War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse

War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse

War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse

War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse


War and Drugs explores the relationship between military incursions and substance use and abuse throughout history. For centuries, drugs have been used to weaken enemies, stimulate troops to fight, and quell post-war trauma. They have also served as a source of funding for clandestine military and paramilitary activity. In addition to offering detailed geopolitical perspectives, this book explores the intergenerational trauma that follows military conflict and the rising tide of substance abuse among veterans, especially from the Vietnam and Iraq-Afghan eras. Addiction specialist Bergen-Cico raises important questions about the past and challenges us to consider new approaches in the future to this longest of US wars.


In its current iteration, the War on Drugs appears to be a spectacular failure of domestic and foreign policy. As the drug war has grown increasingly militaristic, legalistic, and moralistic, the levels of drug use and addiction have remained relatively constant for decades, rising in recent years. The original declaration of a War on Drugs was instituted by President Richard Nixon on June 17, 1971—a response to the nation’s concerns regarding drug use and related criminal activity among returning Vietnam veterans and the role of drugs within the anti-war movement. There are misgivings about its current status, but when the War on Drugs was first declared in 1971, it was primarily a public-health policy centered on access to treatment on demand. In the 1980s, the emphasis on treatment was displaced by bureaucratic militaristic infrastructures and paramilitary tactics to create a “Drug-Free America.” With the move away from primary prevention and treatment came the infantilized “Just Say No” and red-ribbon campaigns, epic failures that created delusions of public action.

As we will examine in Chapter 7, “The Cold War Was Hot for the Drug Trade,” it was under cover of these Drug-Free America campaigns that a number of top U.S. officials turned a blind eye toward drug trafficking in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Mexico, and even the United States. In several cases, top officials were complicit in transnational drug trafficking because the revenue supported anti-communist and anti-Soviet objectives of the Cold War, which superseded the importance of drug-war objectives. The synergistic relationship between drugs and war and the history of the drug war are much more nuanced than the monolith it now appears to be.

Although I have worked in the field of substance-abuse prevention and addictions treatment for decades, I was not aware of many of these historical connections prior to initiating research for this book. Certainly, I had heard about conspiracy theories that were vaguely reminiscent of this history; however, couched as conspiratorial, these facts were largely veiled as “counterculture paranoia,” dismissed by practitioners and academics alike. These factors contribute to the complicit and complex history of drugs and war, which underscores the fundamental problems in our ability to make any real progress in the erstwhile drug war.

The political history that has driven the ebb and flow of drugs is studied and documented by historians, political scientists, and journalists, but it is cleaved from . . .

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