We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire

We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire

We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire

We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire


This history of US-led international drug control provides new perspectives on the economic, ideological, and political foundations of a Cold War American empire. US officials assumed the helm of international drug control after World War II at a moment of unprecedented geopolitical influence embodied in the growing economic clout of its pharmaceutical industry.

We Sell Drugs is a study grounded in the transnational geography and political economy of the coca-leaf and coca-derived commodities market stretching from Peru and Bolivia into the United States. More than a narrow biography of one famous plant and its equally famous derivative products--Coca-Cola and cocaine--this book situates these commodities within the larger landscape of drug production and consumption. Examining efforts to control the circuits through which coca traveled, Suzanna Reiss provides a geographic and legal basis for considering the historical construction of designations of legality and illegality.

The book also argues that the legal status of any given drug is largely premised on who grew, manufactured, distributed, and consumed it and not on the qualities of the drug itself. Drug control is a powerful tool for ordering international trade, national economies, and society's habits and daily lives.

In a historical landscape animated by struggles over political economy, national autonomy, hegemony, and racial equality, We Sell Drugs insists on the socio-historical underpinnings of designations of legality to explore how drug control became a major weapon in asserting control of domestic and international affairs.


The United States government has never waged a war on drugs. On the contrary, drugs in general—and so-called “narcotic” drugs such as cocaine in particular—constitute part of a powerful arsenal that the government flexibly deploys to wage war and to demonstrate its capacity to bring health, peace, and economic prosperity. Drugs historically have not been targets but rather tools; the ability to supply, withhold, stockpile, and police drugs, and to influence the public conversation about drugs, has been central to projections of US imperial power since the middle of the twentieth century.

This book explores the relationship between drugs and war from World War II through the early Cold War and, in particular, how policing and profiting from their intersection has propelled the consolidation of US economic and political power on a global scale. It is an historical account of the international geography and regulatory sinews attached to one group of commodities that was foundational to international drug control: coca leaves and the various substances and consumer products derived from them. Throughout the time period of this study— the 1940s through the early 1960s—and still to the present day, those commodities included pharmaceutical-grade cocaine and the beverage Coca-Cola. The story reveals the importance of the pharmaceutical industry and drug control to US national power by examining the implementation of regulatory controls, cultural narratives, and economic hierarchies that accompanied the delineation of legal and illegal . . .

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