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Killer High: Examining The Centuries-Old Relationship Between Drugs And War

Cup of black coffee.
Creative Commons

Warfare has been part of human existence since the beginning — and so have mind-altering substances. Drugs have funded wars, fueled soldiers on the battlefield, helped to expand and establish nationstates and more.

Peter Andreas examines how caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, opium, cocaine and amphetamines have shaped and been shaped by wars over human history in his new book “Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs” (Oxford University Press/2020). Andreas is a professor of political science and international studies at Brown University. He joins host Frank Stasio to share how strife has shaped drug preferences and policies.

It's hard to not tell the history of the U.S. Colonial period, late Colonial period, the Revolution, the New Republic [or] Westward Expansion without bringing in drugs such as rum, tobacco, tea, but then later coffee. - Peter Andreas

He also answers questions such as: Why do Americans generally prefer coffee over tea and whiskey over rum? Why is Afghanistan the top global supplier of opium? Andreas will be on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh for a lecture and book signing on Wednesday, Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m.

Interview Highlights

On the role of tobacco in the early history of the United States:

Tobacco, to be perfectly honest, funded the American Revolution. We talk about conflict commodities [and] we think about cocaine and Colombia, or opium in Afghanistan. But tobacco is the funder of the American Revolution. The French were able to give us a loan because of tobacco, and the British were so upset about it that they would burn down tobacco fields as they chased Colonial rebels.

The relationship between cigarettes and war:

The cigarette first gained serious popularity on the battlefield in the American Civil War. But it really wasn't until the full industrialization of cigarette production … that it really became globalized. And it wasn't until really the 20th century — World War I and then World War II — where cigarettes as part of the soldier ration was the most valued commodity in soldier rations. And the globalization of tobacco smoking in general — but cigarette smoking in particular — is intimately tied to warfare.

The term liquid courage is based on the idea that alcohol can get you ready for battle. - Peter Andreas

On the evolution of the war on drugs:

We've gone from a war against drugs, which was a metaphor in the Nixon era, to actually an outright drug war. What I mean by that is on both sides we’re using military personnel, equipment, technologies and so on. Drug traffickers in Mexico [are] essentially private armies that are militarily trained — a lot of them are defectors. Los Zetas was actually a special forces unit that was partly trained by the US as an anti-drug force. And they've been the most ruthless drug trafficking organization in Mexico until recent years. The Mexican military is now essentially an anti-drug fighting force. They've been sent to the front lines of the war on drugs. The police are still very much involved. Mexico's created a national guard that's supposed to help deal with issues of organized crime. But the military is basically now playing a policing role.


Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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