The Power of Drugs

When we talk about drugs, our views are always muddled by moral and political judgments. It is very hard to be objective about this topic, but this does not diminish the necessity to be well informed.¹ However, it is not my intention to tell you more about the causes and effects of drug use. I’m sure there are a lot of interesting studies, articles and web pages that can fill you in on this.² Instead, I would like to offer you an insight into the influence of drugs and drug policy on international power structures, which has been my academic focal point the last few years.

Drugs are addictive psychoactive substances that have an influence on the mood and consciousness of the user.³ In modern times, these substances are usually used hedonistically.4 Marihuana, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, but also tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea and cocoa are seen as drugs. Apart from being psychoactive substances, drugs are also important commodities; the illegal drug trade alone is worth around 400 billion dollars a year.5

The connection between drugs and power politics is best illustrated by looking at the history of the state. Originating in late 13th century Europe, the state developed in the following centuries to be the most powerful and efficient political entity (in contrast to city-states, empires, fiefdoms, etc.).6 Taxes on beer, wine, tobacco, tea and, especially, opium were of large importance for certain states to have sufficient funds to build armies, develop an efficient tax system and create professional institutions.7 According to certain studies, one third to even half of the state income of late 19th century Great Britain was gained through taxes on opium.8 This created a large advantage for the British state vis-à-vis other states and gave rise to what economists call a virtuous cycle.9 This is a situation where benefits are followed by other gains, which in turn fuel the source of the original benefit. For instance, by having more income, Great Britain could fund its institutional development and army, which resulted in more relative international power and, consequently, in more income.10

Taxes on several drugs were of large importance for certain states to have sufficient funds to build armies, develop an efficient tax system and create professional institutions.

Certain drugs became illegal after a moral panic arose in the early 20th century.11 Cocaine, opium, laudanum, heroin and marihuana were transformed from normal commodities to highly dangerous and addictive substances. Every country on earth gradually developed a policy where it places certain psychoactive substances outside the legal realm. Most states went even further and pursued (or pursue) the complete eradication of these drugs by issuing repressive actions against any stage in the development and trade of these substances.12 This so called War on Drugs entails house raids, hard sanctions and severe custom restrictions, but also international actions and regulations.

The international antidrug policy renders it possible for certain states to intervene in the internal affairs of other states. For instance, the US has acted in Columbia (with its consent) on behalf of this policy by militarizing their police and by letting the DEA and the CIA have an active involvement in their fight against drugs.13 This was, of course, because the US wanted to halt the export of cocaine to their own country. By policing Columbia, which was the preeminent production country of this drug, the US also gained influence on the political situation of this country. Their involvement into the combat against drugs in Columbia shouldn’t therefore be seen as separate from other national interests of the US, like their desire for the acquisition of oilfields or the fight against the rebels of the FARC.14 The international antidrug framework could in such a situation operate as a loophole for interventionist policies.

The international antidrug framework could operate as a loophole for interventionist policies.

The policy of harsh repressive measures against drugs is also quite expensive. Paying for an antidrug agency, the large amount of additional convicts, the security protocols, etc. makes up for a considerable portion of public spending. Additionally, if a drug is made illegal, the state can no longer tax it, losing potential income. The tax would not increase state income phenomenally, especially in comparison with the income tax, but it would benefit the budget rather than diminish it.15

Because of this, antidrug policy creates vicious cycles for every state, but for some countries these are more imposing than for others.16 Simply put: wealthy and powerful states can battle drugs, while poor and powerless countries cannot. The international antidrug policy makes it obligatory to combat the production, trafficking and sale of these substances, so poor states cannot escape these costs. The result is that the countries who have a smaller income need to spend relatively more on these antidrug measures, while they could also invest in their economy, social welfare or education system.

This vicious cycle is even more apparent for drug producing countries like Afghanistan, Mexico, and Myanmar, who are generally poor and have to deal with insurgents or large and influential criminal organizations. The latter are in fact the ones profiting from this entire situation, because having a hand in drug trafficking is a lucrative way to gain income. These groups can utilize the illegal drugs to amass large profits and combat the state with – almost – equal means, like it is the case with the Colombian FARC rebels, the Mexican Cartels, the Taliban and IS.17 In turn, this creates a necessity for interventions from foreign superpowers because these states can’t fight drugs and armed groups at the same time.18 As a result, countries like Afghanistan, Mexico or Columbia are proclaimed failed states and become dependent on foreign aid.

Poor and powerless states can’t fight drugs and armed groups at the same time, creating the necessity for interventions from foreign superpowers.

Where drugs used to create virtuous cycles for certain states, so they developed faster and became stronger, it now mainly creates vicious cycles that are more imposing on already poor and weak states. In this respect, the current international drug policy polarizes the balance of power by pushing poor states to the brink of failure and becoming completely strung out. On the other hand, stronger and richer states can only benefit from these increasing weaknesses. By increasing their chances to intervene, these states can gain power through the international antidrug policy. This system will only be revoked once the War on Drugs ends. With this argument, I hope policymakers will have an additional reason to plea for a different drug policy.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Perspective. Please be advised that all works found on International Perspective are protected under copyright, more information in the Terms of Use.

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By | 2017-02-03T23:36:52+00:00 October 2nd, 2015|Categories: Insight|Tags: , , |1 Comment

About the Author:

Zeger Verleye
Zeger Verleye was an IP Chief Editor focused on international drug policy.

One Comment

  1. Elise Verachtert 03/10/2015 at 08:05 - Reply

    Goed geschreven en duidelijk artikel. Mooie samenvatting voor wie Drugs in World History volgt dit jaar 🙂

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