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The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade

By Alfred W. McCoy

Lawrence Hill Books, 1991

Review by Rick D. Card

Imagine America, the great crusader against illicit drugs, a nation willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of its citizens in the name of its War on Drugs. Now imagine that same sovereign secretly allied with known drug producers and traffickers and actively engaged in the control and transportation of those same drugs. This is the contrast unveiled in Alfred McCoy's book, The Politics of Heroin.

Heroin has a history that dates further back than the 5th century BC. In the Odyssey, Homer describes it as medicine to "lull all pain and anger, and bring forgetfulness of every sorrow." Today it is known as an illegal substance that brings hard core addiction or a fifteen year prison stretch.

How heroin went from the source of everlasting joy described by Homer to a potion of destruction in communities today has a lot to do with American and British activities. A subject McCoy has feverishly researched and documented. He charts the path of heroin as American and British merchants commercialized it and created a world opium trade. Trading it to the Chinese for tea, silk, and porcelain, the two great Western democracies laid a foundation for heroin trading that remains to this day.

The Politics of Heroin begins with a historical look at opium and describes how pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and Bayer transformed it into heroin, then aggressively marketed it domestically in the United States. By touting it as a substitute for morphine, doctors and pharmaceutical companies pushed the addictive narcotic onto an unsuspecting nation.

The early 1900s marked the beginning of a transition from legal to illegal consumption of narcotics, and with it arose a black market where once stood a free market. It is here, says McCoy, that the real politics of heroin took shape.

World wars and a rising and then crashing stock market kept most of the leaders busy during the first fifty years of the 20th century. However, as World War II closed and the Cold War began, McCoy says that America entered the unseemly world of illegal drugs.

McCoy writes, "Needing new weapons to fight a new kind of war, the Truman Administration created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1947 with two main missions--espionage and covert action. In effect, the CIA became the vanguard of America's global anti-Communist campaign. Practicing a radical pragmatism, its agents made alliances with any local group, drug merchants included, capable of countering Communist influence."

Within years of its creation, the CIA began to recognize the financial, logistical, and political power of heroin production overseas. Perhaps, McCoy suggests, the CIA recognized a "natural affinity between covert operations and criminal syndicates," which may have lured them to form alliances. In the words of one retired CIA agent, both covert operations and criminal syndicates practice "'Clandestine art'--the basic skill of operating outside the normal channels of civil society."

The first clue to seeing the connection between the CIA and heroin involvement arose during the 1950's when federal agencies appeared to restrict domestic and international illicit drug trafficking, but conspicuously avoided Southeast Asia, the heartland of heroin production, and a center of CIA involvement. As it turned out, this was no coincidence.

The Politics of Heroin presents three distinct levels of American entanglement in drug trafficking. The first was what McCoy calls coincidental complicity, which is to say that the U.S., through the CIA, allied itself with groups who were active participants in the illegal drug trade. The second level was the CIA's active support of the traffickers evidenced by its efforts to cover-up for known heroin dealers thereby condoning their activities. Finally, McCoy cites the active participation by American diplomats and CIA operatives in the transportation of opium and heroin as the third level of U.S. complicity in the international drug trade.

Throughout the book, McCoy takes us step-by-step through the labyrinth of international drug syndicates as they emerged, evolved, and eventually came to dominate the global market place. Behind every corner, he finds and documents evidence of CIA and American diplomatic involvement. The research is exhausting, and the proof undeniable.

Into the 1980s, while eclipsed by the media's attention on cocaine and crack, global heroin production and U.S. consumption rose steadily--a direct effect of the CIA's complicity in the opium fields of Southeast Asia. McCoy points out that world opium production tripled from an estimated 1,600 tons in 1982 to a whopping 4,600 tons in 1990. This production is traced to two key aspects of U.S. policy: the failure of the DEA's interdiction efforts and the CIA's covert operations.

The Politics of Heroin is a real blow to the legitimacy of America's War on Drugs. It shows indisputably that while the United States has set upon a course of incarcerating its citizens for mere possession of the smallest amounts of illegal drugs, it has itself been embroiled to the largest possible extent in the production and transportation of heroin.

The level of hypocrisy unveiled by this book is enough to rattle one's mind. A government who's left hand destroys what its right produces--namely, citizens who sell, possess, or use illegal drugs. But then crimes of this magnitude are all too common in the greatest democracy in the world.

[This book is available through PLN (see inside back page). It has 634 pages, including 98 pages of source notes.]

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