November 2, 2019
The REAL Lesson of the Opium Warsby Ballard Quass
Like almost everyone else in America, John Halpern looks at the opium wars of the 19th century and draws two erroneous conclusions. I discuss and refute those two conclusions below.
1) Opium is a drug from hell.
Why do we think that opium is the drug from hell? Why? Because we never hear from the thousands of human beings who have used opium responsibly and to good effect. How many westerners know that Benjamin Franklin used opium? How many westerners know or care that opium had a great productive influence on writers like De Quincey, Poe and Lovecraft? How many westerners know that opium has been found to cure the common cold by many users?
This is the drug warrior strategy, by the way, to never admit to or point out any positive uses of Mother Nature's psychoactive drugs, to constantly highlight the negative, thereby leaving the impression that these substances truly are evil incarnate. If these people focused their polemics on driving, we would come to feel that driving only led to accidents and should therefore be outlawed. Unfortunately, the worst villain in this story is the news media. Cowed as they are by the DEA and public hysteria, they studiously avoid reporting positive news about substance use, thereby giving the impression, through selective negative reporting, that illegal substance use is always substance abuse.
Here's a headline you'll never see: "'Responsible opium use helps me write creatively and prolifically!'"
While it's true that opium can become addictive if used on a daily basis, this is a property of opium that no westerner has a right to complain about. As I type this, 1 in 4 American women are addicted to modern anti-depressants -- 1 in 4. Besides, opium addiction can be "kicked" in a week whereas certain modern anti-depressants like Effexor CAN NEVER BE STOPPED according to a recent study by the NIH itself, which reports a 95% recidivism rate for those who try.
2) We should therefore make opium illegal.
The lesson of the opium war is not that natural substances should be illegal. Opium itself never injured anyone in the 19th century. It was the PROFIT MOTIVE that made opium a bad thing. It was the PROFIT MOTIVE that flooded the market and brought forward only the most potent productions of the poppy plants. It was the same PROFIT MOTIVE that allows today's Big Pharma to get away scot-free with addicting an entire nation.
But writers like Halpern ignore this. Instead of blaming exploitative capitalism, they make a scapegoat out of the substances themselves. The real lesson of the opium war, however, is that the PROFIT MOTIVE should have no role when it comes to the sale of psychoactive substances, not because the substances are evil incarnate, but because the PROFIT MOTIVE encourages irresponsible and uninformed use of such substances.
Indeed, the whole opioid crisis today exists because of the PROFIT MOTIVE, not because poppy plants are the spawn of the devil, as the superstitious drug warrior prefers to believe -- probably because they can't bring themselves to criticize capitalism, and so Mother Nature's plants become convenient scapegoats.
Language counts because it is laden with stealth assumptions. When we say "Opium War," we superstitiously associate the evils of the conflict in question with a plant, turning Mother Nature into a scapegoat for human evil and giving a free pass to the phenomenon of unbridled and militaristic capitalism, which is really the villain of the piece.