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.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I initially went into this project curious about the cultural lenses underpinning the modern drug war in the 1970s. Influenced by John Dower’s War Without Mercy, which explored the role of American and Japanese racism in the Pacific theater, I thought I might find racial language in how U.S. drug control officials came to understand how and why drugs were produced and trafficked in Thailand, Burma, and Mexico. When I started examining Nixon and Ford administration documents I found that drug policy discussions were suffused with the language of modernization. That is, American officials saw drug cultivators as “traditional” and “undeveloped” and regarded the governments of Thailand, Burma, and Mexico likewise. Similarly, the domestic discourse about addiction in the United States, since the turn of the twentieth century, revolved around addiction as an anti-modern affliction—that addiction negates the benefits of modernity. So, drug and alcohol historians may be interested in how my book connects domestic ideas about narcotics addiction as a foreign and anti-modern affliction with drug control policy abroad. I consider how both domestic and foreign drug control were construed within the framework of modernity during the twentieth century broadly and more specifically through the framework of modernization theory during the 1970s.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

One thing I find interesting is what many members of SHAD find intriguing: how drugs cut across so many aspects of the human experience (i.e. questions of self, consciousness, free will, identity, economic, politics, etc). Also, the melding of drug history with foreign relations history is of interest since I consider myself equally a U.S. foreign relations and drug history scholar.

Another thing I find interesting, given the hyper cynicism about drug control today, is that during the Nixon and Ford administrations (and the Carter administration for that matter), drug control officials sincerely believed that with the right policies they could harness illegal drug production and trafficking. For instance, when reading through the Ford administration documents about the herbicide program in Mexico (which began in late 1975), they were quite hopeful that defoliation would put a serious and permanent dent in drug cultivation and trafficking in Mexico. They did acknowledge that the drug problem would most likely never be fully solved but thought it could be successfully managed.

Lastly, we can trace the concept of “narco-insurgency” back before the 1980s (when it was popularized) to the very beginning of the modern drug war.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from Seeing Drugs are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Given the source base I had to work with I’d like to learn more about the Mexican, Thai, and Burmese perspectives on the drug war and the views of drug cultivators in those nations during the time frame I studied. However, since drugs are clearly sensitive subjects in those nations, gaining access to documents and people will continue to be a challenge (not to mention the language barriers). Also, looking at the drug war from an environmental history perspective is another avenue I’m curious to see pursued—in fact it’s my next project.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s give up on the idea that Ken Burns makes a documentary of your book.  In the audiobook, who should provide the voice for Seeing Drugs?

Since my wife and I often listen to David Sedaris’ audiobooks when we travel I thought he might be a fun narrator. But I’ve settled on the German filmmaker Werner Herzog because I frequently show his film Grizzly Man in my environmental history course. Many of his films deal with humans challenging nature in extreme circumstances and are a blend of tragedy, comedy, and the surreal. These characteristics, combined with his thick German accent are an apt mix for a book on drugs and drug control. I mean, drug and alcohol historians can acknowledge that we dwell in the weird? Right?

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Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004).  More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.

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