Are Drug Traffickers Re-Colonizing Africa?

In 2009 the West African country of Guinea Bissau made a rare and brief appearance in the international media when, in the early hours of March 2nd, President Vieira was assassinated—apparently at the hands of units of the military.  Only hours before, the head of the army, Gen. Tagme Na Waie, had been killed; the assassination of the President was widely believed to have been an act of retaliation for the murder of a long-time rival.  Although the details of those hours remain murky, accounts of these events rapidly moved beyond descriptions of a power struggle to implicate the international drug trade.  Guinea Bissau was characterized as a “narco state”  in the making.  Suddenly, a continent generally seen as peripheral to the global drug economy—in terms of production, distribution and consumption—was moving to center stage.  A few weeks later Thomas Harrigan, Chief of Operations from the DEA, would testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that West Africa had become a major transshipment site for Latin American cocaine bound for Europe, and that heroin produced in Southwest Asia was also being channeled through West and East Africa to Europe.

The rise of West Africa (and the tendency for that to be generalized to Africa as a whole is an interesting aspect of the rhetorical history of drug imperialism) as an important site for the drugs traffic is of course not so new as the sensationalist reporting of events in Guinea Bissau might suggest.

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Capitalism + Dope = Genocide

Lunchtime once again finds me browsing around online, and I’ve stumbled across Michael “Cetewayo” Tabor’s famous 1970 pamphlet “Capitalism + Dope= Genocide”, published by  the New York Black Panther Party.  This is a document from a very specific stratum of anti-drug discourse: a populist anti-drug message grounded in political economy and in the race and …

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Disconnect: Moral Liberalization and Mass Incarceration

Note: The following is David Courtwright’s thoughtful response to my earlier post, in which I raised some questions about his recent work.

Joe Spillane has identified a central paradox of recent American history. Why were the prisons filling up, particularly with drug offenders, when legislatures and courts were liberalizing policies on divorce, Sunday liquor sales, gambling, pornography, abortion, sodomy, and other Victorian taboos? How, as he nicely puts it, could “we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time?”

Conservatives have argued that moral liberalization and mass incarceration went hand in hand, insofar as promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent families produced more sociopathic behavior, particularly among young, unmarried men. Though much sociological evidence supports this generalization, it cannot explain the prison boom by itself. First, if society “defines deviancy down” to accommodate the increase in misconduct, the number of additional inmates will not necessarily match the number of new sociopaths. Adding prison capacity is a conscious (and usually expensive) political act. Second, contraception and abortion were also part of the moral revolution. They diminished future criminality by diminishing the number of unwanted and neglected children, a case economists John Donohue III and Steven Levitt made in a famous 2001 article. Interestingly, the abortion-crime tradeoff created a sensitive dilemma for conservative Republican politicians, many of whom were publicly pro-life but privately reluctant to see the end of legal abortion. “These guys are all fakers,” Michael Dukakis told me in an interview. “They tell their Evangelical friends they’re pro-life, and they do nothing about it.”

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Quaalude: The one that didn’t get away?

I was talking to a 67-year old relative about Quaalude at a recent family event. (Does this sort of thing happen to you all the time too, or is it just me?) I know her to be a friendly skeptic on the subject of drugs, and she has made it clear that she never used them herself—she’s a half-glass-of-wine-sends-me-to-bed type. But apparently Quaalude was different. To my surprise, she got a gleam in her eye, something like a faraway look, and said “Now that was a good drug.” It was the only drug she’d tried, she said, and she’d only done it once, but she remembered it fondly. She would have done more drugs if they were like that.

Here’s the thing: more drugs were like that. Sleeping pills were a dime a dozen, and even if you had a preference for Quaalude, well, until 1973 Quaalude was, if not a dime a dozen, at least easy to come by, and probably not much harder for a decade or so afterward. Chances are that my relative wouldn’t have used more drugs like that, because she didn’t. And this makes sense: for all the hip and happy memories of Quaalude, it was just a sedative like the others, with the same basic set of risks and rewards. Most likely she didn’t use it for the same reason she didn’t use other drugs.

So why the nostalgia? I don’t want to stretch the point too far. You can have nostalgia about paths not taken, and people aren’t required to be logically consistent. And yet the two conflicting dimensions of her experience with Quaalude—her reality of choosing not to use it, and her memory of it as a “good drug” that she would have done more of—struck a chord. Like a few other brand name drugs, “Quaalude” has proved hardier as a cultural symbol than as a medicine. It is used to identify the cultural moment of the long 1970s, listed alongside other signifiers like wife swapping and bell-bottom jeans. It is, as the New York Post referred to it recently, a “retro” drug.

And Quaalude does truly appear to be “retro.” Some people, somewhere, are still using it, and “Quaalude ring” busts do occasionally pop up in the news. But overall use of the drug has become so minimal that it is no longer even listed on Drug Abuse Warning Network’s reports. According to the 2003-2004 SAMHSA survey, the vast majority of people who have ever tried the drug are over the age of 26. Only one out of every 25 people who have tried Quaalude are younger than that. By way of comparison, one sixth of cocaine users are under 26, along with one fifth of heroin users and one fourth of marijuana users. Clearly Quaalude’s days as hot item among drug users is long past. Yet if you use Google’s Ngram viewer to track books mentioning the drug over time, you see something interesting: references to “methaqualone” (the generic name) rose to a peak in 1980 and have been declining ever since. That’s pretty much what you’d expect. But if you search for “Quaalude” you see something different. Mentions rise continuously all the way to 2002 before declining. We’re talking about a small number of books, of course, and this is hardly definitive data, but it’s further evidence that Quaalude the symbol has outlived methaqualone the drug.

So: is this what drug-war success looks like?

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