On May 31, 2014, the White House issued a cryptic press release, a brief letter from President Obama to Congress. The letter announced that the US government had decided to levy economic sanctions against Victor Cerrano, Jose Umana, and Francisco Barros, three foreign individuals from Colombia, El Savador, and Cape Verde, respectively.
For some of us, it may be surprising to learn that the United States sometimes declares what amounts to an economic war  against individuals. If we survey the history of economic statecraft  from the Peloponnesian War, to Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo,  to the growing popularity of economic coercion since the 1970s, it’s clear that sanctions against non-states actors are a relatively new development (Baldwin 1985, Hufbauer, Schott, & Elliott 2007; Drezner 2003).
Today, such economic restrictions against individuals and entities (e.g. businesses, charities) are rapidly outpacing embargoes against states, and US non-sovereign targets currently number in the thousands. In the War on Terror, non-sovereign sanctions have also emerged as a critical instrument of non-military aggression in the form of the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.  Those listed—either as SDNGT (global terror) or as a SDNK (global narcotics trafficker)– quickly find that they are essentially ‘locked out’ of the American economy and that their US assets are “frozen.” All US persons and organizations are prohibited from economically transacting with a SDN.
The concerted use of non-sovereign sanctions was pioneered in the War on Drugs, and not in the War on Terror. 
On February 28, 2013, the People’s Republic of China executed the Myanmese (Burmese) drug trafficker, Naw Kham (Ch. Nuo Kang 糯康, Th. Jai Norkham), and three associates for the 2011 murder of thirteen Chinese boatmen. What was notable about this particular capital case was the preceding live broadcast where cameras followed Naw Kham in his last hours until moments before his execution by lethal injection.
The state media CCTV footage, excerpts of which are available online, can seem slightly surreal. A little before his execution, the prisoner is shown in what looks like an office waiting room surrounded by fruit and snacks as if he were a guest. However, he is shown seated, facing what seems to be a large pink vomit bucket—an aberrant reminder of his impending fate. In the aftermath of the broadcasts, several human rights organizations as well as Chinese netizens criticized the state’s handling of this execution.
Although the human rights and capital punishment aspects of this case have been the objects of critical scrutiny, the international relations and substance policy issues have received far less attention in the media. The execution of four foreign traffickers, as well as the unprecedented multinational manhunt leading up to their arrest arguably represents the culmination of a ramped up Chinese war on drugs that is being waged domestically and, increasingly, internationally.
This past weekend alcohol and drug scholars across the globe descended upon London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to learn from each other about what they know best, alcohol and drugs. The interdisciplinary conference does much to encourage scholarship across lines of disciplinary specializations, but also, the nation-state. Below please find assorted notes from my time abroad:
Perhaps most noted for his work Andean Cocaine, Paul Gootenberg gave a keynote speech addressing the concept of blowback. Entitled “Controlling Cocaine? 1900-2000,” Gootenberg began with what might be considered an obvious truth for drug historians—that is, that if read from an historical perspective, the term “drug control” is an oxymoron. Throughout the 20th century, drug control often perpetuates the antithesis of control. Drug control efforts by the United States have bred more chaos, more illicit trade, more use, and worst of all, more violence. In supporting his claim, Gootenberg examined the ways in which United States efforts to control the global supply of cocaine produced various unintended consequences.
Originally an economic historian by trade, Gootenberg makes good use of global commodity chains to explain the story of cocaine and attempts at its control. In framing the long history of cocaine commodity chains and blowback, Gootenberg broke down the century into several distinct phases, each with specific unintended consequences. In the first forty years of the 20th century, particularly after 1914, the United States attempted to push anti-cocaine measures onto the international agenda. During this period, Andean trafficking in cocaine remained relatively benign, marginal, and nonviolent. Between 1948 and 1973, cocaine came to be increasingly criminalized as illicit networks began to shift outward from the Andean region in response to FBN attempts to crush production in the region. A pivotal moment in cocaine commodity chain development passed in 1960 when traffickers were exiled under the Cuban Revolution. These exiled traffickers quickly became a Pan-American Network of traffickers, thereby expanding the commodity network for cocaine traffic. Still though, Gootenberg carefully noted, the trade remained small and fairly peaceful through 1970. Read More »
Last week two prominent critics of the War on Drugs independently declared that their years spent witnessing the civil liberties abuses involved in enforcing drug policy left them largely unmoved by the exposure of the National Security Agency’s comprehensive, only secretly and ambiguously legal, telecom monitoring program.
David Simon and John Stossel are the most unlikely of proverbial bedfellows and, when it comes down to their actual positions, they are not really sharing a bed at all. Stossel is a libertarian who has never met a government program he couldn’t mock in the exasperated, contemptuous style he developed on ABC’s 20/20 and now plies for Fox News. He opened his piece inReason last week with familiar rhetoric about the ways “politicians abuse us.” Simon is a former newspaper reporter and the creator of Homicide, The Corner, and most famously, The Wire. Essentially a voice of the left, in his blog entry Simon made it clear how he feels about “libertarian selfishness,” in which “there’s never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility.”
Simon’s post went much deeper than Stossel’s column, which argued mainly that the dangers of drugs have been exaggerated. Simon blasted through the struggle that some NSA critics have had marrying world-weariness (of course they’ve been spying on us) and anger by diagnosing instead full-blown myopia on the left. The basic legal and practical framework for telecom snooping has been in place for decades, he contends. It was established not in what we knew about the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, but in the wiretaps and home-raids of the war on drugs. Its abuses are not in some imagined future dystopia, but have been in plain sight, affecting real people.
If I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue it’s because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain. Thus far, the sum of liberal argument against the NSA program amounts to a Maginot Line of legal ignorance, borrowed libertarian selfishness and positive proof that those who fear a civil liberties apocalypse and wish to fight against such were decades late to the fields where those battles actually rage. Shit, they’re still not in the right place.
When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites. Was this unique to the period? Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack? Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities? Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture? Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?
In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash. Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized in efforts for reform to “take back their streets”. Steeped in the language of victimhood and citizenship, these local activists made battles over crime and drugs battles of good versus evil. The war against pushers, panhandlers, pimps and hoodlums would be about protecting the decent, innocent citizens held captive in their own neighborhoods. Finally, black-lash—much like white backlash—came to be motivated in part by a perceived threat to group progress. Working and middle class blacks viewed youth and street culture manifested by the drug trade as a clear threat to gains made under the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons. First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race. The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful. More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era. The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods. This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community. With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool. Read More »
Editor’s Note: Guest blogger and medical anthropologist Kim Sue returned from a recent conference entitled “From Punishment to Wellness: A Public Health Approach to Women and the War on Drugs” with some questions about the coherence of the public health paradigm.
To celebrate the release of a joint report published by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) entitled a Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy, WORTH (Women on The Rise Telling Herstory) organized a conference focusing on women and the War on Drugs. The conference brought together formerly incarcerated women, direct service providers, researchers, policy analysts, and advocates and activists to discuss how to move from a criminalization model of drug use to a public health model. “The war on drugs is more than a failure,” the organizers announced. “It has swollen the prison system, left millions of people with criminal records and damaged communities.” The one-day event was aimed at exploring “practical examples of public health alternatives,” through discussions around four main themes: prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and safety.
What was interesting to me during the panel sessions and the break-out groups was the relative absence of public health professionals and clinicians in these discussions (one notable exception was Professor Lynn Roberts of Hunter College’s Department of Community Health). While “public health” was one of the buzzwords of the day, it seemed to stand in for other things that the conference attendees were actually more interested in talking about: structural violence, poverty, racism, patriarchy—often referred to as the “structural determinants of health.” One possibility is that “public health” was being used rhetorically as a means to talk publicly and politically about race, class, gender and various axes of social inequality under “public health’s” cloak of respectability.
There was some discussion of specific legislation and public-health oriented programming by several of the speakers—for example, Good Samaritan Acts, needle exchange programs, the decriminalization of sex work, and bills against the criminalization of HIV status—but the conference neglected how the massive apparatus of the War on Drugs endeavor will be “public health-ified” on a large scale. What will be the unintended consequences of doing so?
Editor’s Note: Kathleen Frydl’s new book, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, is just out from Cambridge University Press. Points welcomes her timely and enlightening interview.
1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
I tell the story of how and why the US government became “addicted” to the modern drug war, choosing prohibition and punishment over treatment and regulation. I argue that the logic behind the particular shape and targets of the drug war (including that which was not targeted) had less to do with crime or addiction, and more to do with the management of state power.
2. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
To be honest, probably not that much. At several points, I rely on that scholarship, but I can’t say that I actually contribute to it. For readers of this blog, it might be interesting — maybe even troubling, but hopefully stimulating — to hear the story of the drug war narrated through a different voice. I hope it is viewed as a complement to the literature.
That said, there are some parts of the book that may be of interest. In chapter 5, I argue that methadone clinics lost support for a variety of reasons. Proponents of punishment, recovery movements, and various groups on the left imposed standard medical — as opposed to public health — criteria on maintenance: built around “a crisis followed by a cure” paradigm. This is somewhat different from the goals of harm reduction. Under this more demanding paradigm, the fact that every recovery victory could be celebrated compensated believers for so much failure. In the public health lens, on the other hand, successful maintenance meant only less to be dismayed about. The outcomes were not so heroic and the narrative not so redemptive. Whether it was the Black Panthers or traditional recovery movements, certain advocates criticized maintenance precisely because it staved off the “crisis” which they felt was needed in order to proceed to the “cure,” whether that cure was sobriety or revolution in the inner city.
Karl Marx is credited with observing that, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” It is hard not to remember this insight when reading the brilliant Addicts Who Survived two decades after its initial publication. After all, the year the book was published, 1989, was the same year Bush Sr. announced that the $2400 bag of crack he had in his hand was purchased (gasp!) directly across from the White House. Of course, the dealer – a high school student – had been lured to that spot by DEA agents in order to produce the theatrical prop. In the years preceding this stunt, crack had entered the public consciousness as it burned through poor inner city communities. The government had responded by setting mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and creating a legal disparity between crack and cocaine that led to imprisonment of the most vulnerable and stigmatized drug users. Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS rates were ballooning exponentially, and injection drug use was increasingly the mode of transmission. The most popular response to the problems associated with drug use and addiction was Nancy Reagan’s 1984 campaign to “Just Say No.” Her husband remained silent on the subject of AIDS until 1985, when he expressed skepticism about allowing HIV-positive children to attend school. Although early forms of harm reduction were emerging in the UK and junkies were unionizing in the Netherlands, the movement did not take significant form in the US until the mid- to late-1980s.
So when I bring Marx’s quote to mind, it is with the painful recognition that every farce is still a tragedy.Read More »
Editor’s note: Today marks the final installment of guest blogger Marcus Chatfield’s eye-opening exploration of the role that peer-reviewed research played in facilitating the survival of Straight Inc. into the 1990s, as well as its ongoing legacy in coercive youth drug abuse treatment.
In the 1989 Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment article “Outcome of a Unique Youth Drug Abuse Program: A Follow-up Study of Clients of Straight Inc.”, Alfred S. Friedman, Richard Schwartz, and Arlene Utada state that 99 percent of Straight’s clients were white and that 30 percent of clients attended church regularly prior to intake. It is relevant to consider the type of teens that were recruited for “treatment,” as well as how they were recruited for treatment and why their parents placed them in Straight. Notably, several authors havereportedthat many clients at Straight were treated for a disease they didn’t have. This was due in large part to Straight’s assertion that even the experimental use of alcohol or marijuana was the symptom of a disease. And because this disease was the cause of even initial drug use, treatment was required whether teens had experimented with drugs or not. Many clients in Straight were “dry druggies” who had never used an illegal substance but were displaying “druggie behavior.”
1. Describe your book in terms your bartender would understand.
The Real Dope is a collection of scholarly articles exploring how the government and society in general have dealt with various drugs, from alcohol and tobacco to ecstasy and LSD. The articles introduce us to 19th-century moral reformers, 1920s flappers, downtown Vancouver heroin addicts, psychology professors, hippies, glue-sniffing high school students, ravers, post-war government officials and senators, all interacting in some way with intoxicating substances through using, studying or regulating them.
2. What do you think a bunch of alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about this book?