Narcotics Policy - Origins of the drug-security nexus

The advent of global conflict in the late 1930s presented U.S. policymakers with an opportunity and a challenge. In the first place war in Europe and Asia slowed the world's illicit narcotics traffic, thus allowing Anslinger, Fuller, and George A. Morlock, who succeeded Fuller at the Department of State in 1941 upon Fuller's death, to strengthen U.S. influence over the global drug control movement by moving the operations of the Permanent Central Opium Board and the Drug Supervisory Body to the United States. By the end of the Second World War, U.S. officials were virtually setting the agenda of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in the newly created United Nations. The commission essentially accepted U.S. antinarcotics objectives as its own well into the 1970s.

Anslinger and his colleagues did not easily meet the challenge posed by global war, which brought into question his conviction that he and other antidrug officials should be seen as prominent policymakers in Washington. Yet during both the immediate prewar years and the war itself, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the narcotics office in the Department of State helped to maintain the security of the West against the Axis powers. On the most basic level, the FBN commissioner was responsible for meeting Allied demands for medicinal drugs. He did so under a directive issued through the War Production Board by working with the Defense Supplies Corporation and the Board of Economic Warfare. So long as the primary opium-producing nations outside of China neither fell to Germany or Japan nor adopted a neutral position in the war, Anslinger's task was fairly straightforward.

In the Americas the FBN learned, however, that Argentina and Chile might be producing opiates for Germany. There existed some fear too that opium from Peru and Mexico could find its way to the Axis. In the case of Argentina, Anslinger threatened unspecified reprisals against one major firm, Hoffmann-LaRoche Inc., if the allegations were proven. In the case of Peru, its role in the Allied war effort was secured by the sale of cocaine for medicinal needs through the lend-lease program. And in what can be interpreted as an important foray into the world of intelligence, the U.S. government may have paid informants as much as $10,000 per year during the war for information about drug production in Mexico.

Moreover, the inexorable spread of Japanese influence into the fertile poppy-growing regions of Burma gave the Japanese government a major source of opium for its medical needs. Anslinger and other U.S. officials did manage to prevent a similar accretion of Japanese power and influence in the Near East in Iran and Turkey by engaging in a preemptive purchase of large quantities of opium from those two willing suppliers. Anslinger would subsequently have the occasion in the early Cold War to reward the Iranian government for its wartime loyalty, if that is an apt description, to the Allied cause by not pressing the young shah on Iran's vast production of illicit opium, much of which found its way onto the black market in Indochina. Such diplomatic largess was repaid following the shah's ascension to the peacock throne in the wake of the coup of 1953 against Mohammad Mossaddeq's regime, when Iran became a reliable ally at the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs in the global struggle against drugs.

Providing the Allies with reliable sources of narcotics during the war and overseeing the maintenance of the global antiopium apparatus were not, however, the most important actions Anslinger undertook to guarantee the relevance of his bureau to U.S. global security interests. He avidly interpreted President Franklin D. Roosevelt's vague anticolonial sentiments regarding Southeast Asia as a clarion call to eliminate opium smoking from the former colonial possessions of France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Anslinger and officials in the State Department warned that continued opium smoking would render former colonies more susceptible to internal decay and, as a result, to either revolution or foreign subversion.

In the immediate aftermath of the war Anslinger was not so preoccupied with the FBN's role in the national security state that he ignored the opportunity to advance his country's supply-side agenda at the United Nations. Two examples demonstrate his remarkable attention to virtually all drug-related matters and at the same time reveal his apparent inability to learn from past experience about the limits of policies based upon the elusive goal of control at the source.

The end of the war witnessed both a gradual rise in drug use and addiction in the United States and the revival of an active, illicit drug trade from Mexico. Not satisfied with the dilatory response of the Mexican government to diplomatic overtures, Anslinger took Mexico to task in 1947 at the second meeting of the CND for what he saw as unacceptable laxity in its antidrug activity. The public rebuke evidently had the desired effect because officials in Mexico City soon promised to strengthen their antidrug efforts at home and became more actively involved in the work of the CND.

U.S. drug control authorities also feared that prosperity after the war might stimulate the international cocaine trade, which had substantially declined in volume even before the onset of the Great Depression. Hoping to prevent a recurrence they supported sending a mission to Bolivia and Peru, the purpose of which was to evaluate the place of coca in modern Andean society. Wartime developments led U.S. officials to believe that Peru might be willing to consider strictly controlling coca leaf production, but that hope proved premature. The Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf recalled the integral place of coca in the Andes and concluded that only either improved socioeconomic conditions in producing regions or stronger government action, meaning political will, could bring about the desired results. Important for present purposes is that nothing about the commission's findings, however negative in tone, persuaded U.S. officials to question their belief that Andean authorities were more or less favorably disposed toward a U.S.-style coca control program. The basic assumption that control at the source was a matter of time in the Andes would not be seriously challenged until the 1960s and after.

Instances like those involving Mexico and Bolivia and Peru were not unimportant to U.S. officials in the early Cold War, but they do not adequately show the intersection of security policy and drug control activities. It was in Asia that such a nexus was most readily discernible. FBN and State Department officials alleged that communists in China, like the Japanese before them, were prepared to ply their enemies with opium in order to suit their ideological ends. With the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party in October 1949 and its subsequent exclusion of Western influence from China, Anslinger's allegations about drug-related subversion of the West and Japan from Beijing could not be disproved. But having an adversary that was presumably willing to use narcotics as a weapon of war appeared to support the FBN chief's traditional supply-side strategy. The Chinese communists had learned a vital lesson, however, by observing the actions of imperial Japan as it sought to subjugate China in the late 1930s: a people drugged with opium do not make good subjects.

Communist China's centrality to the issue of drugs and security policy in the early Cold War merits elaboration. Traffic in heroin destined for Western markets resumed as World War II came to an end. Despite indications that the source of opium came partially from those areas of China controlled by the Kuomintang, Anslinger and the State Department were reluctant to blame their Chinese friends for the reappearance of the trade. For some months before the communists seized power and for some years thereafter, policymakers in Washington blamed Mao Zedong's forces for orchestrating the world heroin business. The less Western observers had access to China and its remote opium-growing regions, the stronger the allegations were against the communists. Occasional doubters, whether in London or Washington, were drowned out by the mass of unverifiable information emanating from the FBN and Foggy Bottom. The CND became an important vehicle for disseminating Anslinger's anti-China message.

It is hard not to conclude that a campaign of intentional disinformation was taking place. Available evidence indicates that to an extremely limited extent some communists did seek to exchange opiates for hard currency. There is no reliable indication, however, of a plan on the part of the Chinese Communist Party to demoralize the West with heroin. Instead it seems more likely that the head of the FBN, in making his allegations against the communists, actually was collaborating in the effort to hide covert operations against the Beijing government by Kuomintang forces operating out of the Golden Triangle, the heart of opium production and traffic in Asia. The objectives of U.S. security policy toward China, although in theory separate from drug control policy, had taken precedence over the pursuit of control at the source, which in the early 1950s was seen by some officials in Washington as an obstacle to the containment of communism.

In Thailand the logic of Cold War policy fashioned dubious linkages with unscrupulous leaders like General Phao Sriyanon, whose personal and political fortunes derived from and depended upon the trade in opium. Throughout Indochina numerous participants in the opium trade, whether in the hills or the cities, offered their allegiance to the United States and its allies in Saigon. In return their reliance upon opium as a source of income remained undisturbed and probably increased. The export trade in heroin from Southeast Asia grew rapidly. And in Indochina the appearance of U.S. advisers in the 1950s and combat forces a decade later sparked a resurgence of the regional drug trade. Thus the 1953 UN Opium Conference, which on paper adopted a spectrum of controls on opium, was an exercise in futility where Southeast Asia was concerned. Rising levels of drug usage and addiction in the West by 1960 and after resulted to some extent from a countenancing of the drug trade in the name of national security.

The convergence of narcotics policy and security interests in the early Cold War made drugs available to untold numbers of Americans. Another important long-term legacy of the drug and security policy nexus from the 1950s onward was the willingness of authorities to ignore the drug-related activities of Central Intelligence Agency assets such as the contras in Nicaragua, General Manuel Noriega in Panama, spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos in Peru, and others, until those assets became expendable. A drug policy bureaucracy that set aside its own primary goals in the name of security was virtually abandoning the right to define its own mission. Objectively, illicit drug trafficking constituted a serious foreign policy problem for the United States, not a dire threat to the nation. Yet the historical efforts of Anslinger and others to propagate a supply-side strategy as the only acceptable road to drug control rendered drug policy hostage to other, more important foreign and security policy interests. In this way the linkage between drugs and security was cemented. To perpetuate the influence of the FBN, drug control authorities accepted a subordinate place at the policymaking table.

In the 1960s several important developments marked U.S. drug control policy. As if in testimony to Harry Anslinger's tenure as narcotics commissioner, which came to a close in 1962, nations from around the world signed and ultimately ratified the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, thereby placing under one instrument nearly all international antidrug accords. A consensus, more symbolic than real, had been reached favoring a supply-side approach to drug control. The practical effect for Washington of the convention was to place increasing emphasis upon bilateral relations. In that process frustration became the order of the day: drugs from Southeast Asia continued to reach consumers in the West. Latin America became an even greater source for cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Demand for drugs by recreational consumers and chronic users seemed to rise exponentially. Organizational changes did little to reduce demand; without Anslinger the FBN, mired in scandal, became in 1968 the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). But the BNDD had no leader with Anslinger's stature to dominate the policymaking process.

Chaos, however, did not necessarily come to characterize U.S. drug policy. The 1960s had begun with an appeal from Mexico to the Eisenhower administration for antidrug help. By 1964 the Agency for International Development (AID) in the State Department had devised a program that previewed the future direction of U.S. antidrug assistance programs. Included in the aid package were funds for both crop eradication and weapons to combat the illicit traffic out of Mexico. Throughout Lyndon Johnson's presidency U.S. authorities tried but were unable to formalize trans-border antidrug operations with Mexico.

In the Andes an Inter-American Consultative Group on Coca Leaf Problems met at Lima in 1964 but achieved little. Bolivia refused even to sign the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs until 1975, and Peru, although a signatory power, declared that reducing its coca crop could not be considered for perhaps twenty-five years. Complicating the already sensitive relations between Washington and Lima was the creation of a national coca monopoly in 1969.

Notwithstanding these several setbacks in the cause of drug control, the earlier linkage of drugs and security offered a new way to promote drug control. A variant of supply-side tactics, the road to drug control would increasingly emphasize law enforcement as part of a general foreign aid package. U.S. policymakers in the 1960s worried that the "revolution of rising expectations" in the Third World, which encompassed important drug-producing countries, could not easily be controlled. They nevertheless sought to do so by tying together development and security assistance as provided to local law enforcement programs by AID, part of which was intended to be used for narcotics control. It is not clear from available evidence whether the drug control performance of producer states improved, but that outcome is doubtful given the frequent additional funding that Washington made available for drug control in the 1970s and after. Drug control, therefore, had all but disappeared by the late 1960s as an autonomous foreign policy issue. Starting in 1969 the association between drugs and security would grow closer still.

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