Drugs and the Military

Editor’s note: As a law professor, Buford Terrell specialized in controlled substances law. He now hosts a public interest television program in Houston called Drugs, Crime, and Politics, produced by the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, and publishes a blog called Marijuana Musings and Drug Law Diversions. We cross-post this recent entry of his because it surveys the use of drugs by American personnel in various armed conflicts, with the aim of generating interest in the topic among students and historians.

This piece is a confession of ignorance. I’m going to tell you what I don’t know about drug use in the military in hopes I can attract the eye of some historian eager to spend a little time – perhaps a few decades – excavating through musty warehouses crammed with military records.

The ignorance I am talking about here is about how much drug use has taken place in the American military and what effect, if any, that use has had on military structure, discipline, and effectiveness. While I am woefully ignorant, I have found some clues indicating that more knowledge about those questions is available and can be discovered.  These clues are tantalizing and I’ll share them with you in hopes that you can add to them or share them with a historian who may want to do the work. I’ve arranged these clues by the major military engagements the U. S. has had, beginning with the Civil War.

Civil War: Many people know that after the Civil War, opiate dependency was known as the “Old Soldier’s Disease,” but most of these addictions probably came from treatments for intractable and neuropathic pain incurred after the patients had left the army. At least one report has surfaced of a Union officer who made his troops drink a daily dose of opium to prevent dysentery.

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