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Points Interview—Helena Barop, Poppy Wars: US Global Drug Policies, 1950–1979

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Barop Title Card

Editor’s Note: Today, we’re pleased to interview Dr. Helena Barop about her new book , Mohnblumenkriege. Die globale Drogenpolitik der USA 1950-1979—or Poppy Wars: US Global Drug Policies, 1950–1979. Dr. Barop recently received her PhD from the University of Freiburg.

Please tell readers a little but about yourself:

My name is Helena Barop, and in 2020 I received my PhD in history from the University of Freiburg. I am living in Freiburg with my husband and two little kids and working as a freelance publicist. Just a few weeks ago I published my dissertation as a book, titled Mohnblumenkriege. Die globale Drogenpolitik der USA 1950-1979—which roughly translates to Poppy Wars: US Global Drug Policies, 1950–1979. My book is based on research conducted in Washington, DC, New York City, and at the United Nations Archives in Vienna. As a student of American drug policy, I have been watching the field from the side lines with some intensity. Now that my book is out, I would like to introduce it to the drug history community—even though it’s in German.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand:

During the twentieth century, the United States entangled itself into a huge morass of growing costs, moral ambiguities, diplomatic impasses, and unintended consequences, because the country wanted to make its citizens stop using certain drugs. In my book, I show why the US decided that drug use was a problem, and why drug prohibition was deemed the best solution.

I then tell the stories about American officials from all kinds of agencies who went to countries around the world from France to Turkey to Thailand to Laos to Burma to Mexico and to many more places to fight the drug problem at its supposed “roots.” Across numerous original sources from many different archives, I recount, for example, State Department officials and narcotic agents fighting their unwinnable battles against global drug market entrepreneurs.

Watching these officials fail time and again would almost be comical—if it weren’t for the innumerable victims who have suffered from the consequences of the global drug war to this day. In the end, I conclude that, despite its best effort, even the most powerful country in the world did not have the means to curb the drug economy.

When I was looking at the reasons for these recurring failures, I didn’t find many cases of human error. The US drug warriors were motivated; they had ample resources at hand; and they tried as hard as they could to find a way of curbing the drug traffic. Their failure was a political and a structural one: it happened on two basic levels.

At the level of diplomacy, they encountered cultural and political differences in the interpretation of the drug problem made it hard for US officials to find equally enthusiastic cooperation in drug-producing countries. I closely look at the details of why this cooperation was so hard to find even for a cold war superpower.

The second and much more difficult obstacle was that drug economies typically flourish at the fringes of state power and in spaces of limited statehood. Such black and gray markets are built and maintained by marginalized groups who have nothing to lose by breaking rules. As long as there are parts of the world where state power does not control how people lead their lives; as long as there are people who have little reason to follow drug laws; and as long as demand for drugs and drug prohibition policies keep prices high, there will always be a drug market.

World Map Opium Flows 1971

World Map showing global opium flows from the Congressional Record, The World Heroin Problem, Report of Special Study Mission, Composed of Morgan F. Murphy, Robert H. Steele, Washington, DC, 1971, attached to p. 6.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Many accounts of this era of the drug war investigate one part of the picture: they are either about Mexico or about the French Connection or about the Golden Triangle or about the situation at home or about how the drug problem came to be in the first place. My book includes these subjects, of course, but, drawing on original sources, it also strives to provide a comprehensive account of the political field on a global level.

I show how developments in different parts of the world are connected: Without the 1960s hippie and counterculture movement, without President Richard Nixon’s political law and order strategy, and without the GI heroin crisis in Vietnam, for example, there might not have been a widely publicized drug war in the first place.

Without the much repeated and only partly successful story of the French Connection and its dismantlement in 1972/73, US agencies might not have tried to “disconnect” other drug connections.

Without the crop substitution experiments in Turkey launched by US agencies starting in 1966, there might not have been crop substitution projects in Thailand at all. Without the King of Thailand, without his consideration of the poppy farmers, and without his support for crop substitution in the Golden Triangle, the United Nations might not be supporting crop substitution as one of their most important strategies of drug control today.

And without the US-Mexican drug destruction campaign of 1975–79, Burmese officials might not have started using helicopters and herbicides in their own efforts to control drug production and/or drug producing parts of the population.

Looking at all these fields in one long panoramic view, I also attempt to work out how global drug policies have changed over time. It turns out that many drug prohibition strategies started with unreachable goals like the utopian dream of a drug-free world or the eradication of drug markets.

These unachievable goals guided drug control strategies and their associated rhetoric in the sixties and early seventies. During the 1970s, though, decision makers toned down their voices and began talking in more relative terms. Now, they wanted a reduction of imports, a reduction of drug production, and they started to accept global drug markets as a permanent feature of a globalized world.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I loved observing all the schemes that did not go quite as planned. How, for instance, Federal Narcotic agent George White walked around Mediterranean cities in 1948—posing as a drug dealer to attract real drug dealers—without speaking a word of Turkish, and wondering why nobody bought his act. And then how agent White had to throw a chair out of a window to escape, because he wasn’t allowed to make an extraterritorial arrest himself and his cooperation with the Turkish police did not go quite so smoothly. (You can read about this story in my book, but if you’d rather read it in English, you will also find it in the work of Matt Pembleton, who kindly shared some of his source material with me.)

Or how in Thailand, UN officials invested a lot of time and American money to convince poppy farmers to grow new crops in the late 1960s—and ended up being buried in tons and tons of kidney beans that nobody had any idea what to do with by the summer of 1972.

Kidney Beans

A former opium farmer shows off his harvest of kidney beans in 1973. Image courtesy of UN Archive Vienna.

Or how in 1973 the United States’s Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) had to form a task force to study opium shortages for codeine production and considered allowing domestic opium cultivation—because it had bullied Turkey into prohibiting its opium economy in 1971.

Or how the American Drug Enforcement Agency pressured the Mexican government for years to use herbicides to prevent drug agriculture—only to face controversy at home when marijuana users worried about the consequences of smoking paraquat-laced weed in 1978. All those little moments of frustration accompanied by the unforeseen messiness of life helped me understand the history of global drug policy as somewhat of a tragic comedy.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I ended my study in 1979—not because anything was over at this point—but because of the invasion of Afghanistan and the shift of poppy cultivation to the Golden Crescent. I wonder if we might get access to more sources about Afghanistan soon, and then someone could write the sequel to my book.

Oh, and I would be excited if anyone found out what happened to the DEA records… When working at the National Archives in DC, I was puzzled to find the drug agency’s records in tact up until 1973. But when the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs became the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, the records just stop. Drug Historian Bill McAllister explained to me that the DEA records never made it to the archives and that to this day we don’t really know, why. Was there too much to hide? Did the records go straight to the shredder? Or did the secretary retire who usually took care of the papers? I would be thrilled to know.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I’m not sure about the entire cast. But, at the beginning of each chapter, I reconstruct what my actors thought they knew about the regions and the drug markets they were investigating. In these short vignettes, I explain of how the drugs (supposedly) found their way from blossom to bloodstream in as much detail as possible. These parts, I would like narrated by David Attenborough.


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