On War and Drugs

by Jay Jackson

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Like the thick smoky aftertaste that lingers after bonfire night merrymaking, memory hangs heavy in the air during the early weeks of November in the UK. As the oppressive darkness of GMT settles in, we cast our collective memory back to the foiled attempt at Gunpowder Treason in 1605.

More poignantly, it is the time that, as a nation, we come together to stop, fall silent and remember those who served and died in our armed forces. “Time moves in one direction, memory in another” said the author William Gibson, and at no point during the year is this dynamic clearer than Remembrance weekend. As we continue our unstoppable march ever further from the two total-wars that serve as the focal point for our commemorations, how many people will spare a thought for the victims of the single large scale remaining conflict in which the British state is actively engaged – The War on Drugs.

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes” – but both the consumption of psychoactive substances, and the pursuit of armed conflict, are criminally absent from this list, for both are as old as human civilisation itself. Their histories are separate, yet upon exploration, are consistently found to be connected. “We can’t understand the history of war without including drugs” according to political scientist, Peter Andreas, author of Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs. “And we can’t understand the role of drugs in society without including war.”

There is no clearer, more direct demonstration of this, than the relationship between solider and substance. This partnership spans all manner of battlefields, includes a variety of different drugs and has a temporal range that goes far beyond the immediacy of heated moments of engagement. But the relationship between drugs and war extends further. Drugs have been a historic cause of war, from the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century to modern American narco-imperialism during the Cold War.

And since at least 1971, war itself has been the primary frame through which our society has understood its relationship with controlled substances. It was then that President Richard Nixon declared that “public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse, [and] in order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive”. The story of how the War on Drugs came to be, how it came to Britain, why it has persisted for so long, and the devastating impact that this misguided policy has had here, and across the world, reveals another fundamental tenet of this relationship.

Changes to drug policy perhaps aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to honouring veterans. Properly funding the NHS to deliver the necessary mental health support, eliminating the scourge of homelessness that disproportionately affects veterans, and the provision of proper careers and financial advice for post-service life are more immediate concerns. But, as a society, if we are serious about supporting those who sacrificed life, limb and peace of mind in our service, then allowing and supporting research into new treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that afflicts so many former service personnel, is one of the simplest and most effective things we can do.

To do so would be to add a new chapter to the complicated relationship between war and drugs, and change the nature of it, and the lives of people who could benefit from these treatments, for the better.

War, on drugs

Drug use in war-time has a very long history, as “mind-altering substances have long been essential for both relaxing and stimulating combatants.” Alcohol and tobacco in particular are indispensable ingredients in the cruel and chaotic cocktail of war. Alcohol plays many roles: liquid (or, due to the popularity of gin amongst the soldiers of William of Orange, Dutch) courage, anaesthetic, victory toast, tonic to defeat. This relationship was so ingrained as to be institutionalised in the form of state-funded rum rations in the British Royal Navy, which were provided up until 1970, at which point ended a three hundred year long tradition.

Tobacco has an even longer relationship with war. Andreas has called tobacco “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.” Tobacco was only discovered and introduced to Europe as a result of colonial conquests in the Americas during the Sixteenth Century, and when introduced was dismissed as ‘a thing of slaves’. Fittingly, it was warfare itself that was to legitimise and popularise the use of tobacco in Europe. It took a fresh bout of that civilised western practice – large scale bloodshed – to rid tobacco of its association with the savagery and depravity of the indigenous inhabitants of the ‘New World’.

It was during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that soldiers first began to use tobacco, with the modern cigarette popularised by Turkish troops during the Crimean War. This eventually led American First World War General John. J. Pershing to comment “You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer tobacco as much as bullets. Tobacco is as indispensable as the daily ration; we must have thousands of tons without delay”. The Tobacco-Industrial Complex, never one to miss a lobbying opportunity, seized on the Second World War as an opportunity to further embed a culture of smoking, sending free cigarettes to troops across the world and arguing for them to be included in rations (a practice which continued until 1975). Cigarettes became so abundant, desired and valued during these conflicts that they were also regularly used as a form of currency.

Other, ‘harder’ drugs also appear throughout the history of warfare. Cocaine was frequently used by the British Army as an endurance enhancer and appetite suppressant under the name of ‘Forced March’ during the First World War. This name served as a bleak premonition for the use of cocaine, mixed with methamphetamine and oxycodone, on prisoners at Sachsenhausen concentration camp during the dying days of the Second World War. Prisoners were given this new drug by Nazi scientists, whose aim was ‘to use [it] to redefine the limits of human endurance’ – they were marched 90 kilometres per day, without rest, while carrying 20 kilograms of equipment during forced ‘death marches’.

‘The Second World War was the first major armed conflict with widespread use of a synthetic psychoactive drug’ and saw widespread use of amphetamines amongst the German forces in the form of Pervitin pills, 35 million of which were manufactured for the German army and air force between April and July 1940. Japan sold methamphetamine under the registered trademark of Philopon for both military and civilian use, as ‘Kamikaze pilots took large doses of methamphetamine, via injection, before suicide missions’. The Allies also exploited the effects of amphetamines by providing them bomber pilots to promote wakefulness. This practice continues today with other less addictive substances such as Modafinil.

The Vietnam War is a conflict infamous for its relationship with drugs, as was widely reported at the time, with many troops taking cannabis and opiates to self-medicate, and as a collective form of defiance against their commanders. This dovetailed with the use of cannabis and psychedelics by counter-cultural movements domestically, at the time it was thought up to 50% of high-school students had experimented with these drugs, provides the cultural backdrop to the declaration of the War on Drugs. The Nixon administration’s concerns about drug usage by soldiers in Vietnam, and by minority communities and anti-war protestors in the United States, played a crucial role in the development of and justification for the War on Drugs.

Drugs after war

Drug abuse amongst veterans, particularly self-medicating using alcohol, has been flagged as ‘a major public health issue’ in the UK. Studies have shown that alcohol misuse is more prevalent in UK military personnel than the general population, with the rate of individuals seeking help much lower than for other mental health problems. A 2017 study found that 13% of military veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have significant alcohol disorders which have been found to contribute to causing issues with mental health and a severe deterioration in quality of life.

Pride has been identified as one reason veterans do not present for treatment for substance abuse issues, on average, until they are in their sixties. But the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that “zero-tolerance policies, lack of confidentiality, and mandatory random drug testing could discourage many of those who need treatment from seeking it. For example, half of military personnel believe seeking help for mental health issues would negatively affect their career prospects.”

This demonstrates how the fallacious pursuit of the War on Drugs backfires with devastating human consequences. Service personnel, who may well be involved with fighting the War on Drugs, are forced to struggle silently with substance abuse issues, unable or unwilling to seek help as a result of the a culture of fear and judgement ingrained in the military.

Then, as they attempt to transition back into civilian life, a process that can be extremely difficult, they continue to use drugs, potentially having become dependent on them, and continue to keep their addiction hidden from friends and family due to feelings of shame or guilt. This prolonging of the refusal to acknowledge problematic drug use can then lead to negative personal, social and professional consequences such as relationship breakdown, unemployment and homelessness. All of this could have been avoided if a health-focused, non-judgmental approach had been pursued in the first instance.

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” This quote from author Guy de Maupassant perfectly summarises the challenge faced by veterans as they attempt to confront, process and overcome the trauma they face as a result of taking part in combat. It is estimated that 17% of people who have seen active military service report symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, grief and anger. Their memories give life back to the situations that caused the psychological scarring from which they continue to suffer. And the intense feelings of shock, fear and helplessness that arise during these experiences also flood back, as if the memory were in fact reality. Drug use initially employed in an attempt to blunt the painful flashbacks symptomatic of PTSD, can quickly end up becoming an issue of dependency and addiction.

The lack of action taken to combat substance dependency amongst the veteran community may well be explained by the challenge that confronting this problem poses to our conception of the brave and stoic soldier, in the face of the perceived moral weakness of the ‘addict’ and the homeless person. The tragic reality is, however, that they are disproportionately likely to be the same person.

Drugs as War

Ranging from “traditional interstate wars to various forms of unconventional intrastate war”, next we shall explore drugs as a cause of war. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the Opium Wars – two conflicts, between The United Kingdom and the East India Company against Qing China (1839-1842) followed by the forces of the British Empire and France against Qing China (1856-1860). These conflicts were the climax of a series of trade and diplomatic disputes centred on the sale of Opium. The role of drugs in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) also cannot be overlooked, with the symbolic significance of the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 and the importance that those involved with the tobacco trade played as loyalists fighting on the side of the British.

During the Cold War, a top-secret CIA project (MK-Ultra) ran from 1953 until around 1973 in which the United States conducted hundreds of clandestine unethical experiments to assess the potential use of LSD and other drugs for mind control, information gathering and psychological torture. The use of psychedelics can be found as far back as ancient times, when Roman legions were disarmed by devouring jars of “mad honey”, containing psychoactive grayanotoxins, left in their path by the Turks and leading to hallucinations and intoxication.[1]

Also during the Cold War, major powers found drugs to be a convenient way to unofficially fund covert operations in third countries. Whether the French in South East Asia, or the United States in Latin America and the Middle East, Andreas contends that countries pursued “a radical pragmatism that tolerated and even facilitated drug trafficking by local allies when it served larger Cold War goals.” However, when such activities were deemed to be occurring in countries with whom friendly relations were not required, they were taken as a pretext for military action – the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 serving as a prime example.

The relationship between drugs and imperialism is also worth exploring. Professor David Nutt has called the British Empire “the biggest drug dealer in world history” with its pillage and conquest partially motivated by an initial search for, followed by the desire to satisfy an acquired taste for: tea, coffee, cocoa, opium, tobacco and spices. Peter Andreas also points to the of introduction of distilled spirits throughout the Americas as a stark illustration of this relationship. “The effect on Native communities throughout the hemisphere was devastating, nowhere more evident than in the case of the American West.” He goes on to describe alcohol as “a weapon of war” – as the colonial settlers spread westward, pursuing their ‘manifest destiny’, ethanol became ethnic cleanser.

There is also a relationship between the War on Drugs and its rhetorical descendent the ‘war on terror’. Adam Curtis has shown in his film ‘Bitter Lake’ how American attempts at economic development after the Second World War by building hydroelectric dams in Afghanistan, mimicking the methods pursued in the U.S. in the previous decades, backfired spectacularly. The programme catastrophically altered the water table, destroying the soil and leaving swathes of the country unable to grow produce or graze animals. However, the hardy opium poppy was uniquely suited to growing in such conditions and has since proliferated to such an extent that today Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, providing 80% of the global supply.

Whilst experts disagree on the precise extent, it is clear that the revenue from the opium trade, a direct consequence of disastrous U.S. attempts at Cold War-anxiety-fuelled nation building, constitutes a sizeable portion (up to 60% by some estimates) of the income of the Taliban, an enemy the U.S. has itself been fighting for decades. Meanwhile, the United States spearheads the War on Drugs, and has spent over $1 trillion dollars failing to control the drugs trade since 1971. An expensive and wholly ineffective conflict which, with regards to opium, it not only helped to create, but through disastrous policy-making since the turn of the millennium regarding prescription opioid painkillers, it perpetuates as a national opioid-abuse epidemic fuels further demand.

The War on Drugs

“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

John Ehrlichman, Domestic Affairs Advisor to President Richard. M. Nixon, in an interview with Harper’s Magazine, 1994.

Few propaganda exercises in history can be judged to have been as effective as the framing by successive US and UK governments of their actions and attitudes towards controlled substances as the War on Drugs. The genesis of the idea came from a speech given by President Nixon in November 1971. In it, without actually using the phrase, he initiated what we know now as the War on Drugs. Nixon’s drug policy aide Jeffrey Donfeld has since claimed that the purpose of the War on Drugs was to better the lives of people, decrease incidence of criminal activity and decrease deaths. Unfortunately, and wholly unsurprisingly, it has had the extreme opposite effect.

Interestingly, some recent revisionist analysis has drawn a distinction between the despicable motivations behind the War on Drugs and Nixon’s actual policy agenda, which ‘did not focus on the kind of criminalization that Ehrlichman described … [but] was largely a public health crusade — one that would be reshaped into the modern, punitive drug war we know today by later administrations, particularly President Ronald Reagan.’ Whilst there is no doubt that the Reagan administration hugely intensified the War on Drugs, it was Nixon who unleashed the ideational framework and political potential of the War on Drugs as rhetoric, in a speech littered with militaristic metaphor like ‘defeating the enemy’ and ‘all-out offensives’, thus at the very least making possible the War on Drugs and the misery, harm and injustice it causes today.

Astonishingly, it took until 1985 for the first mention of the War on Drugs in the House of Commons – a passing mention from SDP MP Robert Maclennan during a Home Affairs debate. In it he argued that “the War on Drugs requires a commitment of resources on a scale not hitherto contemplated by Government. I acknowledge what has been done but it is not sufficient to tackle the corrosive effect of drugs, particularly in our inner cities.” Note that even then, the inner city had been identified as the primary arena of the War on Drugs – with all of the racial and social implications that follow.

The first substantive exploration of The war on drugs is provided by its second mention, in December 1989, by future Labour Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott. In an example of a long-standing but misguided tendency of the left to lean into right-wing rhetoric on issues of so called ‘law and order’ in an attempt to curry favour with swing voters, Abbott embraced the framing saying “we need a war on drugs.” And “if we are to have a serious war on drugs, we must attack it on several fronts”.

Whilst at first this rhetoric seems eerily similar to that of Nixon himself when he declared the War on Drugs to be “a worldwide offensive” (a fitting prelude to the CIA sponsored drug-boat diplomacy to come), the agenda advocated for by Abbott was altogether different. One which need not have adopted and embraced the macho-nostalgia title of the War on Drugs at all. “Any war on drugs that is perceived solely as a law enforcement exercise cannot succeed. Rather it will lead to escalation, money and men being poured in to solve the problem, but still families and communities being devastated.” She says presciently, before going onto call for more research into patterns of drug abuse, the tackling of money laundering, the need to improve education and ensure that the community is enlisted and involved in any actions taken.

That the first speech to include the phrase ‘the war on drugs’ in the House of Commons came from a left-wing MP who, despite advocating for policies directly opposed to the commonly understood notion of the War on Drugs, felt the need to veil their radically evidence-based demands in the language of militarism, speaks volumes about the troubled relationship between progressive politicians and drug policy reform.

Which leads to the question, why has the framing of ‘the war on drugs’ been so effective and long-lasting? After all, any US president or UK Prime Minister could have pursued a different path but “every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another.” And when the Labour Party took a decisively democratic socialist turn under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn between 2015-2019, drug policy reform was notably absent from both general election manifestos. Political expediency alone does not provide a sufficient explanation.

It should come as no surprise that in two countries whose national mythologies centre so squarely on warfare, that a militaristic moniker has proved so successful. The U.S. is a nation birthed by war, and the U.K. one in which war is the source of all of our moments of greatest historical pride: Waterloo, Blenheim, Trafalgar, Agincourt, D-Day.

The U.S. and the U.K. are two nations that have no experience of all-out warfare on home soil since their respective civil wars. The British Isles sat apart from the continental attrition of the First World War and famously avoided invasion by the Nazi menace during the Second World War, keeping in-tact a record of repellence which national myth stretches back to 1066, but serious historians agree dates to the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. The United States sat in splendid isolation during both of the Twentieth Century World Wars, flanked by guardian oceans on either side.

Can this framing, and its staying-power, be attributed a long-standing psychological need for a war on the home front? The War on Drugs satisfies a historical desire to root out the fifth column and fight the enemy within, in a patriotic quest to detoxify the soul of the nation. Drugs stand as the latest in a long line of those needing to be battled with from within – Catholics, Jews, Communists, immigrants, miners etc. In this sense, it surely makes sense to view the War on Drugs as both ancestor and sibling of our contemporary ‘culture wars’.

Theoretically at least, the policy basis of the War on Drugs is the indiscriminate deployment of the full security, military and policing resources of the state, with the aim of criminalising those involved with the use, supply and production of controlled substances. In practice, however, it is a conflict in which inner city areas – those inhabited disproportionately by the poor and people of colour – become war zones, fuelled by the use of grotesque and discriminatory policing tactics.

Certainly the cultural, socio-economic and racial disparities present in the policing of the War on Drugs are no accident, and would suggest that it is appropriate to view it through the prism of the ‘culture wars’. One only need read the Ehrlichman quote at the beginning of this section to see that the War on Drugs has always been conceived by those in power, as a culture war, and one with surprisingly long historical roots. “The United States has used drug laws to selectively target specific communities for more than a century” according to Jamila Hodge, stretching back to oppressive nineteenth century anti-opium laws encouraging the pernicious ‘othering’ of Chinese immigrants.

War and Drugs: A New Chapter?

In December 1798, the month after Benjamin Franklin wrote of his lament at the certitude of taxation, the then British Prime Minister and Chancellor, William Pitt the Younger, stood up and delivered his budget to the House of Commons. In it, he announced a new Income Tax, to be temporarily levied to fund British involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. Despite its introduction on a temporary basis, and its abolition and reinstatement on a number of occasions after the cessation of hostilities, it was eventually reintroduced for good by Sir Robert Peel in 1842, and now constitutes the single largest source of government revenue in the United Kingdom.

It is befitting of the complicated relationship between the psychoactive substances and armed conflict that Franklin missed off his list of worldly certainties, that the first restrictions on the possession of some drugs in the UK (opium, cannabis and cocaine) were also introduced as part of temporary wartime measures during the First World War; the first act in what was to mutate half a century later into the monstrous War on Drugs.

It is this misguided crusade, that has failed on its own terms in reducing supply, demand and minimising harm, that is holding back medical research into the trauma-relieving properties of substances such as LSD, Psylocibin and MDMA. All are currently classified as ‘schedule one’ – drugs belonging to this schedule are thought to have no therapeutic value and therefore cannot be lawfully possessed or prescribed, and such drugs may be used for the purposes of research only with a Home Office licence. Such licences cost £3,500 and the application process can take up to a year, with scientists facing prison sentences if the drugs fall into the wrong hands.

However, drugs in ‘Schedules Two and Three’ can be prescribed and therefore legally possessed and supplied by pharmacists and doctors, and possessed lawfully by anyone who has a prescription. Moving MDMA and Psylocibin into lower schedules would allow for easier research into their potentially transformative psychotherapeutic properties. Pursuing drug policy reform, calling for a sensible, evidence-based, harm reduction focused approach gives us the opportunity to change the narrative with regards to drugs and warfare.

Given these constraints, a limited body of research thus far exists, much of it undertaken by former Government advisor Professor David Nutt, who was shamefully fired by a Labour government for daring to advocate for a harm reduction approach, and the team at Drug Science. What research exists shows promising results for the use of Psylocibin in treating a range of disorders including anxiety, depression, OCD, addictions and PTSD – but more research is needed to explore these potential medical uses further.

Likewise, a small initial study conducted with individuals living with PTSD has indicated that MDMA has potential uses in facilitating and supporting psychotherapy. MDMA is not itself the treatment, but it is proposed that it enables therapy to be possible or makes it more effective. “At its core, PTSD is a disorder of memory” and MDMA allows people to face and deal with painful memories without becoming overwhelmed.

The Prime Minister has said he will “examine the latest advice on the legalisation of psilocybin” – an encouraging development, but positive noises abound with regards to drug policy, whilst action is sorely lacking. In 2001, a newly-elected backbench Conservative MP, in his role on the Home Affairs Select Committee, proposed that the Committee launch an inquiry into the laws on drugs, urging the consideration of radical reform. The resulting report recommended a downgrading of ecstasy from Class A to Class B, as well as a shift in focus towards harm reduction. Then, when standing for the Conservative Party leadership in 2005, he insightfully criticised “Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades”. The MP in question? The Member for Witney, one David Cameron; whatever happened to him?

The latest figures suggest that a majority of the British public are in favour of psilocybin research, with a majority of every individual demographic, political, or regional population supporting reform of policy and the rescheduling of psilocybin. 55% of respondents specifically supported changes to the law to permit veterans suffering from significant psychiatric distress to access psilocybin assisted treatment, with only 13% opposed. So what is it that is preventing progress being made in this nascent field?

According to the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.” Modern science has the capacity to revolutionise our understanding of the effects that drugs have on us, and harness that knowledge to improve the lives of people suffering from the debilitating effects of conditions such as PTSD. But memory, tradition and myth are too forcefully shaping our political response. We are allowing a moralising, counterproductive and deeply unjust campaign to continually thwart attempts to improve the lives of those suffering from mental distress, causing further harm for the individual and further expense for society.

As we once more fall silent and cast our memories back to the sacrifices made on behalf of the nation, spare a thought for those struggling to process the traumatic experiences they faced in the line of duty. As we spend our time remembering and reflecting on their heroism, many of them spend their time aching to forget. At this time, laden with memory, it behoves us to do everything we can do to help them in their next mission.


This piece was written by Jay Jackson, tweets @wordsbyjayj



[1] Prof. David Nutt, ‘Drugs Without the Hot Air’, UIT Cambridge, (2020).

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