Interview with Dr. John Collins on the Origins and Evolution of the Drugs Trade in Southeast Asia

In this exciting two-part interview series, we sit down with Dr. John Collins, Executive Director of the LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, and Coordinator of the Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy, to talk about the Drugs trade in Southeast Asia. In this first part, we focus on the origins and evolution of the drugs trade in Southeast Asia. In the latter part, look out for more recent developments and insights about the drugs trade and anti-drugs policy in Southeast Asia.

What’s the origin of hardline drug laws and policies in Southeast Asia?

It’s a complicated question, because Asia has always had a difficult relationship with the drugs trade and it’s hard to clearly differentiate South East Asia and East Asia within these discussions since they were part of one regional drug economy. For example, we saw opium being used as means of financing imperial expansion by European states in the 19th – early 20th century. So in some places like China you saw early adaptation of very repressive policies in 18th century and beyond, whereas colonial powers tended towards more regulatory approach to things like opium and other drugs like that as a means to try and control the trade a little better, and to view it as something inescapable and attempts to prohibit it and repress it too much could often do more harm than good. So within the framework, in many jurisdictions, opium often became associated with colonization and colonizers and empire.

However, the reality of governance in the region also witnessed a close alliance between the illicit drugs trade and military forces. Japan in many ways relied on opium to support military expansion into China. Both the nationalists and the communists during the Chinese civil war and the war with Japan used the trade to finance military operations while publicly condemning it. The US was clearly in some ways complicit in utilising the opium trade in Burma to fund insurgents there. And so on. These cases highlight the complexity of the issue. Nevertheless, with the onset of decolonization in Southeast Asia opium was viewed as a remnant of the colonial past and therefore needing to be expunged. That public perception often drove towards hardline policies. Alongside that, meanwhile, was the continued existence of illicit markets, or grey area trades, or an informal monopoly system, or an informal supply system in an entirely black market system. Alongside these myriad regulatory structures were oscillating state attempts to restrict and eradicate the trade, often resulting in repressive policies.

So what was the impact of China’s opium policy in South East Asia?

Well it’s very complicated historical narrative, because China was an “epicentre” of the opium consumption and opium trade in South East Asia. Popular perception is that British India fuelled Chinese consumption during the 19th century through oversupply. Now there is some historical debate around whether that is a complete rendering of the history but there was definitely increase in consumption in China. Then what you saw, particularly as the Chinese empire collapsed around the turn of the 20th century, was large migrations of labour into parts of South East Asia and beyond, even the United States and parts of Europe, which brought opium consumption patterns with them. And so it was perceived as something that accompanied Chinese migrant labour populations. On the one hand you see the Chinese state trying to enact very strict opium suppression laws but on the other hand it was the Chinese populations that were perceived as bringing their opium practices with them to other parts of South East Asia and so governments in other parts of South East Asia sought to regulate the trade to enable Chinese populations to smoke opium and to consume it, in some cases carving out racially based legal exceptions for specific ethnic groups.

What about the impact of colonial states in South East Asia at least? For example, the British did sell opium in states like Singapore – how did that pan out, and perhaps in other South East Asian states as well?

Some states moved towards outright prohibition. So the United States taking over the Philippines in the early 20th century is an example – absolute prohibition was implemented. Other powers such as Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal rejected outright prohibitions believing that when there was existing opium-consuming populations strictly regulating it was the best way forward. So many established monopoly systems, where there was state-controlled supply and licensing of the people who were allowed to consume opium. In some cases licences were capped preventing new consumers while existing users were supposed to pass on, and effectively die off, and thereby eventually regulating the trade out of existence. Now there was international pressure on the colonial powers to stop that; it was seen as immoral – it was seen as profiting from the misery of the consumer population, that it was an imperial tool and a revenue tool – and that’s not quite true. In some cases, it was, but the revenue from the trade was diminishing around that time. I think it was genuinely an attempt to regulate a very difficult and complicated trade.

How have laws and policies evolved since decolonization to the present?

What I think, from a historian’s perspective, is that when decolonization went into full throttle in the region, opium was viewed as a tool of colonisation, backwardness and oppression. It was seen as anti-nationalist, socially weakening and colonialist, and that’s where some of the origins of hard line policies came from. The evolution to the current policies seems to follow in that trajectory: that there was a state desire to move beyond these practices and in some cases that involved very hardline approaches, and that’s where I think where you saw the emergence of zero tolerance and extreme approaches in South East Asia. The normative desire to end the trade and the willingness to do whatever was required to end it.

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