The Drug War: an intro class lecture

A Cannabis plant. By Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I want to share this lecture on the drug wars. Although I now teach only online, I taught the face to face course for nearly twenty-years. This lecture is approximately six years old, so it would need to be updated. It also has references to my own experiences doing interviews with drug traffickers and users in Brazil, which wouldn’t be relevant for most people. My hope, though, is that it might be helpful to someone who is teaching the “Introduction to International Studies” class, who can take some of these ideas and make it their own.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

The Drug Wars


Realism; human security

The First Opium War

The Second Opium War

Lin Zexu



Crack cocaine


The Mexican drug war, 2006-present


Lecture Outline:

Realism versus human security

The Opium Wars

Early Drug Policy



Drugs in South America

The Mexican Drug War



Meth and Indigenous communities

Last spring I taught a course on the Global Drug trade. For some reason, cocaine is the drug which draws the most media attention, whether it be in television series such as Narcos, or in novels. Certainly in the United States people think of Latin America when they think of the drug trade. But of course our current drug trade is heavily shaped by the opioid and heroin epidemic, which has its base in the golden triangle of Asia. Fentanyl receives a great deal of media coverage, and China may be the major supplier of this drug. While all of this may sound abstract, when my class covers the opioid epidemic each year the impact of opioids is all too clear, as my students relate histories of family loss and tragedy. The drugs that cause the most suffering -opioids and meth- seldom feature in television series. …

Blitzed: A book review

Adolf Hitler, drug addict.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Norman Ohler’s Blitzed is a disturbing, engaging and insightful look into how drugs shaped the lives of both soldiers and leaders in Nazi Germany. At the same time that drug addicts were being sent to the concentration camps, military researchers in Germany were testing the effects of Pervitin -a brand name for methamphetamine- upon soldiers. When German soldiers invaded France they were using drugs to give them the drive and alertness demanded for Blitzkreig.

At the same time, Hitler himself turned to a quack doctor, who not only injected him with an odd array of hormonal and vitamin supplements, but also with an increasing panoply of hard drugs. The book is based on extensive archival research, which allows Ohler to describe the bewildering array of Hitler’s medications. The book brilliantly captures the toxic atmosphere of Hitler’s entourage, as their leader became increasingly isolated physically and psychologically.

Hitler’s physician, Dr. Theo Morell, was a fascinating figure, who used his ties to Hitler to build a pharmaceutical empire, which was based on organs from the slaughterhouses of conquered territories in the East. At a time when every transport was needed to carry ammunition and wounded soldiers, he finagled trucks and trains to carry organs from the Ukraine to his plant in what is now the Czech Republic. With time, as Hitler’s physical condition declined, his activities drew the attention of not only Hitler’s entourage but also doctors, who believed that Morell was threatening Hitler’s health. The ensuing clash ended in Morell’s victory, based on Hitler’s personal backing. …

Mexico and Safety

Panoramica Bahia de Acapulco. By Microstar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Date rape drugs are a problem in many different nations. A recent article in USA Today, however, reveals systemic issues at Mexican resorts. Raquel Rutledge’s well-researched piece, “Mother’s nightmare at Mexico resort: ‘There is more to this deeper, darker story than we know,'” reveals the inability or unwillingness of Mexican authorities to investigate the use of date rape drugs at these resorts. On a personal note, about six months ago I heard a second hand account from one of my students, who described a case of a husband and wife, in which the wife was raped after they were both given a date-rape drug. I can’t know if this story is true, since I did not speak to one of the people who were drugged. But what was disturbing to me about this particularly story was that this case allegedly took place not in a resort, but rather in a restaurant in Mexico City. Again, this story was not first-hand, and I cannot attest to its veracity. Still, Rutledge’s piece suggests that travelers to Mexico should exercise caution, and that Mexican authorities should thoroughly investigate all such cases, which should include medical examinations for rape, and blood testing to identify the drugs used.

Curious to read more about drugs in Mexico? You can also read this post. I also recommend this Propublica piece “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico” by Ginger Thompson, which covers this topic in much greater depth than my initial blog post.

Shawn Smallman, 2018.

Death Squads in the Philippines

Given the plethora of foreign policies issues that the United States faces, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the drug war in the Philippines does not receive more attention in the U.S. media. Still, there has been some remarkable accounts, perhaps none of which has been as insightful as Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marchall’s, “Davao Boys: How a secretive police squad racked up kills in Duterte’s drug war.” This detailed piece of investigative journalism examines one particular police unit at the heat of the extra-judicial killings of drug traffickers. I’ve done my own work on military terror in Brazil, and know how difficult it is to obtain such information, even in historical cases. To document killings on this scale while the violence is taking place requires bravery, dedication and skill. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Halloween, drugs and Vancouver

English Bay, Vancouver. By No real name given [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There is an area in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver so ravaged by drugs and homelessness that it’s become an icon in popular culture and Canadian literature. This was the hunting grounds of Robert Pickton, a serial killer who may have killed 49 women. Many people believe that he managed to evade arrest (I won’t say detection given the case of Wendy Lynn Eistetter) for so so long because many people didn’t care about the prostitutes from the East side streets. Books such as Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach have depicted the hopelessness of this area. There is even a new graphic novel called the Dregs, which depicts this area as a feeding ground for wealthy cannibals in a dystopian future. So this is not a place that you would expect to find whimsy or hope. That would be especially true around Halloween, which has a reputation amongst first responders for bringing out the strange in people. …

Drug War in the Philippines

Orthographic map of the Philippines. By Addicted04 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m teaching a fully online course on the Global Drug Trade this fall. In the Americas when we think of the drug trade we typically think of cocaine and the Mexican Drug War. Yet the drug trade is a global trade, which runs from the fields of poppies in Afghanistan, to the fentanyl produced in East Asia that is destined for North America. The Drug War has led to appalling violence in many nations, such as the Philippines.

President Duterte came to power in June 2016 as a populist, with a long history of outrageous statements and extreme positions. Regarding drug users and traffickers, Duterte said that he would “slaughter them all.” Immediately after his inauguration thousands of people were killed by death squads, or were shot by police upon the mere suspicion of doing drugs. The President’s policy was initially popular, but over the last few months people have tired of the unending violence.

In the United States, one could argue that the War on Drugs really dates to 1973, when President Richard Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Agency. This approach conceived as drugs as a security threat to be dealt by strengthening the border, increasing the number of police, and using the U.S. armed forces and allied militaries to target drug traffickers. In 1999, the United States adopted Plan Colombia to fight both the drug cartels and guerrillas in Colombia. The U.S. gave over eight billion dollars to Colombia to expand its armed forces, purchase military equipment, carry out aerial spraying, and fight the cartels. Despite this substantial investment, the supply and price of cocaine in the United States did not decline, even after the death of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin cartel. The center of drug trafficking, however, did shift to Mexico. …

The costs of drugs

A Cannabis plant. By Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Marijuana is being legalized in the United States and globally far more quickly than almost any observer could have anticipated. Canada will legalize marijuana nationally in 2018. Given the horrific violence associated with the drug war in Mexico, such steps will reduce the power of organized crime. As early as 2014 the price for Mexican marijuana was falling sharply, and this trend will continue. Still, all change comes with a cost, and Oliver Milman’s recent Guardian article points out one. In his piece,“Not so green: how the weed industry is a glutton for fossil fuels,” Milman argues that marijuana production in greenhouses uses a shocking amount of electricity, which is often produced with fossil fuels. I don’t doubt that the global discussion about drug legalization, at least for marijuana, will continue. As it does, countries will have to wrestle with many complex policy issues, including the environmental impact of this crop, as large corporations produce it at scale.

Ben Grenrock also has a recent article, “Colombia’s New Drug Problem” in Slate, which talks about the growing movement towards drug tourism in Medellin, Colombia. On the one hand, drug violence has plummeted in the city. Colombia, which endured horrific violence in the early 1990s, has recently signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Medellin is a beautiful city, which has enjoyed spectacular growth. But tourists have also begun to come to Medellin in large numbers, partly because they view it as a place to experiment with cocaine consumption. Of course, cocaine has always been available in Colombia. But now the scale of drug tourism has increased substantially, which has strengthened the drug gangs that control its distribution in the city. According to Grenrock, many people in Medellin look with disdain on these tourists. In the case of Medellin, cocaine is illegal, but readily accessible because there is little effective enforcement. As both articles describe, a commodity chain links drug consumers to real environmental and social problems.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Devil’s Breath: An Andean drug

Brugmansia sanguinea. By Paul K from Sydney (Brugmansia bicolor) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This spring I taught a class on the Global Drug Trade, and one of the students in the class shared a Vice News video with the class regarding a drug called Devil’s Breath. Please be warned that this video contains disturbing content, including discussion of rape and violence, as well as profanity. It is also an unusual video regarding drug usage, because Devil’s Breath (scopolamine, which is also known as Burundanga in Latin America) is unlike other drugs in that it is not consumed for pleasure. Rather, it is allegedly used by criminals in Colombia in order to take away someone’s will. The drug itself can be created easily from a common tree in Colombia, called the borrachero tree. There are seven trees in the Brugmansia genus, which contain the active ingredient scopolamine. These trees are common throughout northern South America, where they are extinct in the wild, but are sometimes used as ornamental trees because of their beautiful flowers.

According to Colombians who were interviewed in the video, criminals can ask someone to smell the powder, and the drug is so potent that it will take effect when they sniff. The video contains a series of interviews, including a taxi driver who seems to know all too much about the drug, and some people who were victimized using it. Still, the stories were so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but wonder, could this possibly be true? Can victims truly lose their will, so that they will assist a robber to burglarize their home? Or is this partly folklore? Vice’s reporter Ryan Duffy did not appear to be someone with a deep knowledge of Colombia. Nonetheless, the interviews with authorities, including the police and a doctor, were very convincing. Nonetheless, I wondered how to judge where reality ended and folklore began. After all, this drug is used in Western medicine to treat some conditions such as motion sickness? Wouldn’t this effect be familiar from this usage? Or are there differences between scopolamine and the the drug variant used …

The opioid crisis

Harvesting Opium. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2699338

I’ve been teaching a course on the Global Drug Trade this year, and my class recently covered the opioid crisis, including the emerging drugs of fentanyl and carfentanyl. If you haven’t heard of these drugs before, you might want to read German Lopez’s Vox article “How an elephant tranquilizer became the latest deadly drug in the opioid epidemic.” While the epidemic exists in the United States, these drugs are causing havoc in British Columbia, Canada. What is distinct about these drugs is that they are not only dangerous to the user, but also first responders. The crisis has been so serious that it has caused people to rethink how we deal with illegal drugs in a profound manner.

In my class there was a great deal of discussion of whether the broader opioid epidemic is being covered differently in the media because many people using these drugs are middle class, white and older. They are also distinct, my students noted, in that most people who become addicted do so because they received a prescription for the drugs legally. There is no question but that major corporations have pushed these drugs, as this wonderful John Oliver piece describes. The epidemic has deepened, because when people have difficulty accessing legal opioids they have turned to heroin. …

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