The Eastern Bloc, the Cold War and International Drug Trafficking

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the final in the two-part series from Dr. Ned Richardson-Little on drug use in East Germany during the Communist period. Richardson-Little is a Freigeist Fellow at the University of Erfurt, Germany, where he is currently leading a major research project on the history of “deviant globalization” in modern Germany. Originally from Canada, he studied at McGill University and received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has previously worked at the University of Exeter (UK). If you’re interested in learning more about the sources in this post, contact Richardson-Little at ned.richardson-little@uni-erfurt.de.

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Dr. Ned Richardson-Little

One of the staples of Eastern Bloc propaganda was the notion that socialism produced a drug-free society. Under capitalism, young people were driven to narcotics due to the emptiness of consumerism and the despair of exploitation; under socialism there was no such need for escape. To some extent, this propaganda was actually based on reality. In contrast to the post-war West, there was no mass drug culture in Eastern Europe. Cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other restricted substances were also banned or strictly regulated in the East, but there were comparatively few arrests for possession or dealing. The black market could provide many imported products normally unavailable in state stores, but very rarely did that include trafficked narcotics. As one East German put it, hashish was as “hard to get your hands on as explosives.”

Was this, however, really an effect of the enlightened social policies of state socialism? Possibly for some, but the main driver was economics: Eastern Bloc citizens lacked the hard currency needed to purchase narcotics from traffickers. Few international criminal smuggling operations were interested in the socialist market, where – in the absence of Western money – they would need to barter for locally produced goods. As it turns out, not many people in the heroin business are willing to trade their product for a Trabant. And thus, the proliferation of international trafficking routes in the post-war era largely bypassed the Eastern Bloc. While China was once one of the great centres of opium addiction, its consumption dropped off almost completely after the Communist Revolution. Although Cuba was once a hotspot for organized crime, the mafia relocated after the Castro regime took control in 1959

This is not to say, however, that the Eastern Bloc had no contact with drugs or the narcotics trade. Aside from mass consumption of alcohol, the use of illicit drugs could be found in some form everywhere in Eastern Europe, but on a radically smaller scale than the West. From the early days of the Soviet Union onward, authorities had to grapple with the problem of cannabis grown in the vast agricultural regions of Central Asia. Partaking of hashish had been a long-standing part of local culture before the arrival of the Russian Empire; even after the October Revolution, small scale production and consumption continued. In the post-Stalin era, young people in the USSR began using enough cannabis products for authorities to grow concerned about the rise of narkomany – a term that did not distinguish between drugs users and addicts. In Poland, the drug of choice was a homegrown form of heroin produced from poppy straw that was colloquially called kompot. In East Germany, if you lacked connections to someone who could cross the Berlin Wall and smuggle in small quantities of hashish or cocaine, then the alternative was Faustan – the GDR’s version of Valium – crushed and mixed with locally produced Club Cola.

There were also a few points of contact with international trafficking that eventually opened up. The rise of the Hippie Trail as a source of drugs did, however, run into the problem that the Eastern Bloc cut off the centres of production in Afghanistan and Pakistan from the consumer markets in Western Europe. The point of least resistance turned out to be the Turkey-Bulgaria border, which served as the starting point of the so-called Balkan Route. Once smugglers had made it into Bulgaria, most continued on to Yugoslavia, although some went north through Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. From there it was on to Italy or Austria as the first stop of the consumer markets of the West. The one exception was West Berlin, located in the heart of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and home to both a booming counter-culture scene and thousands of American, French and British occupation soldiers. As a result, drug traffickers focused on getting through socialist Eastern Europe as quickly and efficiently as possible. Although East Germany had few problems with smugglers seeking to bring their product to the GDR domestic market, beginning in the early 1970s, hundreds were caught every year trying to run the socialist gauntlet on route to the capitalist riches of West Berlin.

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The Hippie Trail

Although anti-drug warriors in the West often claimed that the Communist world was responsible for the global narcotics trade, the United States government actually moved away from these accusations and began to try to build up East and West cooperation on the issue of drug trafficking. The Soviet Union had been active in the field of international anti-narcotics politics since the late 1920s, when it participated at the League of Nations on the creation of the 1931 Geneva Narcotics Manufacturing and Distribution Limitation Convention. In the post-war era, the USSR had been crucial in shaping the end results of the 1961 Single Convention and ensuring that production was not limited to a small cartel of developed nations but also permitted by the emerging Third World. On this basis, the United States began to reach out to the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s to see if détente could be extended to include increased cooperation in realizing the enforcement of international drug law.

Some in the Eastern Bloc welcomed these overtures from the Americans. The Bulgarian government, which had long been accused of complicity in the drug trade, hosted an East-West summit on improving border and customs control in the city of Varna in 1977. Paid for by the State Department, the US aimed to provide technical assistance to socialist states struggling to interdict the traffickers moving across their borders. Cooperation with the communist bloc was, however, still problematic. The following year, an Oklahoma congressman caused an international incident when he accused the GDR of pipelining heroin to West Germany with the express purpose of getting US soldiers addicted so as to undermine military readiness. The White House actually forced the Congressman to apologize to GDR authorities and offered the head of the East German narcotics office a tour of Washington DC, but relations remained strained. While there were some efforts to reach out to Cuba to coordinate Caribbean narcotics interdiction in the 1970s, the renewed anti-communism of the Reagan administration put an end to this cooperation, as the President accused Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua of collaborating with the Colombian cocaine cartels. The widespread knowledge that the United States worked with anti-communists who were involved in the illicit narcotics trade – both in South-East Asia and Latin America – made such accusations appear as a Cold War pretence for intervention.

In the mid-1980s, however, the Eastern Bloc became increasingly concerned about the problem of international drug trafficking. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had opened up new smuggling routes as soldiers worked with traffickers to send drugs to the West via the USSR itself. Authorities in the Netherlands and the UK found that shipments of raisins from the Soviet Union contain tons of smuggled hashish and heroin leading to speculation that state authorities were complicit in the drug trade. Added to this diplomatic embarrassment, youth rates of drug use and addiction began to rise in the Eastern Bloc, particularly in Poland and the USSR. Increased economic interconnection with the West and the conflict in Afghanistan coincided with efforts by Latin American countries to produce a new international narcotics convention at the United Nations in order to deal with the carnage of the cocaine wars. As a result, East-West cooperation on narcotics control once again came to the fore. In 1988, the UN passed the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances – one of the most comprehensive international conventions to harmonize criminal law around the world. Just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East German narcotics officials were visiting DEA headquarters in Virginia as part of a goodwill mission on the path to formalizing anti-drug cooperation between the GDR and the USA. 

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The collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe reshaped the nature of international narcotics trafficking. The outbreak of the Yugoslavian War disrupted the Balkan Route leading many smugglers to divert product towards a new Northern Route that moved product to the West via Russia. Within the formerly state socialist countries of Eastern Europe, illicit narcotics now arrived in force alongside the rest of Western consumer culture. The Eastern Bloc was not fully part of the post-war boom in mass drug use, nor was it ever fully integrated into the international trafficking system. The spectre of Communism did, however, always loom large over Western narcotics politics and state socialists were always part of the international debates over how to tackle the problem of narcotics from a legal perspective. In the end, the Drug War and the Cold War were different conflicts, but there were always entangled with one another.