War and Drugs

When we think of war and drugs we think about it in terms of a war on drugs.  But i was watching the movie ‘American Gangster’ with actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and wondered how war and drugs have actually gone hand in hand. An article has appeared in Al Jazeera written by Steven Chao titled ‘Afghanistan’s war on drugs‘ in which Afghanistan is the global leader in opium production in which is the main ingredient in heroin. The article points out that the lucrative drug trade has been used to fund the Taliban and terrorist organisation al-Qaeda.

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But is this situation unique in history? No it is not. We know that Britain fought China in what became known as the ‘Opium Wars’ when the British merchants imported opium into China from India in the 18th century and then use the profits to boost the tea trade in India. The first ‘Opium War’ broke out in 1840 after Chinese officials attempted to stop the opium trade into China.  In March 1839 the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of opium that were stored at Canton. When the British government came to the aid of British merchants, the victorious British forced the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Nanking in which China had to pay Britain a large indemnity and Britain gained Hong Kong Island from China.

Britain was not the only power to exploit the sale of opium in China for its own purposes. During its occupation of China from 1931 to 1945, the Japanese government used the growth and sale of opium to the Chinese as a source of income to support their military expansion. In a paper prepared by Mrs Katharine Lyman for the OSS, it was revealed that the Japanese used opium ‘as ammunition which does not wipe out life immediately, but weakens the resistance and disintegrates the morale of those who might oppose her ambitious plans of conquest’. Katharine Lyman noted that the ‘psychological aspects are just as important. The will to work is wiped out; one cannot continue to concentrate and grows very restless. Impairment of judgment and reasoning are the first faculties to be affected, and the individual ceases to become a dependable member of society’. A demoralised and weak Chinese population would put up little resistance to the Japanese occupation.


So far we have seen how opium was used to fund the war in Afghanistan by the Taliban and terrorist organisation al Qaeda, how the British imported opium to offset their trade in India and how the Japanese used opium to undermine the Chinese opposition to Japanese rule. But the film ‘American Gangster’ depicts Frank Lucas, a heroin kingpin, as using the war in Vietnam to import opium from Vietnam back to the United States. Opium was grown in an area known as the ‘Golden Triangle’ – an area which overlaps the mountain regions of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Laos.

In 2000, Mark Jacobson from the magazine New York Magazine interviewed the real Frank Lucas who described the opium fields in the Golden Triangle. Frank Lucas described “It wasn’t too bad, getting up there…We was in trucks, in boats. I might have been on every damn river in the Golden Triangle. When we got up there, you couldn’t believe it. They’ve got fields the size of Tucson, Arizona, with nothing but poppy seeds in them. There’s caves in the mountains so big you could set this building in them, which is where they do the processing . . .’. By 1995, The Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia is the leader in opium production, yielding 2,500 tons annually. But the Golden Triangle has now been overtaken by Afghanistan which is housing the equivalent of 400,000 football fields worth of opium fields according to Adam Kredo

During the Vietnam War, it has been alleged that the CIA set up a charter airline called ‘Air America’ which transported raw opium from Burma and Laos. The 199o film ‘Air America’ staring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jnr depicts the charter airline Air America as conducting an illegal drug operation in Laos. In an article written by William M Leary for the CIA, Leary believes that the 1990 film America is largely responsible for depicting Air America as flying opium to Vientiane for a corrupt Asian general. Leary could not find any evidence that Air America was involved in the drug trade but that the CIA did know about the drug trade in Laos.

The involvement of the CIA with drugs continued with the U.S involvement of Nicaragua. In 1996, Journalist for the San Jose Mercury News Gary Webb wrote a book titled ‘Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion’ which alleged that the CIA supported Nicaraguan Contras were involved in the US crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s – with the knowledge of the CIA that turned a blind eye to the operation.

This relationship between war and drugs continued with the U.S led war in Iraq in 2003 when the Washington Post reported that the U.N International Narcotics Control Board said that since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has become a transit point in the flow of hashish and heroin from Iran and Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium poppies, to Persian Gulf countries. In 2014, Al Monitor reported that drug use is on the increase in Iraq among youths.

While there is no suggestion that the U.S or coalition forces are deliberately encouraging or turning a blind eye towards the raising drug problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, the chaos and instability in these regions affected by war have seen a rise in drug use and drug exports. But when the American and coalition forces leave these areas, will they leave a problem bigger than the impact of war? History is there to show the dark relationship between war and drugs.


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