Narcotics Policy

William O. Walker III

Efforts to control the production of and traffic in illicit drugs, commonly referred to as "the war on drugs," seem like a relatively recent phenomenon. The visibility of struggles since the late 1970s against drug organizations, or "cartels," based in the prosperous Colombian cities of Cali and Medellín did much to shape that perception. Narcotraffickers, as major figures in the South American drug business are called, were responsible for the influx of powdered cocaine, crack cocaine, and, increasingly since the late 1980s, heroin into the United States.

Public awareness of drug control as an aspect of U.S. foreign policy likely began with Operation Intercept in August 1969. U.S. officials designed Intercept as an intensive effort to curb the flow of marijuana and other drugs from Mexico into California. Within two years, as narcotics like heroin began entering the United States in unprecedented amounts from various points of origin, President Richard M. Nixon had declared a war on drugs, calling them a serious threat to the security of the nation.

The Colombian, Mexican, and other examples illustrate the fact that campaigns to control drugs have a history of their own, unknown though they may be. The impetus for international drug control, commencing at the beginning of the twentieth century, arose from concern among industrialized nations, most notably the United States, about the havoc that drugs could potentially wreak upon society. Alarmed at the incidence of opium smoking in their new colony in the Philippines, U.S. authorities acted to stamp out the practice among the overseas Chinese population. They discontinued Spain's contract system under which Chinese smokers had purchased opium from licensed dens. Surprisingly elimination of the Spanish system actually increased the availability of smoking opium in the islands and led as well to a greater incidence of usage by the Filipinos themselves.

The motivation behind opium prohibition was simultaneously moralistic and economic. In the eyes of reformers and U.S. officials, good Christians only consumed intoxicants like tobacco and alcohol if they consumed any such substances at all. The smoking of opium betokened spiritual degradation if not personal depravity. Moreover, colonials habituated to opium and opiates were deemed unproductive subjects who potentially could weaken a market economy. Drug usage therefore had no place in the American empire or, for that matter, in any colonial setting.

For nearly a century the United States clung to the idea of control at the source as the only possible path to effective drug control. Whether at international parleys or through bilateral and regional diplomatic efforts, U.S. officials steadfastly pursued this goal. At the same time, as this essay demonstrates, drug control did not, indeed could not, exist in a vacuum isolated from other foreign policy concerns. Ultimately this state of affairs meant that control at the source had to give way to competing, often more important, priorities. During World War II, for instance, drug policy reflected the exigencies of global war by encouraging the production of raw narcotic material should it be necessary for the medical needs of the Allies. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. drug control officials frequently subordinated their traditional objectives to larger security considerations. This practice all too often entailed countenancing involvement with illicit drugs by so-called security assets. In the 1990s, as the Cold War ended, efforts by the United States to promote comprehensive drug control abroad became indistinguishable from the very issues of governance and state stability. This was particularly true in the Andes, most notably in Colombia, and to a lesser extent in Mexico.


Bertram, Eva, et al. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. Berkeley, Calif., 1996. Critical overview of the proscriptive, punitive nature of U.S. domestic and foreign drug policies.

Courtwright, David T. Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, Mass., 2001. Outstanding assessment of the role of licit and illicit drugs in modern history.

Griffith, Ivelaw Lloyd. Drugs and Security in the Caribbean: Sovereignty Under Siege. University Park, Pa., 1997. Survey of the implications of the war on drugs in the Caribbean region.

Kwitny, Jonathan. The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money, and the CIA. New York, 1987. A skilled reporter's investigation of the links between illegal drugs and U.S. security interests in the 1970s and 1980s.

Lamour, Catherine, and Michel R. Lamberti. The International Connection: Opium from Growers to Pushers. Translated by Peter and Betty Ross. New York, 1974. Important book about the international dimensions of the modern commerce in illegal drugs.

McAllister, William B. Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History. London and New York, 2000. The finest scholarly survey on the subject.

McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. Brooklyn, N.Y., 1991. Updated, classic account of the post-1945 nexus of drugs and security policy throughout Asia.

Meyer, Kathryn, and Terry Parssinen. Webs of Smoke: Smugglers, Warlords, Spies, and the History of the International Drug Trade. Lanham, Md., 1998.

Morgan, H. Wayne. Drugs in America: A Social History, 1800–1980. Syracuse, N.Y., 1981.

Musto, David F. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. Expanded ed. New York, 1987. Best account of the origins and history of illegal drugs in the United States.

Powis, Robert E. The Money Launderers: Lessons from the Drug Wars, How Billions of Illegal Dollars Are Washed Through Banks and Businesses. Chicago, 1992.

Riley, Kevin Jack. Snow Job?: The War Against International Cocaine Trafficking. New Brunswick, N.J., 1996. Skeptical look at recent U.S. and international efforts to combat cocaine.

Scott, Peter Dale, and Jonathan Marshall. Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America. Updated ed. Berkeley, Calif., 1998. Riveting account of the convergence of drugs and U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s.

Stares, Paul B. Global Habit: The Drug Problem in a Borderless World. Washington, D.C., 1996. Cautionary account about the limits of drug control.

Taylor, Arnold. American Diplomacy and the Narcotics Traffic, 1900–1939: A Study in International Humanitarian Reform. Durham, N.C., 1969. A pathbreaking study of international drug control.

Tokatlian, Juan. Globalización, Narcotráfico y Violencia: Siete Ensayos sobre Colombia. Buenos Aires, 2000. An impassioned inquiry into the effect of drugs on Colombia late in the twentieth century.

Walker, William O., III. Drug Control in the Americas. Rev. ed. Albuquerque, N.Mex., 1989. Leading account of drug control as an issue in the Western Hemisphere.

——. Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912–1954. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991. International history of the drug problem in East Asia.

See also Intervention and Nonintervention ; The National Interest ; Pan-Americanism .

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: