Drug prohibition

Ever wondered how the United States came to have a policy that supports international prohibition of narcotics? In Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire, (Princeton, 2010), I locate the development of U.S. drug policy in the context of the emergence and consolidation of American formal colonialism after 1898, specifically in the Philippines. Opium prohibition as part of American policy was a transnational story in which American and British missionaries and moral reformers lobbied for policies that would relieve China and the region of the burden of this debilitating addictive drug, as missionaries saw it. The U.S. policy-makers in the Philippines proposed to adopt (largely from Spanish precedent) the regulation of the opium trade as a means of financing the new American government in the Philippines (the Philippine Commission) and coming to terms with what administrators saw as the very different conditions of morality and social customs in the “Orient.” But the pressure of the network of missionaries and moral reformers in 1903 was such that formal prohibition of the availability of opium in the Philippines was introduced from 1908. U.S. policy makers saw the prohibition of the opium trade as a way of aligning US policy with the forces for reform and regeneration of China, as promoted by indigenous Chinese reformers and by the transnational missionary coalition. Opposition to opium not only in Philippines but in East Asia generally would align the United States with the interests of change, nationalism and modernity, enabling the United States to assume a moral hegemony over the European powers, particularly the British, and to begin to move consideration of opium from one in which geopolitics was key to one in which a cooperative international order would prevail. This was the architecture of anti-opium policy by 1914, bequeathed in the 1920s to a wider international campaign.

For more, see chapter 7. “Opium and the fashioning of the American moral empire” in
Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010).

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