Killer High: A History Of War In Six Drugs

Author: Peter Andreas
Publisher: Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 352p.
Reviewer: Katharine Neill-Harris | August 2021

When I hear the words “war” and “drugs,” I think immediately of the modern American War on Drugs and its two fronts: at home, against people who use drugs and black and brown communities, and abroad, where drug trafficking organizations are lumped in with the rest of America’s enemies.

Peter Andreas had this drug war on his mind as well, when he started thinking about the drugs-war nexus, which is the subject of his latest book, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs. While drugs and drug-related conflict are primarily discussed today within the confines of prohibition, Andreas’s work makes clear that prohibition is a limited framework for understanding the role of drugs and drug policy in the affairs of states.

Killer High, well-written and extensively researched, shows how the drugs-war relationship has served state interests and ambitions. Andreas illustrates the centrality of drugs to state aggression through his detailed account of war in the context of six of humanity’s favorite drugs—alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine—and discusses them along five different dimensions, which he identifies as war for drugs, war against drugs, war while on drugs, war fought through drugs, and post-war drug markets and use.

Drug use has played a large role in the actual battles of war, and the popularity of war-time drugs has had a significant impact on post-war drug use. Tobacco and caffeine helped with appetite suppression and alertness. Alcohol lowered inhibitions before battle, provided soldiers with pleasurable release from strenuous fighting, and numbed the mental and physical trauma of the atrocities of war. Amphetamines emerged as the stimulant of choice during World War II. The Nazis, who considered drug use a sign of weakness, nevertheless embraced amphetamines and associated them with individual and national strength. The infamous Blitzkrieg of World War II, in which German troops invaded and overpowered other countries with unimaginable speed, was only possible because soldiers were fueled by the amphetamine Pervitin, which allowed them to go days without sleep. The extent to which governments and militaries were willing to ignore, tolerate, or, in many cases, actively promote drug use among armed forces speaks to the calculating pragmatism of state leaders.

Drugs could also function as powerful weapons against one’s enemies. Colonial and American governments encouraged the supply of alcohol to Native populations; the high rates of alcoholism that ensued were then used to justify their forced resettlements. Andreas observes that “while alcohol can be viewed as a weapon of war, in many ways it was such a lethal facilitator of westward expansion that it can also be thought of as a substitute for war.”

But alcohol did not only harm one’s opponents. Drunken troops might have been more willing to fight, but they were also more easily defeated. Heavy drinking among soldiers contributed to Russia’s loss to Japan in 1904-1905, and incited calls for prohibition. Andreas argues that alcohol prohibition succeeded in the U.S. because temperance advocates framed production and consumption of alcohol as detracting from the war effort in Europe during World War I. Thus, war could shape civilian drug use patterns in numerous ways, both increasing drug popularity and use rates, as with tobacco and amphetamines, and also raising concerns about epidemic drug use, as with alcohol and cocaine following World War I.

The weaponization of drug use for war is one way that states have used drugs to advance their interests. Drugs are also used to pay for military conflicts and expand control over new territories (what Andreas refers to as war through drugs). For centuries governments have relied on revenue from taxing alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine to fund war and other state functions. When Russia banned the sale and consumption of alcohol following its defeat to Japan, the tsarist government lost its most important revenue source, setting the stage for political turmoil and military unpreparedness in World War I. Non-state actors have also used drugs to finance their political agenda. In Colombia in the 1990s, the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) used the immense profits from cocaine trafficking to support its efforts to overthrow the Colombian government; its adversaries, including other traffickers, were backed by the state.

Killer High also illustrates, in illuminating detail, how states will eagerly wage war both for and against drugs, depending on which fight furthers their power and interests. One of the strongest examples of waging war for drugs is the British Empire and its support of the British East India Company. Founded in 1600, the British East India Company provided English merchants a means of engaging in the Indian spice trade. As the company and its commercial activity grew in importance, the company acquired the right to grow opium in India. An exchange ensued: the British wanted tea, which was grown in China, and the East India Company had opium, the only British product with demand high enough to reap a profit in China. Opium addiction spread rapidly. As an act of self-defense, the Chinese government sanctioned the destruction of the British opium in the port of Canton. Merchants demanded retaliation from the Crown, and the first of two opium wars followed. After losing the second war in 1858, China decided to legalize domestic production of the drug to reduce imports and to raise money to fund the military, an economically successful endeavor which was accompanied by increasingly widespread opium use and addiction.

The story of the modern American drug war, starring cocaine, exemplifies how states will fight against drugs in pursuit of other ends; specifically, the strengthening of law enforcement and military might, and solidification of foreign policy dominance. The U.S. had always been more anti-drug than other countries, but at the end of World War II, “postwar U.S. hegemony also meant the hegemony of the U.S. antidrug agenda, including global criminalization of cocaine.” The drug’s popularity provided an easy target for the “moral majority” agenda that Ronald Reagan championed in his ascent to the White House. It also became a highly effective tool for increasing domestic law enforcement and for expanding U.S. military power abroad.

But even as cocaine, and drugs generally, were replacing communism as ‘public enemy number one,’ international political calculations still trumped drug suppression, and the U.S. was willing to ignore drug trafficking if it furthered its anticommunist agenda. While America was waging war on drugs at home and south of the border, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was ignoring the opium trafficking activity that was funding its Afghan warlord allies against the Soviets. In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration supported the Contra rebels against the Sandinista government, even though the administration knew the Contras were funded through cocaine trafficking. Commitment to anti-drug policies was always secondary to the political agenda, and Andreas’s detailed account of the U.S.’s role in the intensification of drug-related violence in Latin America and Mexico is an indictment of the government’s cruel indifference toward the deadly effects of its policies.

After 9/11, an event that presented a greater threat than drugs, there was a concerted effort on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other government agencies to “frame counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts as part of a much larger security goal of imposing control over lawless zones.” Drug war critics often point to the expense of the crusade as an argument for its end, but it was never meant to be cheap. Drugs are a perfect enemy for ambitious militaries and law enforcement agencies; they can never be defeated and so the fighting, and spending, must continue. Understanding drug policy as a means to ends other than reducing substance use clarifies governments’ otherwise seemingly irrational decisions to fight wars against drugs, despite their futility and harmfulness.

Andreas’s account of the drugs-war nexus leaves little room for optimism about ending the war on drugs and related violence. Drug wars have “a perversely self-perpetuating dynamic,” he writes, in which battles that disrupt established markets create power vacancies over which more battles are fought; the ensuing violence justifies further state intervention.

Still, current circumstances are so dire that small changes could bring improvements. Andreas suggests, for example, that geographic diversification of the drug trade could ease some of the violence in Mexico, a prospect made more likely by technological developments that facilitate air and water trafficking routes. But he cautions against the idea that ending prohibition will end the violence surrounding the illicit drug market; gangs and cartels have many revenue sources other than drugs, and will continue to profit from human trafficking, kidnapping, and other schemes. His historical review of drugs and war also make clear that prohibition and drug trafficking, while not exactly violence-free, were not always associated with the brutality we see today. Indeed, the violence of recent decades stands out as the feature that separates the modern War on Drugs from those of the past. Rather than the pharmacological effects of any particular substance or epidemics of use and trafficking, it is the policy decisions of state actors that have shaped the contours of drug wars. Nations have benefited greatly from their control of drugs and drug policy, so much so that Andreas argues that they deserve to be labeled “’narco-states’ in the sense that they have, at various times, in various ways, and to varying degrees, relied on drugs and drug revenue to carry out their state-making and war-making objectives.”

Histories of war and histories of drugs tend to neglect each other, or only mention one another in passing. Killer High strives to repair this oversight — an ambitious project, but one that Andreas accomplishes with extensive research and good writing. It is full of fascinating details about drugs and war, and covers so much ground that even readers knowledgeable about both topics will walk away learning something new. It is also an important addition to the current U.S. drug policy discourse, which tends to view the American drug war with singular importance. The tale of states using drugs and war to advance national interests is not an uplifting one, and readers can be forgiven if they finish this book feeling more cynical about the possibilities for a “good” government than when they started. Still, it is a story that needs to be told, and Andreas does it well.

Katharine Neill Harris, Alfred C. Glassell, III, Fellow in Drug Policy, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

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