“War on drugs”: It's a term that may elicit memories of the US government’s 20th-century campaign against the sale and use of illegal psychoactive substances. But that ongoing “war” is only one episode in a long, multifaceted and often direct relationship between addictive drugs and armed conflict, says Peter Andreas, a political scientist at Brown University.

War and drugs are profoundly intertwined, he writes in the Annual Review of Political Science and in a forthcoming book, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs. Despite the recent history of nations campaigning against them, psychoactive substances — both legal and illegal — have often been central to how states pursue their strategic goals, Andreas says.

Consider amphetamines: They fueled the activities of German, Japanese and Allied soldiers during World War II. Or opium, for which the British government went to war — twice — with China. Against China’s express wishes and laws, Britain shipped vast quantities of opium grown in South Asia to China — all so that Britain could use the revenue to buy a different addictive substance from China: caffeinated tea.

With the Opium Wars the most notable exception, scholarship on war and that on drugs have largely been divorced from each other, Andreas says. Yet he argues that examining them together is essential for understanding events that would otherwise be inexplicable, whether it be the rise of the British Empire or the globalization of tobacco consumption. “We can’t understand the history of war without including drugs,” he says, “and we can’t understand the role of drugs in society without including war.”

Andreas focuses on six drugs (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium and its derivatives, amphetamines and cocaine) and explores the relationship of each with armed conflict — revealing, for example, how war has shaped drug-consumption patterns throughout the world, and how drugs have given governments pretexts to militarize their domestic police forces. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You say that drugs aren’t inherently connected to war, but certain attributes make some drugs enticing war ingredients. What are those attributes?

Generally speaking, drugs are highly valuable commodities. This means they are highly profitable, portable and taxable. Governments in Europe, for example, were very good at taxing things like alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco before they could do things like directly tax income. So drugs have been huge revenue-makers for state coffers — Russia built up the largest land-based army in Europe basically by taxing vodka.

Beyond funding wars through drugs, their addictive nature has made them essential for both relaxing and stimulating combatants. War is very stressful and traumatic; it’s not surprising that combatants often turn to drugs to cope and that governments often encourage their use.

A notable example is amphetamines, which became fuel for World War II. This was the first major armed conflict with widespread use of a synthetic psychoactive drug. Some researchers have argued that the unprecedented speed of Nazi advances during the war was partly thanks to meth, which the Germans manufactured under the brand name Pervitin. It was ironic: Addicts were stigmatized under the Nazi regime, but meth was the privileged exception. It played into the Nazi obsession with superiority — a way to be superhuman.

The Japanese imperial government also contracted methamphetamine production during the war; they called it the “drug to inspire the fighting spirits.” British and American forces used amphetamines as well; they were added to US soldiers’ medical kits in 1943.

Drugs also calm nerves and can boost morale and group cohesion — think of sharing drinks or sharing cigarettes. During World War I, tobacco was designated as an essential industry in the US, and charities collected money to send troops cigarettes. In some ways, tobacco is the perfect war drug. War is incredibly nerve-wracking but also incredibly boring for much of the time, and smoking both calms nerves and helps pass the time.

Photograph shows a package of vials of Pervitin, the methamphetamine manufactured in Germany during World War II and distributed widely to Nazi soldiers.

The Nazi regime considered drug use a sign of weakness, but methamphetamine, which would turn soldiers into super soldiers, got a pass. In 1937 a Berlin-based pharmaceutical company began selling meth under the brand name Pervitin (package of vials shown) and soon after, it became fuel for German troops. The unprecedented speed of the Nazi advance in the spring of 1940, which caught foreign commanders, civilians and even Hitler by surprise, was due in part to widespread use of meth.


But drug use during war is a double-edged sword?

Yes. Take alcohol, which has been a particularly potent war lubricant. It’s sometimes called liquid courage; it was an anesthetic for those injured. But in excess, it makes soldiers unreliable and useless or even self-destructive. In Russia, the czar built up his army with vodka revenue, but the troops were often drunk, which some scholars argue is a major reason why Russia lost the Russo-Japanese war.

You note that the alcohol-war relationship is very old?

Drinking and war-making have gone hand in hand since antiquity; in the Middle Ages, battlefields were drenched in beer and wine. More recently, prohibition in the US probably would have never passed without World War I. There was a kind of anti-German sentiment around the war that made it acceptable to label beer brewers as unpatriotic. There was also a sense that the country needed to sober up in order to fight well. Advocates masterfully exploited that to pressure prohibitions even after the war ended; it created a kind of political opening.

How has war altered the consumption patterns of other drugs?

America became a nation of coffee drinkers in part because of the negative association between tea-drinking and British rule. After Independence, coffee from Latin America eventually became an easier and cheaper way for Americans to get caffeine. Its use surged during the American Civil War; the Union Army rationed coffee; each soldier got roughly 36 pounds of coffee per year.

Rum was also a casualty of the American Revolution. The transition from rum to whiskey was not immediate, but whiskey could be produced domestically instead of relying on imported molasses. Drinking whiskey came to be associated with self-reliance and independence — versus rum, which represented dependence on foreigners and was associated with the British.

Nicotine is another example. It was discovered in the conquest of the Americas, with sailors taking it back to the Old World, where it was heavily used by soldiers and others. By World War II, there were a lot of women in the workforce with disposable incomes of their own and more freedom, more independence. Part of expressing that independence was smoking cigarettes. That was a huge growth area for companies.

A World War I poster, showing a nurse lighting a pipe for an injured soldier, solicits donations for a fund to send tobacco to soldiers on the front.

World War I was a major boon for tobacco companies. Cigarettes were considered vital to the war effort: Smoking calmed nerves and helped to pass the time, and the camaraderie of smoking boosted morale. Charities including the Red Cross solicited donations to fund tobacco shipments to soldiers on the front, and returning soldiers brought their smoking habit home.


Cocaine is also a casualty of war in terms of its legal status — though it prevailed nonetheless?

Yes, absolutely. The Dutch successfully brought coca from the Andes to Java and it became a thriving business, with the Japanese intimately involved as part of their regional empire. By the 1930s, Japan was at the forefront of cocaine merchandising; Japanese pharmaceutical companies were running the show. But the postwar dominance of the US included anti-drug policies, and after the war, German, Dutch and Japanese cocaine networks were just destroyed.

Cocaine complications continue, of course. It has reemerged as a hugely profitable but illicit drug that’s handled by criminal organizations rather than pharmaceutical companies.

There are many straightforward examples of drugs fueling war through taxation. But is it sometimes more covert?

Yes, drugs are a convenient way to unofficially fund covert operations. In Southeast Asia, French intelligence used revenue from opium to covertly pay warlords as part of its counterinsurgency campaign. When the French withdrew, the CIA moved in and used that infrastructure to further US Cold War goals during the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the 1980s, Washington looked the other way when Afghan insurgents were growing and smuggling opium while fighting the Soviets.

When have drugs been an explicit weapon of war?

One of the starkest cases is the introduction of distilled spirits throughout the Americas. The effect on Native communities throughout the hemisphere was devastating, nowhere more evident than in the case of the American West. The westward expansion story is partly one of conquering the West through alcohol, first with rum, but then especially with whiskey. In provocative terms, alcohol was a weapon of war, an ethnic cleanser. Benjamin Franklin acknowledges this in his autobiography.

Or look at Japan’s invasion of China. After the outbreak of war in 1937, Japanese armies moved south into China and took greater control of the opium trade, of crops and of heroin-production facilities. The sales funded their ongoing military operations. Many Chinese considered this involvement as intentionally using drugs as a weapon of war to undermine resistance to occupation. The Japanese saw it as simply pragmatic; opium was merely a resource to be used.

In the modern era, we see nations declaring war on drugs. What are the implications?

One thing that can happen — and has happened to some extent here in the US — is the distinction between fighting crime and fighting war becomes blurred. Traditionally, the military is supposed to be outward-focused, dealing with foreign threats, while police are domestic. Those distinctions are increasingly breaking down. With the war on drugs, we see the militarization of domestic policing, a gradual loosening of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military for domestic law enforcement in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The military now plays a major role in border drug enforcement, even though it lacks the power held by domestic police to arrest people.

A bar graph shows how six drugs (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, amphetamines, cocaine and opium and its derivatives) score on five war-related dimensions that political scientist Peter Andreas uses as a framework for his research. The dimensions are war while on drugs, war through drugs, war for drugs, war against drugs, and drugs after war. Cocaine and opium, for example, score high on all dimensions except war while on drugs. Caffeine scores high on war while on drugs and drugs after war, but scores low on war against drugs. Caffeine is moderately relevant in the categories war through drugs and war for drugs.

Political scientist Peter Andreas uses five dimensions as lenses through which to examine the age-old and ever-changing relationship between psychoactive drugs and war. These dimensions often interact and shape each other — so, for example, taxes on alcohol often funded wars (war through drugs) but also made soldiers inebriated to the point of ineffectiveness (war while on drugs). Drinking patterns after war, such as countries introducing prohibitions on alcohol or favoring one type of alcohol over another, were often shaped by their use during wartime or their association with former foes. Cannabis, which is not strongly linked to war in any of the dimensions studied, is included for comparison.

Military equipment, technology, training, personnel and so on have all been mobilized to help keep drugs out of the country, starting in the 1980s and really taking off after the end of the Cold War. [Police] SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams, for example, began to proliferate in the 1990s, using military tactics, training and equipment. In the 1980s, there were roughly 300 SWAT deployments nationwide, mostly in major urban areas. By 1995 there were some 30,000, and this growth spurt can largely be attributed to the war on drugs.

Beyond our borders, we see the inverse: Battling cocaine production and trafficking in the Americas has turned soldiers into cops. Countries such as Mexico have deployed their soldiers to the front lines of the drug war, often with US encouragement, training and funding. This can backfire — a US-trained special forces unit in Mexico defected and turned into Los Zetas, one the country’s most brutal drug-trafficking organizations. The US also provided billions in military anti-drug aid to Colombia through “Plan Colombia,” which blurred any meaningful distinction between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency.

So the modern war on drugs is but a new twist on an old relationship?

Yes. Part of my interest in this topic was sparked when I noticed that the US was starting to use soldiers to fight drugs. President George Bush Sr., in his first televised address to the nation in 1989, announced sending in the military to escalate the drug war. This was most dramatically evident in the military invasion of Panama a few months later and the arrest of its leader, Manuel Noriega, on drug-trafficking charges. It was the most expensive drug bust the world has ever seen.

I found the policy debate quite misleading and alarmist. It seemed to suffer from a severe case of historical amnesia, with the use of scary new terms like “narco-terrorists,” “narco-insurgents” and “narco-guerrillas” to describe the use of drugs to fund combatants as somehow something new and novel in the post-Cold War world. But drug-funded conflict is an old story, dating back not just decades but centuries, and in some ways is even more important in the past than the present.

Cannabis does not seem as war-related in any of the dimensions you explore. What gives?

Yes, it’s striking. Given how widely used the drug is — it’s the world’s most popular illegal drug by a long shot — it’s just not as important as the other drugs in terms of its relationship to war. That doesn’t mean that there has never been a cannabis relationship with war; in fact, Napoleon’s troops returning from Egypt introduced hashish to France; and in the late 1960s marijuana was closely associated with an antiwar movement. But generally, it’s just not as prominent.

—Additional reporting by Rachel Ehrenberg