marker of its similarity to the West. And it's different from China. So as the idea went, Japan was a robust sovereign nation, full of independent subjects like the West, and unlike China where as it was alleged, the people were addicted to opium and not in control of their destiny. So the exclusion of opium led to this creation of a national identity of for Japan as an abstinent nation—a nation that abstained from opium smokers—whatever the reality and made it available as a marker of similarity to the West, and helped Japan insert itself among the great powers.

Brionna Mendoza

So for Japan, signing onto The Hague Convention was a way to not only avoid a fate similar to China, but also a way to claim power on an international stage dominated by white, Western powers by saying “look—we’re just like you.”

As we discussed in the previous episode, a key reason that the United States feared drugs and defined them as an “enemy” was their undesirable foreign origin. As Dr. Kadia indicates, this was a perspective shared by the West in general in the 19th century—a perception that non-Western, non-white countries were keenly aware.

In the aftermath of the Opium Wars, China had garnered a reputation as one of these undesirable foreign others. Though rich in culture and history, China’s habit of smoking opium had soiled its international standing and left the Chinese, in the eyes of Western observers, unfit to govern their own affairs. Never mind that the British had inundated China with opium in the first place—in the age of colonialism and empire, the vanquished endured what they had to.

Over time, this history coalesced into an infamous stereotype: the so-called “lazy opium smoker.” Opium smoking became the quintessence of everything wrong with China. And this stereotype contributed to anti-drug and anti-Chinese sentiment all around the world—we’ll talk more about that later in the episode.

Brionna Mendoza

The Hague Convention initiated a new culture of drug abstinence in Japan. However, across the Pacific, in Mexico, it was the culmination of colonial policies that had been in place since the arrival of the Spanish.     

Isaac Campos

So when Mexico was asked to sign The Hague Convention in 1912, Mexico already had decades of drug control that had been implemented and decades of anti-drug ideology, particularly anti-marijuana ideology. So the notion of Mexico that one might want to be involved in international agreement to control the substances was just kind of a no-brainer. I mean, it wasn't controversial at all, in the least, and Mexico was happy to sign on.

Brionna Mendoza

In his book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, Dr. Campos studies how Mexico’s anti-drug attitudes, in many ways, predate and inform the movement that developed in the United States against drugs.

Isaac Campos

Cannabis was first introduced by the Spanish, there's actually a specific Spanish conquistador who takes credit for an 1830s, a guy by the name of Pedro Quadrado. And now he brought it not as a drug plant, but as a fiber plant. Cannabis fiber, or what we call hemp, was absolutely essential to early modern shipbuilding and various other needs. And so the Spanish actually made various efforts beginning in 1840s, to get people to cultivate cannabis in Mexico, mainly to produce fiber, but began to be used by native Mexicans for medicinal purposes.

Brionna Mendoza

Here again, we see how the attitude towards a plant transformed once it was embraced by “foreign others”—people poorer, browner, and, thus, more dangerous.

Isaac Campos

Cannabis was being used in these kind of medical and religious rituals in a way that was very similar to use other drugs. And so in that way, cannabis came to be associated with the kinds of effects that were associated with these drugs, with the kind of people who were associated with these drugs, namely, Indians, namely Indian healers, or what were called herbolarías in Mexico, and to some extent, witchcraft as well.

So all these associations kind of combined to begin to develop a reputation of cannabis as being something that was potentially dangerous and tied to potential dangerous elements in Mexican society. So it's quite interesting that it's not a native plant to Mexico, but by the 19th century, it was widely considered to be native to Mexico. It was presumed to have been—in fact, there's a botanist in the 1850s, who argued that cannabis had been used by pre-Hispanic Mexicans to anesthetize the victims of human sacrifice. It’s just total nonsense. There wasn't any cannabis in Mexico. But that's how seemingly Mexican the drug had become by the 19th century.

Brionna Mendoza

Remember that The Hague Convention didn’t happen until decades later, in 1912. Mexico’s decision to sign onto the cornerstone of international drug control was not dictated by a U.S. War on Drugs, but by its own particular history of Spanish colonization.

Despite the prominent anti-drug discourse in Mexico, though, the national government was notably powerless to act due to constitutional restrictions on federal power throughout the 19th century.

Isaac Campos

By the turn of the 20th century, there were, you know, many states in Mexico that already had restrictions on the distribution of marijuana. But the federal government, the national government really does not have a lot of power to do much about this until 1917, which is when Mexico gets a new constitution in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. And that constitution is written to be a much more centralist, create a much stronger national government, in part, because certain crises require them, particularly public health crises.

Brionna Mendoza

So in the aftermath of the Mexico Revolution, Mexico wrote a new constitution in 1917.

Isaac Campos

And in that constitution, there are specific provisions created to allow the national government to wage essentially what we would call a war on drugs. And so therefore, Article 72 of the—72 or 73—now I'm blanking.

Brionna Mendoza

(I checked--it’s Article 73.)

Isaac Campos

It's been a while I thought about 72 or 73 of the Mexican Constitution allowed the federal government to wage war on on intoxicants that could still supposedly “degenerate the race.” It’s this whole theory called degeneration theory that was extremely influential at the time. But it was essentially a problem that was said to be a threat to the nation, and that the nation would be generated by these substances, therefore, extraordinary measures had to be taken.

Brionna Mendoza

Cannabis was codified as a danger to the nation, not only because of its use by indigenous herbolarías, but also because of the widespread belief that it induced a sort of mania in its users.

But to understand why, we first need to discuss how people have understood—or rather, misunderstood—how marijuana affects its users.

Isaac Campos

So people tend to think about drugs as if they have a kind of natural essence, that and the effects that they produce in humans is basically produced by that natural essence, basically, just by pharmacology. There's a sense that now we know what the real effects of cannabis are, but actually, drug effects are dictated not just by the pharmacology of the drug, but what's called setting. So that's the psychology of the user and the setting of the drug use. And that could be both the the actual physical setting of the drug use, and/or the cultural and social setting of the drug. So basically, what people believe about how a drug should affect them, actually produces the kind of effects that they have when they take the drugs.

Brionna Mendoza

If you think tequila will make you act crazy on a night out, it probably will. Or, if you think you’re about to become very giggly as you light up a joint, bring on the laughter. Individual expectations about the effect of a drug likely shapes behavior during drug experiences.

Isaac Campo

These ideas about madness and violence in Mexico actually have a basis in reality; not that marijuana necessarily causes actual madness or violence, but actually, that under certain circumstances, it can certainly produce what someone would consider “mad” behavior and even violent behavior, if in the right circumstances. And the circumstances in Mexico were certainly right for that.

So marijuana was not widely used in Mexico. It tended to be used only by the most marginalized members of Mexican society—people with enormous problems in their lives, principle among them being basically locked in either a prison or a soldiers’ barracks, which was kind of like a prison because most people who were in the army weren't there by choice. And they were living in environments that were extremely violent, extremely unfriendly, extremely unhygienic. And they were taking a drug that is psychotomimetic.

Brionna Mendoza

For those residing in such a stressful setting, adding cannabis into the mix exacerbated the existing tension and could result in aggression. And since these individuals were already the lowest of the low in Mexico, such episodes reinforced the belief that they were dangerous elements of society warranting closer surveillance and regulation.

Mexican anxiety surrounding marijuana-induced madness probably sounds familiar. Ever heard of “Reefer Madness”?

Audio from the trailer for “Reefer Madness”


These high school boys and girls are having a hop at the local soda foundation. Innocently they dance, innocent of a new and deadly menace lurking behind closed doors. Marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.

Brionna Mendoza

The title of the notorious 1936 American film, “Reefer Madness” has become a shorthand summary for the U.S. perception that smoking weed can lead users to commit all sorts of heinous crimes, including manslaughter, murder, rape, and general madness.

Hollywood didn’t dream up the concept on its own, though. Americans had heard this narrative for years from none other than their southern neighbors in Mexico, thanks largely to the exploding circulation of newspapers.

Here’s Dr. Sarah Siff again, who we met in Episode 1.

Sarah Brady Siff

The press shouldn't be underestimated ever as a factor in promoting the drug wars. Because people love reading about this stuff.

Isaac Campos

A hundred years ago, or 120 years ago, all of a sudden, every little town in Mexico, in the United States, had a newspaper or two, and that would be published, either in the mornings or the afternoon, or both. And these papers were just full of stories from all over the country and all over the world about this or that. They are so full of just kind of fantasy stuff and wild stories, and that seem implausible to us today reading them. There was a report, for example, about this substance called marijuana in Mexico, and, you know, it's 1900, or something like that. And the story reports that marijuana makes its users “wilder than a wild beast” and “see devils” and “go out on the attack.”

Sarah Brady Siff

Most Americans through history don't partake of these exotic drugs. And they like believing and reading about this sort of titillating and immoral group of people that have these strange practices and making heroes of the enforcement officers that go after them and get this evil out of our midst, right?

Isaac Campos

I think a huge part of the audience for these stories never really even questioned whether those were true stories or not are worried about it. And I think part of that had to do with the fact that just all of a sudden, they were being inundated with an amount of information coming from faraway places that were just essentially brand new.

By the 1910s, the word marijuana is pretty well known in the U.S.; it's already being used in some places as a kind of synonym for madness. And its reputation was spreading, and most of that happened with the spread of these ideas from from Mexico through these these you know, transnational press circuits.

Brionna Mendoza

Altogether, then, Mexico has had a very long history of anti-drug discourses that, in many ways, placed it far ahead of the U.S. in both conversation and legislation. This changed in the 1930s and 1940s, as we’ll see in episode 3, when the US began to build a global War on Drugs according to an American blueprint.

Until then, remember this: by the turn of the 20th century, Mexico had a well-established tradition of anti-drug attitudes born of its unique historical context, attitudes that ultimately moved the hand of the Mexican ambassador to sign the 1912 Hague Convention.

Isaac Campos

I think we need to understand that these these discourses—anti-drug  discourses, anti-drug ideology—have been transnational for a very long time.

Brionna Mendoza

One of these transnational anti-drug discourses was the “lazy opium smoker” that we mentioned earlier, a stereotype born of the colonization of China during the Opium Wars. In some places, it informed the way that people viewed Chinese immigration.

For example, the United States infamously implemented legislation curtailing immigration from East Asia, like the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 as well as the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924.

Sarah Brady Siff

The cultural associations that the Chinese who migrated to the United States attached to smoking opium are actually quite elite. There’s a whole class in dynastic China of upper class bureaucrats, and one of the things that they do is smoke opium out of these very fancy pipes. This might be an after dinner activity to impress your guests or whatever. So the ideas about what it means to smoke opium are quite different in China than they later become in the United States.

Chinese migrants who go to the United States in the 1850s, 1860s, and work really hard to make a new life life for themselves, they're quite happy that they're able to participate in this trade that had been close to them before because of their economic status.

Most of the smoking opium was brought in legally; the tariff is paid and it's sold to other Chinese. So it's Chinese merchants buying a Chinese product, selling it to Chinese customers. But Californians who are largely white Protestants grow to dislike the Chinese immigrants, when it becomes apparent that they will work for lower wages, and they're outsiders, their dress and customs and manners are all different. And their habit of smoking opium becomes one of the things that is is greatly disliked about them.

So the Chinese in America are importing refined smoking opium from Hong Kong, all through the later 1800s. In the United States, the Congress, of course, sets a tariff.

Brionna Mendoza

At this point, the tariff was one of the only ways that the U.S. federal government could collect revenue. The personal income tax wasn’t established until the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913. So in the late 1800s and early 1900s, taxing luxury imports was a great way to make some cash.

Sarah Brady Siff

So the fact that opium is considered kind of a luxury and is taxed at maybe 15% as its 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. So I think of the start of the drug wars in the United States as searching for this smuggled opium.

Brionna Mendoza

The story of drug control in California, and eventually the rest of the United States, begins here, with the Opium Tariff.

Sarah Brady Siff

California convinces Congress to place the first prohibitive tariffs on opium, and this is in the later 1800s. Whereas a luxury item might be taxed at about 15%, smoking opium comes to be taxed at 100%. So the clear intention is not to collect this revenue anymore, but rather to keep the product out of the country. So I think that's the first drug prohibition. 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, especially to the Fourth Amendment

I personally believe that all of these different and differently enacted prohibitions and restrictions on these substances are restrictions on people. They are actions against groups of people, and not actually against drugs themselves in almost every case.

Brionna Mendoza

But anti-Chinese sentiment driven by the Opium Wars wasn’t unique to the U.S.

Isaac Campos

That story about opium in China in the 19th century, I mean, is just so influential around the world, not just in the U.S., not just in the West, but all over the world. And so we have to understand that people have been imbibing the same kind of stories. The story as it was told about China was badly distorted as well by missionaries. But that kind of distorted history had an enormous impact. So it might as well have been true because of the enormous impact it ended up having.

To understand how these policies and these histories developed, you have to understand their whole story. And that involves understanding their global history and not just domestic history.

Brionna Mendoza

It cropped up in Japan, as Dr. Kadia described earlier, and it appeared in Mexico, too.

Isaac Campos

Well, so the the real demon drug in Mexico in the 19th to 20th centuries, very much like the United States, the main drug that people read about is alcohol. It's the most widely used, it's the one that produces the most problems. And then after that, there's some discourse about opium and opium smoking, especially associated with the Chinese: that transnational discourse about the Opium Wars, and that sort of thing had a big impact in Mexico.

Brionna Mendoza

Just like California and the rest of the U.S. West Coast, Mexico also shares a Western seaboard with the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, there is a long history of Asian migration to Mexico and other parts of Central America.

Isaac Campos

Anti-Chinese sentiment, of which there was quite a lot in Mexico just as it was in the United States, often mentioned the supposed vices of the Chinese, one of those being opium smoking, so that that discourse existed there as well. And opium was controlled under the same kind of laws that marijuana was controlled in Mexico. Usually beginning with pharmacy laws and that kind of thing. And then there were some state level prohibitions that came gradually in the first part of the 20th century.

Brionna Mendoza

In the end, in the timeline for the history of a global War on Drugs, the Opium Wars must constitute our point of origin. From this spot, cultural and political precedents radiate outwards to the United States, to Japan, to Mexico, blending with their existing histories. The lessons of the Opium Wars, implemented globally, were to control drugs and those who used them.

Rather than one-way streets, though, think of these connections as busy thoroughfares facilitating the exchange of ideas about drugs and how to deal with them, roads that converge at moments like The Hague Convention of 1912, junctures of international collaboration that marched steadily towards a global infrastructure to regulate who can and cannot engage with drugs.

Our retracing of that march has only just begun.



Next time on Prologued

Matt Pembleton

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.

One of the most tangible things is that the United States begins to send actual police agents overseas, from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Brionna Mendoza

The United States seeks to establish itself as the commander-in-chief of the global drug control effort.

Kathleen Frydl

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. And that's no less true at home either.



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.

Thanks for listening!