SHAD Interview: “The Philippines, the United States, and the Origins of Global Narcotics Prohibition” with Anne Foster

Editor’s Note: This is our last week of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Anne Foster, an associate professor of history at Indiana State University and co-editor of the journal Diplomatic HistoryYou can read Foster’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I teach a variety of courses in History at Indiana State University, where I have worked since 2003.  I also co-edit the journal Diplomatic History.  I’m interested in the varieties of ways that the United States has exerted power, with a particular focus on imperialism and Southeast Asia in the late 19th to mid-20th century.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

I was in the archives in The Hague, researching for my dissertation, which had nothing to do with drugs, and in a box I pulled, saw a number of folders headed “opium.”  I had to read those! One document, from the 1910s, featured a Dutch official complaining that the US prohibition of opium in the Philippines was leading to increased smuggling of opium in the region, including into the Netherlands Indies, where opium was perfectly legal.  The Dutch official was irritated because this smuggling was undercutting Dutch profits from taxing opium. I thought that was interesting, and a different take on the effects of efforts to control or prohibit drugs. I have ever since been interested in the period of transition about opium in colonial Southeast Asia, from the 1880s, when opium was legal nearly everywhere and highly profitable to the colonial governments, to 1940, when opium was prohibited in some places and to some peoples, and highly regulated throughout colonial Southeast Asia.

Screenshot 2019-04-30 at 8.27.06 AM

Dr. Anne Foster

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring.

Did you know that if you lived a bit more than 100 years ago, that opium was perfectly legal and widely consumed in most places?  Probably you did know that. Yes, lots of patent medicines in the United States contained opium, and yes, Coca-cola did contain cocaine.  I’m really interested in how opium went from being so widely accepted and consumed to prohibited within only a few short years. I mostly study how that happened in the colonial Southeast, where the U.S. colony of the Philippines was. Opium was consumed in Southeast Asia for both recreational and medicinal purposes in the late 19th and early 20th century, and provided from 15% to as much as 50% of government revenues for colonies there.  The United States worked to prohibit opium in the Philippines pretty soon after acquiring the colony, even before opium was prohibited in the United States itself. And then the United States tried to get the other colonial governments to prohibit opium too, which they mostly didn’t want to.  But for the U.S. officials, legal opium in the areas near the Philippines meant that people could easily smuggle opium into the Philippines. I argue that this means the U.S. “war on drugs” approach starts all the way back in the early 20th century.

Is this part of a larger project?  What else are you working on?

I am working on a book about the transition from legal, profitable opium in 1880s colonial Southeast Asia to highly regulated, often restricted or prohibited opium in that region in 1940, on the eve of World War II.  I am looking not only at the transimperial politics of opium regulation, but also at smuggling and the transimperial efforts to stop smuggling.

The book also explores the context for discussion of opium of changes in medical knowledge and practices, which is significant.  Finally, racial, ethnic and gendered components shaped the politics of opium consumption and regulation. The book is a little unwieldy at the moment, but I am hoping to finish the manuscript in the next year.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

I am excited to see how drug history is exploring the ways that drugs are linked to so many various aspects of life, from how drugs are related to broader histories of consumption, to how drugs and health and developments in medicine are interrelated, to the environmental implications of source control efforts against illicit drugs.  These histories don’t neglect the powerful political effects of the war on drugs, but demonstrate how drugs are integrated into our lives in ways we don’t (yet) fully understand.

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

This is a harder question than I thought it would be.  I am most tempted by the ability to resurrect scholar friends who have recently died, and have one last dinner.  But in what I take to be the spirit of the question, I will name someone I don’t know whose work I have always admired.  My choice is idiosyncratic: Jean Gelman Taylor, who wrote one of my favorite books: The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia.