War and Drugs: The History of a Toxic Relationship

On this episode, the shocking history of one of history’s most toxic relationships. Sarah talks with Peter Andreas about his book ‘Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs.’ In it, he explores the role drugs have played in human warfare - not just as vices, but as commodities, and even as weapons. After hearing this conversation you'll see drugs, war, and the relationship between the two in a new light. (Originally aired February 2020.)

You can learn more about and purchase 'Killer High' here.

You can see the Watson Institute’s panel discussion about the book here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


SARAH BALDWIN: Hey, there. This is Sarah, the host of Trending Globally.

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From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. This week, we're re-airing one of our favorite episodes from last year. In January of Twenty-Twenty, I talked with Watson professor Peter Andreas about his book Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs. It's a surprising and at times disturbing look at the role drugs have played in human warfare, not just as vises but as commodities and even weapons. It'll make you see drugs and war and the connection between the two in a new light. We started with what, according to Peter, was one of history's most influential and underrated drug trafficking organizations. Here's Peter.

PETER ANDREAS: Today, we're obsessed with drug traffickers from Mexico and Colombia, and even use grandiose terms like cartels. But if you really look at the definition of cartel, they don't come anywhere resembling what a cartel is. But actually, the British East India Company did come pretty damn close to being a cartel. They dominated trade to such an extent-- it's not a monopoly, but they control and influence the trade to such an extent that they can come close to setting prices. I mean, OPEC aspires to be-- we talk about the OPEC cartel-- it aspires to do that. But even OPEC doesn't actually function as a true cartel. But the British East India Company can easily be described as the largest drug trafficking organization the world has ever seen.

SARAH BALDWIN: Can you give us a little history about that?

PETER ANDREAS: Well, the history is essentially they ran the opium trade between colonial India and China, which at the time was the world's largest consumer market for opium. This is the 18th century, but then really ramped up in the 19th century. Also I should point out British East India Company was crucial in the tea trade and also in India becoming the world's largest producers of tea. At one point, China monopolized that, and then production-- thanks to the British-- shifted to India. And the British East India Company was responsible for much of that.

SARAH BALDWIN: States make drug war, and drug war makes states. This notion that the drugs-war relationship is about statecraft is intriguing to me. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean?

PETER ANDREAS: Sure. Part of what I mean is to push back against the conventional wisdom in policy debates that the beneficiaries of the drugs-war relationship are stateless actors like insurgents and warlords and terrorists and militias and traffickers because from a bigger historical look at this issue, it's clear that big, powerful states-- England, Russia-- these are built up significantly thanks to drug revenue.

So for example, Russia. How does the tsar build up the largest standing army in continental Europe? Vodka revenue. How does Britain rise to become the world's leading Maritime Naval power? Alcohol taxes, revenue from tea, revenue from opium. These are pillars, financial pillars of the British empire in the 19th century.

SARAH BALDWIN: And yet sometimes they backfire, right?

PETER ANDREAS: They do backfire. I mean, the Boston Tea Party certainly backfired.

SARAH BALDWIN: And the Russian army was drunk.

PETER ANDREAS: The Russian army was not just funded by vodka revenue, but unfortunately, imbibed a fair amount of alcohol. And so probably one of the more alcoholic armies the world has seen. Still a serious problem. There's other examples too. The French Revolution-- obviously complicated roots, but one often glossed over, unrecognized, is popular hatred of tobacco taxes. So the King had imposed pretty steep taxes on things like tobacco and alcohol.


PETER ANDREAS: Right. And anyone who tried to grow tobacco themselves or smuggled tobacco, the harsh penalties-- entire enforcement outfits sent out to stamp that down. And so part of the resentment and anger that contributed to the French Revolution was-- there's a tobacco angle there too.

SARAH BALDWIN: Let's turn to alcohol now because that's a fascinating war lubricant, as you write. You say it was sort of a form of liquid courage, but it was also taxable. It was a source of revenue for states. And also I didn't think of it as the world's oldest mass consumption drug--


SARAH BALDWIN: --but you make the case that it is. So in tracing alcohol in early American history, I was really struck by your description of it as an ethnic cleanser. Can you just talk about what that meant? Like it was a substitute for war.

PETER ANDREAS: Sure. Another way to look at it is as a weapon of war. Not a substitute for war but as a weapon of war.

SARAH BALDWIN: So talk about the expansion.

PETER ANDREAS: If you just look at the impact of introducing hard liquor on Native American populations, it was absolutely devastating. As devastating as any bullets, for that matter. Some of it was unintentional and some of it was quite purposeful.

SARAH BALDWIN: As an aid to westward expansion?

PETER ANDREAS: Yes, absolutely. The debilitating effect of alcohol in weakening-- and in some extent, exterminating-- Native American populations. I mean, often blamed are, of course, disease, war itself, but I think we should also add alcohol. I don't want to overstate it, but it's often overlooked as a, literally, as an ethnic cleanser.

It's interesting, if you look at the negotiations over taking over Indian lands or moving Indians to new lands, often what was promised at the end of the negotiations was alcohol. And as Native American populations were moved onto reservations, you just look at the movement of whiskey with them. And then there would be payments to Native Americans for moving, and then you look at how those payments are literally then used to purchase alcohol.

Now the federal government-- I should point out this was such a serious concern that the federal government at one point banned the selling of alcohol to Native American populations. It was actually the first true alcohol prohibition in America. Totally forgotten. But the ban was poorly enforced, to say the least.

SARAH BALDWIN: But also not all Native Americans wanted alcohol. And I think-- didn't some leaders go and plead to the supply--

PETER ANDREAS: Oh, sure. There's plenty of evidence of Native American leaders literally pleading to stop the flow.

SARAH BALDWIN: You bring up an interesting point, too, about prohibition-- war as a place where drugs are used, and then a byproduct of war sometimes is that they become prohibited afterwards. Can you give some other examples of that?

PETER ANDREAS: Sure. What's fascinating is that in the case of alcohol, it's impossible to explain the rise in passage of prohibition in the United States without the context of World War I. It just so happens that the dominant breweries in America were German. And part of the intense and rapidly spreading anti-German sentiment in the country in the lead up to World War I and during World War I was viewing beer drinking as unpatriotic and viewing beer brewers as not only unpatriotic but possibly treasonous.

SARAH BALDWIN: This notion of patriotism is really interesting because you make the point, too, that the shift from rum to whiskey in early American history was against British. Rum was seen as tied to the rum trade and to the British. Also that the shift from tea to coffee was anti-British.

PETER ANDREAS: Yeah, our very consumer tastes are shaped by war. And in fact, it's hard to explain the shift to whiskey in this country without the American Revolution. Rum was the alcoholic beverage of choice. After the revolution, it was disparaged as a British drink and as a drink that the raw materials for processing it locally required imports. And so the whiskey could be produced domestically using corn, which became increasingly accessible with westward expansion.

SARAH BALDWIN: And then took on this sort of American-dependent aura.

PETER ANDREAS: Absolutely. I mean, what's interesting is rum itself was, in fact, produced in large quantities in the New England colonies, including right here in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were the heart of rum production. But those distilleries basically were never recovered from the American Revolution.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, let's keep this notion of patriotism and go from World War I to World War II then. And that's a perfect time to talk about amphetamines. And that was eye opening. I had no idea that soldiers were high, and that's how they were getting their jobs done. I'm terribly naive perhaps, but I had no idea. And you call amphetamines the quintessential drugs of the industrialized era. So can you describe how they were used, especially by Nazis, and what that allowed them to accomplish?

PETER ANDREAS: Well, the Germans arguably pioneered pill-popping on the battlefield, but it's important to really recognize that, not all sides, but many sides used amphetamines. First, the Germans, then the British, the Americans, and the Japanese, as well. In fact, the Japanese certainly gave them to kamikaze pilots but also to defense industry workers to keep them working harder and faster and longer. In terms of their use on the battlefield, I mean, the most sort of dramatic illustration of their utility would probably be the German blitzkrieg in which the entire operation depends on surprise and speed. And so literally thousands of pills popped the night before the invasion begins, keeping German soldiers awake for days on out.

SARAH BALDWIN: So they just could go and go and go.

PETER ANDREAS: Just keep going and going and going. So we pay a lot of attention to the armor, the machinery, the gasoline needed to keep it going while you also need fuel to keep the soldiers going.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah, you called them chemically-enhanced soldiers.

PETER ANDREAS: Yeah, absolutely. And so Sun Tzu once said, speed is the essence of war. He didn't have amphetamines in mind, but he would have been pretty impressed at the ability of amphetamines to speed things up. You could argue that-- again, you don't want to overstate it-- but you could argue that, literally, amphetamines helped speed up the war.

SARAH BALDWIN: There's this interesting irony in the case of the Germans, too, because the Nazis looked down on-- disparaged people who used--


SARAH BALDWIN: --drugs or had addictions, and yet they made this exception--

PETER ANDREAS: Absolutely.

SARAH BALDWIN: --for this uber drug, kind of.

PETER ANDREAS: Nazi ideology was actually pretty intensely anti-drug. They looked down on alcohol, cigarettes, opiates, cocaine. They wanted the country to be sober, but amphetamines were the privileged exception. Maybe not so surprising why, because amphetamines keep you alert, energetic, focused, driven, and that's precisely what Germany at that time was focusing on emphasizing, stressing, and it was part of the total mobilization effort was to also chemically enhance the mobilization effort.

SARAH BALDWIN: But who was making all this methamphetamine?

PETER ANDREAS: Well, it's not the meth labs of today, right? No, these are all the major pharmaceutical companies. And in Germany, there was one major company that basically was the main supplier to the German military. The US had its own pharmaceutical companies that produce it, as well as Japan. These are not marginal, shadowy outfits. These are the biggest players in the world of pharmaceutical production.

SARAH BALDWIN: Do we know when this drug, methamphetamine, was first used in war?

PETER ANDREAS: As far as I can tell, the first sort of large-scale use of the drug on the battlefield was, in fact, the Germans in World War II. I've heard some people mention that it may have made an appearance during the Spanish Civil War, but in terms of just systematic large scale use, World War II is really credited as sort of the place and context and war where it really took off.

SARAH BALDWIN: It's amazing because it was being prescribed for depression and--

PETER ANDREAS: Everything.

SARAH BALDWIN: God, it sounded great.

PETER ANDREAS: A wonder drug. I mean, Germans actually had chocolates that you could--

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah, I saw that.

PETER ANDREAS: --give housewives.

SARAH BALDWIN: Did Hitler use drugs?

PETER ANDREAS: Oh, Hitler was such a hypocrite because he denounced drug users as weak and debilitated and unhelpful and useless, but he himself-- his private doctor gave him regular injections of all sorts of concoctions of drugs, which included amphetamines but all sorts of other things as well.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's so interesting. You mentioned the kamikaze pilots and they also were given injections of amphetamine before going off on their missions. But you also talk about the repercussions in Japan after the war. Describe in what ways it was so destructive. And why there and not, say, in these other countries where amphetamines had been used for other soldiers?

PETER ANDREAS: Different countries recovered differently and are affected differently by wartime drug use, and Japan is the obvious case of there being serious and long lasting consequence of large scale amphetamine wartime use. There was such production-- arguably, overproduction-- of amphetamines during the war that there were stockpiles built up that at the end of the war were essentially dumped on the civilian population. And Japan, which actually had no previous history of drug epidemics or large-scale drug problems, really had its first national drug epidemic of the nineteen-fifties around amphetamines. And the Yakuza, which is sort of traditional organized crime organization in Japan, long predates this, but amphetamines was their entree into the drug trade.

SARAH BALDWIN: And how did they resolve the crisis? I mean, it went on for decades, right?

PETER ANDREAS: It went on for years, not decades. Though to this day, amphetamines are the drug of choice-- illicit drug of choice in Japan. It's just that the epidemic proportions, the sense of crisis, around the drug did ease up after the country took it much more seriously and actually after the country began to recover from war. Unemployment reduced, the stress was reduced. It's understandable that as a country recovers from war that it may turn less to drugs to help it cope.

SARAH BALDWIN: That does make sense. I was amazed to learn that the US military, starting in the Korean War, made dexedrine-- a form of amphetamine-- standard issue for soldiers. And by the Vietnam War, the US military was giving out 225 million doses of dexedrine.

PETER ANDREAS: Yeah, what's striking about that case is that one, the country had actually turned away from amphetamines because previously, they'd been perfectly legal and accessible to the general population. But even as the country was turning away from them and they were becoming criminalized and more controlled, the military continued to use them, prescribing them to their soldiers. And the actual pills were probably twice as potent as the pills during World War II.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah, there's this recommended dosage of 20 milligrams of dexedrine for 48 hours of combat readiness. So this was out in the open.

PETER ANDREAS: Indeed. These are medically prescribed drugs. In fact, amphetamines are still medically prescribed-- Adderall, Ritalin, and so on. This was not uncommonly prescribed drug in Vietnam. And so people look back at Vietnam and think-- when you tell them about drug problems in Vietnam, people think heroin, right? People might think cannabis. But frankly, amphetamines were as serious or more serious problem, not to mention alcohol, as well, which we often forget about.

SARAH BALDWIN: Mm-hmm. I'm glad you brought up cannabis because it's noticeably absent from your list of six.


SARAH BALDWIN: So you found that it was not so prevalent?

PETER ANDREAS: It's not that it's not important, it's just doesn't make the cut, if you will, in the sense that these other six are much more prominent in their importance in the relationship between drugs and war than cannabis. So yeah, cannabis-- weed and war intersect here and there over time. Napoleon's troops actually introduced hashish to Paris, and plenty of G.I.s smoked dope in Vietnam. But in the overall historical scheme of things, it's just not as prominent as these other drugs.

I suppose if I'd written a book-- a history of war in seven drugs-- cannabis would have been the next on the list, but it's just strikingly not as important comparatively. And it's particularly surprising to me-- this was one of the most surprising things about the research-- was that the world's most popular illicit drug isn't actually as important in terms of war as these other drugs. The other striking thing, which is what people do know about, which is that in the Vietnam War era, cannabis was actually not a war drug, it was a peace drug.


PETER ANDREAS: I mean, it was part of the anti-war movement.

SARAH BALDWIN: Make love, not war.

PETER ANDREAS: Make love, not war. And you know--

SARAH BALDWIN: --and smoke a joint.

PETER ANDREAS: --smoke your weed and don't go to war. I don't want to say that-- if we just left it that, you might think that cannabis has some kind of inherently pacifying anti-war effect. But in fact, what's interesting is cannabis's most important relationship to war, historically, has actually not been its psychoactive effects but actually used in the form of hemp for rope, which is hugely important for Naval warfare.

SARAH BALDWIN: Oh, in the Navy. Yeah.

PETER ANDREAS: And that would have been included, except the books about psychoactive drugs and using it for rope just doesn't--

SARAH BALDWIN: It doesn't make the cut.

PETER ANDREAS: It's a side story. It's an important side story, but it's still a side story.

SARAH BALDWIN: And so how did the drug war meet the war on terror? Because the war on terror was about terrorists.

PETER ANDREAS: Right. They do intersect, and intersect quite intimately after 9/11. What's fascinating in places like Colombia, which had been engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign for many, many years with the insurgents turning to the country's cocaine industry to help fund themselves. The government of Colombia had-- with US assistance and support-- long merged counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics, but what was interesting after 9/11 is that Colombian insurgents were suddenly labeled terrorists, as were right wing paramilitaries who were also drug financed in Colombia. And so suddenly, Washington could more openly support going after insurgents in the name of the war on terror and forget about counterinsurgency, which smacked of Cold War. Now it had a post-9/11 justification.

Similarly, in Afghanistan-- a long history of drugs and war there that goes back to the Soviet invasion of the late 70s. The US invades Afghanistan as part of the war on terror, but what happens is that the crisis and the aftermath, and the chaos and the aftermath of the US invasion and the Taliban insurgency regrouping and growing all provided fertile ground for massive growth of the opium trade there. So much so that Afghanistan is now the source of virtually all the world's supply of opium.

SARAH BALDWIN: Wow. You just made me remember that you make this point that after the Cold War, sort of this shift to not criminalization of drugs only, but declaring a war on drugs, gave the military apparatus something to do. I mean, they said as much, right?

PETER ANDREAS: Yes. Fascinating is that right after the end of the Cold War-- it was long before the war on terror-- looking for new missions. So historically, the US military was pretty understandably wary and skeptical of unconventional missions like fighting drugs, but they became noticeably more persuadable as the Cold War ended. These kind of irregular, unconventional missions were a source of funding and a source of justifying old programs that they wanted to keep funded--

SARAH BALDWIN: Right, and they were repurposing technologies and--

PETER ANDREAS: Repurposing. I mean, you could basically say, well, we're using this radar system to track drug flights. Forget Soviet bombers. We're not worried about those anymore, but look, we can use it to track drug flights. Things like that. Again, there was this crucial period between the end of the Cold War and the beginning the war on terror where looking for new enemies, new missions, and so on after 9/11, obviously, it was easy to justify rising military budgets. But before then, people turned to things like the drug mission to help justify programs and funding.

SARAH BALDWIN: You've written so many books, and you've talked about a few of them on this show. And what strikes me, Peter, is you're a political scientist. Here you are taking this historical perspective, and you write in a way that is accessible not just to scholars but to just interested readers. Is that intentional?

PETER ANDREAS: Oh, absolutely. Unlike some political scientists, it doesn't make me happy that just my colleagues might read what I write. So I just hate the thought of writing something that only a handful of people ever read. The ambition-- not necessarily successful-- the ambition is to write in a way that has it both ways, that basically you can maintain the scholarly community and audience, but also write it in a way that is accessible and engaging for a broader interested audience in the so-called public sphere.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, I'm going to declare it a success.


SARAH BALDWIN: Deeply researched and eminently readable. It was just fascinating and a real pleasure.


SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Jackson Cantrell. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For more information about this and other shows, go to Watson.Brown.edu.

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