Though the conventional history of the U.S.-led “War on Drugs” locates the origins of this conflict in a reaction to the domestic culture of excess of the 1960s, a new book argues that international drug control efforts are actually decades older, and much more imbricated with the history of U.S. access to international markets, than we have previously thought.
This week, we talk to historian Suzanna Reiss, Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, about her book We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, which uncovers this history by tracing the transnational geography and political economy of coca commodities–stretching from Peru and Bolivia into the United States, and back again.
The book examines how economic controls put in place during WWII transformed the power of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry in Latin America and beyond, and gave rise to new definitions of legality and illegality–definitions that were largely premised on who grew, manufactured, distributed, and consumed drugs, and not on the qualities of the drugs themselves. Drug control, she shows, is a powerful tool for ordering international trade, national economies, and society’s habits and daily lives.
You can listen to the full episode here: