The long shadow line: History and the war on drugs


Charles C Mann
The Independent

October 10, 2011

It is fair to say that the global drug war began 400 years ago this autumn, when a man named John Rolfe obtained tobacco seeds from the Caribbean.

Rolfe was a colonist in Jamestown, Virginia, the first successful English settlement in the Americas. Most people know him today, if they know him at all, as the man who married Pocahontas, the “Indian princess” in countless romantic stories. A few history buffs understand that by taking tobacco to Jamestown, Rolfe launched the Virginia tobacco market – the primary force behind Jamestown’s eventual success. That success hints at a third, still more important role: inadvertently, Rolfe’s tobacco set the template for today’s £200bn trade in illegal drugs.

Tobacco rose and fell and rose and fell in a 400-year smoking spree that established a pattern for the trade in all addictive substances. Beginning with tobacco, governments have sought to ban drugs as soon as they arrive, invariably invoking their destructive effects on family and nation. Without exception, the bans have produced waves of criminality and the criminals have become threats to political stability in the areas in which they operate (the Caribbean in the 17th century, northern Mexico in our own time). Governments waffle between turning blind eyes to the criminals and fighting them bloodily. The ultimate ends of this process – legalisation, social stigma, and, most direly, unfashionability – suggest what will happen to the global market for marijuana and heroin.

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