The Political Economy of Narcotics

The Political Economy of Narcotics

by Julia Buxton

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The Political Economy of Narcotics by Julia Buxton

This book explores the origins, history and organisation of the international system of narcotic drug control with a specific focus on heroin, cannabis and cocaine. It argues that the century-long quest to eliminate the production, trade in and use of narcotic drugs has been a profound failure. The statistics produced by the international and domestic narcotic drug control agencies point to a sustained expansion of the drug trade, despite the imposition of harsh criminal sanctions against those engaged, as producers, traffickers or consumers, in the narcotic drugs market. The roots of this major international policy failure are traced back to the outdated ideology of prohibition, which is shown to be counterproductive, utopian and a fundamentally inadequate basis for narcotic drug policy in the twenty-first century. Prohibition, championed by many US policy makers, has left the international community poorly positioned to confront those changes to the drug trade and drug markets that have resulted from globalisation. Moreover, prohibition based approaches are causing more harm than good, as is demonstrated through reference to issues such as HIV/AIDS, the environment, conflict, development and social justice. As the drug control system approaches its centenary, there are signs that the global consensus on narcotic drug prohibition is fracturing. Some European and South American states are pushing for a new approach based on regulation, decriminalisation and harm reduction. But those seeking to revise prohibition strategies faces entrenched resistance, primarily by the U.S. This important text argues that successive American governments have pursued a contradictory approach; acting decisively against the narcotic drug trade at home and abroad, while at the same time working with drug traffickers and producer states when it is in America's strategic interest. As a result, US policy approaches emerge as a decisive factor in accounting for the failure of prohibition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848137523
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 07/04/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 648 KB

About the Author

Dr Julia Buxton is Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for International Cooperation and Security in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK.
Dr Julia Buxton is Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for International Cooperation and Security in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. Her research field covers Latin American politics; conflict prone societies and regional capacities in democracy promotion and conflict resolution. She was an International Election Observer in Venezuela in 1998 and 2000.

Read an Excerpt

The Political Economy of Narcotics

Production, Consumption and Global Markets

By Julia Buxton

Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2006 Julia Buxton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-161-3


Intoxicating substances in historical perspective

The role of drugs in global society

People have ingested naturally-occurring intoxicating and hallucinatory substances since the beginning of civilization. There are approximately 4,000 plants containing psychoactive substances and sixty of these have been consumed throughout world history. The most widely used naturally-occurring drugs are opium from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), the flowers, leaves and resin of the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa) and the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum). The earliest surviving written accounts of these three drugs date back to the third century BC (Austin 1979).

Naturally-occurring drugs were an important and persistent element of cultural, social, economic, medical and spiritual evolution. Only four out of 237 cultures worldwide have no record of intoxicating substance use, these being societies that are isolated and incapable of cultivating psychoactive plants, such as the Inuit community (Blum 1969). So omnipresent is drug use in global history, one commentator claimed that it: 'must represent a basic human appetite [...] analogous to hunger or the sexual drive' (Weil 1972).

The functions of drug use Drugs were consumed in ancient and modern societies for five main purposes (Inglis 1975). They were first used for pain relief and this was particularly the case with cannabis and opium. The smoking, inhalation or eating of cannabis was recommended in ancient Indian and Chinese manuscripts for the relief of sickness and diseases such as gout, cholera, tetanus, neuralgia, depression and for pain relief in childbirth. The leaves and flowers of the marijuana plant (Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica) were prized for their psychoactive properties and used in medicines and religious ceremonies for over 3,000 years. From 1850 to 1937, cannabis was the primary treatment for more than 100 illnesses or diseases in the US pharmacopoeia. Queen Victoria's personal physician, Dr John Russell Reynolds, prescribed cannabis to the royal family for over thirty years, describing it in an 1890 edition of the medical journal The Lancet as one of the most valuable medicines known to man (Abel 1980).

Opium was highly valued for its medicinal properties. It contains forty-six alkaloids including the analgesics codeine and morphine and, like cannabis, it was used for the treatment of a wide range of illnesses and relief of bronchial problems (Booth 1999; Scott 1969). Knowledge of the opium poppy and its cultivation techniques was passed from Lower Mesopotamia, where it was first cultivated, to the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and the Greeks. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great extended opium poppy cultivation to Persia (Iran). Arab traders, who were believed to have acquired their knowledge of the medicinal properties of opium from the Greeks, introduced opium from Persia to South Asia and by ad 400 opium was used in medical practice in India and China. These two countries subsequently became the world's leading opium poppy cultivating countries.

Intoxicating substances were also consumed for physical stimulation by those engaged in arduous employment. This was the case in a wide range of country contexts and, across time, extended from the practice of coca leaf chewing by indigenous Indian societies in the Andes (Allen 1981) to cannabis smoking among labourers in Jamaica and South Africa. Cannabis use was thought to have developed in Jamaica after it was transported to the island by indentured labourers from India, while the use of cannabis in Africa was introduced by Arab traders in Mozambique (Brecher et al. 1972). A range of other natural plant-based stimulants such as betel, khat and tobacco were also used as 'work' drugs because their consumption increased stamina, reduced the appetite and boosted physical endurance (Courtwright 2002). Drug use also played an important role in religious, pagan, shamanic and cultural ceremonies across the world (Schultes and Hoffman 1992). Coca leaves, opium, cannabis and hallucinogenic plants such as peyote and psilocybin were used as religious sacraments and venerated as gifts from nature or the gods. Their consumption or inhalation was promoted as a means of communing with the divine and achieving spiritual enlightenment (Davenport Hines 2001; Russell 1998; Walton 2001).

Drugs were also consumed for the purpose of relaxation. In some cultures this was the preserve of the elite, as was the case in the Peruvian Inca and Indian Mughal empires. In other historical and country contexts, social drug use was an integral element of community and tradition. This was particularly the case with cannabis. Social cannabis use was an integral element of tribal life among African Dagga (cannabis) cults in both the ancient and modern period and the drug was recreationally consumed across the continent, from South Africa, through Central African countries such as the Congo up to Northern states such as Morocco (Abel 1980; Brecher et al. 1972). There is no evidence of drug 'abuse' in ancient or traditional societies. This is attributed to cultural mores that regulated patterns of use. If over-indulgence occurred, sanction was the domain of the family or community elders (Escohotado 1999). Cultivation of 'narcotic' plants was also limited and balanced by the production of other agricultural goods such as potatoes and maize in the coca cultivating areas of the Andes in South America and cotton and wheat in the opium poppy cultivation areas that stretched from the Mediterranean to South Asia.

Cannabis, coca and the opium poppy were also cultivated as a food source. This was the case with opium consumption in China and cannabis use in India during political and demographic upheavals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (McCoy 1972; Michaud 1997). The Indian Hemp Commission convened by the British government in 1893 to examine cannabis use in India concluded that: 'the supporting power' of cannabis 'brought many a family through famine' (Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1969). Hemp, a member of the Cannabis sativa family, produces highly nutritious hemp seed and seed oil. These have been consumed in China since 6000 bc and they formed a staple of rural diets in South and Central Asia, Russia and the Balkan region for centuries (Roulac 1997).

In addition to consumption purposes, these drug plants were also cultivated so they could be used as a means of exchange in early trading systems and they were bartered for spices, dyes and precious metals. The hemp plant was also cultivated for its durable stalk, used for the making of paper, textiles, rope and rigging. The great value of the plant was first recognized in China and its cultivation spread to Central Asia and Europe in the thirteenth century. It was spread to South and North America by the Spanish conquistadors and the Pilgrims in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Herer 1998: Roulac 1997).

Repression and resurgence Around the eleventh century ad, systematic campaigns against the use of cannabis and opium were initiated. This has been linked to the rise of monotheistic religions (Escohotado 1999; Hitti 1967; Walton 2001). Religious authorities, beginning first in Islamic regions and extending into Christian areas by the thirteenth century, viewed the spiritual and cultural practices associated with drug use as a threat to the authority of religious elders and a challenge to their monopoly of religious understanding. Psychoactive substance use was condemned as a short-cut to a 'higher state' that religious authorities maintained should be achieved only through fasting, prayer or meditation. Intoxication and drug use was therefore linked at a very early stage to the idea of deviance, rebellion and heresy.

The move to suppress spiritual pluralism forced knowledge and use of naturally-occurring drugs underground, until the barbarity of the 'Dark Ages' gave way to the European Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Investigation into the properties of drugs was socially and politically re-legitimized and opium and cannabis reappeared in the medical literature. Although religious authorities in Christian areas maintained a hostile stance towards the use of intoxicating substances, even for medical purposes, their authority to pronounce on these matters was increasingly marginalized by the central state.

Beyond the impetus given to research into the medical use of drugs, the social and political changes that occurred in Western Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries catalysed a radical transformation of drug use and the trade in drugs. The driving force of this change was the European quest for empire, the spread of early capitalism and the emergence of the international trading system. These changed patterns of consumption and production of coca and the opium poppy and transformed these crops into internationally traded commodities.

THE EARLY GLOBAL TRADE IN DRUGS: THE CASE OF COCA Following the conquest of South America by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century, coca leaf consumption and production surged in the traditional Andean cultivation areas of the Yungas in Bolivia and Huanuco, Libertad and Cuzco in Peru. In their drive to exploit the precious metals of the region, the Spanish conquistadors forcibly relocated indigenous peasants from highland areas to work in silver mines. Despite pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, the Spanish monarchy encouraged the cultivation and chewing of the coca leaf by miners, a practice that was central to indigenous culture, as it improved endurance levels.

The Spanish transformed coca leaves into one of the most highly commercialized products in the Andes by using coca as means of payment. They profited further from the coca economy by taxing the trade in coca leaves. However, they did not assume control of coca cultivation, which remained in the hands of the indigenous Indian population, and while coca leaf consumption among the indigenous population did increase, its use did not spread among the Spanish. Because the leaves were perishable, markets for coca were geographically limited and, as a result, demand for coca was initially confined to indigenous labourers in neighbouring South American territories (Walker 1996).

THE CASE OF OPIUM The process by which opium became a globally traded commodity was markedly different from that of coca. Having encountered tobacco during earlier explorations of the Americas, Portuguese merchants shipped it from Brazil to Europe and along new trading routes in the Middle East and South Asia in the early 1600s. In Europe, tobacco was smoked on its own but in South Asia the Portuguese introduced the practice of smoking tobacco mixed with opium (Booth 1999; McCoy 1972). The Portuguese had first discovered opium poppy cultivation and opium production in India after their arrival in the country in 1501. Cultivation was concentrated in two main areas: to the north of the Ganges in Bengal where Patna opium was produced and in the western region around Bombay, the home of Malwa opium. As social preference shifted away from the smoking of tobacco and towards smoking opium on its own, Portuguese merchants concentrated on the sale of Indian opium to the Chinese market. The Portuguese were therefore responsible for transforming the context of opium use from pain relief to leisure activity.

The Dutch and more specifically the British revolutionized the trade in recreational opium in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this period, opium became one of the most important globally traded goods on the international market.

Opium and empire

In the sixteenth century, the Dutch merchant fleet began to challenge the Spanish and Portuguese for control of their overseas possessions and trading routes. Dutch commercial dominance was stepped up with the formation of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) in 1602. Created for the purpose of discovering a sea route from the Netherlands to Asia, by the 1640s the VOC had pushed Portugal out of Indonesia and consolidated control of the profitable trade in spices such as tea, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg that were prized in Europe and which dominated the Asian economy (Courtwright 2002; Schivelbusch 1993).

Western demand for Asian spices, in addition to ceramics, silks and textiles, came at a high economic cost to European countries and they ran a substantial deficit on their foreign trade (Gunder Frank 1995; Maddison and Johnston 2001). The economies of the East and specifically China during the Third Commercial Revolution (1500–1800) were more productive and specialized. China's prosperity increased after the conversion of its fiscal system to the silver standard in the early sixteenth century. The country accumulated vast amounts of silver that had been mined in South America and which had become the standard global trading currency of the period (Flynn and Giraldez 2002).

This pattern of economic growth and capital accumulation in the East and West was reversed towards the end of the eighteenth century, with the trade in opium making a significant contribution to the reshaping of trade balances. Opium was significant because of the direction of the trade flow. While the trade in eastern goods had gone in one direction, from east to west, the trade in opium went from east to east through western intermediaries. Eastern opium payments in silver to western merchants and trading interests helped to redirect the accumulation of silver to Western Europe.

Opium as a commodity: the Dutch VOC and British EIC trade in opium After the Dutch conquest of Indonesia there was a large increase in opium imports from Bengal, which the Dutch traded in the Far East. In the 1660s, Bengal opium exports to Indonesia totalled 0.6 metric tons (mt). By 1699 this had increased to 87 mt. The VOC developed an enormously lucrative trade in the re-export of opium to China, with profits from re-sales estimated to be in the region of 400 per cent. As a result of the enormous profitability of the sector, the trade in opium gradually displaced the trade in spices (McCoy 1972; La Motte 2003).

Initially it was Indian opium merchants, landowners (the zamindars) and the emperor of the Mughal state of North India who benefited from the inflow of opium export revenues from the trade with the Dutch. As the sector expanded it became vulnerable to British commercial interests seeking a foothold in the thriving Bengal economy (Chaudhury 2003). The British East India Company (EIC), which had been established in 1600 to increase British access to the spice trade, served as the vehicle for British commercial expansion in India. The EIC arrived in the country in 1608 and gradually increased its control over the opium sector through military confrontation with the zamindars and the Dutch and Indian merchants they supplied. Cultivation areas that fell under EIC control were incorporated into a loose syndicate system, based on advanced opium purchases from peasants, which was inherited from the Indian merchants. After the British conquered Bengal in 1764, the EIC established a monopoly system and asserted the exclusive right to purchase and export Patna opium (Ul Haq 2000). The initial strategy of the East India Company was to maintain low levels of opium poppy cultivation in order to keep the opium price high. Production was divided into two classes. Akbari opium was sold to Indian consumers and Provision opium was prepared for the export market and sold through the EIC's auction houses in Calcutta. Competition from Malwa opium, which continued to be produced in the princely states outside British control, combined with rising demand from China, led the EIC to revise its policy and increase export volumes in the second half of the eighteenth century.


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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. Intoxicating Substances in Historical Perspective
  • 2. The Drift to Regulation and the Idea of Prohibition
  • 3. From Regulation to Control
  • 4. The Beginnings of International Drug Control
  • 5. The Post War International Drug Control Regime
  • 6. Trends in Drug Consumption
  • 7. Trends in Cultivation and Production
  • 8. Accounting for Failure: The Problem of Prohibition
  • 9. Accounting for Failure 2: Institutions and Policy
  • 10. The Political Impact of Drugs and Drug Control
  • 11. HIV/AIDS and Intravenous Drug Use
  • 12. International Drug Control and HIV/AIDS
  • 13. Cultivation and Drug Production: The Environmental Costs
  • 14. Anti-Drug Policies and the Environment: The Role of Chemical Fumigation
  • 15. The New Magic Bullet: Bio-Control Solutions
  • 16. A Note on Hemp

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