The Asian Cocaine Crisis: Pharmaceuticals, consumers and control in South and East Asia, c. 1900-1945

First published: 10 May 2019 | Last updated: 20 May 2019

The project tackles the questions of why Asians took to cocaine in the first half of the twentieth-century and what drove governments there to respond rapidly to the demand for this most modern of pharmaceuticals. Cocaine was the first industrially-produced modern pharmaceutical to find a mass market in Asia where it was used as a medicinal substance and a recreational intoxicant. In a period that saw the establishment of the international drugs regulatory regime which continues to shape contemporary global drugs policy, responses of indigenous and colonial governments in Asia show they quickly viewed this as a crisis and administrators grappled with Asian consumers of the drug, and with those that defied governments to produce and distribute it. Between 1900 and 1945 Asia was one of the world’s largest markets for cocaine and India alone received five metric tons of the drug annually (worth around $1 billion at today’s prices) and millions in Asia took to the drug despite transnational efforts. The project has four main aims: i. to explain the growth of a market for cocaine in Asia; ii. to account for government responses to this market; iii. to trace changing sources of supply and networks of distribution; and, iv. to identify the origins of ideas in Asia about cocaine. This project will produce the first study of a drugs crisis forgotten in Asia and by historians of intoxicants and medicines. It has the potential for transforming current ideas by exploring unusual features of the story of cocaine to provide radical new perspectives on the history of production, consumption and control of medicines and intoxicants in the modern world.

Awarded: First prize
Conflicts of interest:
Funding Sources: Wellcome Trust

No conflict of interest


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Dr Ved Baruah