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So the first Star Wars (1977) film drops a few solid reference to the drug called “spice” which is described in the Star Wars wikia as:

“Spice was the name for a type of illicit substance or substances in demand throughout the galaxy.”

First when C-3PO states to R2-D2 near the end of the opening scene on the Tantive IV and just before they went into an escape pod:

“We’ll be sent to the spice mine of Kessel or smashed into who knows what!”

Or when Luke retorts to Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi in his hut:

“My father didn’t fight in the Clone Wars. He was a navigator on a spice freighter.”

And when Greedo—and later Jabba the Hut as well in the retconned 1997 “Special Editions”—alludes to Han Solo ditching a shipment of something that something such as “spice” when boarded by Imperials:

“Jabba’s through with you! He has no use for smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser.”

Which is basically restated—and made clearer—when Jabba confronts Han directly in the scene in the novelization which was added into the 1997 “Special Edition” release of Star Wars:

Han, Han! If only you hadn’t had to dump that shipment of spice! You understand… I just can’t make an exception. Where would I be if every pilot who smuggled for me dumped his shipment at the first sign of an Imperial warship?

But what’s unclear to me is why it seems that the Empire subsidizes—or directly—mines spice if it is illegal:

  • Is it a substance along the lines of the way Heroin and Opium is illegal in most countries, but drugs such as Oxycodone/Oxycontin—a chemically similar opiate—is legal with a prescription?
  • Is there any in-universe explanation to the economic status of “spice” and whether the Empire’s control of the spice economy is some kind of secretive thing or is it well known throughout the galaxy?

I mean look at the examples I gave and the logical implications of all of them:

  • C-3PO describes the “Spices mine of Kessel” as some kind of hard labor camp—akin to the Gulag system in Stalinist Russia—that they would be sent to if the Empire caught them.
  • Luke describes his father as “navigator on a spice freighter” in a way that implies it was a basic working class job; like working in the U.S. Merchant Marines. Not something that sounded too illicit.
  • The whole Han/Greedo/Jabba mess sounds like straight out drug smuggling with the implication that Han was afraid of the Empire catching him smuggling spice. What? Luke is told his dad was a navigator on a spice freighter and that’s cool, but Han smuggling spice was a risky venture?
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    I think it's only illegal if the Imperial bureaucrats aren't the ones making a profit from it. – Nu'Daq Jan 22 '17 at 4:09
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    @CHEESE Technically murder is illegal killing. Tyrannical or unjust, yes, but probably rarely if ever officially murder. – suchiuomizu Jan 22 '17 at 14:30
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    Could it be that "spice" is simply used as a generic term? Is a "spice mine" significantly different from, say, a salt mine? And it could be that when referring to transportation it's not necessarily illegal but simply valuable? It makes sense to me that Han wouldn't have wanted to be caught smuggling valuable goods (legal or not) without the knowledge and blessing of the Empire. Likewise, Luke's comment about the "spice freighter" reminds me of the great tea clipper fleets from the 1700s, ferrying tea and spices to Britain from the East Indies. – Bob Jan 22 '17 at 16:59
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    The us government makes million off alcohol sales and production requires a permit, illegal alcohol is a big business. It says "illicit spice" there may well be legal spice production which is taxed AND illegal production which is considered a major crime. Remember a lot of smuggling is not to move illegal substances it is to get around the heavy taxes on high profit goods. – John Feb 16 '17 at 20:12
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    As star wars seems to be influenced by dune it is worth mentioning how spice was used there. Spice there is absolutely essential for prophetic abilities, space travel and other more obscure feats. It is used as means of control by the emperor who was able to ban other parties from spice trade. For his opponents smugglers were essential to keep them afloat. It may well be of similar importance in the star wars universe. – bdecaf Feb 16 '17 at 21:22
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According to the canon novel Lords of the Sith, spice has non-recreational uses as well:

The Empire used spice — refined ryll, harvested from the countless mines that made Ryloth porous — and its derivatives for countless purposes, particularly in the Imperial science and medical corps.

Lords of the Sith Chapter 3

As you suggest, this isn't all that unlike prescription medication in the real world; there are circumstances where it's useful and legal, and circumstances where it isn't.

The canon novel Thrawn also indicates that an intermediary form of spice, referred to as "pre-spice" can be refined into several different products; some illegal, some not:

"Pre-spice isn't an illegal substance. There are too many different products it can be turned into that are perfectly safe and legal."

Thrawn Chapter 18

That being said, the Empire certainly doesn't shy away from shady deals; I'm not aware of any canon confirmation of this, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Empire was funding, or even supplying, the spice trade in order to keep certain planets pliable.

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    "certain planets pliable" Or certain crime lords. – jpmc26 Jan 22 '17 at 19:26
  • But is ryll mined on Kessel? They mention that planet in ANH, and then never again. – CBredlow Jan 23 '17 at 19:41
  • @CBredlow Not clear; there are other types of spice known to exist, but we don't know what makes them different, or what's mined at Kessel. I should think the argument still holds in either case, though something also needs to be said for C-3PO just being a worrywart – Jason Baker Jan 23 '17 at 21:25
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    @CBredlow In Legends lore Glitterstim is the form of spice mined on Kessel – Forral Apr 21 '17 at 18:26
  • @Forral I'm aware of that, but Glitterstim isn't canon anymore and I was curious what was mined in Kessel – CBredlow Apr 21 '17 at 18:28
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Regarding C3PO's comment; I always took him to be rather "chicken little" about life and so I just took his ranting as terrified ravings about what horrible things might happen to them if captured, and he simply names a few things he's scared of. The galaxy is a huge place, so it seems there might be some horrible spice mines somewhere. That doesn't imply that "spice" is some sort of constant substance across the galaxy, or that it's even a major part of the story world. As someone else pointed out, it might be like someone claiming "we'll be sent to the Goulag" and chances are the person saying that doesn't even know what that means, only that it's "scary."

Regarding Luke's comment about his father being a "spice freighter;" I always understood the line as "my father was a pilot on a SPACE freighter" (emphasis mine). If my version is correct, this also suggests that "Spice" as a commodity, is no more or less significant in the galactic empire than any other resource, like uranium or electronic components on our world.

As far as the Han/Greedo mess, there are many things other than drugs to smuggle. Since it's never even hinted at, there's no reason to assume it's "spice" or even drugs. Personally, I always assumed he was smuggling weapons. But hey in the SW universe, he might even have been smuggling food or medicine that the Hutts planned to use to extort some impoverished planet with.

  • Your logic has no in-universe explanation as requested. Additionally, when you state “I always understood the line as "my father was a pilot on a SPACE freighter" (emphasis mine).” This is instantly disproven by the script and quotes itself readily available online. Regarding what Han Solo was smuggling, the novelization and script clearly refer to “spice” and the 1997 special editions make that even clearer by reading the Jabba the Hut scene cut in 1977. And when you say, “As someone else pointed out…” with regards to the “Goulag” it was me—the original poster—who mentioned the Gulag. – JakeGould Jan 23 '17 at 23:21
  • Eh. I presented my understanding of the topic you asked. My logic is perfectly applicable in-universe (with the notable exception that I didn't know "spice freighter" was correct). A third of your question is speculation (regarding what Han Solo was actually smuggling). I was rejecting that axiom and provided my answer. That only leaves the C3PO bit, which I provide an in-universe constant answer with. I thought presenting ideas about a work of fiction was the point. Perhaps I just find the idea of "spice" being a driving force in a technologically advanced galactic economy completely absurd. – user77404 Jan 24 '17 at 20:45
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    “A third of your question is speculation (regarding what Han Solo was actually smuggling).” It is well established in the movie official script—as well as the 1997 special editions and novelizations—that Han was smuggling “spice.” “I thought presenting ideas about a work of fiction was the point.” Yes and no. This “work of fiction” has backstory logic that can be presented through citations to those backstory bits. That is why most users of this site who post questions ask for citations to explain in-universe logic and not just armchair speculation. – JakeGould Jan 24 '17 at 23:39

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