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

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Reefer Madness Behind the Iron Curtain

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer Dr. Ned Richardson-Little, and it begins a two-week special series 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

In Junky, William S. Burrough’s 1953 memoir of his experiences as a heroin user, he captures the paranoia of the early Cold War in America in a conversation about drugs:

“Tell me,” I said, “exactly what is the tie-up between narcotics and Communism?”

“You know the answer to that one a lot better than I do […] The same people are in both narcotics and Communism. Right now, they control most of America.”

The idea that communists were behind narcotics was hardly a fringe notion and it was often advanced publicly by the US Drug Czar Harry Anslinger and other state officials. Anslinger claimed that there was a global communist conspiracy to use drugs as a weapon against capitalism on the path to global domination. He warned of “Red China’s long range dope-and-dialectic assault on America” and claimed that Cuba’s Fidel Castro had “joined the hammer and sickle – and the narcotic needle,” by assisting the People’s Republic of China in trafficking drugs into the US. In 1948, he testified to Congress that “Marijuana leads to pacifism and Communist brainwashing.” In the early Cold War, drug warriors in the West saw the fight against narcotics and communism as a singular conflict.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, Communists were equally concerned about the dangerous impact of narcotics and addiction, which they believed were the product of a diseased capitalist society. While many leftists in the West saw recreational drug consumption as part of an anti-capitalist counterculture, the state socialists of the Eastern Bloc were just as vehemently opposed to narcotics as capitalist anti-drug warriors.

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