©Peter Brush

Note: This article appeared in Vietnam magazine, Vol.15, No. 4, December 2002. 

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In 1898 the United States acquired control of the Philippines. The following year it began a brutal fight to suppress a guerrilla uprising. It is basic to guerrilla war that combatants will be mingled with the civilian population. Social behaviors flow one to the other. Soon after their arrival American soldiers learned to smoke opium. This practice became sufficiently common that U.S. Opium Commissioner Hamilton Wright felt compelled to deny it, claiming in a report to the 1909 Shanghai Opium Commission that "among the personnel of our Army and Navy [in the Philippines] there is not the slightest evidence that the use of opium or its derivatives has been introduced...."[1]

           In reality, the drug habit among U.S. military personnel was "alarmingly increasing," so much so that its occurrence was an agenda item at the 1903 meeting of the American Pharmaceutical Association. There the Report of the Committee on Acquirement of Drug Habits noted that soldiers acquired the practice from Chinese and native Filipinos and that a number of enlisted men had been discharged for being habitual drug users. The discharge rate was several hundred percent higher during the previous five years than for any ten years before that. [2] The history of drug use among U.S. military personnel is not limited to the Philippines insurrection. The next time American soldiers fought to suppress guerrillas, in Vietnam, the use of drugs by American soldiers reached epidemic proportions.

  Although marijuana is legally considered a drug according to the federal Controlled Substances Act, its use was treated differently from other drugs by American commanders and military lawyers in Vietnam. [3] This distinction will be maintained here; use of marijuana will be related separately from use of other drugs.

           Marijuana was present in Vietnam before the arrival of the  Americans. Drug laws were not well defined and their enforcement had little priority in the Vietnamese criminal justice system. There was no central Vietnamese drug enforcement agency and no government control over marijuana. A survey made in 1966 by the U.S. military command in the Saigon area showed there were 29 fixed outlets for the purchase of marijuana. [4]

                A comparison has been made between Vietnamese use of marijuana and the manner in which the French treat wine and sex: there are cultural regulations for use, sale, and protocol but no inherent sense of "illicitness" as in the United States. [5] Journalist Richard Boyle mentions its use by South Vietnamese soldiers. He even relates an incident where he smoked marijuana with the South Vietnamese consul in Cambodia. Craven "A" and Park Lane were the popular brands of grass available in Saigon. It was sold in the form of pre-rolled cigarettes in genuine Craven "A" and Park Lane packages.

                 Former North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier Bao Ninh reports that smoking a marijuana-like substance became so pervasive that use spread throughout his entire regiment. [6] American soldiers note that the Vietnamese used marijuana openly. One saw it growing wild in Central Vietnam. Another discovered a sizeable quantity in the knapsack of a dead NVA soldier at Khe Sanh. [7]

              Soldiers began using marijuana in Vietnam as early as 1963, during the advisory period, and before its use became widespread in the United States. Its popularity grew steadily. [8] In 1967 a Congressional investigation discovered 16 instances of marijuana use inside the Marine brig at Da Nang. The source was Vietnamese who gave it to prisoners on working parties, often throwing it into passing vehicles in which prisoners were riding.

             Inmates not eligible for working parties did not necessarily have to go without marijuana. Marine lawyer Captain Robert W. Wachsmuth described how:  

Members of working parties would obtain marijuana seeds [which were] planted in rows of dirt above the shower stalls which were opened to the outside by the gap between the tin roof and the wall....Spray from the prisoners' showers would water the plants. When the plants reached a sufficient size, plastic...would be placed between the shower spray and the plant, causing the plant to die. The plants would then be crushed and rolled in toilet paper to make joints.[9]

 Other Marines found easy access from street vendors as their vehicles passed through urban areas.

           For most of the Vietnam War, prosecution for even a slight trace of marijuana was a court-martial offense for Marines. The lack of a crime laboratory in Vietnam before 1968 was a major handicap to efforts to punish marijuana offenders. Drug samples were sent to Japan for testing, a process that took 45 days to complete. That same year marijuana detecting dogs were pressed into service to search for marijuana among Marines returning to Vietnam from R&R trips abroad. [10]

             While the Marines were subjecting all marijuana offenders to courts-martial, the Army took only dealers and users of hard drugs to trial. The more severe Marine approach was a failure: in 1969, nearly half the cases tried by the Marine Corps in Vietnam involved marijuana possession. Marijuana use was no longer confined to rear area units. A drug rehabilitation center was established at Cua Viet for drug users from infantry battalions. A senior Marine legal officer admitted the helplessness in stemming the tide of marijuana use: "I don't know what the solution is....I don't know what the hell we are going to do." [11]

             Before 1968, marijuana use among soldiers was largely ignored by the Army. Newspaper stories describing its widespread use helped publicize this situation, inclining Army officials to label it as a problem. Their solution was a comprehensive program to eradicate its use. Armed Forces radio and television proclaimed the dangers of marijuana consumption. Drug education lectures became mandatory. Troop quarters and secluded fields were searched for marijuana. Soldiers were warned by chaplains, physicians, and legal officers that marijuana use could cause not only physiological damage and lead to psychosis, but also result in injury to men dependent on them. Arrests for marijuana possession reached as many as 1,000 in a single week.

           Marijuana use was fairly easy to detect: it is a bulky commodity and emits a distinct odor when smoked. Consequently, the Army was able to wage a vigorous suppression campaign. In 1968, responding to U.S. pressure, the Vietnamese government publicly condemned the sale and use of marijuana. Province chiefs were ordered to forbid its cultivation. Aircraft were used to locate marijuana fields and South Vietnamese troops were sent into the field to destroy crops. U.S. Army Press releases claimed the drug problem was being brought under control. Eventually the anti-marijuana campaign by the Army was relaxed, although use remained high among enlisted personnel and junior officers. [12]

             In fact, marijuana use was mostly a problem because it conflicted with American civilian and military values. Use of marijuana did not constitute an operational problem. Smoking in rear areas did not impact operations. Use among combat personnel came when units stood down rather when in the field. The Commanding General of the 3d Marine Division noted "there is no drug problem out in the hinterlands, because there was a self-policing by the troops themselves." Life for combat soldiers depended on their being clear-headed. [13]

             Army Major Joel Kaplan of the 98th Medical Detachment realistically appraised the use of marijuana. While noting that marijuana was used at high rates, alcohol consumption among career military personnel was a larger problem. "I think alcohol is a much more dangerous drug than marijuana." [14] One Air Force officer understood well  the difference: "When you get up there in those early hours, you want the klunk you're flying with to be able to snap to. He's a lot more likely to be fresh if he smoked grass the night before than if he was juiced." A much larger problem was on the horizon for American military commanders in Vietnam. When heroin use became  commonplace, one Army commanding officer rationally described the implications of marijuana use. "If it would get them to give up the hard stuff, I would buy all the marijuana and hashish in the Delta as a present." [15]

              Soldiers in Vietnam smoked marijuana and took other drugs who would not do so at home. A soldier's friends become extremely important; new soldiers adhere to behavior of members of their group. Marine commander Major Ives W. Neely claimed "at least 70 to 80 percent" use within his company. Marines would catch a new man as he reported into the unit, instructing him that if he was going to buy marijuana he would buy it from them. If anyone told, turned in any of their names, "there were ways to do these people in." [16]

             When young men, many still teenagers, are in a strange land and surrounded by  enemies (real and potential), they do not have to be cajoled into assuming the habits of  their new friends who proceeded them to Vietnam. One former Marine related his first experience with marijuana in the form of hashish. He was with a small group guarding the Hai Van Pass, certainly one of the most beautiful places in Asia in terms of physical geography. Fresh water flowed in a pipe on a hill near an oil refinery and emptied into the South China Sea. Vietnamese fishermen would come ashore while the Marines bathed in the pipeline outflow. For ten piasters (about ten cents), the Marines could buy French bread, hashish, and fresh lobsters from the Vietnamese. The Marines smoked the hashish in a pipe fashioned out of a M-14 shell casing. With their appetites stimulated from the hashish, they ate the bread. The lobsters were flash-fried in a helmet. Cooking fuel was provided by plastic explosives (C-4), which burns vigorously when ignited. This practice was a common one for the platoon guarding the oil refinery at the Hai Van Pass in 1965. [17] It was a practice that would prove impossible to eradicate.

              Other drugs were available to U.S. forces. In 1967 opium cost $1.00 while morphine went for $5.00 per vial. Tablets of Binoctal, an addictive drug consisting of Amytal and Seconal, were available in tablet form from Vietnamese children at from $1.00 to $5.00 for twenty tablets. Although technically a prescription drug, Binoctal was available over the counter at almost any Vietnamese pharmacy for about eight piasters for twenty tablets. Twenty tablets, consumed at once, was a fatal dose. One soldier had died from Binoctal use, and three near-fatalities had been reported. "O.J.'s" were opium joints. After 1970 the name was often a misnomer, since heroin was widely available to U.S. forces. A tobacco cigarette was rolled between the finger and thumb to loosen the tobacco. The cigarette was partially emptied. A vial containing 250 milligrams of 94 to 96 percent pure heroin was poured into the cigarette, which was smoked. [18] Widespread heroin use would dwarf previous drug problems among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. It was the attempt of the U.S. military command to suppress the use of marijuana that caused to the switch to heroin. [19]

              Chinese immigrants to Vietnam in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought their opium smoking habit with them. Initially the emperors of Vietnam welcomed these Chinese for their entreprenuerial skills. Over time opium addiction appeared among the Vietnamese. In the 1830s Britain exported opium from India to China in large quantities. Opium smokers in Vietnam paid for their opium in silver, causing a drain of specie and inflation in Vietnam. The Vietnamese court strongly opposed opium smoking on both moral and economic grounds, and opium was outlawed soon after it appeared.

             The French fought their way into Vietnam about the time of the U.S. Civil War. In order to pay an indemnity to the French, the emperor established an opium franchise in the northern region. Opium became a lucrative source of income for French colonial administrators. A modern opium refinery was constructed in Saigon. Opium dens and shops were opened to meet consumer demand. By 1918 there were 1,512 dens and 3,098 retail opium shops in French Indochina and the opium business was booming. [20]

              By the beginning of World War II Indochina had over 100,000 opium addicts. By now the opium source was Iran and Turkey and imports totaled about 60 tons annually. During the war the British blockaded shipping to Indochina, forcing the French to expand opium production in Laos and Vietnam to avert a fiscal crisis. Indochinese opium production increased from 7.5 tons in 1940 to over 60 tons in 1944. By the late 1950s the region was self-sufficient in opium production. By 1969 the Golden Triangle (the opium producing regions of Laos, Thailand, and Burma) was harvesting 1,000 tons of raw opium annually.

             In late 1969 and early 1970, Golden Triangle laboratories instituted a more sophisticated opium refinement process, allowing them to produce high-grade (80 to 99 percent pure) no. 4 heroin. A CIA report said the adoption of this new production technique seemed to be due to the large market in South Vietnam. Previously heroin had been unavailable in South Vietnam. Now teenagers sold it to American soldiers on the highways; street dealers gave it to GIs as they walked through Saigon, and maids sold it to military personnel while cleaning their living quarters. In 1970 there were 1,146 arrests for hard drugs. The following year arrests in this category increased to 7,026. That year 1971 U.S. Army medical officers estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the lower-ranking enlisted personnel in Vietnam were heroin users. [21]

              Psychoanalyst Dr. Norman E. Zinberg, a consultant for the Department of Defense on drug abuse in Vietnam, noted that heroin use was done casually by U.S. troops. More than one-third picked up the habit during their first month in Vietnam, and probably 90 percent in their first four months. A typical heroin user in Vietnam was quite unlike the typical heroin user in the United States: the soldiers may have come from small towns in the Midwest or South. All ethnic and educational groups were represented in about equal proportion. Users existed in administrative, combat-support, and combat occupational specialties. Combat troops avoided heroin use in the field. Zinberg notes one soldier who stood down after 13 days on a long patrol. One of his first actions was to pour a vial of heroin into a large shot of vodka and drink it.

             In the U.S. heroin was injected and rarely smoked. In Vietnam, where the drug was much more pure, the opposite was the normal route of consumption. Heroin was also snorted and taken orally. These means of ingestion minimized the physical risks of injection. There were no deaths from overdose. Men used heroin to pass the time, to deal with the danger, boredom, and purposelessness of their lives. [22]

              In terms of physical geography, South Vietnam consists of a coastal plain in the east and a long mountain chain in the west in addition to the Mekong delta in the far south. The source of opium lay on the other side of the Annamite Mountains. Opium and later heroin dealers in Vietnam had to have connections in the Golden Triangle area and means of transporting the drug back into South Vietnam. In the 1950s the French provided these transportation services through their association with Laotian military irregulars. By 1965-1967 the Vietnamese Air Force under Colonel Nguyen Cao Ky shipped opium from Laos to Saigon. Professor Alfred W. McCoy speculates that the May 1970 invasion of Cambodia may have opened another route of entry into South Vietnam. Most reports give early 1970 as the beginning of large scale heroin addiction among U.S. military personnel. Before the invasion Cambodia was hostile to pro-American regimes in South Vietnam. After the invasion there were large volumes of truck, naval, and air traffic between South Vietnam and Cambodia. [23]

              Heroin was used by an estimated 15-20 percent of the GIs in the Mekong Delta under the command of Army Major General John Cushman. In mid-1971 Cushman ordered a crackdown. All troops were confined to base, guard patrols were increased, all personnel entering base areas were searched, and emergency medical clinics were established. Cushman determined these efforts were futile as long as the South Vietnamese protected drug dealers among the Vietnamese population. With drug smuggling entrenched among the Vietnamese air force, army, navy, police, customs, and politicians, the importation and sale of narcotics was too lucrative to eradicate. Further, there was an unwritten rule among U.S. embassy personnel to not implicate high-ranking Vietnamese in connection with the traffic in heroin. The CIA avoided gathering information on Vietnamese involvement. Within two weeks after its beginning Cushman's campaign fell off in intensity. [24]

              Nonmedical drug use was a serious crime for soldiers in Vietnam. The usual punishment for convicted offenders was the maximum sentence: up to ten years' confinement, dishonorable discharge from the military, and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. Alcoholics, by contrast, were given unsuitability discharges, which usually were honorable or general. That soldiers were not deterred from heroin use speaks to the special conditions they faced in Vietnam. Heroin was also available in neighboring Thailand. Even though heroin supplies there were greater than in Vietnam, heroin use among Army and Air Force personnel was less than one percent.

             The different rates of heroin use between military personnel in South Vietnam and Thailand reflected the different natures of duty in those countries. In Thailand, men got days off from work. They were free to travel among the friendly Thai population. There was no anxiety caused by danger from enemy action. Military duty was considered purposeful. By contrast, military service in Vietnam during the era of troop withdrawals was considered less meaningful. Soldiers worked seven days a week, often 12 hours per day, and felt there was little point in getting killed before the war was officially declared over. Many U.S. military personnel felt the Vietnamese tried to take every possible economic advantage of them. Soldiers were taught to not trust the civilian population; there were frequent reminders that civilians might be Viet Cong supporters. The goal of lower-ranking military personnel in Vietnam was to stay alive for one year and return home. Heroin use was a way to pass the time while thinking about leaving. [25]

              Drugs did not only affect the lower ranks. In 1970 an Air Force major was apprehended at Tan Son Nhut air base near Saigon with $8 million dollars worth of heroin in his aircraft. In 1971 a colonel was court-martialed for leading marijuana parties in his squadron. Nor were U.S. security forces immune: that year 43 military policemen at Cam Ranh Air Force Base were arrested in narcotics raids. At Pleiku, a newly arrived lieutenant was gunned down in front of his entire platoon by four Army drug dealers. The company and battalion commanders were relieved of their commands; the feeling was both should have known about the drug dealing in their command. In 1971 U.S. customs at an Army post in New Jersey seized about 15 pounds of heroin from Bangkok in a package mailed through the U.S. military postal system. In March and April 1971 248 pieces of mail containing drugs were detected by customs in the Army and Air Force postal systems. [26]

              In late 1970 heroin made its way to Marine Corps units operating in the northern part of South Vietnam. Marine Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons considered the effect of its use on Marines, saying it was  

   "impossible to quantify just how debilitating drug use may have been....In general, poor performance attracts attention which leads to revelation of drug use. But this does not 'prove' that drug use caused the poor performance nor does it give any indication of how many 'good' performers use drugs." 

Marine Major General Alan J. Armstrong was more decisive in his analysis of heroin's effects, noting that in one aviation unit at least, heroin use was an operational problem and no longer only an administrative problem.

             Military commands employed all available media to inform personnel of the moral, legal, and physical consequences of drug use. Pamphlets were created and distributed to platoon leaders. Drug education teams gave lectures. Drug abuse councils were created, traveling from unit to unit to spread the word. When education failed to stem the use of drugs, the Marine Corps relied upon punishment. When the judicial system could not court martial Marines fast enough, administrative discharges were used to get rid of offenders. The feeling of Marine Corps Commandant General Louis H. Wilson Jr. was that the Corps would go down in strength rather than allow unsuitable Marines to stay within its ranks. [27]

              Senior military leaders understood that new arrivals were being introduced to drugs by existing users among the U.S. forces in Vietnam. Ridding itself of users was chosen to "guard against further infection." Amnesty programs for users were the means to accomplish this house cleaning. The Navy selected two barracks ships moored at Nha Be (near Saigon) for the site of its rehabilitation center. Within one month 100 hundred sailors had turned themselves in for treatment. By comparison, at the same time (July 1 1971) the Army was treating 460 men while 350 airmen sought drug treatment. [28]

              Drug use was less of a problem in the Marine Corps than in the Army. Towns and villages in the Marines' area of responsibility were off limits to Marines, thereby limiting their accessibility to drugs. Marine units began withdrawing from Vietnam in 1969, with the last Marine ground unit out of the country by 1971. The Army remained in Vietnam until the end, fighting a defensive campaign to cover the U.S. withdrawal. This was when the drug problems of the Army peaked: in 1973, 34 percent of American soldiers in Vietnam had commonly used heroin. [29]

              On June 22, 1971 the Army instituted its new program to deal with drug use. Every soldier leaving Vietnam was obligated to submit to a urinalysis test that detected heroin use within the previous five days. Those with positive test results were confined to a detoxification center and not allowed to return home until they could pass the test. Coupled with mandatory testing was the amnesty program, guaranteeing every soldier the right to declare himself an addict and receive treatment. By September 22 (a period less than three months), 3,580 armed forces personnel had tested positive for heroin use.

             This program was flawed in its execution. Unit commanders began declaring anyone who failed two drug tests to be of "negligible value to the United States Army." The U.S. military command in Vietnam discharged between one thousand and two thousand heroin addicts per month. These men were flown back to the United States and discharged almost immediately. Follow-up treatment was mostly nonexistent. In August 1971 a congressional subcommittee on public health noted that Veterans Administration hospitals handled only three referrals out of 12,000 heroin-using servicemen from Vietnam. Now on their own, many of these veterans returned to communities as addicts that had always been free from heroin addiction. Two years later a White House task force survey found that one-third of those servicemen who had tested positive for heroin in Vietnam were still heroin addicts. [30]

              The market for heroin among U.S. military personnel was worth $88 million dollars to South Vietnamese drug traffickers, who viewed naively viewed heroin as solely "an American problem." [31] These profits were taken even though the Vietnamese had the most to lose from the withdrawal of American military forces. Golden Triangle heroin laboratories did not go out of business when American soldiers stepped up their withdrawal from Vietnam. In 1971 the Laotian ambassador to France was apprehended with 60 kilograms of heroin destined for the United States. Later that year a diplomat from the Philippines was arrested in New York with 15.5 kilograms of Laotian heroin. During the twenty years before 1972, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics claimed that only five percent of America's heroin came from Southeast Asia. By 1972 that figure had risen to 30 percent.

              In 1974 there were an estimated 150,000 Vietnamese heroin addicts in Saigon. The following year, with the fall of the government in the South, these addicts became the problem of the new communist regime, in a manner similar to that of American Vietnam veteran addicts in the United States.32 The United States was unable to end its heroin problem in Vietnam even by ending its participation in the war: heroin came home with us. [32]

[1] David T. Courtwright, Dark Paradise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 202n.

[2] E. G. Eberle et al., "Report of Committee on the Acquirement of Drug Habits," Proceedings of the American Pharmaceutical Association, 1903, vol. 51, p. 475.

[3] Gary D. Solis, Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by Fire, (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), 1989, p. p. 74n.

[4] George S. Prugh, Law at War: Vietnam 1964-1973, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1975, p. 106.

[5] Electronic communication from John S. Baky dated August 2, 1996. Baky was a military policeman in Vietnam.

[6] 6Richard Boyle, The flower of the Dragon, (San Francisco: Ramparts Press, 1972), p. 190, 212. Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, (New York, NY: Riverhead Books), 1996, p. 10.

[7] The author raised the issue of Vietnamese use of marijuana on the Internet Usenet Newsgroup Soc.History.War.Vietnam on August 1, 1996. The comments about open use by the Vietnamese and marijuana growing wild are in email communications to the author by American veterans who wish to remain anonymous. The report of marijuana in the knapsack of a dead NVA soldier was related to the author at the 1993 reunion of Khe Sanh veterans in Washington, D.C.

[8] Norman E. Zinberg, "G.I.'s and O.J.'s in Vietnam," New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1971, p. 120.

[9] Solis, p. 104.

[10] Solis, pp. 74-75, 104. W. Hays Parks, "Statistics Versus Actuality in Vietnam," Air University Review, vol. 32, no. 4, May-June 1981, p. 86.

[11] Solis, p. 127.

[12] Zinberg, ibid., Prugh, p. 107.

[13] Solis, p. 104.

[14] Boyle, pp. 73-74.

[15] Zinberg, ibid.

[16] Solis, pp. 126-127.

[17] Electronic mail communication dated August 5, 1996, from a Marine Vietnam veteran who wishes to remain anonymous.

[18] Solis, p. 74; Zinberg, p. 37, 114; Boyle, 69.

[19] Zinberg, p. 120.

[20] Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin, (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill), 1991, pp. 109-111.

[21] McCoy, pp. 113, 115, 222-223; Prugh, p. 107.

[22] Zinberg, p. 114, 116, 118, 122.

[23] McCoy, pp. 196-197, 225-226.

[24] McCoy, pp. 224-225, 255.

[25] Zinberg, pp. 116, 118, 122-123; Cosmas and Murray, p. 361n.

[26] Robert D. Heinl, Jr., "The Collapse of the Armed Forces,"in Marvin E. Gettleman et. al., Vietnam and America, (New York: Grove Press), 1995, p. 329; James Kittfield, Prodigal Soldiers, (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1995, p. 189, 190; McCoy, p. 259.

[27] Graham A. Cosmas and Terrence P. Murray, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1970-1971, (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), pp. 360-361; Solis, pp. 231-232.

[28] R. L. Schreadley, From the Rivers to the Sea, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), 1992, p. 368.

[29] Parks, p. 85, 86; McCoy, p. 258.

[30] McCoy, pp. 256-258; Schreadley, p. 369.

[31] McCoy, p. 224; Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, (New York: Vantage Books), 1973, p. 564.

[32] McCoy, p. 259, 260, 261.

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