Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics

Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics

Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics

Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics


Inaugurated in 1984, America's "War on Drugs" is just the most recent skirmish in a standoff between global drug trafficking and state power. From Britain's nineteenth-century Opium Wars in China to the activities of Colombia's drug cartels and their suppression by U. S.-backed military forces today, conflicts over narcotics have justified imperial expansion, global capitalism, and state violence, even as they have also fueled the movement of goods and labor around the world.

In Drug Wars, cultural critic Curtis Marez examines two hundred years of writings, graphic works, films, and music that both demonize and celebrate the commerce in cocaine, marijuana, and opium, providing a bold interdisciplinary exploration of drugs in the popular imagination. Ranging from the writings of Sigmund Freud to pro-drug lord Mexican popular music, gangsta rap, and Brian De Palma's 1983 epic Scarface, Drug Wars moves from the representations and realities of the Opium Wars to the long history of drug and immigration enforcement on the U. S.-Mexican border, and to cocaine use and interdiction in South America, Middle Europe, and among American Indians. Throughout Marez juxtaposes official drug policy and propaganda with subversive images that challenge and sometimes even taunt government and legal efforts.

As Marez shows, despite the state's best efforts to use the media to obscure the hypocrisies and failures of its drug policies-be they lurid descriptions of Chinese opium dens in the English popular press or Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign-marginalized groups have consistently opposed the expansion of state power that drug traffic has historically supported.

Curtis Marez is assistant professorof critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.


My interest in this project began in the late 1980s, at the tail end of Ronald Reagan's second term as U.S. president. The so-called Reagan Revolution that began with the 1980 presidential election initiated a highly publicized “war on drugs.” In U.S. mass culture, however, state drug enforcement looked rather different from mainstream political discourse. Music and films from those years foregrounded the complicity of U.S. military and police forces in international drug traffic; in a number of films and songs, corrupt cops and rogue military personnel actually participate in the drug trade. At the end of Reagan's second term, when it was revealed that his administration had supported cocaine traffic in order to fund counterinsurgency projects in Central America, it appeared as though the former actor was caught up in the plot of a B action movie. At that time I was struck by the conflicting representations of the Reagan-era drug wars, which led me to think more broadly about the role of culture in the history of drug traffic and enforcement.

As my research proceeded, I discovered that the ongoing war on drugs, usually discussed in a relative historical vacuum, was the culmination of a much longer, global history of drug traffic and enforcement. Drug Wars thus begins with events of the final decades of the twentieth century, but it ultimately suggests that drug traffic and the movements of people, capital, and ideas that it presupposes have been central to an uneven and hierarchical global modernity. While cultural critics are accustomed to thinking of globalization in terms of capitalism, imperialism . . .

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