Webs of Smoke: Smugglers, Warlords, Spies, and the History of the International Drug Trade / Edition 1

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This fascinating history of international drug trafficking in the first half of the twentieth century follows the stories of American narcs and gangsters, Japanese spies, Chinese warlords, and soldiers of fortune whose lives revolved around opium. The drug trade centered on China, which was before 1949, the world's largest narcotic market. The authors tell the interlocking stories of the many extraordinary personalities_sinister and otherwise_involved in narcotics trafficking in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Drawing on a rich store of U.S., British, European, Japanese, and Chinese archives, this unique study will be invaluable for all readers interested in the drug trade and contemporary East Asian history.

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Editorial Reviews

Review Of Higher Education
Compact, well-documented. . . . Provide[s] persuasive evidence that the war on drugs has never worked well and that new approaches must be tried.
Crime and Justice International
An extraordinary history of international narcotics trafficking in the 1900s.
American Historical Review
Meyer and Parssinen contribute a great deal to our understanding of the nature of the relationship between drug traffickers and political leaders, which was often ambiguous and more flexible than may be imagined at first glance. . . . This study is not only a major contribution to historical scholarship on international drug traffic; it is also an absorbing story filled with fascinating characters. . . . This is a first-rate study that merits a wide readership.
— John M. Jennings, United States Air Force Academy
The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies
A broad and thought-provoking book.
David Courtwright
A most original interpretation of international drug trafficking based on extensive research in western and Asian sources. . . . Highly recommended—a bold contribution.
Alan Block
Meyer and Parssinen write with exceptional clarity, covering material that has never been adequately addressed. Together, they have written a masterful account of the development of international drug trafficking and this century's long battle with it.
Jack A. Blum
This book makes an important contribution to the drug debate by presenting the history of the modern drug trade and the parallel law enforcement efforts in a fully textured and balanced way. It probes motives and examines structures. It follows trafficking organizations from their creation to their demise.
David Musto
Webs of Smoke is a remarkable account of twentieth-century drug trafficking and smuggling. Meyer and Parssinen have found documentation—some only recently declassified—that reveals a fascinating picture of the organization, techniques, and fate of dealers in illicit drugs.
American Historical Review - John M. Jennings
Meyer and Parssinen contribute a great deal to our understanding of the nature of the relationship between drug traffickers and political leaders, which was often ambiguous and more flexible than may be imagined at first glance. . . . This study is not only a major contribution to historical scholarship on international drug traffic; it is also an absorbing story filled with fascinating characters. . . . This is a first-rate study that merits a wide readership.
The Copenhagen Journal Of Asian Studies
A broad and thought-provoking book.
American Historical Review
Meyer and Parssinen contribute a great deal to our understanding of the nature of the relationship between drug traffickers and political leaders, which was often ambiguous and more flexible than may be imagined at first glance. . . . This study is not only a major contribution to historical scholarship on international drug traffic; it is also an absorbing story filled with fascinating characters. . . . This is a first-rate study that merits a wide readership.
— John M. Jennings
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780742520035
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/2/2002
  • Series: State & Society in East Asia Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathryn Meyer is professor of history at Wright State University. Terry Parssinen is professor of history at the University of Tampa in Florida. He has appeared twice on NPR's Fresh Air.

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Read an Excerpt

Webs of Smoke

Smugglers, Warlords, Spies, and the History of the International Drug Trade
By Kathryn Meyer

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Copyright © 2002 Kathryn Meyer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 074252003X

Chapter One


I must have your financial assistance, owing to heavy expenses incurred
in protecting myself against the same fate that overtook Mr. Tiewe. In
other words I must PAY FREELY to get the goods FREE OF

H. M. F. Humphrey, narcotics trafficker

The Palais des Nations was built to last forever. This structure, home of the League of Nations, was the symbolic phoenix rising from the ashes of the Great War. Its permanence, expressed in massive stone, was an architectural statement of a human hope. The long hallways, the soaring ceilings, the white marble, the brass trimmings all seemed calculated to overwhelm the building's inhabitants, as if to remind them of the insignificance of cantankerous individuals in the face of mankind's brotherhood. To underscore the message, the building was decorated with murals ponderously emphasizing unity. Black children and white children, red mothers and bronze mothers all played and worked harmoniously, at least on the walls of the Palais des Nations.

The grounds too were calculated to soothe. Set on a bluff overlooking magnificent Lake Geneva and dotted with ageless pine trees, the serene estate invited diplomats to walk among the cool greenery, to set aside their conflicts, to make peace. Even the winners of the First World War, Britain and France, had sacrificed half a generation of young men on the battlefields of the western front. The experience convinced leaders of the 1920s to pursue world peace through collective security. The architecture of the building housing the offices of the League of Nations reflected that dedication.

The Palais des Nations was built to encourage men to talk rather than fight. Dark-suited diplomats trod its hallways softly and spoke to one another in measured tones. They had a delicate mission: to kindle and nourish the spirit of international cooperation on matters of mutual interest and, above all, to keep the peace. So important was harmony and so threatening was discord that diplomats at the League of Nations were even more tactful and accommodating than their colleagues elsewhere. A serious argument at the Palais des Nations would not only embarrass the individuals involved, and their respective countries, but it would also undermine the ideal of international harmony on which the League was founded. Although the consequence of such caution--an unwillingness to engage aggressors--would in the 1930s result in the League's complete inability to deal with the ambitions of Japan and Italy, in 1926 the dream of collective security remained alive. If intelligent men could meet together and reason things out, problems could be amicably solved.

This spirit of friendly cooperation was so pervasive in Geneva that when an exchange between diplomats at a plenary session of the Opium Advisory Committee on May 31, 1926, became a heated argument, it drew genuinely shocked notice. Under discussion at the time was the large illicit traffic in Persian-grown opium from the port of Bushire on the Persian Gulf to the Far East. In a period of only ten months, over 500 tons of opium had moved along this route, although the entire annual world requirement of opium for all legitimate purposes was estimated at only 300 tons. The bulk of this Persian opium would be off-loaded along the China coast and smuggled onto the mainland, to be sold and consumed as smoking opium or manufactured into heroin.


Sir Malcolm Delevingne, a permanent undersecretary in the Home Office, an expert on the control of narcotic drugs and an original member of the League's Opium Advisory Committee, represented the British government during the meeting. Delevingne explained how, under new regulations enacted by his government, any British ship leaving Bushire with opium had to obtain a document from the British consul certifying that the drug was intended for a legitimate dealer. Delevingne was confident that this step would immediately halt the involvement of British shippers in the illicit opium traffic from Persia. However, since most of the opium exported from Bushire was carried on ships of Japanese registry, the committee asked to hear what controls the Japanese would impose. Mr. Sugimura Yotaro, the Japanese representative, replied cryptically that Japan possessed no consular agent in Bushire.

If Sugimura hoped that his lame excuse would mollify the tenacious Delevingne, he was badly mistaken. Sir Malcolm's temper erupted. His remarks came perilously close to crossing the line between diplomatic inquiry and outright accusation. He said that he had listened with profound disappointment to the statements made by the Japanese representative. The evasion of regulations by that country had been known for a long time. The British government had been making friendly representations to its Japanese counterpart on the matter as far back as September 1923, asking it to adopt measures of control equivalent to the ones that the British government itself was about to enforce at the time. The British government had supplied, at the request of the Japanese government, evidence of Japanese vessels engaged in the traffic. Yet three years later no definite reply had been received from the Japanese government regarding the requests, and nothing appeared to have been done by the Japanese authorities.

Not only had the Japanese been remiss in the past about drug control, but, protests notwithstanding, they seemed no more interested in 1926. Although Sir Malcolm granted that measures along British lines were perhaps not possible because the Japanese lacked a consul at Bushire, he nevertheless expressed astonishment upon learning that the Japanese government was able to exercise no authority and had no jurisdiction over its own ships after they left Japanese waters. He could hardly believe there was no way the Japanese government could discipline the owners of vessels engaged in the illicit opium traffic.

Sugimura refused either to admit guilt or to promise action. Instead he appealed to the committee, asking it to help the Japanese government in drafting laws or legislation that would be effective in suppressing the traffic. At present, Sugimura argued, Japanese law made it impossible for the government to interfere with the commerce of Japanese-registered ships, especially if they were leased to foreigners. He noted that his government wanted badly to suppress the opium smugglers, since "they were prejudicial not only to Japanese honour but to Japanese interests."

Sir John Campbell, representing India, found Sugimura's defense ludicrous. It was, after all, a well-established principle of international law that a ship flying the flag of any country was regarded as forming a portion of the soil of that country. As such, it would be subject to that nation's laws. In the face of these intimations of Japanese duplicity, Sugimura insisted that his government had been guilty of nothing more than naivete. In reply to Sir John, he reiterated that Japan needed help in drafting appropriate legislation. Delevingne responded with considerable sarcasm. If the Japanese government, after having considered the matter for more than two years, had been unable to find any way of dealing with the subject, he did not see how Sugimura could expect the committee, in the course of a short session, to do so.

Sir Malcolm stopped short of accusing the Japanese of hypocrisy, but he clearly implied it. He said that the Japanese government had a moral responsibility to halt the drug traffic. Sugimura happily agreed, no doubt relieved to elevate the discussion to the aerie realm of moral principle and out of the embarrassing morass of practical failing. Lest the committee hope for too much too soon, Sugimura concluded by reminding them that foreigners could charter Japanese vessels, complicating the situation for his government.

With Sir Malcolm still fuming, the meeting adjourned. On that one afternoon in May 1926, he had been moved to real anger. The result had made for most undiplomatic diplomacy. It was not the first time that the Opium Advisory Committee had been engulfed in rancor, nor would it be the last. By now Delevingne was growing accustomed to being at the center of such storms. His brief exchange with Sugimura encapsulated some of the issues for which he had struggled, as well as some of the frustrations that he had encountered.

The illicit trade in drugs had grown enormously during and after the First World War. Thus, in 1921, the League of Nations established the Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs, more commonly known as the Opium Advisory Committee, to try and bring this traffic under control. It was, like the League itself, an expression of the postwar faith in collective security; like the League, it was severely limited by its lack of legal authority. The committee could gather information, draw up guidelines, and make suggestions, but ultimately it was up to individual governments to enact narcotics laws and to enforce them. Some governments, like Turkey, a major opium producer, refused to cooperate at all. The Turks reasoned that although it was unfortunate if Europeans, Americans, or Chinese misused opium, the Turkish peasant who profited from poppy crops should not be made to suffer economic losses. Other governments, among which Japan was an example, formally adhered to League policy but, in fact, refused to crack down on their citizens who were engaged in the illicit traffic. Sir Malcolm believed that the Japanese could be shamed into adopting a more vigilant posture if they were constantly forced to answer charges of lax enforcement. Thus his heated exchange with Sugimura.

Sir Malcolm Delevingne, like many policy makers in our own age, considered that the key to narcotics control lay in curbing supply. Growers of crops like opium and coca, as well as manufacturers of such drugs as morphine, heroin, and cocaine, produced much more than could conceivably be used for legitimate medical purposes. The excess was diverted by smugglers into the illicit traffic, ending up in the veins or the lungs of addicts. Delevingne eventually convinced his colleagues on the Opium Advisory Committee that growers and manufacturers must be forced to cut back production to designated levels. To achieve this, individual governments had to agree to monitor carefully the worldwide commerce in drugs. If this were accomplished, he believed, the illicit traffic would disappear. The members of the Opium Advisory Committee assumed the manufacture of drugs like heroin, morphine, and cocaine to be so complicated that smugglers would be incapable of producing their own. If overproduction were ended and diversion were curbed, they reasoned, smugglers would go out of business and the illicit drug traffic would wither and die.

Yet Delevingne's attack sounded like hypocrisy to Sugimura's ears. The Japanese government was well aware of the role British merchants had played in commercializing the opium traffic less than a century earlier. Japanese officials also realized the financial contribution that the opium monopoly made to the several colonial budgets. In their own defense, Japanese officials described their state-run narcotics operation as having been developed from the British model into a masterpiece of public health legislation designed to care for and cure Chinese addicts under their jurisdiction. They could further speculate that the British government's reversal on the international opium question was based on the decline in revenues derived from the Indian opium monopoly in the face of Chinese competition.

Such speculation was not groundless. The British government had not always been such an ardent advocate of international narcotics control. In the 1880s, when British missionary groups began to organize public opinion against their own government's involvement in the trade, their appeals were met with official apology and defense of such commerce. Representatives of the government, like Earl Percy, defended the traffic in the House of Commons in 1906, using many of the same arguments the Turkish government would use in the 1920s. Nevertheless, in the opening years of the twentieth century the political climate was such in England that the government began to shift its stance.

One manifestation of the change was the beginning of a turnabout in British relations with the Chinese government on the question of Chinese opium prohibition. In Calcutta, in September 1905, during negotiations on a different matter, British diplomats suggested to Tang Shaoyi, the Chinese representative, that if China would undertake opium eradication, the British government would back it up by reducing, and finally ending, Indian opium sales to China. Tang Shaoyi was an important member of the imperial government during the last years of dynastic rule. American educated, he was an advocate of constitutional reform and modernization. His career survived the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. He became something of an elder statesman, and he held various posts during the early years of republican China. Ironically, his career ended abruptly in 1942, when as a Chinese official serving the Japanese occupation government in Shanghai, he was labeled a traitor and was assassinated by a hit squad organized by Dai Li and funded with opium monopoly revenues. In 1905, both Tang and his government, which had legalized opium under duress in 1858 after losing two wars, were most receptive to the possibility of British assistance in opium prohibition.


British cooperation with Chinese efforts to restrict opium use did not signal a complete or immediate about-face in their attitudes to the traffic. When the first international conference on opium met in Shanghai in 1909, the details for ending the India-China opium trade were still being worked out in Beijing. It was the American government that took the lead in bringing world representatives together to address the problems caused by opium. A sullen British delegation came to Shanghai reluctantly, like school bullies called before the headmaster to answer for a long list of transgressions.

The American government arranged the Shanghai Opium Commission for several reasons. First, Americans saw themselves as the leading moral entrepreneurs in China. Their Protestant missionaries, scattered throughout the country, were powerful shapers of the American view of China. They were resolutely opposed to the use of opium: A soul could not be won for Christ if the body that it inhabited were addicted to opium. Although a few Americans had participated in the opium trade, they were not so clearly identified with the traffic as were the British. Indeed, many God-fearing Yankee traders scrupulously refused to deal in opium, no matter what profits they had to forgo. Nor had the Americans participated in the carving up of China by European countries and Japan into spheres of economic influence. Americans had rejected trade concessions in favor of an "open door" policy toward China. This genuine Yankee concern about the political, economic, and moral well-being of China took the form of opposition to the international opium trade, in which the Chinese were the leading victims.

A second reason for American desire for the conference, one that formed a flip side of altruistic missionary concern, was the hope of huge profits to be made if a grateful Chinese government and people spurned their European predators and instead dealt exclusively with American businessmen. At the turn of the century China loomed large in both the American press and political circles as a market for the products of a bountiful and productive land. In the minds of American businessmen the China market was a basket of wants waiting to be filled. Thus moral reformers and business entrepreneurs both had high hopes for China: Millions of souls would be won while billions of products would be sold. An international conference against opium smoking would be a small American investment that might pay substantial dividends in the future.

The Americans harbored yet another concern about opium. In the wake of the Spanish-American War (1898), America had appropriated a number of former Spanish colonies, including the Philippines. As was the case throughout Southeast Asia, the Philippines had a significant minority of Chinese, five thousand of whom were opium smokers. Spain, like all the other European countries that had colonies in the Far East, sold opium through a government monopoly, the profits of which accrued to the colonial government. At the time, Europeans were either realistic or cynical enough not to be troubled by such arrangements. Americans, however, were too righteous to accept such monies.

In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt appointed a commission to look into the matter. Under the leadership of the Episcopal bishop Charles H. Brent, the body recommended that the opium monopoly be phased out and that opium smokers be given assistance to overcome their addiction. The commissioners quickly realized, however, that if they suppressed the legal trade in smoking opium in the Philippines, the void would be filled by illicit traffickers from nearby countries. The commission concluded that an international agreement to end the opium traffic throughout the Far East would be necessary if the problem in the Philippines was to be solved. All of these hopes, dreams, and practical considerations motivated the American government to convene, at the formal request of the Chinese government, the Shanghai Commission of 1909 in order to explore ways of suppressing the traffic in opium.

The Shanghai Commission, although dominated by China, Britain, and America, was attended by ten other powers, including Japan and all those European countries having colonies in the Far East. Little of substance was accomplished. The Americans and the Chinese pressed for a total and immediate ban on opium trafficking, but the other conferees were considerably more cautious. There were, after all, profitable monopolies at stake. Among the various resolutions that the conferees considered was one calling for a suppression of the illicit opium trade. It passed. But such idealistic resolutions cost nothing, and the opium trade remained untouched.

The American delegation, led by Bishop Brent, came out of the Shanghai Commission frustrated by its innocuous resolutions, angry at British foot-dragging, and determined to secure more substantial controis on the opium traffic. Almost immediately Bishop Brent began to lobby for a second opium conference. The British government indicated that it would attend only if the agenda included a discussion of manufactured drugs, like morphine and cocaine, partially to divert attention from the notorious India-China opium trade. Brent readily agreed. Thus a second opium conference convened in The Hague in December 1911. The agenda expanded to include worldwide control of all narcotic drugs.


The Hague conference produced a document, "International Opium Convention," which was signed by all the participants on January 23, 1912, and then circulated to their home governments for ratification. Again, no concrete steps were taken within the text to suppress the opium trade. Every government was left to police the traffic as it saw fit. But these conferees did recognize the dangers of unregulated manufacture and trade of morphine and cocaine. The "contracting powers" agreed to restrict the trade and consumption of drugs "to medical and legitimate uses." They agreed to prohibit the export of dangerous drugs to other countries except when the importer had been issued a license by the authorities in the importing country. And finally, they agreed to apply these regulations to all preparations containing more than .2 percent morphine or more than .1 percent of either heroin or cocaine. At the insistence of the German representatives, the Opium Convention would not come into force until all the signatories' governments had ratified it. But in 1914 war intervened before the ratification process was complete. International drug control remained in limbo for the next five years. Yet it was not forgotten. When the Paris Peace Conference opened in 1919, the Opium Convention came to the negotiating table as unfinished business.

The peacemakers at Versailles decided to urge all sovereign states that had not done so to ratify the Opium Convention. Using the spirit of international cooperation that was a legacy of the war, they charged the newly created League of Nations to oversee its enforcement. Thus The Hague conference of 1911 had far-reaching effects. It led national governments that had previously ignored the narcotics problem to enact regulatory drug legislation. America's Harrison Act (1914), which brought narcotic drugs under federal control, and Britain's Dangerous Drugs Act (1920) were both passed in response to the commitments each country made to the Opium Convention. It also created a model for the "certificate system," by which the legal traffic in drugs was controlled by government agencies certifying that shipments of drugs had a legitimate destination. Finally, it led to the creation of a permanent body, the Opium Advisory Committee of the League of Nations, to monitor the world's drug traffic.

History occasionally witnesses unexpected reversals. The course of the antidrug crusade was one of these. Americans had been the leading force behind the two initial opium conferences, cajoling and prodding other countries into taking the first steps toward international narcotics control. Yet after the First World War the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty. Thus America did not become a member of the League of Nations and the Opium Advisory Committee, which was the outcome of two decades of American initiative, included no Americans. Meanwhile Great Britain, which had been, in 1909, the international delinquent on drug control, in 1920 became its leading advocate. To a considerable extent, this dramatic reversal was due to the efforts of Sir Malcolm Delevingne.


British history has served up a number of colorful rogues, brilliant statesmen, and noble generals. But it has also been shaped by a vast army of men and women who went about their work so unobtrusively that, after they died, few people remembered that they had ever lived. Sir Malcolm Delevingne was such a man. He is generally not reckoned to be a notable historical presence of the early twentieth century. He was a bureaucrat and as such passed through life quietly. When he died in 1950, he did not leave wife, children, great property, or even many good stories behind him. Yet Delevingne accomplished much and aspired to accomplish even more.

By the standards of the British civil service, his career was successful but not extraordinary. Born in 1868 to a businessman's family in the respectable London suburb of Ealing, Delevingne attended a good public school (City of London) and took first-class honors in classics at Trinity College, Oxford. In 1892 he passed into the civil service and stayed in the Home Office for his entire career. 'He became an expert on workers' safety in factories and mines, and he initiated many useful reforms. To the end of his life he was in demand to sit on various boards and commissions because of his vast experience and expertise.

Delevingne was also the prime architect of narcotics policy in Britain between 1913 and 1926, when its foundations were laid. He became the country's expert by default in 1913, when an interdepartmental committee of bureaucrats, created to formulate British narcotics policy but bored by the task, handed it to him. He wrote a stopgap wartime narcotics law in 1916, and he prodded the government to introduce permanent legislation, conforming to the Opium Convention, after the First World War. His preeminence on the subject was acknowledged, even by his rivals. When civil servants of the newly created Ministry of Health tried to wrest control of the narcotics issue from the Home Office in 1920, they had to admit defeat because, as their chief admitted, "they had no one who could match Delevingne in tenacity or understanding."

Delevingne also pushed for international narcotics control. It was at his insistence that the issue was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. After it had been accepted by the League of Nations, Delevingne suggested that responsibility for it be vested in a specialized body, which became the Opium Advisory Committee. After the committee's creation he became its most forceful personality. According to one colleague, he had "a sharp brain in a very small body."

Passionate on the subject of narcotics control, he "was often very irritable at meetings, since he did not suffer fools gladly." Even on the rare instances when his views did not prevail, his presence was felt. During the 1931 League of Nations Conference on the Limitation of Drug Production, the conferees rejected a draft proposal that he had authored. Piqued, Delevingne refused to participate. But he could not bring himself to stay away altogether, so he came to meetings and ostentatiously read a newspaper. When the chairman asked him if he could help them clarify a muddled issue, he snapped, "Certainly not." The Canadian delegate, Colonel Sharman, said in a stage whisper, "Sir Malcolm, your attitude would be much more convincing if you did not read your London Times upside down."

Delevingne was a fervent Christian. Although the outward display of his faith was modulated by the restraint befitting an upper-middle-class English civil servant, he was nonetheless a believer. His religious convictions guided the issues that he chose to make the focus of his life's work--workers' safety and drug addiction. His life was not filled with dramatic moments. It was the slow pilgrimage of one who believed that the human condition could be ameliorated and that he was, in fact, responsible for accomplishing that. It is a curiously nineteenth-century idea that Delevingne sought to realize during his tenure in the twentieth century.

Christian though he might be, Delevingne was also a realist, whose limited sense of what was possible was shaped by three decades of guerilla warfare in the thickets of the civil service. Improvement, if it came at all, he believed, came in small doses. In 1922, the most significant problem of international narcotics control facing Britain and the Opium Advisory Committee was the diversion of drugs that had been manufactured by legitimate pharmaceutical firms into the illicit international narcotics traffic.


Much of the smuggling of narcotic drugs in the early 1920s was freelancing by merchant seamen. A sailor on a European freighter might buy a half kilo of cocaine at a waterfront bar in Hamburg, where it was readily available and very cheap, stow it until the ship docked in London or New York and sell it there for two or three times its purchase price. The risks were small. But occasionally the local police or customs authorities would seize a shipment and report it to the League of Nations. The League's Opium Advisory Committee kept a detailed record of such seizures because they hoped to trace illicit drugs back to their source. If, for example, they discovered that a substantial amount of cocaine seized in London had come from a single factory in Germany, they could infer a connection between smuggler and manufacturer that German authorities might wish to investigate. As long as drugs were carried by anonymous seamen and other small fry, the committee was more interested in stopping the flow of drugs at its source than in tracking down individual smugglers. The Humphrey case changed that.

European morphine, and later heroin, had trickled into China since the 1880s. This flow became a torrent after 1913, when the shortage of smoking opium forced many addicts to turn to morphine or heroin as a substitute. British, as well as German, Swiss, and French, manufacturers sent huge amounts of morphine and heroin to the China market until 1920. In that year the passage of the Dangerous Drugs Act, as well as the adoption of the certificate system, made it illegal for British drug manufacturers to sell to known smugglers. Enormous profits were lost. For example, in 1916, the London firm of T. Whiffen & Sons had grossed 469,000 [pounds sterling] on sales of 650,000 ounces of morphine, virtually all of which was destined for the China market. By 1922, in the wake of the Dangerous Drugs Act, Whiffen's morphine revenues had plummeted to 21,000 [pounds sterling] on sales of only 53,000 ounces. Not surprisingly, Whiffen found the temptation to maintain links to the underground drug network irresistible.

The laws created new barriers, which produced more sophisticated smugglers. The obstacles did not simply lie in getting the drug into China as before, but getting it out of Europe. The task required infinitely greater organization and capital than had previously been the case. The trial of H. M. F. Humphrey in 1923 revealed to Delevingne and his colleagues on the committee that they were encountering a smuggler far more resourceful than the simple merchant seamen. Humphrey's downfall began with an arrest made in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. On October 11, 1922, Hong Kong authorities detained one Tieu Yiu Kim, a Japanese subject, in illegal possession of 2,500 ounces of cocaine and 2,400 ounces of heroin. More to the point, he was also carrying documents showing that Humphrey, a thirty-two-year-old businessman, was delivering illegal morphine to Tong Say Brothers, Tieu Yiu Kim's employers.

Authorities immediately alerted Sir Malcolm, the senior Home Office official in charge of drugs, about the case. He arranged to have Humphrey's mail opened. An outgoing letter to Loo Benn Tan, the managing director of Tong Say Brothers, revealed the scale of his smuggling activities. In spite of Tieu's recent arrest, Humphrey hoped that they could continue doing business. (Obviously Humphrey did not suspect that Tieu had been carrying the implicating documents at the time of his arrest.) He reminded Mr. Loo that "the [drug] Manufacturers are personal friends [of mine]."

Humphrey proposed a deal in which they would buy 50,000 ounces of morphine at 16s. an ounce--40,000 [pounds sterling]. Humphrey promised to come out personally with the parcel to see its safe delivery. He was sure that they could easily sell this quantity in China at 48s., which would raise 79,000 [pounds sterling], even if the goods were sold at this cheap figure. He speculated that they might even get as much as 200s. per ounce. Humphrey concluded with a plea for front money to buy the drugs and to bribe officials. In reference to Mr. Tieu's unfortunate fate in Hong Kong, he requested financial assistance to protect himself. "I must pay freely," he said, "to get the goods free of control."

The deal never came off. Unknown to Humphrey, Sir Malcolm had him under surveillance. In January 1923, he ordered the police to arrest Humphrey and search his flat. The search turned up correspondence which indicated that Humphrey was in business with two other Englishmen, F. L. Baker and A. L. Baxter, in an elaborate scheme to move drugs to the Far East. Their Chinese customers preferred British morphine. Humphrey, always the accommodating businessman, tried to please them. When he could not buy British morphine, he hired a Berlin printer to forge labels of British pharmaceutical manufacturers, which he applied to containers of lower-quality morphine. But Humphrey was able to buy genuine British morphine manufactured by T. Whiffen and Sons from several European drug dealers. One of these was John Laurier, president of the British chamber of commerce in Paris. In 1922, Laurier bought 21,000 ounces of morphine from Whiffen, over 40 percent of the firm's total output that year, and nearly one-third of all the morphine imported into France. Only the most naive or conniving managing director of a pharmaceutical firm could fail to be suspicious of an order of that magnitude. Through an intermediary, Laurier sold the morphine to Humphrey and his associates. The British smugglers picked up the drugs in Basel, Switzerland, at the firm of Bubeck and Dolder, where they repacked it into innocent consignments, like chemicals or furniture, and shipped it to the Far East.

The final link between European manufacturers and Chinese addicts was Japanese smugglers. Official controls were notoriously lax at Japanese-controlled colonies such as Formosa or other Japanese concessions on the Asian mainland. From these staging areas drugs were smuggled by Japanese into China. By the early 1920s, then, the route of illicit morphine into China was circuitous. In this case, it traveled from London to Paris to Basel to China. But the potential profits made it a worthwhile business. As Humphrey's letter indicated, by the time British morphine reached China, it sold for between three and twelve times its purchase price in England. Business on this scale required manpower, organization, and capital. Humphrey realized the advantages of size. Papers confiscated from the residence of his partner, A. L. Baxter, described plans for a syndicate that would include the three English smugglers, Dundas Simpson, and Joe Kahan of R. Fuller and Company, the Basel firm of Bubeck and Dolder, and one Macdonald, an American shipper and drug trafficker operating out of Freiburg-Baden. Thus Humphrey existed at the center of a nascent international narcotics smuggling ring. In 1923, this was a new form of organization, created by smugglers to thwart the first efforts by Britain and her allies to stop the international drug traffic.

The results of the Humphrey case disappointed Delevingne. Humphrey received the maximum sentence of a 500 [pounds sterling] fine and six months' imprisonment that, the judge noted, was scarcely a deterrent to would-be smugglers. Baxter and Baker escaped and were soon dealing in narcotics from France. Although Delevingne communicated with the governments of France, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland, detailing their citizens' involvement in the drug traffic, arrests were few and convictions were nil. Within a few months it was business as usual.

Delevingne and Humphrey existed symbiotically. Both were creations of the changed mood that led to international narcotics control. Delevingne, the Christian reformer and bureaucrat who wanted to alleviate human suffering, devoted his career to eradicating the narcotics traffic. Humphrey was the descendant, at least in spirit, of those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English merchants who had made huge profits by selling opium to Chinese addicts. Morality was not their concern. For Humphrey, the existence of antinarcotics laws meant that the trade was a bit riskier but the profit margin was correspondingly greater. Delevingne, the hunter, ensnared Humphrey, the quarry. But Delevingne was slow to recognize and loath to admit that no matter how often he modified the barriers, the drug smugglers would adapt.

Nevertheless, the reformer achieved one satisfying result from the Humphrey case. The managing director of T. Whiffen and Sons was summoned to an interview with Sir Malcolm at the Home Office. Sir Malcolm asked some hard questions. How could the firm have carried on business with a person like John Laurier without investigating his connections and the ultimate destination of the drugs they sold him? Was Whiffen so intent on chasing profits that it winked at the illicit traffic? Sir Malcolm concluded that Whiffen had not technically broken the law and thus could not be criminally prosecuted. However, he judged that the firm had been so negligent that he revoked Whiffen's license to manufacture narcotic drugs. Thus T. Whiffen and Sons, hitherto the most prolific English producer of opiates, quite suddenly dropped out of the morphine business.

Sir Malcolm learned two things from the Humphrey case. The relative ease with which the smugglers had been able to buy morphine strengthened his belief that manufacturers of narcotic drugs must be forced to cut back production to the small amounts necessary to supply the world's legitimate medical demand. He also became convinced that the sudden appearance of well-financed international smuggling rings made it more necessary than ever for agencies in affected countries to cooperate with one another in strictly enforcing drug regulations. Delevingne returned to the League of Nations determined to press vigorously for tightened controls on the international drug traffic.


Delevingne, through the Opium Advisory Committee, became the driving force behind three international conferences on drug control held under the auspices of the League of Nations in 1925, 1931, and 1936. Each conference focused on a different aspect of the international traffic; each produced agreements that made it more difficult for smugglers like Humphrey to operate. To a considerable extent, the League's successes were his successes, and its failures were his failures.

The first necessity, Delevingne believed, was to make certain that all countries adhered to the certificate system. In the early 1920s, the leaks in the legitimate drug traffic were created by countries like Switzerland, which did not fully accept the system, or Japan, which did not enforce it. Delevingne convinced the Opium Advisory Committee to make its first priority a conference to ensure worldwide compliance with the certificate system.

Britain had begun a primitive form of the system unilaterally in 1917, when it was brought to the government's attention that the massive amount of British morphine exported to Japan was destined for Chinese addicts. The British government refused to allow dealers in narcotic drugs to export to Japan unless they could produce a certificate from the Japanese government attesting that the importer was a respectable dealer, and that the drug was to be used only for legitimate medical purposes. As a result, exports of British morphine to Japan fell to almost nothing in 1919. Drug traffickers quickly discovered that they could beat this problem by shipping the drug to Japan via America, with which Britain had no arrangement.

Delevingne countered by entering into bilateral agreements with all the major countries--such as France and the United States--with which Britain had a commerce in narcotics. Although this finally took British manufacturers out of the drug traffic to the Far East, it still left manufacturers in the countries that did not adhere to the system free to participate, as before, without restrictions. In essence, the Far Eastern opiate business that was abandoned by British manufacturers was picked up by continental firms. Delevingne reasoned that international control of the drug traffic would only be effective if all of the major drug-producing countries agreed to adhere to the certificate system. Thus the acceptance of the certificate system was the major item of business, as well as the major accomplishment, of the Geneva Opium conference of 1925. It meant that no narcotic drugs could be sold internationally unless the exporter could produce a certificate from the importer, signed by an official of a government agency of the importing country, attesting to the drug's legitimate destination and use.

When the agreement was finally ratified, its effects were dramatic. It became clear that much of the world's production of morphine, heroin, and cocaine had been going into the illicit traffic. When the leaks were plugged, world production of narcotic drugs dropped sharply.

An interesting sidelight of the 1925 conference was the behavior of the American delegation. Although the United States was not a member of the League, Americans had been invited to participate in the Geneva conference because of their long-standing interest in the problem. The American delegation argued that the root of the narcotics problem was the overproduction of raw opium, and they introduced a resolution calling for opium-producing countries to reduce their supply drastically. When this resolution was defeated, the Americans, along with the Chinese delegation, withdrew in anger. America never became a signatory to the 1925 Opium Convention. Delevingne knew that the Americans were right. He had held their position privately for many years. But he also knew that such a resolution was far too advanced to be passed by the conference in 1925. Simply put, too many countries had too much invested in opium to give it up overnight. Patience was needed, he believed, and the Americans had precious little of that where narcotics were concerned.

After the 1925 Opium Convention was signed, Delevingne kept the pressure on. He wheedled, complained, and twisted arms. At the 1927 meeting of the Opium Advisory Committee he introduced a resolution expressing alarm at the continued leakage of narcotic drugs from legitimate sources. He called for greater vigilance, asking government agencies to take care to issue licenses only to persons of impeccable reputation. Despite some minor cavils and a few changes, Delevingne's resolution passed. By the late 1920s, Delevingne had convinced his colleagues on the committee that the next major task was to limit production of manufactured drugs--morphine, heroin, and cocaine. If the certificate system had made it difficult for smugglers to obtain supplies by diversion, limitation would cut them off entirely.

Thus the 1931 League of Nations Conference on narcotic drugs was dedicated to limiting production of manufactured drugs. This time the proceedings did not go entirely to Delevingne's liking. His committee proposed a limitation in which existing drug manufacturers would retain their current market share, whereas total production would be scaled down to equal the worldwide legitimate medical demand. No other manufacturers would be allowed to produce narcotic drugs. The conferees rejected this proposal, pointing out that it gave a perpetual monopoly to the handful of European and Japanese manufacturers presently in business. Eventually the conference came up with a limitation scheme geared to the domestic and export market of each country. If Norway, for example, had an annual medical need for fifty kilograms of morphine, a Norwegian firm could set up in business and produce that much. Delevingne disliked the idea, since he thought that it would be more difficult to monitor and control the production of many smaller manufacturers than a few larger ones. Nevertheless, he was willing to give in, and he did get an agreement on limitation.

By the early 1930s, then, traffickers faced a crisis of supply. In order to maintain their businesses as their sources dried up, smugglers became manufacturers. Illicit drug factories began to turn up in unusual places. Bulgaria, for example, became the heroin capital of the world for a short time. Bulgarian-manufactured heroin turned up in Europe, Egypt, and America. Meanwhile, in China, Shanghai became a center of illicit heroin manufacture. Because the city was divided into large extraterritorial sections administered by foreign countries, the Chinese could exert very little police control. Vice of all kinds flourished, run by the Red and Green gangs. In Manchuria and in Tianjin Japanese chemists perfected their product, making it available at a competitive price.

Other heroin factories were discovered in Greece, France, Italy, and America. Their existence disproved the Opium Advisory Committee's assumption that the manufacture of drugs was so complex that it could not be undertaken by mere criminals. Thus it was only for a few years in the early 1930s, while clandestine factories were being set up and competent chemists were being recruited, that there was a temporary shortage of opiates on the illicit market. But this supply shortage soon passed. By 1934 underground factories were pumping enormous amounts of morphine, cocaine, and heroin into the illicit drug traffic. Police closed scores of them every year, but to no avail. The demand for narcotic drugs was so great and the traffic was so profitable that new factories appeared continuously. The sources of supply changed from legitimate pharmaceutical companies to illicit manufacturers, but the international drug traffic continued to thrive.

The League conference of 1936 focused on law enforcement issues such as extradition of drug smugglers and cooperation among national agencies. This reflected the changes in the illicit traffic. Where the Opium Advisory Committee had first concentrated its efforts on cutting off the diversion of legitimate pharmaceuticals into the illicit traffic, it now turned to stopping the traffickers themselves. Although a number of important steps were taken at the 1936 conference, war intervened before they could come into effect. Once again, international narcotics control remained an issue of unfinished business for the postwar peace conference. The United Nations succeeded the League of Nations as the primary international agency concerned with narcotics control.

Sir Malcolm Delevingne retired from the British civil service in 1932 after an exemplary forty-year career. He stayed on at the Opium Advisory Committee for two more years. In 1934, when he finally gave it up, Sir Malcolm must have evaluated his accomplishments with some ambivalence. More than any other single individual, he had been responsible for the international agreements on narcotics control between the wars. Certainly that was a formidable achievement. But his great hope, of eradicating the illicit narcotics traffic entirely, had eluded him. All that he had done was to sever the links between the legitimate drug manufacturers and the illicit traffickers. Indirectly, he was responsible for the creation of clandestine drug factories in the 1930s. That was a failure, perhaps of policy, certainly of imagination.

In his waning years, Delevingne retired to his home in the dowdy London suburb of West Kensington. He tended roses and served on the governing board of Dr. Barnardo's Homes, a philanthropic organization that provided for orphans, until his death in 1950 at the age of eighty-two. The great accomplishment of Sir Malcolm Delevingne and the Opium Advisory Committee was to produce a series of agreements that gradually transformed the international narcotics traffic from a licit to an illicit industry. Legal barricades to the traffic sprang up, first in China and then in the rest of the world. These barriers were not sufficient to eradicate the traffic, as Delevingne had hoped, but they did create new realities. In order to carry on their business activities safely, drug traffickers needed political protection. In some places, especially the Far East, they formed alliances with politicians, which resulted in a rationalized narcotics business consolidated in a few hands. In other places, such as America and Europe, increasingly strict laws and enforcement policies put drug traffickers at greater risk, which did not halt the trade but made it less stable and more fragmented.


Excerpted from Webs of Smoke by Kathryn Meyer Copyright © 2002 by Kathryn Meyer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction: Men in the Shadows Chapter 2 Bureaucrats Chapter 3 Merchants Chapter 4 Monopolies Chapter 5 Noveaux Riches Chapter 6 Europeans Chapter 7 Warlords Chapter 8 Soldiers of Fortune Chapter 9 Spies Chapter 10 Americans Chapter 11 Communists Chapter 12 The Myth of Conspiracy

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