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Commodity Chain of Cocaine

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 1081 words Published: 22nd Jun 2020

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In this reading, what struck me the most was the instrumentalization of the cocaine commodity chain by the United States in an effort to emerge as, Reiss states, a “formidable political player on the world stage”. While the United States spearheaded efforts to establish regulatory mechanisms for international drug trade that they deemed necessary for economic, social, and political security, it wasn’t until WWII and US wartime mobilization that “the balance of power amongst drug manufacturing countries and states that produce raw materials for drugs was altered” (Reiss pg. 2). The United States was able to emerge from WWII as a global drug giant, giving it unprecedented geopolitical leverage in the world. The United States government mainly sought to control drug commodities derived from the coca plant, impacting coca growing countries such as Peru and Bolivia as the United States established its position as both the primary purchaser of raw materials for drug production and the primary supplier of finished coca products, and utilized its geopolitical clout over the region to aggressively regulate the drug market and secure the pharmaceutical market in these countries for American interests, raising the question of to what extent was the American private sector involved in US foreign policy regarding cocaine in this era?

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While the United States had stockpiled a drug arsenal of narcotic drugs as early in 1935 in anticipation of war to ensure against shortages of narcotic drugs that occurred when the international drug supply was disrupted by wartime hostilities, the war “also facilitated the consolidation of US control of all coca derived commodities” due to their proximity to Latin American resources which were not as vulnerable to wartime trade disruptions like the Philippines and Dutch East Indies. The United States also strategically ensured its place in the cocaine commodity chain by the Passage of the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act, which prohibited Peru from importing refined and semi refined coca products, thus limiting them to exporting raw materials to the United States. Bolivia also played an interesting role in the commodity chain, as most of the coca produced in that country was for internal consumption, however since it motivated tin miners to endure harsh work conditions, its consumption was tolerated in support of US war efforts, which needed the raw materials those miners produced, providing an interesting contrast to our previous reading on Mexican mine workers and marijuana, as one is tolerated since it fits into the discourse of control, while the other is punished for its association to subversive behaviors such as labor organization.

Japan having the war crime of drug trafficking leveled against them and The UN Commission on narcotic drugs in 1947  accusing the “Japanese of using revenues from the drug trade “to finance the preparation  for waging wars of aggression” and “to establish and finance the puppet governments” under its control” reminds me of the question that was examined during the first section of this course (Reiss pg. 44). How does what we think about addiction change with who is addicted? While in this case there is no drug addiction, it is interesting to see how Japan is punished for essentially the same behaviors the United States exhibited during World War II.

The chapter also states that such charges as these serve to substantiate the politically charged nature of designating labels of illegality in terms of participation within the drug market when arguably,” all major combatants had sought to capitalize on the drug market” to wage economic warfare (Reiss pg. 44). Arguably, only the United States was successful in my opinion, due to their proximity to major sources of raw materials such as coca leaves from the Andes and their unique relationship with Latin America, rooted in the Monroe Doctrine and American Imperialism, which allowed them to exert pressure upon these markets to carry out their will and prohibit them from purchasing pharmaceuticals from those viewed as threats to the American mission of control over the commodity chain.

As the Allied powers emerged victorious in WWII, it allowed the for the United States to carry out their drug market regulatory priorities, and cement their place as a major player in international drug control, allowing for the “strong relationship between drug regulators, US officials, and the pharmaceutical industry” to continue after WWII. This however, raises the question of whether the United States would have still  been able to emerge in a “decisive position to capitalize on the drug trade” had it not been for its economic warfare policies during WWII? Additionally, due to the new connection between the cocaine commodity chain and the American pharmaceutical industry, after WWII the “designation of illegality within the drug industry was no longer tied to a national enemy, but more so broadly applied to those who participated in the pharmaceutical industry outside of the drug regulatory regime’s sanction”, with this justification used to attempt to stamp out coca production and consumption in Peru and Bolivia that was not destined for North American pharmaceutical houses (Reiss pg. 45).

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It can also be examined how discourses of control and discourses of illegality were critical tools employed by the war effort of the United States government, linking winning the war with US economic expansion.  In this case, control of national economies in the Western Hemisphere were tied to the flow of commodities, as the United States desired to monopolize pharmaceutical production and thus instrumentalized drug control on an international scale to ensure a steady flow of raw materials from the Andean countries of Peru and Bolivia (pg. 46). Thus raising the question of how exactly did the How did the United States instrumentalize cocaine to serve as a tool of U.S imperialism in Latin America in the period leading up and following World War II? This also demonstrated how labels of illegality change with who is in power, with illegality during this time period being concerned with the “geography of its production” and the politics of its producers, unlike now where illegality is more concerned with the inherent properties of the drug itself.

  • Reiss, Suzanna. We Sell Drugs: the Alchemy of US Empire. University of California Press, 2014.


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