Skip to comments.Higher and Higher: American Drug Use in Vietnam
Posted on 11/15/2002 11:40:02 AM PST by PeterPrinciple
Higher and Higher: American Drug Use in Vietnam - Page 1
Was drug use in Vietnam the cause of morale problems, or was it a symptom?
by Peter Brush for Vietnam Magazine
In 1898 the United States took 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. Under such circumstances, social behaviors flow from one to the other. Soon after their arrival in the Philippines, American soldiers learned to smoke opium. The practice became so 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...."
In reality, the drug habit among U.S. military personnel was alarmingly increasing, so much so that it 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 it had been for any 10 years before that. The history of drug use among U.S. military personnel was not limited to the Philippine 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 considered an illegal drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, it was treated differently than other drugs by American commanders and military lawyers in Vietnam. That distinction will be maintained in this article. The use of marijuana will be discussed separately from use of other drugs. Marijuana was in use in Vietnam long before the Americans arrived. Drug laws were not well defined, however, 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 showed that there were 29 fixed outlets in the Saigon area alone for the purchase of marijuana.
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. 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 prerolled cigarettes in genuine Craven A and Park Lane tobacco cigarette packages.
Former NVA soldier Bao Ninh reports that the use of a marijuanalike substance spread throughout his entire regiment. GIs noted 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.
American 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 in-country popularity grew steadily. In 1967 a congressional investigation discovered 16 instances of marijuana use inside the Marine brig at Da Nang. The source was the 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. As Marine lawyer Captain Robert W. Wachsmuth described it: "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." Other Marines found easy access from street vendors as their vehicles passed through urban areas.
For most of the Vietnam War, prosecution for the possession of even a slight trace of marijuana was a court-martial offense for Marines. In 1968, marijuana-detecting dogs were pressed into service to search for the drug among Marines returning to Vietnam from R&R trips abroad. The lack of a crime laboratory in Vietnam before that year 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. 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 helplessness in stemming the tide of marijuana use, saying, "I dont know what the solution is...."
Before 1968, marijuana use among soldiers was largely ignored by the Army. Newspaper stories describing its widespread abuse 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 not only cause physiological damage and lead to psychosis, but could also result in injury to men dependent on it. 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 distinctive 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.
In fact, marijuana use was a problem chiefly 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 took place when units stood down rather than in the field. The commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division noted, "There is no drug problem out in the hinterlands, because there was a self-policing by the troops themselves." Combat soldiers knew their survival depended on having clear mental faculties.
Army Major Joel Kaplan of the 98th Medical Detachment, while noting the high rate of marijuana use by military personnel, said, "I think alcohol is a much more dangerous drug than marijuana." One Air Force officer understood well the difference: "When you get up there in those early hours, you want the klunk youre flying with to be able to snap to. Hes 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 Vietnamheroin. When its use became commonplace, one Army commanding officer rationally said 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."
Soldiers who would not have done so at home smoked marijuana and took other drugs in Vietnam. A soldiers friends become extremely important, and new soldiers tend to imitate the behavior of the rest of the men in their group. Marine commander Major Ives W. Neely claimed there was "at least 70 to 80 percent" use within his company. Marines would catch a new man as he reported into the unit. If he was going to buy marijuana, they would tell him, he would buy it from them. If anyone blabbed or turned in any of their names, "there were ways to do these people in."
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, one of the most beautiful places in Asia in terms of physical geography. Fresh water flowed through 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 10 piasters (about 10 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 an M-14 shell casing. With their appetites stimulated by the hashish, they ate the bread. The lobsters were flash-fried in a helmet. Cooking fuel was provided by C-4 plastic explosive, which burns vigorously when ignited. This practice was common in the platoon guarding the oil refinery at the Hai Van Pass in 1965.
Aside from marijuana, other drugs were available to U.S. forces. In 1967, opium cost $1 while morphine went for $5 a vial. Binoctal, an addictive drug consisting of a mixture of Amytal and Seconal, was available from Vietnamese children at from $1 to $5 for 20 tablets. Although technically a prescription drug, Binoctal was available over the counter at almost any Vietnamese pharmacy for about 8 piasters for 20 tablets. Twenty tablets, consumed at once, could be a fatal dose. One soldier died from Binoctal use, and three near fatalities were reported. "O.J.s" were opium joints. After 1970 the name was often a misnomer, because heroin was so widely available to U.S. forces in smokable form. A tobacco cigarette would be rolled between finger and thumb to loosen the tobacco, and the cigarette would be partially emptied. A vial containing 250 milligrams of 94- to 96-percent-pure heroin then would be poured into the cigarette, which was smoked. Widespread heroin use would dwarf previous drug problems among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. According to psychoanalyst Norman E. Zinberg, a consultant for the Department of Defense on drug abuse in Vietnam, it was the attempt by the U.S. military command to suppress the use of marijuana that caused the switch to heroin.
Chinese immigrants to Vietnam in the late 18th and early 19th centuries had brought their opium-smoking habit with them. Initially the emperors of Vietnam welcomed these Chinese for their entrepreneurial 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 it in silver, causing a drain of specie and inflation. The Vietnamese court strongly opposed opium smoking on both moral and economic grounds, and it was outlawed soon after it appeared.
The French fought their way into Vietnam around 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. It became a lucrative source of income for French colonial administrators, and a modern opium refinery was established 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 business was booming.
At the beginning of World War II Indochina had more than 100,000 opium addicts. By then the sources were 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 production increased from 7l¼2 tons in 1940 to more than 60 tons in 1944. By the late 1950s the region was self-sufficient in opium production. By 1969 the so-called 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) number 4 heroin. A CIA report said the adoption of this new production technique seemed to be due to the large market in South Vietnam, where heroin previously had been unavailable. 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. In 1971 U.S. Army medical officers estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the lower-ranking enlisted personnel in Vietnam were heroin users.
Dr. Zinberg notes that of the servicemen who used heroin, more than one-third picked up the habit during their first month in Vietnam, and probably 90 percent in their first four months. Unlike typical heroin users in the United States, GI users included natives of small towns in the Midwest or South. All ethnic and educational categories were represented in about equal proportion. There were users in administrative, combat support and combat occupational specialtiesalthough combat troops avoided heroin use in the field. Zinberg notes that when one soldier 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 Vietnam, where the heroin was much purer than in the United States, smoking was the normal means of consumption. The drug was also snorted and taken orally. All these methods minimized the risks of injection, the most prevalent method of heroin use in the United States. There were no reported deaths from heroin overdose in Vietnam. Men used it to pass the time and to deal with the danger, boredom and feelings of purposelessness in their lives.
In terms of physical geography, South Vietnam consists of a coastal plain in the east, a long mountain chain in the west and the Mekong Delta in the far south. The source of opium lies 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 a means of getting the drug into South Vietnam. In the 1950s the French provided these transportation services through their association with Laotian military irregulars. During the 19651967 period, the South Vietnamese air force under Colonel Nguyen Cao Ky shipped opium from Laos to Saigon. In The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Alfred W. McCoy speculates that the May 1970 invasion of Cambodia may have opened another route for heroin to enter 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 was heavy truck, naval and air traffic between South Vietnam and Cambodia.
Heroin was used by an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the GIs in the Mekong Delta under the command of Army Maj. Gen. 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. But Cushman found these efforts 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 trafficking in heroin. The CIA avoided gathering information on Vietnamese involvement. Two weeks after it started, Cushmans campaign dwindled.
Nonmedical drug use was considered a serious crime for soldiers in Vietnam. The usual punishment for convicted offenders was the maximum sentence: up to 10 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 these heavy penalties did not deter soldiers from using heroin speaks to the special conditions they faced in Vietnam.
Interestingly enough, even though heroin was also available in neighboring Thailandand in more abundant supply than in Vietnamit was used by fewer than one percent of Army and Air Force personnel stationed there. In Thailand men got days off from work and were free to travel. By contrast, military service in Vietnam during the era of troop withdrawals was more stressful and 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. 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.
Drugs did not affect only the lower ranks. In 1970 an Air Force major was apprehended at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon with $8 million 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 same 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, since it was felt that both should have known about the drug dealing. Also in 1971, U.S. Customs at an Army post in New Jersey seized about 15 pounds of heroin from Bangkok in a package that had been mailed through the U.S. military postal system. In March and April 1971, drugs were detected in 248 pieces of mail by customs in the Army and Air Force postal systems.
By late 1970, heroin had made its way into Marine Corps units operating in the northern part of South Vietnam. Marine Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Simmons said 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 Maj. Gen. Alan J. Armstrong, somewhat more decisively, noted that in at least one aviation unit heroin use was an operational problem and no longer merely an administrative problem.
Military commands employed all available media to inform personnel of the moral, legal and physical consequences of drug use. Instructive pamphlets were created and distributed to platoon leaders. Drug education teams gave lectures. Drug abuse councils were created, traveling from unit to unit. When education failed to stem drug use, the Marine Corps relied on punishment. When the judicial system could not court-martial Marines fast enough, administrative discharges were used to get rid of offenders. Marine Corps Commandant General Louis H. Wilson, Jr., believed that the Corps should be reduced in strength rather than allow heroin-using Marines to stay within its ranks.
Senior military leaders understood that new arrivals were being introduced to drugs by existing users among the U.S. forces in Vietnam. Ridding the forces of users was the chosen course of action to "guard against further infection," and amnesty programs for users were the means of hopefully accomplishing this housecleaning. The Navy selected two barracks ships moored at Nha Be for the site of its rehabilitation center. Within one monthJuly 1971100 sailors had turned themselves in for treatment. By comparison at the same time, the Army was treating 460 men while 350 airmen sought drug treatment.
Drug use was less of a problem in the Marine Corps. Towns and villages in the Marines area of responsibility were off-limits to Marines, restricting their access 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. During this time the drug problems of the Army peaked: In 1973, 34 percent of American soldiers in Vietnam had commonly used heroin.
On June 22, 1971, the Army instituted a program whereby every soldier leaving Vietnam was obligated to submit to a urinalysis that detected heroin use within the previous five days. Those who tested positive 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, 3,580 military 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 1,000 and 2,000 heroin addicts per month. These men were flown back to the United States and discharged almost immediately. Follow-up treatment was almost 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 as addicts to communities 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.
The market for heroin among U.S. military personnel was worth $88 million to South Vietnamese drug traffickers. But Golden Triangle heroin laboratories did not go out of business when American forces 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 15l 1/2 kilograms of Laotian heroin. According to McCoy, for almost 20 years the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics had claimed that Southeast Asia provided only 5 percent of Americas heroinbut by 1972 the bureau gave that figure as 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, just as Vietnam veteran addicts became a problem in the United States. America was unable to end its heroin problem in Vietnam even by ending its participation in the war. Heroin came home with us.
He said one night dozens of sailors had been killed and injured because they were zonked out during a VC attack on his patrol boat squadron.
The way he said it made you know it was true.
Drug use was no higher in VN than back on the block. Another myth perpetuated by the left.
Zero GIs (or at most ONE) defected to the enemy. If drug use was so prevalent among GIs, far more would have "gone native" or crossed over to the enemy.
Other than assertion, what reason do I have to believe this?
Aha. So that explains what Al Gore was doing with the rifle. He was using it for a bong.
Agree. In two years I served with a total of 600 shipmates in my naval air squadron based ashore in Vietnam. A few were found to be using drugs, but so few we hardly noticed their departure. Not a flight was missed; not a mission lost to "drug abuse." "The Drug Horror of Vietnam" is just one more tired Left Lie to help them justify their cowardice, self-hatred, and anti-Americanism.
Rate of addiction/incarceration NO higher for VN vets than their peer group. Studies have shown however, that VN vets received longer sentencing for similar crimes. Probably due to pogrom launched against VN vets by media, intelligensia, and even pols. One of whom, Ron "the Red" Dellums threatened to hold war crime trials for VN vets!
All here should read STOLEN VALOR. Authors spent TEN years researching all the "hype" surrounding VN vets. Disabused most of it. I trust the conclusions of BG Burkett, Glenna Whitley FAR more than this "magazine."
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