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Points Interview: Wolfgang Sachsenröder

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Today’s post features an interview with Dr Wolfgang Sachsenröder, in which he discusses his latest book, ‘From Opium to Methamphetamines: The Nine Lives of the Drug Industry in Southeast Asia‘ (World Scientific, 2022), and shares some personal reflections. Sachsenröder holds a PhD in Political Science and Public Law from the University of Bonn, Germany, and is an expert in Southeast Asian studies.

What is this book about?

Today, Southeast Asia is being flooded with methamphetamines, cannabis, and all sorts of designer drugs, one of the biggest drug markets in the world. This is not just by accident. The history of legal and illegal drug trafficking goes back to the late 1700s, when the colonial conquest of the region ruined the flourishing economies of Mughal India and Imperial China. Spearheaded by the British East India Company, India was forced to produce opium and China was forced to buy it, while the fast-growing appetite for Chinese tea in Europe was subsidised through this triangular trade. The British in India, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Spanish and the Americans in the Philippines, and the French in Indochina, all monopolised the opium trade, thus funding substantial parts of the colonial administration. From the beginning, the fabulous profit margins in this early round of globalisation attracted local criminals, and the smugglers were using the knowledge and experience from centuries of maritime trade. The young USA participated in this race for profit by outperforming the British with the fastest ships of the time, and one of the first millionaires, John Jacob Astor, was involved in the opium business.

The Baltimore clippers, developed in Chesapeake Bay, were built for speed rather than cargo space, they reached their heyday between 1795 and 1815. Because speed was needed for the Chinese opium trade between England, India, and China, the Baltimore clippers were still being built to run opium between India and China. Eventually the opium trade became unprofitable for American shipbuilders in 1849 and they dropped out.

The second push for the international drug trade was the Vietnam War which opened the flood gates for the production and consumption of heroin and helped criminal organisations to expand and flourish. A mixture of US-intervention, French colonial know-how in opium refinement, and criminal energy of the Corsican Mafia resulted in the infamous “French Connection” with heroin laboratories around Marseille and an unlimited market in the USA.

In Southeast Asia, the drug trade has triggered side-effects on the economic and political development of the new nation states after the end of colonialism. In the second part of the book the political economy of Southeast Asia’s growth decades is being reviewed in nine country chapters for the ASEAN members except Brunei. Widespread evils are the perpetuation of the colonial corruption in government and administration, political parties and elections, police forces and armies. All too often, they can be traced to the easy profits of the drug business and the symbiosis of illegal and legal business models. The third part deals with the trillion-dollar-question, whether the harsh suppression of the drug business can protect consumers or prevent addiction. The political debate about drug control and the dangers of drug use is controversial, while the law enforcement is constantly slower than the newest tricks of the drug cartels. Meanwhile the enormous human damage continues, population growth and urban affluence increase the demand, and with incredible speed new designer drugs are entering the market and finding new customers.

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

The Stacking Room, An Opium Factory Patna India. Lithograph by W.S. Sherwill, ca. 1850, Source: Bassett, Nathaniel

The innovative quality, I would say, lies in three concepts. The book gives an overview of the vast region of Southeast Asia and its endless borders and coastlines which are difficult to control for illegal trade, and facilitate the easy hiding of drugs. Secondly, it ties up the origins of the drug trade, from its industrialisation by the British East India Company, with the drug business today. And finally, it pinpoints the shortcomings in the political and administrative consolidation of the young nation states in ASEAN.

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

My interest in the drug topic started with an article about the colourful personality of a Burmese drug lady, Olive Yang, who died in 2017 at the age of 90. In her younger days, nicknamed Miss Hairy Legs, she organised a group of fighters, the “Olive boys” and went into the booming opium business. With the money earned, she could buy expensive gifts for her girlfriends, among them the most beautiful actresses of her time. Later she spent years in prison but also helped to broker ceasefires between rebel groups and the Yangon government. From that starting point, the whole history and ugly reality of the drug trade developed into a fascinating journey.

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

Oh dear, the frightening ramifications of the drug trade leave too many stones unturned. Crime prevention is probably the biggest one, the uncontrollable trade in precursor chemicals the second. The penetration of drugs into the middle of society, including the petty trade and the online propagation of how to concoct hallucinogenic substances in your kitchen, need more attention than the legalisation of cannabis.  


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