The debate over illegal drugs in the U.S. has long focused on legalization versus increased prosecution, treatment versus harsher sentences. But what’s been missing on both sides of the debate is a meaningful understanding of the history and politics behind drug production and prohibition. What’s the relationship, for example, between the Cold War and skyrocketing drug use in the U.S. and Europe? And why is it that, in the nearly one hundred years since the U.S. passed its first anti-drug law, the global traffic in drugs has grown astronomically?
Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, has literally written the book on the complex relationship among drugs, prohibition, and power. Now in its third edition, the book got its start in 1970, when McCoy’s editor at Harper & Row suggested he write about the explosion of heroin use among American soldiers in Vietnam. At the outset, McCoy met General Maurice Belleux, former chief of French Intelligence for Indochina, who revealed to him that the CIA, like its French predecessor, was involved in the opium trade. When beat poet and antiwar activist Allen Ginsberg heard what McCoy was writing about, he sent years’ worth of unpublished dispatches from Time-Life correspondents — lifted from the magazine publisher’s files — documenting the involvement of U.S. allies in drug trafficking. Then came the stories from Vietnam veterans of CIA helicopters transporting opium in Laos and truck convoys carrying opium down the Ho Chi Minh trail, destined for American troops in South Vietnam. That’s when the death threats began.
Since then McCoy’s life has been threatened many times. While he was doing research in Laos in 1971, members of the CIA’s secret army ambushed and shot at him and his colleagues. But he persevered, going from the Hmong villages in the Laotian highlands, to the neon bars of Saigon, to the homes of the region’s major drug lords. Everywhere he went, he asked about the history of the drug trade in the region, starting in the past, when the trade was legal, and working his way up to the present. His strategy worked.
Despite the CIA’s attempts to suppress it, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia came out in 1972. McCoy revised the book in 1991, shortening the title and including the story of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan and that country’s subsequent increase in opium production. For the 1991 edition, McCoy wrote, “Over the past twenty years, the CIA has moved from local transport of raw opium in the remote mountains of Laos to apparent complicity in the bulk transport of pure cocaine directly into the United States.” He could now point to a pattern of how, over and over, “America’s drug epidemics have been fueled by narcotics supplied from areas of major CIA operations, while periods of reduced heroin use coincide with the absence of CIA activity.”
Controversy continues to follow McCoy. A few days before I interviewed him at his office at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a crowd of protesters had gathered outside his building. The town of Madison had turned down a request by its Hmong community to name a park after General Vang Pao, a leader in the CIA’s secret army during the Vietnam War. One of the reasons the city gave for its refusal was McCoy’s account of Pao’s involvement in the opium trade and his disregard for the lives of the Hmong people who fought under him on behalf of the CIA. The protesters included veterans of Pao’s army. McCoy said he had met some of them before. In fact, Pao’s troops were the ones who had ambushed him in Laos years ago.
In addition to writing The Politics of Heroin, McCoy has spent years investigating the drug trade in Australia and written and edited other books on drug trafficking, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. More recently, he has worked as a consultant and commentator on television and film documentaries about the global drug trade. The latest revised and updated edition of The Politics of Heroin — and the last, McCoy says — has just been released by Lawrence Hill & Co. It is, he says, his “life’s work.”
Derrick Jensen: Your first book’s title was The Politics of Heroin. What are the politics of heroin? What does that mean?
Alfred McCoy: Narcotics and addiction are not simply products of individual social deviance, of individual weakness, of psychological problems. Narcotics have emerged over the last three centuries as a major global commodity. They’re embedded within international politics. And whether it was a free trade in narcotics for two centuries or more recently a century of prohibition, you can’t understand narcotics without understanding the global politics that surround the traffic in drugs and the politics of their prohibition.
Commodities are not simply goods we buy and sell. They’re the building blocks of modern material life. They shape culture. They shape politics. And whether we encourage trade in a particular commodity or attempt to prohibit it, both acts are intensely political. So, you can’t separate a study of narcotics—their production, traffic, and consumption—from the political processes involved at every stage. Narcotics are one of the most intensely political commodities on the planet.
To understand what those platitudes mean, you’ve got to go into historical specifics.
To begin at the beginning, there are two basic categories of narcotics within international treaties today. One of them I call natural narcotics, derived from plants, and the other is synthetics, creations of the modern pharmaceutical industry.
That said, the globalization of the trade in narcotics is generally associated with opium, the most venerable of drugs. Opium’s historic home was the eastern Mediterranean, where it has been found in numerous sites dating from 2500 BCE, and a few others much earlier. By the eighth century of the Common Era—Eighth Century AD—opium had spread, both in its cultivation and trade, across the breadth of Asia for five thousand miles from modern day Turkey to southeastern China. As it spread, it became engrained in formal and folk pharmacopoeia. Opium was well known in classical Greek and Roman pharmacopoeia, and somewhat later in Chinese as well. And it’s embedded within folk practices all the way across that five thousand-mile strip from the eastern Mediterranean to southeastern China. Still, opium wasn’t a major commodity until the eighteenth century: it remained, for most its history, in limited production with very limited use.
The situation began to change in the sixteenth century. Members of the Mogul empire used opium recreationally, leading to expanded production within India. But again use was fairly limited and its trade was regional, not international. That all began to change quite dramatically in the seventeenth century, as European empires inserted themselves within inter-Asian trade.
DJ: How did that work?
AM: The European empires profited not only by moving goods from Asia—classically spices—to Europe, but also by moving goods within Asia. The Dutch East India Company, starting in the seventeenth century, began shipping opium from Bengal through their base on Java up to China. Then, beginning in the 1720s, the British East India Company got heavily involved in the traffic, until by the 1770s, following the logic of mercantilism, the British East India Company established a monopoly over the cultivation, processing, and auctioning of Bengal opium for export to Asia. The company informally restricted auction sales to recognized merchants who were either British or Indian, and generally excluded others, for example Americans. That launched a rapidly rising export from India to China that led to a phenomenal increase in the scale of the trade. By the late 1700s, the opium trade between Bengal and Canton became the middle leg in one of the world’s greatest trade triangles, involving in each leg about twenty to twenty-five million pounds sterling.
DJ: How did that work?
AM: The British East India Company collected opium, processed it in their factories, then auctioned it in Calcutta, from whence it sailed through the Straits of up to Canton. From there it was distributed across southeast China. Those opium imports into China then financed the British purchase of tea, primarily, and other Chinese trade goods—for example, China: porcelain wares—that were shipped from Canton to the United Kingdom, with another twenty to twenty-five million pounds sterling on that leg. These Chinese imports, in turn, financed the purchase and export of cotton goods, particularly cotton thread, from the United Kingdom back to India. That well-balanced trade triangle was the heart of Britain’s global empire by the early nineteenth century.
Meanwhile, very aggressive Yankee American merchants were anxious to join that trade. Because they were informally excluded from the auctions at Calcutta, they began loading opium at Smyrna, Turkey and shipping it around the Horn of Africa. Americans probably got as much as about twenty percent of the China opium trade, and made substantial profits from the Turkey to China opium route.
Consumption of opium rose dramatically during the nineteenth century in both Asian and the West. China, for complex social reasons in the midst of political/cultural turmoil, appeared to have an almost limitless capacity to absorb these opium imports. And there was a tremendous rise of opium’s use in patent medicines in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In the late nineteenth century, the European pharmaceutical industry began to apply the modern technology of industrial chemistry to this venerable commodity. In the 1870s, they discovered diacetylmorphine—a chemical compound created by bonding morphine from the opium poppy with a common industrial chemical, acetic anhydride. In 1898, the Bayer Corporation launched diacetylmorphine as a perfect cure for infant respiratory ailments, giving it the short, snappy marketing name heroin. A year later they came up with an analgesic which they also felt was ideal for children’s respiratory ailments, and gave that one the short snappy trade name aspirin. Not many people know that the American Medical Association at first recommended heroin for infant respiratory ailments. It was widely used and abused, and the historian David Musto has estimated that there were something like 300,000 American opium and heroin addicts by about 1900. We, of course, have a evocative literary representation of this trend in Eugene O’Neill’s classic play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, about his own mother’s addiction. It’s a very accurate portrait of the typical American opium addict of the time. Women of the lower-middle, middle, and upper classes were barred by social practice from barrooms—alcohol addiction in the late nineteenth century was essentially a male problem—so, excluded from that public space and confined to a nurturing role, women often encountered into this highly addictive drug opium marketed as a treatment for children’s ailments. It was a natural convergence.
Through all of these processes, by about 1900, opium had grown into a major global commodity. The Chinese government did a survey in 1906 and concluded that 27 percent of the adult male population of China—27 percent!—were opium addicts. If you divide that by half you’ve got 13.5 percent of the entire population. Today, the highest level of narcotics addiction in the globe, according to the United Nations, is Iran, and they’re at about 3.5 percent. So 13.5 percent is off the charts. And that 3.5 percent is very high. Number two is about 2.0 or 2.1 percent.
DJ: What is it in the US?
AM: About 0.7 percent today.
DJ: So that would be almost twenty times.
AM: It was so astronomical it became an international scandal.
To round out this history, by 1900 the global commodity trade in opiates had three elements. One was the enormous abuse in China, which was now fed two ways. The first was British imports, which began dropping after 1858 when China legalized the importation of opium: Britain and China had fought two wars over Britain’s importation of this drug—the First Opium War of 1840 and the Second Opium War of 1858. After the last of these wars, China was forced to open its ports and legalize the importation of opium, which to that time had been smuggled into China. When the ban on opium was removed, the Chinese government encouraged domestic production to reduce the outflow of silver, and there was a boom in domestic opium production, particularly in southwestern China. So the first element was a vast consumer market in China, declining British/Indian imports, and expanding Chinese cultivation.
The second feature of the global trade circa 1900 was the legal opium den in Southeast Asia. By the 1890s, all of the European colonial governments and the one independent government—the Kingdom of Siam, now Thailand—had state-licensed opium monopolies that provided substantial shares of their tax revenue: about fifteen percent in the case of Siam; twenty percent in the case of French Indochina; and an extraordinary fifty-three percent in British Malaya.
And of course the third aspect was the legal sale of patent medicines containing addictive levels of opiates or cocaine.
The level of abuse of the free trade in this commodity—opium—sparked a global movement for its prohibition. This was an overwhelmingly a Protestant movement that started particularly among Quakers in the United Kingdom in the 1870s and merged ideologically and politically with the larger temperance movement in Europe, the United States, and the English-speaking settler colonies. This powerful, global movement soon started a second phase in the political history of narcotics, moving from an era of free trade to an era of prohibition.
Prohibition has proceeded as a combination of international convention and parallel domestic legislation. This is different than attempts at alcohol prohibition, which have been dealt with primarily at the local or national levels. Right from the start, the prohibition of narcotics was a global movement.
DJ: Because it was based on global trade?
AM: It’s a global commodity, therefore the solution had to be global. Moreover, it was concentrated in Asia and embedded within imperialism.
The British prohibitionists had a precedent for their movement: the anti-slavery campaign. That movement was again an idealistic, religious-based movement that started in the United Kingdom and led to the prohibition not of owning slaves but of acquiring and trafficking in slaves. The British navy operated on the high seas, arresting slavers and freeing slaves. At the outset, they didn’t, however, bar slavery within British imperial territories. Nonetheless, that global movement of using British imperial power to create an international norm, a sanction, both political and moral, against a practice, and then to negotiate treaties and launch movements that would combine the power of the British empire with a populist movement in the United Kingdom to produce a global change, was the model for this prohibition movement. The anti-slavery movement was, for its time, brilliantly successful. And if that movement dominated the first half of the nineteenth century, then the global anti-opium movement used the same tactics and similarly dominated political space in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The movement’s first major success was the 1907 Anglo-Chinese Opium Treaty, in which China and British India agreed that, step by step, China would extirpate its own domestic production and Britain would reduce its opium exports from Bengal to China. At the end of ten years, by 1917, India’s opium exports to China would end, and opium production in China would disappear.
The United States was in the thick of this global debate. We conquered and occupied the Philippines in 1898, and when we did so we were shocked to find that as a result of purchasing the Philippines from Spain in the Treaty of Paris we had acquired, along with seven thousand islands and six million Filipinos. a state opium monopoly. Opium wasn’t as important in the Spanish colonial finances as it was in other European empires in Southeast Asia, but it was nonetheless significant. The United States, as a result of moral opposition among Protestant churches, established an opium commission in the Philippines in 1906, and by 1908 had barred the legal consumption of opium in the Philippines. Finding that we were faced tremendous opium smuggling into Manila from China that undercut our prohibition, the United States convened an international opium commission at Shanghai in 1909. That was just a talking forum, but it reached a consensus that the non-medicinal use of opium—the recreational use of the drug—should be banned. That led directly to the First International Anti-Opium Convention in 1912 at the Hague, where nations pledged voluntarily that they would neither produce nor sanction the consumption of drugs for non-medicinal use. Two years later that treaty led in turn to the first of our U.S. anti-drug laws, the Harrison Anti-Narcotics Act of 1914. That’s the start of the American drug war. Six years later the Volstead Act was passed, prohibiting alcohol sales and leading to the formation of the Prohibition Unit within the US Treasury Department that tried to enforce this ban in the United States.
We don’t hear so much about this aspect, but the Prohibition Unit actually had two divisions: alcohol and narcotics. By 1930 the alcohol division had become outrageously corrupt. To separate the anti-narcotics unit from this near-absolute corruption in alcohol prohibition, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created in 1930. That agency has gone through several bureaucratic successions to become the US Drug Enforcement Administration or DEA.
The League of Nations soon drafted prohibition conventions. The United Nations, established after World War II, inherited the League’s mission, and has passed a succession of four or five major conventions that move from voluntary compliance and registration to actual international criminal enforcement. The interweaving of global conventions or treaties with domestic legislation has created a very powerful worldwide prohibition regime.
By 1931, the League of Nations had drafted a fairly rigid convention that was brilliantly successful at reducing legal opium and heroin production. What it didn’t eliminate, however, was global demand. So the prohibition of narcotics became the precondition for a vast underground commerce and the whole sector of international trade we now call transnational organized crime.
If we look back at the seventy year history of this global prohibition regime, we’ll find, as the United Nations did when they convened a special session of the General Assembly to assess the narcotics problem in 1998, that the vast international global commerce in this commodity, opium, that flourished at the start of the twentieth century was still flourishing at its end. The UN conservatively estimated international trafficking in illicit drugs at $400 billion a year, equivalent to eight percent of world trade, and larger than textiles, steel, or automobiles. Now, what are human fundamentals? Food, shelter, clothing. The international trade in illicit drugs is larger than the trade in one of three human fundamentals: clothing. That’s phenomenal. Moreover, a subsequent review done by the UN’s lead agency in the drug war, the UN Drug Control Program or UNDCP, calculated that there are three million three hundred thousand people employed as professional transnational criminals. Everything from Chinese triads to former East German/Soviet Block mafia to the New York Mafia, the Cosa Nostra. Think about those numbers for a moment: 3,300,000 people involved in a global illicit traffic that is eight percent of world trade.
This powerful underground economy—with its labor pool, its criminal syndicates, and its vast consumer base—serving as a potentially powerful mechanism for extralegal or covert operational capacity for nation-states. Beginning in the 1920s, right from the time these syndicates emerge, we begin to see, in areas where the transnational drug traffic is particularly active, very important alliances between syndicate activity, state security services, and political control.
The first case came almost immediately, in the late 1920s. One of the groups that emerged in China, in Shanghai, was a very powerful Chinese secret society called the Green Gang, which had the opium concession inside the French Concession in Shanghai. They worked as adjuncts to the French colonial police. Now, in 1927, as the Nationalists marched north from Canton and took Shanghai and Nanking, there was a split between the Communists and the Nationalists. The Green Gang allied with the Nationalist regime and its security apparatus to slaughter the Communists and give the Nationalists political control over Shanghai. That was probably the first major incident in which we see the utility of a narcotics syndicate to those seeking political control, and more broadly the power that comes from control over narcotics.
DJ: That power can be not only overtly political, but can also affect, for example, the relationship between employers and employees. Addiction creates a dependent labor pool. You’ve written about this with prostitutes, but it clearly applies to other jobs as well.
AM: Whenever you look at the relationship between narcotics trafficking and syndicate criminality, from the late 1920s onward, one of the common denominators right around the globe is that drug trafficking syndicates very quickly move into prostitution. Males in control of local prostitutes use narcotics to amplify their power. This was true in Sydney in the 1920s, where the main drug was cocaine. Sydney didn’t have firearms, so the pimps used cutthroat straight razors to fight each other. This was a period in Sydney’s history of the so called the razor gang wars. The razor was a very effective weapon of intimidation to force prostitutes to pay up, because a woman’s face was her advertisement. Putting a twenty- or thirty-stitch slash across a face ruined income potential. Moreover, the pimps—not just in Sydney but around the world—discovered that the combination of narcotics with the physically demanding, degrading work of sexual service meant they could transform an independent entrepreneur—an independent sex worker, in this case—into somebody who basically works for drugs. They could then get profits from their workers two ways. One, they sell them drugs, and have a guaranteed customer who’s absolutely reliable and secure. Second, the drug dependence means that prostitutes need to keep working to earn money for drugs and allows the male gangster to expropriate all of a woman’s non-subsistence income.
This was just as true in the United States. In the 1930s Lucky Luciano ran somewhere around a thousand prostitutes in New York City. He was also heavily involved in narcotics distribution.
This synergy of drugs and commercial sex work is a near universal feature of organized crime. In Saigon in the 1950s, the Binh Xuyen bandits controlled opium dens and the world’s largest brothel, the Hall of Mirrors, with 1200 women working under one roof. Similar relationships existed in Marseilles in the 1920s and 1930s. The economic logic, the labor logic, is pretty clear.
DJ: It seems we had a lost opportunity at the end of World War II to drastically reduce the traffic.
AM: We can’t say what would have happened had people and governments acted differently than they did. We don’t know. We can say, however, that there was a confluence of factors in the late 1940s that some have hypothesized might have led to a substantial reduction or even elimination of the global traffic in illicit drugs. The first factor was, obviously, the increasing effectiveness of the global prohibition regime. The second was the worldwide disruption of all trade and the incredibly rigid security regime imposed upon ports around the globe during World War II to stop sabotage, espionage, and the like. The third factor was that soon after World War II, in 1949, the Communist Chinese came to power in China, and ran what was the world’s most successful opium eradication effort. In the space of about five years, they extirpated opium production and eliminated mass narcotics addiction.
So, yes, the confluence of those factors could lead one to say that maybe this was a missed opportunity. But we’ll never know what might have transpired if the Cold War hadn’t happened, and if Western bloc intelligence agencies hadn’t used the potential and power of the underground economy and its criminal syndicates to fight communism. If the CIA hadn’t existed, would we not have the levels of addiction we see today? I can’t say.
But I can say that covert operations played a significant role in the expansion of the illicit traffic after World War II. Let me explain how that happened. Beginning in the late 1940s, in one of history’s accidents, the Iron Curtain came crashing down on along the Asian opium zone. That mountain rim that stretches for five thousand miles from Turkey to Thailand became the southern frontier of anti-communist containment. This was also the southern border of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. For forty years, from 1950 till 1990, the US CIA fought three major covert wars along this southern frontier, this soft underbelly of communism.
The CIA, in an attempt to contain communism, fought three large covert wars—not just espionage, but actual secret wars—in this rugged terrain, generally at the margins of states—states that often didn’t support our efforts—in ethnic minority areas where the main commodity, the main crop, was opium. The CIA found very quickly that to fight covert wars in such remote mountains it had to ally with highland warlords, who in turn used the CIA’s protection and logistics to transform themselves into major drug lords.
These covert operations have several attributes in common. First, when they start there’s generally limited and localized opium production. Very quickly, however, both the scale and scope of the traffic expands enormously. Second, the tribal warlords use the covert operation to amplify their power, becoming drug lords in control of this expanded traffic. Then there’s a third phase that comes once these operations are over. Because these secret wars have been conducted outside conventional diplomacy, beyond Congressional oversight, beyond the line agencies that fight our wars and clean up in their aftermath, they never happened. There’s no post-war settlement. There’s no treaty or post-war reconstruction. So these regions are turned into covert war wastelands in which only the poppy will flower. In the aftermath of these covert wars, an expanded drug traffic serves as an ad hoc form of postwar reconstruction.
Let’s survey the three major areas where the CIA fought covert wars during the Cold War. There’s Burma, where the CIA fought a covert war during the 1950s. There’s Laos, where the CIA fought between 1964 and 1974. And there’s Afghanistan, where the CIA backed mujaheddin guerillas against the Soviet occupation from 1979 to, depending on how you want to count it, 1989 or 1992. These are long wars. The US was involved in World War I less than two years, and World War II for four. These are ten—and in the case of Afghanistan—twelve year wars. In some cases these wars involved massive military operations. The largest bombing campaign in history was the US air operation in Laos in support of the CIA’s secret war.
In the aftermath of these wars, these societies are ravaged and transformed. In 1957-1958, authorities in northeastern Burma estimated local opium production at about eighteen tons. By 1970 it was estimated at 300 tons. The net result of this CIA covert operation was that northeastern Burma went from localized tribal opium production to being the heart of the global heroin trade. These days, Burma is counted, depending on the year, as the world’s number one or number two opium producer. Laos went from limited production to being generally the world’s number three opium producer today. The purest case of transformation was Afghanistan. At the time we got involved in Afghanistan its opium production ranged between one hundred and two hundred tons from the 1930s to the 1970s. Within the entire central Asian region–Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan–there was localized opium production, and regional trade in opium for smoking, particularly from Afghanistan westward into Iran. But there was no heroin production, and the region was not involved in the international traffic. Once the covert war started, opium production in Afghanistan boomed, going from 200 tons in 1981 to 2000 tons by 1991, a tenfold increase. By 1981, two years into the secret war, Afghanistan, in concert with western Pakistan, had gone from a regional opium grower to the world’s largest heroin producer, supplying, according to the US Attorney General, sixty percent of the US heroin supply and about 80 percent of Europe’s illicit heroin. By that time, Europe’s heroin market was, of course, larger than our own. Pakistan went from zero heroin addicts in 1979 to 1.2 million by 1985, and today they have the world’s second largest addiction problem after Iran with 1.7 percent of the adult population heroin users. Today, the world’s three leading producers of illicit opium—Afghanistan, Burma, and Laos—are the sites of former CIA covert wars, each of which ran a decade or more.
DJ: I’m sorry if I’m being dense, but how is it in the CIA’s interests to do this?
AM: Before we get to that, we need to make a distinction. During the First Indochina War, from 1947 to 1954, when the French were fighting the communists in Vietnam, their military intelligence actually took over the drug traffic from 1950 to 1954, and used it to finance their covert operations. They had paratroopers fighting alongside mountain guerillas—usually Hmong, and the Hmong are traditional opium growers—in northern Tonkin, northern Laos. The paratroopers would collect the opium; and the French air force would fly in, pick up the opium, fly it down to Saigon; and there the Binh Xuyen bandits, the criminals I described earlier, would sell the drugs through illegal opium dens. That traffic provided much of the covert operational budget for the French military, from 1950 to 1954.
The CIA’s not like that. Much of the controversy, particularly during the recent Dark Alliance debate, revolved around whether or not the CIA was actually sanctioning dealers. That’s a simplification of a complex geopolitics, and the CIA inspector’s report in the Dark Alliance controversy, said, “No CIA operative has ever been involved.” That has, at least as far as I am concerned, never been the issue. Such statements are a gross simplification of the complex political dynamics involved.
Basically, when the Agency mounts a covert operation in a drug zone, whether production or transit, a small number of CIA operatives, often a handful, form an alliance with one or more highland warlords. These agents provide their warlord allies with arms, supplies, funds, food, and political support. They do this not only to make that tribal leader militarily or operationally effective, but also so he’ll increase his power over his tribe or mass base. He’ll draw more recruits to fight in a more determined and committed way. Now, along this soft, southern frontier of anti-communist containment, which coincides so neatly with the Asian opium zone, the sole cash crop in most areas is opium. So as the tribal warlord takes over the opium trade, he also takes over the household economy of every farming family. In the case of Laos, for example, this support allowed the CIA’s secret army to transform the Hmong people from scattered, disparate tribe into the mass base for a very effective secret army. So, it’s in the CIA’s interest to tolerate opium traffic because it increases the political power of the Agency’s chosen ally. It also makes the CIA’s covert army more effective. Moreover, as the fighting gets going, and male fighters are drawn off the land into warfare and suffer heavy casualties, the male labor pool drops. Opium, at least the harvesting, is in many highland cultures women’s work. The males may clear land and plant but the women harvest, and a poppy field can stay in production in Southeast Asia for as long as a decade. This means the women are productively employed in a high-income cash crop, which cuts down the total cost of maintaining tribal populations, the mass base for the CIA’s surrogate army. This gender division of labor means your welfare support costs for your tribal allies goes down. The political stature and operational effectiveness of your chosen ally goes up. So in covert warfare across the Asian opium zone, it’s a very effective political strategy to tolerate the illicit opium traffic.
Crucially, these covert war zones become enforcement-free areas, where international or local law enforcement doesn’t venture. The classic case of this was Afghanistan in the 1980s. During this decade, the Afghanistan borderlands were rapidly transformed into the world’s largest heroin producing zone. Literally hundreds of heroin kitchens lined the Afghan/Pakistan border, supplying sixty percent of the US heroin demand, a mushrooming market inside Pakistan, and up to eighty percent of European demand. During this period, the US Drug Enforcement Administration had a large detachment of seventeen officers in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. They participated in very unproductive work that led to no investigations, no seizures, no arrests. They stayed right out of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, where the heroin industry was sited because this was the base area of the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan and these traffickers were our covert-action allies. Moreover, during the 1980s the northwestern frontier was under the control of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence, ISI—one of the organizations that armed and supplied the Taliban for the seizure of power inside Afghanistan between 1994 and 1996—and it became the frontline agency for the CIA in the delivery of arms and training to Afghani fighters. The heroin labs operated under the control and protection of the ISI, making them enormously powerful. When these critical areas are suddenly removed from the vice-grip of prohibition, production mushrooms astronomically.
Another case was Central America. As the Contra operation was gearing up in the early 1980s, the US Drug Enforcement Agency assigned an agent named Tomas Zepeda to Honduras to monitor the flow of Colombian cocaine through Central America, particularly Honduras, to the United States. He began generating intelligence showing that the Honduran military, especially the senior commanders, were taking bribes from the Colombian cartels to allow light aircraft to fly from Colombia to Central America, then re-fuel and either shoot north to Mexico or northeast into Florida. Zepeda began collecting this intelligence, and his office was closed down, not to open again until the late 1980s, by which time of course the CIA Contra war was going better, and this intelligence was no longer so critical or controversial.
Another classic case developed during the various cutoffs of US aid to the Contras. At one point in the late 1980s, the CIA needed an operational base in the Bay Islands off Honduras, so they formed an alliance with the Allen Hyde syndicate, which controlled the Bay Islands, using it for warehouses and docks to supply its Contra allies with arms and ammunition. Allen Hyde, according to reports from the DEA and US customs, was one of the largest cocaine traffickers in the Caribbean: he had thirty ships on the high seas. There was clear intelligence that he was a major violator moving cocaine from the Caribbean into the United States. The CIA formed an alliance with him. Buried deep in the back pages of volume two of the CIA’s Inspector General’s report into the so-called Dark Alliance controversy, beginning at paragraph 913, something the media didn’t cover, are pages of detailed documentation showing that the CIA knew its asset was a major drug violator, the Agency allied with him to gain access to logistic facilities, and, most importantly, that it protected him from any investigation for five years during the peak flow of cocaine into the United States.
DJ: Hasn’t the CIA also at the very least allowed its airplanes to be used for transportation?
AM: There’s one particular case of that, in Laos from the late 1960s probably up to 1971. The Hmong, who were the main opium growers and also the mass base of the CIA’s secret army, lived on highland ridges above three thousand feet. They were linked together into an army by a network of two hundred dirt landing strips accessed by a CIA proprietary airline called Air America.
In 1971, when I was doing research for my book The Politics of Heroin, to get a sense of how the traffic was operating, I hiked into Hmong villages in northern Laos, at the western edge of the Plain of Jars region. These villages had been participating in the CIA’s secret war since its inception in 1964. I went house to house, and the picture was pretty clear in the two villages where I was able to conduct my opium survey. Farmers were harvesting about five to ten kilos of raw opium each. At the end of harvest season, they took the pungent, raw opium, wrapped in banana leaves, down to the landing strip—and the farmers were absolutely consistent on this score—where an Air America helicopter came in from the CIA’s secret base at Long Tieng. Hmong officers—usually captain rank—in the CIA’s secret army got out, paid the tribesmen cash for their opium, loaded it on the helicopters and flew away in the direction of the CIA base at Long Tieng.
The reason the CIA’s complicity in the local opium trade was complex. First, the Hmong were traditional poppy growers whose economy revolved around the production of two crops: rice for subsistence and opium for cash. Up until the mid-1960s Laotians, some Hmong, and some overseas Chinese would lead strings of pack horses into villages and buy the opium, or the farmers would hike down to local markets and sell it there. It’s a very light commodity and commands a high price per weight. As the communist guerillas and the North Vietnamese forces began sweeping through these valleys, the war disrupted all transportation beneath the ridges. So Air America was the only way in and out of the Hmong villages. If they were going to market their opium, it was going to be on Air America: there was no alternative. And the commodity was one of the pillars of the economic survival of this people. So it was pretty logical that Air America would be used to get this cash crop to market.
The use of Air America amplified the power of the warlords: the CIA gave the Hmong commanders of its secret army the right to authorize all aircraft going into and out of these villages. Before the CIA’s aircraft would fly in to pick up opium or fly over and drop rice, there had to be an authorization from the secret army’s commanders. And because of casualties as the secret war spread, rice production crashed. Villages were no longer self-sufficient in rice. The delivery of relief rice into villages, and the transport of opium out, gave the Hmong commanders of the CIA’s secret army a grip, a stranglehold on the household economy of every single farming family.
I saw the consequences of this control. As this war ground on—when I was there it was in its seventh year—tremendous casualties threatened the tribe with almost generational extinction of young males. A US Air Force report in 1971 said the war had decimated the Hmong population, and that many families were down oftentimes to ten-year-old males. So why did the Hmong keep fighting for the CIA? When I went into those villages to do my opium survey, it was at a particularly tense time because the CIA’s secret army had put out a call for fourteen-year-olds. The village elders had gotten together and said, “No. We’ve lost everybody above this age, and if we start handing over the fourteen-year-olds and then the thirteen-year-olds and all the rest that are going to follow, who are going to be the men who will marry the women and produce the next generation? We’re going to die. We can’t do this.”
When this district refused to send its young males for the slaughter, its rice got cut off. And they were hungry. That was actually the reason I was able to do my research. The first day I walked into the village, I sat down with the district leader, and he said, “What do you want?”
I said: “I want to know about opium.”
Now, this was a nonliterate—not illiterate but nonliterate, because the Hmong were nonliterate—person. He said, “Can you get an article in a newspaper in Washington, DC, saying that we gave our sons to fight for the CIA’s secret army, and part of the deal was that we would get rice?”
I replied: “I know the correspondent for the Washington Post. I can tell him your situation. I can’t guarantee, but I can try.”
“You can go ask anybody you want about the opium,” he said. “ And I’ll give you some guys to go with you, because there’s a lot of guerrilla activity out there.”
I talked to the people in his village, basically asking the same questions over and over: How much opium do you produce? What do you do at harvest time? Where do you take it? How much do you get for it?
In that village, we found a Hmong captain radioing in reports to the command of the CIA’s secret army about the questions we were asking. As we made our way to the next village a few kilometers away to continue our opium survey, some soldiers in Vang Pao’s army ambushed us, tried to kill us. When we got back down to the capital Vientiane, I went to see the head of USAID, Charlie Mann, who had ambassadorial rank. I complained both that CIA militia tried to kill us, and that the rice had been cut off. The rice was supposed to be humanitarian relief. Then I spoke to the Washington Post correspondent. Within days, a small article appeared in the back pages of the Washington Post. As that non-literate Hmong leader had predicted with such uncanny accuracy, USAID sent in the rice—Air America’s C-130 cargo planes bombarded that village with rice. But that’s how that system operated: the opium and rice amplified the warlord’s power and allowed him to extract soldiers, in this case boy soldiers, for slaughter in the CIA’s secret war.
DJ: You mentioned Burma before. How did that all begin?
AM: ED: In 1949, the communist Red Army drove the Nationalist forces out China in two directions, southeast to Taiwan and southwest across the border into northeastern Burma, leaving some fourteen thousand remnants in those rugged borderlands. When the Korean War started and Chinese forces intervened, President Harry Truman gave the CIA orders to launch a covert invasion of southwestern China. His hope was that the masses would rise up in China’s southwest, and the Chinese government might be forced to withdraw forces from its antipodes in the northeast, in north Korea.
So, the CIA mounted an operation via air from Thailand, flying arms and supplies to these Nationalist Chinese forces in northeast Burma. They equipped them for what became three disastrous invasions of China. After the last of these abortive attempts, the Nationalist Chinese forces, now re-armed-and-supplied, sited themselves inside Burma for ten years, running covert operations across the border. As CIA support waned, they turned to drugs for income, which of course greatly expanded opium traffic in northeastern Burma. This irregular Nationalist Chinese army dominated Southeast Asian drug traffic up through the mid-1980s, first inside Burma. Then, when they were driven out in a joint Chinese-Burmese operation in 1961, they retreated to northern Thailand, where they ran the traffic for another fifteen years.
That first operation in Burma laid the foundation in terms of raw production for the modern Golden Triangle. The second operation, the secret war in Laos, introduced heroin-refining technology into the region. In 1969-1970, the armies that fought alongside the CIA’s secret army in Laos built a complex of seven heroin refineries at the heart of the Golden Triangle where Burma, Thailand, and Laos converge. Let me make this clear: all the laboratories were built by current or former covert assets of the United States. And they began producing high-grade No. 4 heroin for shipment to South Vietnam. The local Asian addicts were opium smokers, which means the heroin was targeted purely at American troops. We know from a later White House survey that by 1971, thirty-four percent of all US combat forces in South Vietnam were using heroin. If you take the average number of forces for that year, because the forces were going down fast, there were something like 80,000 American heroin addicts in the US Army in South Vietnam. At that point, there was something like 70,000 addicts back in the entire United States. So there were more American heroin addicts inside the US army in South Vietnam than there were in the entire United States. And they were all supplied by our covert action allies.
DJ: Afghanistan has been in the news a lot this past year. Can you tell me more about the CIA, Afghanistan, and heroin?
AM: Starting in 1979, the Carter administration and, somewhat later, the Reagan White House gave executive orders to the CIA to arm and supply Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1992 the CIA spent between two and three billion dollars on this secret war, routing most of this money through Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence, or ISI. The result was a tenfold expansion of opium production inside Afghanistan, from 200 tons in 1981 to 2000 tons in 1990–an upgrading of the traffic from localized opium production to large-scale heroin refining connected to international markets, and the transformation of tribal warlords inside Afghanistan into powerful drug lords. It’s a pattern we see time and again.
After investing three billion dollars in Afghanistan’s destruction, the United States simply walked away, as we did with all of our covert wars, when the operation was over. We invested almost nothing in postwar reconstruction. And we left a society, as we left all of our covert war zones, wasted. Afghanistan, because it was the longest war (although it probably wasn’t the most directly destructive: that would be the Laos War, where we dropped 2.1 million tons of bombs), was in many ways left the most severely devastated of our covert battlegrounds. There were something like a million dead, four and a half million refugees, an estimated 10 million landmines, a completely ruined economy, and a ravaged government. And we just walked away.
This had been an international conflict, not just a US covert operation. The Saudis, for example, were heavily involved in supporting us, as were the Europeans. And we all just left a society to writhe in its agony.
Then the warlords, whom we had created and armed, began fighting for power, adding to the devastation and the need for a new cash crop. As all of these strands of Afghanistan’s of postwar problems twisted themselves into a Gordian knot, opium became, if you will, the Alexandrine solution. First, labor. The economy was ravaged. There was no employment. Opium is very labor intensive. It takes nine times as much labor to farm a hectare of opium than it does a hectare of wheat, the country’s basic subsistence crop. Opium commands a high international price, which means impoverished farmers could plant opium and support their own reconstruction, and the rehabilitation of their families, their farms, and their communities. Afghanistan of course had no recognized government. International agricultural commodities are all traded through a very complex diplomacy. Afghanistan didn’t have the capacity for that diplomacy. Here was an illicit commodity that could command an instantaneous laissez-passer at every border in the world. And then there were periodic droughts. Afghanistan is always at the edge of drought. That militates toward opium as well: opium uses about half the water of conventional field food crops. So from every perspective, opium was the ideal solution to the problem of Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction.
Under these conditions of civil war from 1992 to 1996, opium production continued to climb upward. Then when the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, they were only recognized by three countries in the world. Still detached from the international economy, the Taliban realized what the warlords whom they’d superceded had realized: the only way to operate an economy and a state inside Afghanistan, which was off the grid, was through narcotics. And so they did two things. First, they continued to tolerate the traffic and, further, they imposed a kind of rough order that increased the commerce and made it more efficient. So between 1996 and 1999 opium production inside Afghanistan doubled. By 1999, they were up to an extraordinary 4600 tons of opium, enough to produce 75 percent of the world’s heroin. Afghanistan had become history’s first opium monocrop—that is, a whole nation with an economy and society built, not exclusively, but predominantly, upon opium. Opium provided most government revenue, all foreign exchange, all foreign trade. It absorbed most of the country’s merchant capital, much of its water, its prime arable land, and above all, opium provided employment for about 25 percent of the adult male workforce, which means 25 percent of the workforce, because under the Taliban women couldn’t work. It’s a society that gave over all of its resources to produce this commodity.
Starting in 1999-2000, the Taliban became desperate for international recognition. Throughout their brief rule they had more or less offered a deal, saying indirectly, “We’ll eradicate opium if you’ll give us diplomatic recognition.” Then in July 2000, the Taliban issued an opium ban, and with their characteristic ruthlessness, eradicated 99 percent of the opium in their territory, which was most of the country. Afghanistan’s opium production crashed downward from 4600 tons to around 100 tons. Afghanistan then sent a delegation to the UN, accusing the Northern Alliance, which held an enclave in the northeast, of being drug lords, heroin traffickers, and thugs, and said, “We’ve eradicated opium , give us diplomatic recognition.” The UN, for complex reasons, refused.
The sum of these changes meant that when the US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, we were invading a society that had been transformed—first through a decade of covert war, then through a decade of civil war when opium became its means of survival, and then, after 1999, when it committed economic suicide. By the time we attacked, there was nothing left except the Tabliban’s rather weak, badly led army of 40,000 men. Refugees had been hemorrhaging out of Afghanistan throughout 2000 and 2001, not just because of drought, but because the Taliban had destroyed the country’s largest source of employment and its only export. So we invaded and the society quickly collapsed.
When the Afghan War started, the United States searched for alternatives: how could we knock out this regime and establish military control? Pretty quickly the CIA realized that the only allies we had were the warlords whom we had armed back in the 1980s, the warlords who in the 1990s operated pretty much as drug lords. They—the Northern Alliance—controlled the one territory inside Afghanistan that hadn’t banned drugs. And they were still very large opium producers and heroin smugglers. Most importantly, there were huge stockpiles of opium left over from the bumper 1999 harvest that the world simply couldn’t absorb. Afghan farmers don’t sell their crop when they harvest, because there’s no banking system. They just sell the opium as they need it. So about 60 percent of the opium was held back after the harvest. Well, the Northern Alliance became the conduit for transforming much of that opium into heroin, and then smuggling it to Europe and Russia.
These are the forces with which the CIA allied to fight the Taliban, and the forces the US has since installed in power across the whole of Afghanistan. The consequences of that decision have been dubious. General Dostum is a ruthless, even murderous warlord who dominated heroin production in his territory before the Taliban forced him into exile. Gul Agda Shirzai, the warlord of Kandahar and Helmand, the prime opium area, was a major trafficker before the Taliban took power. Hazarat Ali was a notorious trafficker during the 1990s. During the bungled Tora Bora caves operation, where it looked like the US had Osama Bin Laden and most of Al Quaeda cornered in those caves, Hazarat Ali and his men controlled the territory between the caves and the Pakistani border. They were the ones who, with a warlord’s eye for business, sold Al Qaeda “Get Out of Afghanistan Alive” cards—for a bargain price of about $5000 a head.
As we speak, there’s a big new crop of opium pushing its way out of the ground across Afghanistan. It’s going to be politically very embarrassing for the United States and the United Kingdom when our invasion and liberation of Afghanistan produces a bumper crop that floods Europe and the United Kingdom with unprecedented quantities of heroin.
DJ: We haven’t talked much about the Drug War. I’m wondering also how all of this relates to people in the United States.
AM: We are now fighting a war on drugs that under Presidents Bush and Clinton has been a $19.2 billion dollar campaign. Since the drug war started under President Nixon in 1971, we’ve spent approximately $150 billion to fight five drug wars. That’s not quite half the cost of the Vietnam War. So it’s a substantial expenditure. That’s money that could be used for a whole range of social programs. And we need to remember that this $19.2 billion includes just the federal costs. There are state and local costs as well for prosecution and incarceration. The costs to states of building and operating prisons for nonviolent drug offenders is enormous.
The revived and expanded drug war which has been fought since the mid-1980s, with increased penalties and longer jail time, has created an enormous prison population that is incredibly damaging to racial harmony in this society. From 1930 to 1980, American society had, with only minor variations, one hundred prisoners per hundred thousand people. After the drug war started again in the 1980s, that went quickly to 400 per hundred thousand by the early 1990s, and we’re now well above 600 per hundred thousand. The Sentencing Project has pointed out that now something like a third of African American males in the United States between the ages of 18 and 30 are either on parole, in prison, or under indictment. And the largest share of the prison population in the United States is there for possession or petty sale of narcotics. Moreover, the consequences for these people are enormous. When these African American males emerge from prison, they’re stripped of their civil rights. In many states, they can’t vote. This represents the political disenfranchisement of an historically important American community. They’re criminalized, and because of their sheer numbers their communities are effectively criminalized as well, suffering all the liabilities of bad skills, disqualification for jobs, and the inability to participate in the rights of citizenship. Unless we turn it off, this Doomsday machine will keep sweeping the streets for drug users and filling the prisons under mandatory minimum sentencing—adding to all of these enormous social costs.
The international drug war is just as troubling. When you look at the statistics, you quickly see it simply isn’t working. In 1971, President Nixon’s Cabinet Commission on International Narcotics surveyed global production, and concluded that the world then produced somewhere between 1000 and 1200 tons of illicit opium. By 1999, world production over 6000 tons of illicit opium. So we’ve fought five drug wars, spent 150 billion dollars, and the illicit opium supply has gone up six times. Similarly, over the past fifteen years coca production in the Andes, the site of our current drug war, has doubled. Clearly, this strategy hasn’t worked.
I would argue further that it’s not just a coincidence that the supply went up. In other words, it’s not the case that we tried hard and things didn’t work out. Instead, I would argue that the attempt at prohibition has actually stimulated production. Let me explain why.
Let’s use Nixon’s first drug war, since it’s comparatively simple. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, an extraordinarily long period in the history of the global narcotics trade, the French Connection was the source of about 80 percent of America’s heroin supply. Here’s how it worked: Turkey had farmers producing for licensed pharmaceutical companies. These farmers routinely overproduced beyond their quota, shipping their bootleg opium down to Lebanon, where it was refined into morphine, and shipped to Marseilles. There, Corsican syndicates, protected by French Intelligence and the Gaullist government, operated a complex of labs in Marseilles to transform the morphine into heroin. They shipped it to Montreal where the Cotroni Mafia family in alliance with New York Mafia families shipped it down from Montreal to New York for distribution across the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Nixon scored a total victory in his drug war. Because the farmers in Turkey were all licensed for legal pharmaceutical production, the Turkish government knew who everyone was. They simply went out and almost instantaneously eradicated opium. The US provided something like thirty million dollars in crop substitution money to allow the farmers to make a transition to other crops. We then leaned on the French, who of course knew exactly who the traffickers were, because they were in a paramilitary organization called the Service de Action Civique, the Civic Action Service, that actually provided state security for the Gaullist regime. The French police closed down the heroin labs. Nixon won a total victory in America’s first drug war. The French Connection was destroyed in a matter of months.
But every victory in the drug war is just a down payment for a later defeat. The problem was that Turkey only produced seven percent of the world’s opium. Because demand was constant and there was now a shortfall in supply, the international illicit price of course went up. Even though this global market has no Wall Street Journal to read, it is, like all markets, very price sensitive. The price increase created a strong incentive for a boom in production in Southeast Asia.
Suddenly, as the French connection dried up, we began getting large shipments of heroin from Southeast Asia in the United States. The Vietnam War was over, the last of the GIs were gone, and Southeast Asia’s producers had a surplus capacity, so they began flooding the US with heroin. So Nixon fought and won another battle in his drug war. He sent thirty DEA agents to Bangkok, where they had special relations with the Thai police, and did a very effective job of seizing heroin bound for the United States, imposing a kind of informal customs duty on heroin exports to America. So, the Southeast Asian traffickers turned around and exported to Europe, which had been virtually drug free for decades. The French syndicates had entered into something of an agreement with the government: they could manufacture heroin, but they could not sell in France and had to export it. With the French Connection out of the picture, the Southeast Asian syndicates flooded Europe with heroin. By the end of the 1970s, Europe had more heroin addicts than the United States. The syndicates also introduced significant heroin addiction to Australia.
Each act of prohibition, each time we bring the blunt baton of law enforcement down upon this illicit, interwoven global commodity called heroin, produces an increase in its illicit price, which in turn stimulates increased production and geographical proliferation. In addition, intervention at the level of trafficking forces smugglers to adjust, to create an ever-more-complex network of smuggling routes. The net result of these drug wars is that there has been a sixfold increase in global opium production.
And that’s not even talking about cocaine and South America. In the fifteen years we’ve been fighting a drug war in the Andes, cocaine production for the region has doubled. Let’s talk cases. We became involved in Colombia under Clinton’s Plan Colombia, which was supposedly a very limited, hermetically sealed, anti-narcotics operation. It has now moved to a full-blown counterinsurgency operation. We are going in there to fight the FARC, and it’s going to get ugly—for us, for the Colombian Army, and for the peasants in the coca districts.
DJ: Which I would say was a primary objective all along. . . .
AM: In either case, it’s an absolute nightmare that produces real complications in our foreign policy.
Now let’s take Peru. During the 1990s, the pursuit of the drug war there brought the CIA into alliance with Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of state security under the Fujimori dictatorship. Today, he is in prison for corruption and his overseas bank accounts hold a quarter of a billion dollars in illicit funds. He was the man who single-handedly corrupted Peruvian democracy. And while we were allying with Montesinos, for each hectare that was taken out of production in Peru, one was added in Colombia. Now that we’re applying a little bit of pressure on Colombia, Peruvian production is coming back up. And of course our covert involvement in these societies damages our relations with them over the long term.
The UN has the idea, and the United States as well, that because narcotics production is concentrated in a few limited areas, that we can really make a knockout blow and end this drug problem once and for all. The US favors fumigation: aerial defoliation. The UN favors crop substitution. But they both share a belief that they can, after a century of effort, finally eradicate the natural narcotics, which were the object of the first anti-drug conventions: from the 1912 Hague Convention, right up to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. For almost a hundred years they’ve been saying, “Success is right around the corner.” But even the UN admits the slippage problem: if you eradicate a drug somewhere, production goes up elsewhere. The world is wide, and applying a coercive, nineteenth-century model of local law enforcement to a complex global commodity simply doesn’t work. If the criminality is localized, you can in theory and sometimes in reality apply enough police, enough coercive resources, so you can extirpate an illicit activity or commodity from a community. But as we’ve seen, in an age of illicit global commodities and transnational organized crime, if you apply coercion, the traffic just slips sideways into infinity.
Let’s just assume, however, that the US and UN were somehow to succeed. Let us imagine that, in this new world order, the prohibition regime is finally able to eliminate opium and coca production, first from the developed highland areas, and then from the alternative areas that followed. Well, one of the problems we’re facing right now is that the most dramatic change in the last decade has been the global rise of synthetics: amphetamine-type substances, ecstasy in the West, and very cheap forms of methamphetamines across the globe. Currently, there are about 13 to 14 million opiate abusers in the world, and about the same number of coca abusers. Well, there are 29 or 30 million ATS—amphetamine type substance—abusers. In the last ten years, it’s gotten as big as opium and cocaine combined. One of the things about ATS is that the precursor chemicals are very common, and the labs are sited very close to consumer areas. This means interdiction is essentially impossible.
This takes us back to the French Connection, and Nixon’s victory in the first drug war. Remember how the disruption of the French Connection led to an increased flow from Southeast Asia? Well, when we disrupted the flow from Southeast Asia, Mexican syndicates began producing large quantities of cannabis and heroin for shipment to the United States. In 1975, the Ford Administration began a massive eradication effort in Mexico, and sealed the border. The net result was that marijuana production shifted south to Colombia, laying the economic foundation for the cartels that a decade later moved to high-level cocaine production. This brings us around to synthetics: Have you seen the film Witness? It starts off with a hit in the men’s room. What’s happened? Corrupt cops have done a raid on an amphetamine lab. Philadelphia was then the speed capital of the world. When the French Connection got busted, mafia syndicates, unable to import heroin, used their entrepreneurial skills to make Philadelphia a major producer of amphetamines for nationwide distribution. That film Witness was an accurate depiction of a shift that was a direct consequence of the Nixon drug war, of his success in cutting the shipment of heroin into the US. After a hypothetical UN and US victory over coca and opium, the same thing would happen, producing a proliferation of synthetic drugs old and new.
There has been a proliferation of consumption around the globe, and the producer countries and the consumer countries are knitted together in a cat’s cradle of trafficking routes that absolutely defy effective interdiction. We’ve gone from the simplex of the French Connection–where opium went from Turkey to Lebanon to Marseilles to Montreal–to an infinitely complex global system that resists intervention. The drug war isn’t simply failing, it’s counterproductive. The act of prohibition in fact stimulates production.
Even though the drug war is fought by a very large law enforcement bureaucracy in the United States—the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Customs, and state and local police across the country—and even though it’s fought by a very sophisticated international enforcement apparatus under the UN Drug Control Program, they all act on an almost theological assumption that I call faith in immaculate intervention. They somehow assume they can intervene in a market and not have an impact on that market. No economic regulator could ever say that. If you told the Federal Reserve that their adjustment of interest rates is not going to have some sort of impact on the American economy, they would laugh at your absurdity. That’s the point of adjusting interest rates. That’s the point of intervention. Yet all these law enforcement agencies intervene in this vast illicit drug market on the assumption that their intervention has no effect. They never calculate the impact of their own intervention. And it’s a specious assumption. There is no immaculate intervention. Intervention, particularly unwitting intervention, makes the problem worse.
Now let’s get to the part of your question about why Americans should care about the problematical nature of covert wars. Let’s talk about their legacy. There’s a surprising similarity between the tactics we used to fight the covert war in Laos between 1964 and 1974, and the tactics we’re using in our ongoing operation in Afghanistan. In 1962, as part of the larger Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States went to the nuclear brink over Laos. The Soviet Union and the United States negotiated a treaty in 1962 in which we agreed to neutralize Laos, meaning we would both remove all combat forces. We both did. Well, two or three years later, the Vietnam War heats up, and suddenly the North Vietnamese are sending manpower and materiel from the panhandle of North Vietnam, through southern Laos, down into South Vietnam. That’s the Ho Chi Minh trail. Unless the US can cut that trail, we have no hope of overwhelming the enemy on the battlefield and winning our war of attrition in South Vietnam. So, suddenly we have to be involved in a country where we cannot be involved. That led to the whole secret war in Laos from 1964 to 1974. Now, that secret war was fought two ways. First, the CIA created the Hmong secret army in the mountains of northern Laos. It was the CIA’s most extensive experience of using special forces and CIA operatives to mobilize tribal armies. That’s of course of obvious relevance to the way we fought in Afghanistan. But more important for our relations with the international community, we discovered something else. In Laos, the United States made military history. Up until the Laos operation, conventional military doctrine said that only infantry can take and hold ground. Air power can provide tactical support for infantry or it can be used strategically to destroy industrial targets. But if you actually want to hold ground, air power could do no more than simply provide support for infantry. In Laos we discovered that in fact air power can be used as a substitute for infantry. We dropped over 2.1 million tons of bombs on Laos, equal to all the tonnage we dropped in Germany and Japan during the whole of World War II. And what did we learn from the longest and biggest air war the United States has ever fought? We learned that if you bomb intensively and without restraint, aerial bombardment can be a substitute for infantry. You can actually use aerial bombardment to take and hold ground. And that meant that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, we had discovered a way of using air power for force projection overseas without infantry and their casualties. We used this strategy successfully in Bosnia, where we sent in very few combat forces, and even more successfully in Kosovo. The problem is that this strategy easily produces serious violations of international law, beginning with the Geneva Convention on the Laws of War in 1949. As the world watched us fight in Vietnam with our destructive air power, the international community became particularly concerned with the enormous collateral damage it caused. As the Vietnam War was winding down, the international community negotiated Protocol One of the Geneva Convention of 1949. They signed the treaty in 1977, and in a couple of years there were sufficient signatories for it to be adopted. They went further, with the creation of the International Criminal Court. Now, the United States, was one of the prime movers in the Geneva Convention of 1949. But because we’re now increasingly wedded to air war and its broad use against both civilian and military targets, we’re at variance with the international law that has developed since the late 1940s. President Reagan sent the treaty for Protocol One to the Senate with the recommendation that it be rejected, and it was. We’re not a part of Protocol One, but the rest of the world is. Just a few weeks ago, April 4, the world had a major ceremony to celebrate the establishment of the International Criminal Court—the culmination of a half-century struggle to build an international rule of law. We were not there. We did not send representatives. We are proposing to lead the world into this new world order governed by the rule of law, yet we are not participating in the international instrumentalities the world has created. There is a yawning contradiction in our global posture. And this contradiction comes from our discovery of certain tactics of covert intervention involving tribal guerillas and, most importantly, the use of air power as a substitute for our own infantry. As we move into the twenty-first century, these covert wars have left a very problematic legacy for the conduct of US foreign policy.
DJ: Where does all of this leave us concerning the drug wars?
AM: I think a very interesting and intense debate is going to take place over the next several years, between the UN and certain national governments on one hand, and communities, citizens, and local governments around the globe on the other. I will be very interested to see if the prohibition regime makes it to a second century. I think it’s going to be substantially revised, if not completely discarded.
Ten years ago, reformers were talking about legalization. Well, that’s not politically possible in the short or even medium term, given the nature of this prohibition regime. Prohibition is embedded in international treaties, national laws, and state laws. Legalization takes an enormous unraveling. There’s no political will to do that at this point.
The debate has now shifted away from an extreme polarization between prohibition and legalization. You could say it’s moved away from theological fundamentals to policy pragmatics. We’re no longer talking about what should the world be, what is morally correct: are drugs moral or immoral? Instead, we’re starting to ask: What works? What are the costs? States are saying, “Drugs may be illegal, but incarceration is not a rational way to treat drug abuse. Let’s give people treatment.” We’re going to see more and more of that kind of debate. I think at a domestic level these movements will force a shift towards harm reduction, where we analyze every aspect of the drug problem and try to minimize the damage, the harm that drugs do and particularly the harm the enforcement effort does. Within ten years right across the country, I expect we’ll see no incarceration for personal possession. Part of the reason is that we can move from mass incarceration to mass treatment without changing any laws, and without opting out of state, national, or international drug laws. All we have to do is change the sentencing provisions of those same laws. That requires some legislative work, but it’s mainly administrative.
States are now seeing that the boom economy of the 1990s is over. We’re beyond the dot com age and dot com money. Money is now real, and fiscal choices are severe. Faced with a choice between mass incarceration with more prisons or college education with bigger universities, what will most people choose? What about the choice between prisons for non-violent drug users or prescription drug benefits for senior citizens? I think most people won’t choose to spend their money on prisons. I think economic reality is going to force us to ask more and more whether or not this drug war is working.
Similarly, at a national level I can see us moving forward toward social reforms that will undo much of the damage of the drug war. That would be very very, easy. With referenda requiring treatment instead of jail terms for first time drug users in California, Arizona, and Nevada, we can already see the shape of that future just over the horizon.
A shorter version originally published in the May 2003 issue of The SunFiled in Interviews by Derrick Jensen