Book Reviews

Book Review—WE SELL DRUGS: The Alchemy of US Empire by Suzanna Reiss (2014)

We Sell Drugs Suzanna ReissWE 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. As Reiss puts it, “The definition of a ‘drug,’ and more particularly a ‘narcotic drug’ like cocaine, was mediated by cultural politics, economic regulations, and the raw power of pharmaceutical laboratories to alchemically alter drug raw materials (coca leaves) into a variety of controlled substances (cocaine), and other products that conveniently exited the regulatory gaze (Coca-Cola)” (10). The strange history of coca reveals Reiss’s key claim: that the legality of certain substances is neither arbitrary nor necessarily based on protection of the public good. Drugs, as with many other things, exist in a world where those in power mobilize surrounding cultural phenomena to retain and increase their grasp on profit and control.

Ultimately Reiss brings drugs into conversations where they did not participate before. She shows how the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, working in conjunction with the pharmaceutical industry, “explicitly tied the health of the country and the legal drug industry to the enforcement and regulation of self-interested definitions of illegality” (218). The growing power of American imperial might meant that drugs and drug users were factored into discussions of the post-war consumer’s republic, debates over the international reputation of capitalism during the Cold War, and in determining the growing role of western superpowers in underdeveloped nations like Bolivia and Peru. What We Sell Drugs deftly exposes is how a “drug control apparatus” was just as prominent in determining the scope and shape of American imperialism as the military industrial complex or the availability of cold Coca-Cola in countries across the globe (226).

Emily Dufton (George Washington University)

This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.1 (2015) on pages 178–79 and is available via Project Muse.



2 thoughts on “Book Review—WE SELL DRUGS: The Alchemy of US Empire by Suzanna Reiss (2014)

  1. What an interesting take on it. I must say, I’m sometimes surprised by how vehemently people police drugs, but not other social problems. Will have to check this out.

    Posted by libbycole007 | July 13, 2015, 9:34 pm

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