We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire (American Crossroads)

We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire (American Crossroads)

by Suzanna Reiss

ISBN: 9780520280786

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Business & Investing/International

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter


"The Drug Arsenal of the Civilized World"

WWII and the Origins of US-Led International Drug Control

World War II was waged in part as a war for control over commodity flows. As one contemporary expert in economic warfare observed, "in a total war practically every commodity entering into foreign trade is important, directly or indirectly, to the war effort." Even before the United States officially entered World War II, the president authorized economic measures such as export and shipping controls, the freezing of foreign assets, blacklisting, and foreign aid programs to strengthen the Allied cause and weaken the Axis capacity to wage war. Some of the commodities targeted for control were deemed vital to war making; for instance, rubber was needed to make bombers, tanks, and gas masks, and tin was used to manufacture everything from circuit boards to the millions of cans provisioning food for Allied troops. The strategic value of other commodities, including items as diverse as beef, coffee, and cacao, lay primarily in the indirect calculus that US purchasing and stockpiling of such goods could offset war-caused trade disruptions that had the potential to generate economic and political instability, especially for Latin American raw materials export-oriented economies cut off from the transatlantic trade.

In this context US officials wrestled to control the international circulation of one uniquely valuable group of commodities: pharmaceuticals. The US approach to drug control over the course of World War II constituted a defining moment in the longer history of US efforts to influence the international pharmaceutical trade, to pave the way for US corporate power, and to establish the nation as a formidable political player on the world stage. While World War II was far more than a conflict over commodity flows, the institutionalization of economic warfare policies in relation to the drug trade provide a revealing, if understudied, account of the convergent rise of American power, the war-making capacity of the state, and the economic and political foundations of the US-led "war on drugs" that remains a central feature of US foreign and domestic policy.

The modern history of international drug control dates back to the first decades of the twentieth century, when representatives of European and American colonial powers sought to establish regulatory mechanisms to monitor and channel the international drug trade in directions they deemed essential to their economic, social, and political security. The United States helped spearhead the effort, perpetually contentious, that led to the first international drug control convention in 1912. The International Opium Convention was merely the first in a long line of international agreements (some more widely adhered to than others), and it marked the beginning of what would become a century-long saga driven by drug manufacturing countries to gain widespread geopolitical acquiescence to the notion that their vision of drug control was a critical obligation of not only national but international governance.

While the contest to control the international drug trade preceded and outlasted World War II, the war marked a profound watershed. The war set the stage for a new era of drug control; since then, wars waged with drugs have persisted as the flip side to the misleadingly named "war on drugs." World War II and the US wartime mobilization altered the balance of power among drug manufacturing countries and between manufacturing countries and states that produced raw materials for the international drug trade. The United States emerged from the war a global drug giant, the largest manufacturer, producer, and distributor of pharmaceuticals in the world. This gave it unprecedented leverage over former allies and enemies alike. By the war's end, the country's primary prewar manufacturing competitors, Germany and Japan, found their drug industries largely destroyed and under American occupation. In coca growing countries such as Peru and Bolivia, the war's impact was also dramatic as the United States consolidated its position as the primary purchaser of drug raw materials, primary supplier of much-valued finished goods, and influential advocate for the aggressive regulation of the drug market. In the process, drug control became a powerful weapon for advancing American imperial might.

This chapter tells the story of these transformations by tracing the US government's effort to control one particular group of drug commodities, those derived from the coca plant, as an anchor for a broader description of how the geography and political economy of the international drug trade was disrupted by the war, how US government economic warfare initiatives sought to capitalize, and how this shaped interactions with countries like Bolivia and Peru, both important players in the longer history of drug control. If we date the drug war to this era, almost a full three decades before President Richard Nixon famously declared a "war on drugs," it becomes clearer how the drug war itself and the economic order it entrenched helped fuel the rise of an American empire.


The importance of drugs to war mobilization was self-evident to contemporary government officials and to representatives of the private sector pharmaceutical firms with whom they collaborated. Two days after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called on the US Congress to declare war in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the head of the Federal Security Administration (FSA) addressed members of the American Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association (AmPharMA) at the prestigious Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. The FSA was tasked with managing health and safety programs related to national defense. In his speech, Administrator Paul V. McNutt celebrated previous government foresight in acquiring ample stocks of opium, quinine, and other drugs deemed essential to war making, such that by December 1941 the Treasury Department's vaults stored a three-year supply of opium. Existing stockpiles were impressive, but not sufficient. The war threatened to disrupt the supply of "key drugs hitherto imported from abroad," McNutt explained, and highlighted the urgency of developing new sources of supply, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. Earlier that year the FSA administrator had already called on drug manufacturers to emulate the armaments industry and work together to make America "the drug arsenal of the civilized world." McNutt explained the direct importance of drugs for war: "Medical munitions these might be called; for they are munitions in just as true a sense as any held by our Government in military arsenals ... they are as much a part of preparedness as tanks and planes and guns."

This description of drugs, as a weapons arsenal for advancing an American model of civilization, attests to the enormous value drugs held in 1941 for both state making and war making. War had always provided a stimulus to technological innovation in the drug field, but twentieth-century world war spawned what business historian Alfred Chandler has termed a "pharmaceutical revolution." By the 1940s, this revolution produced a "cornucopia of new drugs," with government-subsidized research and the mass production of vitamins, hormones, sulfonamides, penicillin, and other antibiotics radically changing wound healing, treatment for infectious disease, and government and corporate collaboration in the pharmaceutical industry. The war also galvanized research for synthetic drug alternatives to "replace natural products from the tropics" in an effort to avoid international dependency on materials deemed essential to public health and national power. Such vulnerabilities, for instance, spurred German research during the war that led to the creation of Demerol, a potent painkiller and synthetic substitute for opium. The US Army Medical Corps seized this research in Germany in 1945 and delivered it to American "chemists, pharmacologists and other medical scientists." Access to pharmaceuticals (and industrial secrets) was one critical determinant of a nation's capacity to thrive. War caused injury, hunger, and disease. Drugs promised to alleviate pain, cure infection, and stimulate a greater capacity of productive labor, whether in the mines, the factories, the fields, or on the battlefront. One contemporary neatly captured this widespread sense of the holistic interdependence of societal well-being and pharmaceuticals: "Competent protection of fighting men from disease demands the competent protection of civilians."

The US government began accumulating a drug arsenal as early as 1935, when the eventual thirty-year reigning head of the then five-year-old Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, created government stockpiles of narcotic drugs in anticipation of war. These stockpiles ensured against shortages that occurred when international drug supply networks were disrupted by hostilities. They also contributed to US economic and diplomatic leverage, for example, when the nation "virtually cornered the opium market during the war years," driving the price up by some 300 percent. As early as December 1939 Commissioner Anslinger reported that sufficient narcotics were stored in Treasury Department vaults to supply domestic demand and to "take care of the whole Western Hemisphere." When the United States officially entered the conflict in 1941, these enormous stocks were already being used to "take care of the medical needs of a lot of our friends." As Anslinger informed Congress: "I mean South America, particularly. We have helped out the Netherlands Indies, Russia, and other sections of the world which were formerly supplied by the manufacturing countries of Europe. I do not know what the sick and injured of some of these countries would do if it had not been for our reserve stock."

This testimony, just ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, revealed how war preparation and war increased the US government's influence over the international drug trade. Anslinger echoed FSA Administrator McNutt when he rhetorically queried drug industry officials: "But is it our job—the job of you and our government—merely to supply the continental United States? Or will we become the arsenal for medical munitions on the public-health and medical front for all the Americas?" The capacity to supply drugs and enforce regulatory compliance was both a source and manifestation of economic clout in the drug market.

This economic influence was upheld in part through seeking enforcement of international drug treaties. The US FBN had taken measures to ensure "that treaties will not fall apart during the war," in part by continuing to monitor the international narcotics trade through a system of import and export certificates. Moreover, "Being the only manufacturing nation in this hemisphere, we are able to keep international control functioning on this side of the Atlantic." Wartime exigencies transformed what had previously been an international regulatory effort to control a few select pharmaceuticals, into a far more expansive effort premised on a vision of total mobilization. The FBN's original mandate was to ensure adequate supplies of narcotic drugs for domestic scientific and medical uses and to police the unlawful importation and circulation of narcotic drugs. War brought other priorities to the fore. When the war broke out, opium was one of two primary categories of "narcotics" targeted for control by both national and international authorities. The term "narcotic" in this context was derived from a history of legal controls rather than medicinal qualities. Since the first international drug convention in 1912, "narcotic" drug control had targeted poppy plants, coca leaves, and drugs derived from them, including opium and cocaine. Following the ratification of the Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs (also referred to as the 1931 Geneva Convention), this expanded to include a growing number of synthetic substitutes like codeine. In terms of the "narcotic" drug arsenal, along with its virtual opium monopoly, by early 1942 the FBN reported the United States had similarly secured adequate supplies of coca and rapidly became the primary supplier of cocaine to Allied nations and "liberated territories." Relatively early in the conflict the United States secured adequate stocks of narcotic drugs with which to supply its own and Allied countries' war efforts, while being in a formidable position to deny enemy access to these valuable commodities—something the FBN was actively doing.

However, the war dramatically expanded the reach of drug control to include an array of pharmaceuticals that, while not classified as narcotics, were nevertheless deemed crucial for waging war, and the FBN's influence grew well beyond its previous jurisdiction. The National War Productions Board granted it authority over drug allocations for national defense and Commissioner Anslinger was directly involved in setting "wartime policy for the procurement of all drugs" and in decisions regarding "Allied drug requirements." When asked to clarify his concerns over wartime budgetary constraints and whether the FBN's activities were "not especially related to the war effort" but rather "national welfare," Anslinger was quick to point out the interconnectedness: "Our work with respect to critical and strategic materials all ties into the war effort." As the leader of a relatively young bureaucracy, Anslinger successfully argued the importance of drug control to national security and, in doing so, added to the FBN's (and his own) growing influence. The labels "critical" and "strategic" were defined by the Army and Navy Munitions Board as being materials "essential to national defense," with the strategic category referring to materials whose supply was dependent in whole or in part on sources outside the United States, while critical referred to materials essential for war but for which supply was not foreseen to be "as great a problem." This directly influenced the government's approach to the drug market. While world supplies of opium came from British India, Turkey, Asia, and Yugoslavia, the existing surpluses in US government stockpiles rendered the drug "critical" rather than "strategic." The only drug appearing on the list of strategic materials was the antimalarial quinine, essential for inoculating soldiers deployed to tropical areas. Before the war 95 percent of the raw materials used to manufacture quinine, cinchona bark, was grown in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and concern over supply disruptions were well founded.

In practice, contemporary officials considered a wide array of pharmaceuticals, both narcotic and nonnarcotic, to be essential to war mobilization, and the terms "strategic," "critical," and "defense material" were often used interchangeably to describe a wide array of drugs deemed important to maintaining national health, economic power, andstrategic advantage. In addition to narcotics stockpiles accumulated under Anslinger's early reign, in 1941 the US government identified a number of essential drug raw materials for stockpiling, including "50,000 pounds of aconite root, 200,000 pounds of belladonna leaves and 60,000 pounds of roots, 200,000 pounds of ergot rye, and 675,000 pounds of red squill." The production, stockpiling, and market controls involving drugs during the war were driven by pharmaceuticals' medicinal powers, but more importantly the focus and orientation on certain drugs was dictated by concerns over ease of access to raw materials prioritized for government war mobilization.


The war wrought a profound shift in the geography and political economy of the drug trade, and the US government and pharmaceutical industry gained the advantage. The principles and logic of international drug control became firmly tied to US national security and expansionist economic priorities. Before the war the world's pharmaceutical markets were dominated by colonial powers—particularly the United States, the Netherlands, England, and Germany—that were dependent on the steady flow of raw materials from regions across the global South. From the coca-rich Andes of Peru and Bolivia, to poppy fields in India and Turkey, to cinchona plantations in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, drug raw materials grew in regions that were especially vulnerable to wartime trade disruptions; some were outright colonies, others were dependent on exporting cash crops to pay for the importation of many basic goods, including medicines. The war disrupted and transformed these trade networks. In the first months of 1942, Japan's rapid military advance into the Philippines, Malaysia, and the East Indies cut off European and American access to raw materials from their colonies in the region, leaving them scrambling for alternatives, or languishing without drugs. In the West, the Allied blockade and German submarine warfare further impinged on a once-robust transatlantic pharmaceutical trade.

Excerpted from "We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire (American Crossroads)" by Suzanna Reiss. Copyright © 2013 by Suzanna Reiss. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews