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Narcos: A Global History of the Drug Trade (HI3T6)

Module convenor: Benjamin Smith

Nowadays drugs are rarely out of the news. New synthetic narcotics like fentanyl have decimated America’s addict population, killing over 100,000 people per year. To the south, the war on drugs has wrought equal damage. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced the war on drugs in 2006, there have been over 360,000 drug related murders and 110,000 disappeared.

Yet the illicit trade, particularly of drugs, has affected our societies and economies for centuries. It is almost as old as humankind. In fact, in the biblical account of our origins, our plight began with the illegal traffic of apples.

In this course we examine the effects of narcotics and their prohibition over the past two centuries. We start with the tale of the world’s first cartel, the British East India Company which flogged opium to the Chinese in return to access to silks and ceramics. We move through the experimental era of the late nineteenth century when doctors, pharmacists, artists and quacks were snorting, injecting and debating the effects of a plethora of new pharmaceutical drugs, like cocaine and heroin. And we will focus on the twentieth century, when U.S. policies wove together with other national prejudices to create the modern prohibition regime. We will also look at the effects on addiction, on prison populations, and on the creation of complex organized crime groups.

Some of the questions we ask will be country-specific. Why, for example, did post-war Japan have a methamphetamine addict population of 1.5 million and a incarceration rate of drug addicts higher than the modern United States? Why has Mexico become the central site for America’s natural and synthetic drug production? And why did the United Kingdom forge such an original and comparatively open drug policy in the immediate post-war era? But other questions will cross countries and time periods. What drives addiction? Why do some drugs sell while others don’t? Why do some countries take drug prohibition seriously, while other adopt a much more relaxed pose?

Beyond these drug-specific questions, we will also examine the links between narcotics and broader political phenomena including empire, war, organized crime, government covert ops, globalization, and corporate capitalism.

Drugs were not only there at the beginning of the world; they still shape it today.

Learning outcomes

  • Subject knowledge: Students should come away with a clear knowledge of the role of narcotics in the creation of the modern world.
  • Subject knowledge: Students should get a broader understanding of the kind of interdisciplinary history which interacts with history of medicine, international relations, criminology and economics.
  • Key Skills: Students should come away with better written and oral communication skills.
  • Cognitive Skills: Students should improve their critical analysis, and their ability to parse complex contemporary issues.
  • Subject knowledge: Students should gain a greater understanding of the relationship between international norms and national cultures.


For each seminar you will be expected to do at least two of the three core readings. I will also select one person every week to read a little beyond the core readings so we can have a broader discussion. Obviously you are welcome to choose which week you want to “read further”. Hopefully it can overlap with one of your essay or exam topics.



Students will be evaluated as follows:


1 1500 word essay (10%) (First term)

1 3000 word essay (40%) (Second Term)

Take home (for a week) two question exam paper (40%) (Third Term) OR policy paper. Instruction on how to write a policy paper will be given in late term 2, early term 3.

Class participation (10%) (Taken over the two terms)


In general terms I would expect that the 1500 word essay would use the Core Reading plus a couple of other additional readings. The 3000 word essay should use 3 or 4 extra readings... or more.

The exam will take place during summer term on a date that will be scheduled closer to the time

General information about assessed work including deadline dates and submission information can be found on the department webpages.

Regulation on visiting students, extensions, late penalties etc, can be found here

Suggested Questions

Why did the Chinese suffer an "opium epidemic" during the nineteenth century?

How did the British view the opium trade in the nineteenth century?

How did European and American medical views of opiates change during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Has race or class played the predominant role in shaping attitudes to narcotics? Answer with regards to the UK, France, the United States or Mexico.

What were the causes of the global crackdown on narcotics in the early twentieth century?

How did Latin American elites view narcotics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

How did the Japanese view narcotics mid-twentieth century?

What were the connections between Cold War secret services and the narcotics trade?

How did the counterculture change attitudes to drugs?

Why has the US government fought drug addiction with mass incarceration?

Explain the rise of the Colombian drug trade?

How did the drug trade affect Colombia's social and political relations?

Why has the war on drugs in Mexico become so violent?

What tactics did US companies use to persuade the FDA to accept prescription opiates?

How have different forms of legalisation affected regional narcotics trade?


Some students choose to do their dissertation based on this module. Over the years, they have chosen to do a variety of subjects, including, but not limited to, those discussed during the course. At the same time, they have also used a variety of approaches, drawing from anthropology, political science, international relations, sociology and media studies.

Though this is an advanced option, dissertations are expected to have some level of primary source input.

Some useful primary sources include:

Mexico-United States Counternarcotics Policy, 1969-2013 (online in library)

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

The Sixties: Primary Documents and Personal Narratives, 1960 to 1974

Hemeroteca Nacional Digital de México

The Washington Post (Large collection of U.S. newspapers)

Anyone's Child, Mexico

Trans-border Freedom of Expression Project and Borderland Beat (Translated Mexican and Latin American newspaper articles)

Proceso, Leading Mexican current affairs magazine

MIDAS, Mexican Intelligence Digital Archives (online collection of Mexican secret service documents)

California Digital Newspaper Collection Online database of all US criminal trials since 2000.



Basic Reading Materials

General Books:

Paul Gootenburg, The Oxford Handbook of Global Drug History (OHGDH)

David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World

Russell Crandall, Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs (DandT)


Week 1: Introduction to Course


Week 2: Drugs, an Introduction

What are drugs?

Why do we take them?

Why do we prohibit them?


Read one of:

Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Carl Hart, Drug Use for Grown Ups

Carl Fisher, The urge: our history of addiction


Week 3: China and Drugs

What were Chinese attitudes to smoking opium?

How did these change over time?

What were the connections between class and smoking opium?

Core Reading

Yangwen Zheng,” A Cultural Biography of Opium in China” in OHGDH

Frank Dikkoter, Narcotic culture: a history of drugs in China, Part 1, Part 2


Additional Reading

Yangwen Zheng, The Social Life of Opium in China

Virgil Ho, Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period, Chapter 3 on Opium Smoking.

Keith McMahon, The Fall of the God of Money: Opium Smoking in Nineteenth-Century China

Week 4: The First Cartel and the First Drug War

Why did Great Britain get involved in the opium business?

How did China respond?

How did British merchants precipitate the opium war?

Core Reading

Julia Lovell, The Opium War, pp. 39-68

Peter Andreas, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, Chapter 4

Song-Chuan Chen, Chen, Song-Chuan (2012). “An Information War Waged by Merchants and Missionaries at Canton: The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in China, 1834-1839,” Modern Asian Studies, 46:6 (October 2012), 1705-35

Additional Reading

BBC Radio 4: In Our Time: The Opium Wars

Song-Chuan Chen, Merchants of war and peace: British knowledge of China in the making of the Opium War

Glenn Melancon, Britain's China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence and National Honour, 1833-1840

Michael Greenberg, British trade and the opening of China, 1800-42

Julia Lovell, The Opium War

Peter Ward Fay, The Opium War

James Polachek, The Inner Opium War

Timothy Brook (ed), Opium regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952, Chapter 1 and Chapter 3

Hans Derks, History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, Ca. 1600-1950, Part 2, pp. 33-131

Peter Thilly, The Opium Business: A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China, Chapters 1-3

Carl A. Trocki . Opium, Empire, and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade 1750-1950. New York: Routledge, 1999.


Week 5: Drugs in Nineteenth Century Europe and the US

How did attitudes to drugs change in Europe and the United States during the late nineteenth century?

How did the invention of new pharmaceutical drugs like heroin and cocaine affect attitudes?


Core Reading

Sara Black, “French Drug Control from Poisons to Degeneration” in OHGDH

Timothy Hickman, “Dangerous Drugs: From Habit to Addiction” in OHGDH

Virginia Berridge, Demons: our changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, Chapter 2


Additional Reading

Robert Stephens, “Germany’s Role in the Modern Drug Economy” in OHGDH

Sara Black, Psychotropic Society: The medical and cultural history of drugs in France, 1840-1920

Howard Padwa, Social poison: the culture and politics of opiate control in Britain and France, 1821-1926

Joseph Spillane, Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the US, 1884-1920, Chapter 2 and 5

David T. Courtwright, Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction In America Before 1940.


Week 6: Reading Week


Week 7: Drugs in Nineteenth Century Latin America

How did Mexico view the smoking of marijuana?

How did the United States view marijuana? Why?


Core Reading

Isaac Campos, “The Making of Pariah Drugs in Latin America” in OHGDH

Isaac Campos, “Mexicans and the Origins of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States: A Reassessment”, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, vol. 32, (2018)

Paul Gootenberg, “A Forgotten Case of ‘Scientific Excellence on the Periphery’: The Nationalist Cocaine Science of Alfredo Bignon, 1884-1887,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49/1, (Jan. 2007), 202-32

Additional Reading

Isaac Campos, Home Grown, Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs (UNC Press, 2012)

Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine, The Making of a Global Drug Chapter 2 and 3


Week 8: The US and Global Prohibition

What are the different reasons historians give for the US prohibiting narcotics?

Which do you find most persuasive?


Core Reading

David Bewley-Taylor, “The Creation and Impact of Global Drug Prohibition” in OHGDH

David Herzberg, “Origins and Outcomes of The US Medicine Drug Divide” in OHGDH

David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, Chapter 2 and 3


Additional Reading

William B. McAllister, “Habitual Problems: The United States and International Drug Control,” in Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice, ed. Jonathon Erlen and Joseph F. Spillane (New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 2004)

William McAllister, Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century

J. Pliley, Global anti-vice activism, 1890-1950: fighting drinks, drugs, and "immorality", Introduction

James Mills, Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008, Chapter 3

David Herzberg, White Market Drugs

Richard Friman, NarcoDiplomacy: exporting the U.S. war on drugs

David Bewley-Taylor, The United States and international drug control, 1909-1997

Russell Crandall, DandT, Chapter 7


Week 9: Interwar Drug Cultures

Why did the UK have such a distinct attitude to narcotics in the interwar years?

Why did it change?

Core Reading

Joseph Spillane, “The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900–1940” Journal of Social History, Volume 32, Issue 1, Fall 1998, Pages 27–47

Christopher Hallam, “Interwar Drug Scenes and Restrictive regulation in Britain” in OHGDH

Brian Martin, The Shanghai Green Gang: politics and organized crime, 1919-1937, Chapter 2

Additional Reading

Brian Martin, The Shanghai Green Gang: politics and organized crime, 1919-1937

Christopher Hallam, White drug cultures and regulation in London, 1916-1960

Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream, Chapter 4

Benjamin T. Smith and Wil Pansters, “Highs and Lows: Drug Trafficking in Baja California, 1930-1960” in Smith and Pansters, Histories of Drug Trafficking in Twentieth-Century Mexico

Week 10: WWII and Narcotics

How did WWII change patterns of drug taking?

How plausible do you think Ohler’s Blitzed is?


Core Reading

Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, Drugs, Nation and Empire in Japan, 1890-1950s in OHGDH

Norman Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, Chapter Sieg High! And Review of book by Richard J. Evans

Peter Andreas, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, Chapter 5


Additional Reading

Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, Moral nation: modern Japan and narcotics in global history

Peter Thilly, The Opium Business: A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China, Chapter 6

Russell Crandall, DandT, Chapter 8


Term 2


Week 1: The Counterculture

How did the counterculture change attitudes to drugs?

Why did counterculture youths associate rebellion with drug taking?


Core Reading

David Farber, “The Intoxicated/Illegal Nation: Drugs in the Sixties Counterculture.” In Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, edited by Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle, 17–40. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Benjamin T. Smith., The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Chapter 13.

Erika Dyck, Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from clinic to campus, Chapters 4 and 5


Additional Reading

Martin A Lee and Cruce Shlain, Acid Dreams, The Complete Social History of LSD, Chapter 3 Chapter 6

Stephen Siff, Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience

David Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, Chapter 11

James Swartz, Substance Abuse in America: A Documentary and Reference Guide, 109-118, 149-62

Elcock, Chris. “From Acid Revolution to Entheogenic Evolution: Psychedelic Philosophy in the Sixties and Beyond.” Journal of American Culture 36, no. 4 (2013): 296–311.

Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana, Martin A. Lee, Chapter 3 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

William Novak, High Culture, Marijuana in the Lives of Americans, 1980

Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream,

D Lattin, The Harvard Psychadelic Club, How Timothy Leary... Killed the Fifties

Peter McGuire and Mike Ritter, Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade

Nicholas Schou Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World

Erika Dyck, Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus,

Thomas Miller, The Hippies and American Values

Peter Braunstein, Michael William Doyle, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960's and 70's

Heads and Freaks: Patterns and Meanings of Drug Use Among Hippies, Fred Davis, Laura Munoz, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 9, No. 2, Special Issue on Recreational Drug Use (Jun., 1968), pp. 156-164


Week 2: Covert Netherworlds

What are the links between drugs and the state?

Should we define these links as “corruption”? Or are they part of state-building?


Core Reading

Alfred McCoy, “Covert Netherworld: An Invisible Interstice in the Modern World System” in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 58, No. 4 (OCTOBER 2016), pp. 847-879

Alfred C. McCoy, Searching for Significance among Drug Lords and Death Squads: The Covert Netherworld as Invisible Incubator for Illicit Commerce, Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 1.1

Benjamin T. Smith and Tom Long, “Arbiters of Impunity, Agents of Coercion, Drugs, the State in Twentieth century Mexico”, Past and Present 2023.


Additional Reading

Richard Michael Gibson and Wen H. Chen, The secret army: Chiang Kai-Shek and the drug warlords of the golden triangle

Alfred McCoy, The politics of heroin: CIA complicity in the global drug trade,

Kathryn Meyer, Webs of smoke: smugglers, warlords, spies, and the history of the international drug trade

Alfred C. McCoy, Searching for Significance among Drug Lords and Death Squads: The Covert Netherworld as Invisible Incubator for Illicit Commerce, Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 1.1

Alfred McCoy, Lord of drug lords: One life as lesson for US drug policy. Crime, Law and Social Change 30, 301–331 (1998)

R and S Bartley, Eclipse of the Assassins: he CIA, Imperial Politics, and the Slaying of Mexican Journalist Manuel Buendía

Private Network (Netflix Documentary)

Nick Shou, Kill the Messenger


Week 3: Crack

Why was crack treated differently from other street drugs?

Why did it become such an epidemic?


Core Reading

David Farber, Crack: rock cocaine, street capitalism, and the decade of greed, pp. 1-128

S. Levitt and S. Dubner, “Why do drug dealers still live with their mothers?” in Freakonomics


Additional Reading

Philippe Bourgeois, In Search of Respect, Selling Crack in El Barrio,

Donovan Ramsey, When Crack Was King, A People's History of a Misunderstood Era

Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy (Netflix Documentary)


Week 4: Mass Incarceration

Explain the reasons for mass incarceration?

What effects has mass incarceration had on U.S. society?

What are the links between capitalism and mass incarceration?


Core Reading

Samuel K Roberts, “The Impact of the US Drug War on People of Color” in OHGDH

Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703–34

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, 97-139


Additional Reading

Travis A. Deseran and James D. Orcutt, “The Deconstruction of a Drug Crisis: Media Coverage of Drug Issues During the 1996 Presidential Campaign,” Journal of Drug Issues 39, no. 4 (2009): 871–91.

Elizabeth Kai Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016)

Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn (eds), The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (Washington, 2014),


Journal of American History, June 2015 Special on Carceral State particularly articles by Elizabeth Hinton, Kali Nicole Gross

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California By Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America

Sasha Abramsky, American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment

Films: The House I Live in, The 13th Amendment

Podcasts: The History of Mass Incarceration in the US



Week 5 The Colombian Cartels

What are cartels? Is this a useful term?

Why did Medellin become a center of cocaine production? How did the cocaine industry change social relations in Medellin?


Core Reading

Michael Kenney, “The Architecture of Drug Trafficking: Networks Forms of Organization in the Colombian Cocaine Trade.” Global Crime 8, no. 3 (2007): 233–59.

Russell Crandall, DandT, Chapter 13

Mary Roldan, "Colombia: Cocaine and the Miracle of Modernity in Medellin: in Gootenberg (ed.), Cocaine: Global Histories


Additional Reading

Ron Chepesiuk, Drug Lords, The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel, The World’s Richest Crime Syndicate,

Robin Kirk, More terrible than death: massacres, drugs, and America's war in Colombia

Guy Gugliotta, Kings of cocaine: inside the Medellín cartel, an astonishing true story of murder, money, and international corruption

Simon Strong, Whitewash

Forrest Hylton, Evil Hour in Colombia, Chapter 6 and 7


Week 6 Reading week


Week 7: The Mexican Drug War

Why did the Mexican drug war become so violent?

What is the relationship between the state and organized crime in Mexico?


Core Reading

Russell Crandall, DandT, Chapter 18

Benjamin T. Smith, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Chapters 21 and Chapter 22

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley, Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large-Scale Violence, Comparative Political Studies



Additional Reading

Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide (Cornell, 2009) Chapters 3 and 4

Benjamin Lessing, Making Peace in Drugs Wars, Chapters 1 and 7

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley, Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large-Scale Violence, Comparative Political Studies

Angélica Durán-Martínez, The politics of drug violence: criminals, cops and politicians in Colombia and Mexico Chapters 5 and 6

Tony Payan, Cops, soldiers, and diplomats: explaining agency behavior in the war on drugs

Tony Payan, Three Border Wars

Beatriz Magaloni, Luis Rodríguez, "Torture as a Method of Criminal Prosecution: Democratization, Criminal Justice Reform, and the Mexican Drug War" 

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley, Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico

Ioan Grillo, El Narco : the bloody rise of Mexican drug cartels


Week 8: Drugs and Capitalism

Why did pharmaceutical companies start to mass market opiates in the late 1990s?

Why were they allowed to?

What effects has this had on U.S. society?


Core Reading

Patrick Radden Keefe, The Family that Built an Empire of Pain, New Yorker, 2017

Kathleen Frydl, The Pharma Cartel in David Farber, The War on Drugs


Additional Reading

Beth Macy, Dopesick: dealers, doctors, and the drug company that addicted America

Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of pain: the secret history of the Sackler dynasty

Sam Quinones, Dreamland: the true tale of America's opiate epidemic : a young adult adaptation


Week 9: Synthetics

“Synthetics, like meth and fentanyl, have completely change the global drug market.” Discuss

What role is China playing in the production of these new synthetics?


Core Reading

Sam Quinones, The least of us: true tales of America and hope in the time of fentanyl and meth


Additional Reading

Insight Crime, The Flow of Precursor Chemicals for Synthetic Drug Production in Mexico

Romain LeCour Grandmaison, Nat Morris, Benjamin Smith, “The Last Harvest? From the US Fentanyl Boom to the Mexican Opium Crisis”, in Journal of Illicit Economies and Development


Week 10: Legalization

What are the arguments in favor of drug legalization?

What are the arguments against?

Where and why has drug legalization worked?


Core Reading

Russell Crandall, DandT, Chapter 21, 23 and 25

Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Chapter

Adeline Dixon, “Legalization of Marijuana and Its Effects on Licit and Illicit Markets in the United States” in Perspectives on Black Markets, Vol. 2. (Indiana press),


Additional Reading


David R. Bewley-Taylor, International drug control: consensus fractured