A Dispatch from Buffalo: Session H1 – Drugs and the City

As readers of this blog know, many of us recently convened in Buffalo for the 6th Biennial Meeting of the Alcohol and Drug History Society. Overall the conference was a great event, and I enjoyed myself tremendously – thanks to organizer David Herzberg for the all work and love that obviously went into it. One of the many fascinating sessions at the conference was one on “Drugs and the City,” which consisted of three presenters speaking about how race, politics, and geography are intertwined with both patterns of consumption and efforts at regulation and treatment. The editors of this blog asked me to write a brief review of the session, which I present below.

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The Points Interview: Dan Weimer

Sliding into the lucky thirteenth installment of the Points Interview is Dan Weimer, author of Seeing Drugs: Modernization, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Narcotics Control in the Third World, 1969–1976 (Kent State University Press, 2011).  Dan is on the faculty of Wheeling Jesuit University–you can find out more about him here, and much more about the book here.  The book is essential reading for anyone interested in the development of the American global drug war, and I’d encourage Points readers to check it out.  (NB: Read to the end of the interview–I think Dan’s made the best voice-over nomination to date.)

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

I use this type of question on my students a lot (though I substitute “grandmother” for “mother”) and I understand why they dislike it; but here goes…

For the Nixon administration, and its successor the Ford administration, a crucial component of decreasing drug use in the United States was to limit or stop the production of illegal drugs (particularly heroin) in the nations that cultivated or refined drug crops (specifically opium). My book explores how Thailand, Burma, and Mexico were deemed the key opium and heroin producing and trafficking nations during the early and mid-1970s and how the United States, in conjunction with the United Nations and the Thai, Burmese, and Mexican governments, tried to halt drug trafficking and production in those countries. I explain why the United States relied upon modernization and counterinsurgency theory to solve the “drug problem.” (Admittedly, it would take me a bit of time to explain these theories to mom.) Essentially, American officials believed that if we could defeat insurgents connected to opium trafficking in Burma (rather than preemptively purchase the illicit opium harvest), modernize opium farmers in Thailand (i.e. help them to grow other crops), and destroy drug crops through the most efficient means (using aerial herbicides in Mexico), then a big part of the “drug problem” would be solved. In the long run, this drug war “solution” produced two effects. One, the Nixon and Ford administrations set the parameters of subsequent drug control policy abroad. Two, despite the United States’ failure in the Vietnam War and U.S. public skepticism over American meddling across the globe, the drug war guaranteed continued U.S. intervention in the Third World.

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