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Trade in drugs began to flourish in the late 1400s, when European coastal cities played a major role in determining whether a drug would become a global commodity. Drugs were ideal money makers, some with addictive effects that ensured constant demand. Taxes placed on such drugs often funded a nation’s politics, and revulsion to this eventually led to nineteenth-century prohibitions and regulations.
Psychoactive drugs became global commodities with the expansion of oceanic trade from the late fifteenth century. In many ways the diffusion of drugs resembled that of germs: that which had been confined to one region, continent, or hemisphere spread around the world. The principal difference was that drug production and commerce were deliberate and profit motivated, while the introduction of germs was not. Only from the late nineteenth century onward did political elites reevaluate the lucrative international trade in drugs and begin selectively imposing restrictions.
The most important drug commodities produced and traded in both hemispheres were alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, tobacco, opiates, cannabis, and various coca products. Psychoactive exchanges occurred in both directions, from west to east and east to west. Tobacco, coca, and cacao originated in the New World and spread to the Old. Liquor, wine, opium, and cannabis originated in the Old World and spread to the New. Sugar cane, another important transplant from the Old World, was used to make rum. Sugar also sweetened bitter-tasting psychoactive products, among them chewing tobacco, coffee, tea, chocolate, and even opium.
Not all local or regional drugs became global products. For reasons that ranged from spoilage problems to cultural prejudice against their effects, use of khat, kava, betel, peyote, mescal beans, and many other substances remained confined to one hemisphere or the other. For a drug to become a global commodity, it first had to catch on in one or more of Europe’s seafaring imperial nations: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France. Only their merchants, planters, and seamen had the means to ensure that the drugs they valued became worldwide trade goods and cash crops.
Tobacco as a Model
Tobacco offers the clearest example of European adoption and global dissemination of a novel psychoactive drug. Tobacco use and cultivation had originated in South America and spread northward, reaching the upper Mississippi valley by 160 CE. It also had taken root in the Caribbean, where in 1492 two of Columbus’s crew observed Taino Indians smoking tobacco. Later explorers and missionaries often described native smoking rituals. But in Europe, early interest in tobacco centered on its possible medical uses. The Seville physician Nicolas Monardes (1493–1588) recommended that tobacco be applied topically to aches and wounds; swallowed to kill worms; or chewed to alleviate hunger and thirst. Others valued it as an antidote to epidemics. Tobacco was much in demand when plague visited Europe’s cities.
Tobacco also caught on among soldiers, sailors, and courtiers, including England’s Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618). Begun as a pastime and continued as an addiction, nonmedical tobacco use proved controversial. Critics said it sickened and impoverished its enslaved users. The practice nevertheless continued to spread in taverns and brothels, and in distant lands visited by pipe-smoking sailors. Demand grew, and so did profits for cultivators. The Spanish introduced tobacco to the Philippines, where it became a cash crop after 1575. About 1600 sailors and merchants from Fujian Province, in southeastern China, took the plant back with them from the Philippines. Between about 1590 and 1610 the Portuguese introduced tobacco to West Africa, India, Java, Japan, and Iran. Subsequent diffusion from these places made tobacco a truly global crop.
Seventeenth-century clerics, physicians, and monarchs in lands as far separated as Great Britain and China condemned the nonmedical use of tobacco. But even public executions of recalcitrant smokers failed to check tobacco’s progress. By the end of the seventeenth century, prohibition had given way to regulation and taxation, as tobacco settled into a long career as a lucrative nuisance. It became a major source of tax revenue and, for European overseas empires, a mainstay of colonial agriculture, expanding through the African slave trade. The more the American plantations produced, the more Europeans and their reexport customers consumed. As with sugar, plantation agriculture increased supply and drove down the price. Chesapeake tobacco that had sold for as much as sixteen English pennies a pound in the early 1620s was bringing only one penny by 1670. Practically everyone could afford to smoke, chew, or snuff the drug—the method of consumption varying by region, gender, class, and shifting fashion.
Advantages of Drug Commerce
The story of tobacco repeated itself, with variations, for all the major global drugs. When Europeans discovered a novel psychoactive substance (or learned to manufacture one, as in the case of distilled spirits) they always investigated possible medical uses. This aspect of drug dissemination—doctors debating indications, doses, and side effects—seldom caused public alarm. Several therapeutic breakthroughs, such as the 1884 discovery of cocaine’s local anesthetic properties, won universal approval. Controversy arose only when a pattern of nonmedical use emerged, as in England’s early eighteenth century gin-drinking epidemic, the “luxurious” use of opium by the idle rich, or, in the age of synthetic and semisynthetic drugs, self-intoxication with barbiturates, heroin, and amphetamines.
For most of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, government officials tolerated drug abuse and poisoning as unfortunate by-products of a lucrative commerce. Drugs were, in many ways, ideal products. Because they were quickly consumed, regular users had to constantly replenish their supplies. Because they caused tolerance—larger and larger doses were necessary to achieve the same effect—sales volume tended to increase over time. And because drugs addicted at least some users, demand was relatively inflexible. In the early days of the 1849 California Gold Rush, tobacco sold for close to its weight in gold. Entrepreneurs rushed supplies from Honolulu and other ports to San Francisco, whose warehouses soon bulged with tobacco.
Alcohol and tobacco were ideal barter goods. Merchants traded them for native labor and for such products as sandalwood, trepang (sea cucumbers), copra, and peltries (furs and skins). The early modern fur trade, a global enterprise that tied Europe’s cities to the remotest backwoods of Siberia and the Americas, was in essence also a drug trade, with profits running as high as 400 percent on the watered spirits supplied to natives. Alcohol and tobacco proved just as useful in acquiring African slaves. Between 1700 and 1830 perhaps one in every four slaves imported from Luanda and Benguela to Brazil was paid for with rum. The slave/plantation/drug complex became a sort of economic perpetual-motion machine. Slaves grew tobacco and sugar; sugar was manufactured into rum; tobacco and rum (as well as coffee and cacao) helped pay for more slaves, who raised more drug crops.
Political elites profited from the growing drug commerce through taxation. Imperial Russia, for example, essentially paid for its military by taxing alcohol. Colonial administrators in Africa and Asia depended on alcohol taxes, often supplemented by opium revenues. They periodically auctioned the exclusive right to sell opium (the “opium farm”) to the highest bidder, usually a syndicate of Chinese merchants. During the nineteenth century Singapore derived half its revenue in this manner. The French profited from a similar commerce in Indochina. In 1945, when Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) officially declared Vietnamese independence, he specified the opium and alcohol traffic as among the many imperialist crimes the French had committed against his people.
Restriction and Prohibition
Revulsion against imperial drug profiteering was one important reason for the worldwide movement to restrict or prohibit drug trafficking. The reformers initially concentrated on China, where nationalists and Christian missionaries had long been concerned with opium smoking. The problem originated with opium imports from British India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though forbidden by Chinese imperial edict, the import trade flourished, and acquired legal status after the British prevailed in the Opium Wars of 1839–1842 and 1856–1858. Chinese domestic production rose even faster than imports; by the early twentieth century the Chinese were growing most of their own opium in vast poppy fields. The traffic threatened the nation’s health, morale, and productivity. Chinese officials wanted it stopped. So did Britain’s reformist and temperance-minded Liberal government, which came to power in 1906. The following year, 1907, the British began to phase out Indian opium exports, conditional upon the Chinese eliminating domestic production at a similar rate. In 1913 the India-China opium trade officially came to an end. The initial (if imperfect) success of this joint effort set a precedent for supply control, which became the central object of drug diplomacy for the rest of the twentieth century.
By 1912 diplomats from Britain, the United States, and other nations had hammered out the Hague Opium Convention, a treaty aimed at limiting the manufacture and consumption of opium and coca-based drugs to the amount required for medical purposes. At first Germany, whose pharmaceutical industry could produce large amounts of narcotics, put off signing the agreement. But, after defeat in World War I (1914–1918), Germany and its ally Turkey, a leading opium producer, were required to ratify the Hague Convention as part of the peace process. Over the next half century diplomats and drug-control bureaucrats negotiated further amendments and treaties, the upshot of which was tighter narcotic production and export regulations. The 1971 Psychotropic Substances Convention brought several new categories of drugs, including hallucinogens, amphetamines, and barbiturates, into the international control regime.
None of this diplomacy ended international drug trafficking, though it did reduce its volume and alter its character. Criminal syndicates and guerrilla armies played an increasingly important role in the clandestine manufacture and illegal distribution of regulated drugs. Illicit trafficking became concentrated in chaotic or weakly governed regions, such as China between the world wars or Colombia in the late twentieth century. Protracted civil war was good for the illicit drug business. Contending factions knew they could acquire cash for weapons by protecting local growers and smugglers, and appropriating a share of their profits.
The international movement to rein in the narcotic traffic was part of a larger campaign against the abuse of psychoactive substances. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the world was awash with manufactured drugs, including cheap spirits and mass-produced cigarettes. A growing body of medical evidence testified to the toxic effects of these substances, both for their users and for children exposed in the womb. Urbanization and industrialization had made intoxication more wasteful and dangerous. No one wanted drunken operators around heavy machinery, or behind the wheels of the growing fleet of motor vehicles. The new industrial realities also gave rise to a cosmopolitan progressivism, a conviction that governments should restrain economic activity that generated inordinate social costs. To many progressive reformers, poisoning people for profit fell into the same category as rapacious monopoly, unrestrained industrial pollution, and adulterated food. All merited government suppression.
What made drug suppression tricky was that exceptions had to be made for legitimate medical use. Even in the United States during Prohibition (1920– 1933), medicinal alcohol was exempted and widely available through prescription. By the last third of the twentieth century the problem of medical exemption was commonly resolved by a system of “scheduling.” That meant sorting drugs into legal categories according to their medical benefits, toxicity, and addiction potential. The most restrictive category, which included hallucinogens such as LSD or (in some nations) cannabis, amounted to prohibition. Other categories ranged from tight controls on manufacturing and distribution for drugs like methadone, a synthetic opiate, down to simple prescription requirements for drugs of lesser abuse potential. Unscheduled drugs such as caffeinated beverages, tobacco, and alcohol were regulated, if at all, through tax policy and restrictions on advertising or sales to minors.
The Double Standard
The most anomalous feature of the modern control system was that it privileged tobacco and, at least outside of Islamic lands, alcohol, despite the fact that tobacco and alcohol were as harmful as many of the drugs subject to stricter controls. As lung tumors became the world’s most common form of cancer, critics complained that it made no sense to outlaw marijuana while permitting worldwide sales to pass, in 2000, a record 15 billion cigarettes a day. In fact, given tobacco’s role as a “gateway” drug (those who smoked tobacco were far more likely to experiment with other drugs), there wouldn’t have been as much marijuana use if cigarettes hadn’t been so readily available.
Though irrational in public health terms, tobacco and alcohol’s underregulation made sense in economic and sociological terms. The smaller and more deviant a drug-using population, the easier it was to impose and maintain restrictive legislation. The larger and less deviant, the harder it was. By the early twentieth century, nonmedical cocaine use was widely associated with prostitutes and, in North America, with renegade black men. The places that grew most of the world’s coca, Peru and Java, were poor and politically inconsequential. That simplified the task of international control. The same couldn’t be said of alcohol production, then an important industry on every continent except Antarctica. In the early twentieth century, one in every eight Frenchmen derived income from some aspect of the alcohol business. The scale of potential opposition was one important reason why politicians generally preferred alcohol taxation to stricter forms of control. That most of these politicians enjoyed alcohol themselves was another factor, elites being disinclined to outlaw their own vices.
The popularity of cigarettes conferred similar advantages on tobacco companies, at least until the late twentieth century, when the educated classes in Western societies began shunning their products. The tobacco companies’ wealth nevertheless permitted them to pursue a sophisticated strategy to save their business in the face of damning medical evidence. They hired public relations experts to obfuscate the health issue; deployed lobbyists to block, delay, or water down antismoking measures; advertised cigarettes as cool products to attract new teenage smokers; and aggressively expanded in developing nations, many of which lacked tobacco marketing regulations. In 1999 and 2000, World Health Organization (WHO) investigators found that 11 percent of Latin American and Caribbean school children between the ages of thirteen and fifteen had been offered free cigarettes by tobacco industry representatives. In Russia the figure was 17 percent, in Jordan 25 percent. Outrage at such tactics, coupled with alarm over the health consequences of the cigarette pandemic, prompted an international anti-tobacco movement, not unlike the narcotic control campaign of a century before. To date the principal diplomatic achievement of this movement has been the WHO’s 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This agreement commits signatories to such goals as advertising restrictions, smoke-free environments, and state-funded treatment for those trying to quit—an ambitious agenda in a world of 1.3 billion smokers.
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