Academic journal article American Studies

WE SELL DRUGS: The Alchemy of US Empire

Academic journal article American Studies

WE SELL DRUGS: The Alchemy of US Empire

Article excerpt

WE SELL DRUGS: The Alchemy of US Empire. By Suzanna Reiss. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2014.

Suzanna Reiss, in We Sell Drugs, presents a novel and compelling argument about our changing notion of the war on drugs. She argues that the war is not, and never has been, actually about "drugs" at all. Instead, the drug war has long been centered on policing the boundaries between the licit and illicit and exercising increasingly international systems of control, whether that applies to people and their behavior, substances and their use, or the actions that governments and corporations take to preserve their grasp on profit and power. Her intensive research into the post-war activities of groups like the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the American Pharmaceutical Association show how controlling licit and illicit drugs was instrumental in developing the role of American hegemonic imperial power that developed in the years after World War II.

Reiss focuses on the period between 1945 and the rise of the "modern drug culture" of the early 1960s, an era that many drug historians have, for too long, considered somewhat devoid of interest. As Reiss notes, we have assumed that this was a period during which international trafficking routes quieted in the wake of a bloody war, and a two-decade calm before the rise of the "modern" drug crisis storm. We Sell Drugs turns this argument on its head, asserting instead that it was precisely during this period that the United States cemented its place at the top of an international system of drug control. Working in conjunction with the pharmaceutical industry, the US government used control over raw coca and cocaine to bolster imperial power, delineate "addicts" from recreational users, and bring American soft power to consumers across the globe through the power of vaccines and Coca-Cola.

The choice to follow coca is one of Reiss's greatest strengths, since during this period the drug increasingly straddled the line between licit and illicit, medicinal and recreational. …

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