When the United States first launched the “War on Drugs” in the mid-20th century, not even the cleverest conspiracy theorists could have imagined the far-reaching consequences the campaign would have around the world. From the CIA allowing drug traffickers to flourish in exchange for their assistance in toppling leftist leaders abroad to the deal made with an infamous Nazi, check out eight things you may not know about the “War on Drugs.”
1. “The Manchurian Candidate” was real.
The CIA introduced LSD into the U.S. with the intention of developing the ability to control minds (as depicted in the 1962 Cold War thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” which was based on a 1959 novel). Operation Midnight Climax, part of a mind control project (that ran for more than a decade, saw CIA-bankrolled prostitutes lure unwitting testers to a CIA safe house, where the unwitting participants would be dosed with the psychedelic drug and have their altered states observed through one-way glass.
2. CIA support of a Nazi official helped launch the South American drug trade.
Despite his brutal reign as “The Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie became a CIA asset after World War II. Like many high ranking Nazi officers, Barbie fled to South America after the war, where he became chummy with some of the most-fearful drug lords in history, including Pablo Escobar and Roberto Suárez Goméz, one of the inspirations of “Scarface.” With the complicity of the CIA, Barbie and a team of Nazi mercenaries (known as the Fiancés of Death) helped Suárez Goméz in his goal to overthrow the Bolivian government and turn it into a narco state.
3. Richard Nixon started the official “war.”
The term “War on Drugs” entered the public consciousness in 1971, when President Nixon fired one of the opening salvos. Featuring a press conference and an anti-drug message to Congress, Nixon stated that drug abuse was worse than communism, and called drugs “public enemy number one.”
4. Drugs, however, brought Elvis and Nixon together.
In an incident that became a famous photo op, singer Elvis Presley met President Nixon in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970. The crooner had asked for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (which later merged with other federal offices to become the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA). Elvis allegedly wanted the narc badge so he could bring his pharmacopoeia stash along on his travels.
5. In Sinaloa, Mexico, they worship a drug-trafficking saint.
According to legend, the late-19th century folk hero Jesús Malverde was a Robin Hood-like figure, a generous bandit who stole from the rich and shared the bounty with the poor. Malverde was said to have been caught by authorities and hung. As punishment, his body was left hanging until his bones fell to the ground. He was adopted by drug traffickers as their patron saint to help spin the mythology that drug dealers were on the side of the people–taking money from wealthy customers, and redistributing it amongst the poor.
6. One of history’s most successful traffickers got a really early start.
Joaquín Guzmán Loera, aka El Chapo, started working in the Mexican poppy fields at the age of 9. He rose to become the head of the Sinaloa cartel and the most powerful drug lord in the world. In 2012, he was #1,153 on the Forbes Billionaires list (#10 in Mexico), and the next year he ranked 67th on Forbes’ Most Powerful People list. After escaping twice, El Chapo was captured in 2016 by Mexican authorities and sentenced to life imprisonment in the U.S. in 2019.
7. The Patriot Act helped fuel the war on drugs.
The 2001 anti-terror law is more often used for drug prosecutions. With it, police can search and seize without probable cause or without your knowledge. Of the thousands of warrants issued under this act, less than one percent were for terrorism; over 75 percent were for drugs. Today, the Taliban’s largest source of funds is Afghanistan’s opium and heroin industry. The country is losing its battle against the makings of the powerful drug—less than 1 percent of its staggering opium production is currently being seized. Every year since the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, the production and monetary value of its opium crop has increased.
8. Legal “pill mills” ushered in America’s opioid crisis.
Around 2008, pain clinics dispensing synthetic opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and OxyContin began to pop up across the country. The American Pain Clinic, started by brothers Chris and Jeff George in South Florida, quickly became the nation’s largest pill mill (as they were known). These “doc in a box” sites, where doctor-patient consultations could last mere minutes, had lines around the block, and by 2009, nine out of 10 of their patients were from out of state. The stretch of I-75 leading from Kentucky and Tennessee to South Florida became known as “Oxy Alley.”