War & Drugs: A Look Inside The Long-Running Relationship

By Victoria Kim 08/08/19

A new book examines the way that alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs shaped world history.

soldiers at war

Drugs remain a taboo subject in 2019, but alcohol, tobacco, speed and more have played a prominent role in shaping global warfare—and thus the course of history—for centuries.

Knowable magazine sat down with Peter Andreas, a Brown University political scientist and author of Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs (available January 2020), to talk about these substances’ impact on wars in the last century and even earlier.

“We can’t understand the history of war without including drugs, and we can’t understand the role of drugs in our society without including war,” said Andreas. The two are intertwined.

Andreas focuses on six substances: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium and its derivatives, amphetamines and cocaine.

Drug-Funded Conflict

Drugs, being “highly valuable commodities,” have funded many wars. “Drugs have been huge revenue-makers for state coffers,” said Andreas. “Russia built up the largest land-based army in Europe basically by taxing vodka.”

A more recent example of this is the use of heroin profits to fund the Taliban in Afghanistan. The country has the highest opium production in the world; according to the U.S. military, 90% of the world’s heroin is derived from opium cultivated in Afghanistan.

"Drug-funded conflict is an old story, dating back not just decades but centuries, and in some ways is even more important in the past than the present," said Andreas.

The role of amphetamines in World War II is a popular subject in this arena. Not only were the Nazis fighting on speed (packaged as a medication called Pervitin) so too were American, British and Japanese soldiers.

Alcohol has long played a role in warfare as well. “Drinking and war-making have gone hand in hand since antiquity,” said Andreas. “In the Middle Ages, battlefields were drenched in beer and wine.”

Andreas gives the example of the Russo-Japanese War of the early 1900s, which is said to have been lost by Russia because of hard-drinking soldiers.

The United States became a coffee and whiskey drinking nation because of politics and warfare, too. Coffee became a favorable alternative to tea, which was associated with British rule. And whiskey became a patriotic drink of choice—an alternative to rum, which required imported molasses. Whiskey could be produced domestically.

Policing the War on Drugs

Andreas also commented on the modern day war on drugs, emphasizing the troubling role it’s played in fueling the “militarization of domestic policing.”

“One thing that can happen—and has happened to some extent here in the U.S.—is the distinction between fighting crime and fighting war becomes blurred. Traditionally, the military is supposed to be outward-focused, dealing with foreign threats, while police are domestic. Those distinctions are increasingly breaking down,” said Andreas.

A clear example of this is the proliferation of SWAT in the 1990s, which Andreas said “can largely be attributed to the war on drugs.”

Andreas says governments suffer from “a severe case of historical amnesia,” leading them to repeat the past and disseminate “quite misleading and alarmist” anti-drug rhetoric to the public.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr