Featured Documentaries

Drug Trafficking, Politics and Power: The Era of Empires

From colonial China’s opium wars to Cold War US politics, we trace the rise of the global drug trade and its political backers.

Opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine – behind these infamous drug names lies a complex story of colonial power, wealth accumulation and power politics dating from the 1790s to 1970s.

At the turn of the 19th century, colonial powers in Asia actively encouraged opium use and promoted its spread throughout the region. Meanwhile, the Western pharmaceutical industry developed other miraculous products, used for medicine at first: morphine and later cocaine and heroin.

Addiction became a global scourge and prohibition gradually became the norm. But outlawing these substances created yet another problem – the rise of the first drug trafficking networks, which often sought to operate under state protection.

These networks underwent unprecedented growth, spreading across the world into the 20th century.

Tracing this story throughout the world wars and into the Cold War, when United States secret services used the drug trade as a political instrument, this first episode of a three-part series looks at the rise of the global drug trade over two centuries and its powerful political backers.