Saturday, October 31, 2015

War on Drugs Revisited

A story in the New York Times this morning, “White Families Seek a Gentler War on Heroin,” reminded us again of a lot older war, the First Opium War (1839-1842). The background to that war was this: Great Britain was growing opium in Bengal to sell to China—opium being one product for which the Chinese were willing to pay silver; they were, in other economic ways, essentially self-sufficient. The British venture produced an exodus of silver from China and a rise in Chinese opium addicts. The emperor decided to eradicate the traffic—adopting much the same general method we’ve adopted in conducting our own war on drugs. Britain resisted this imperial strategy. Hence by military power, Hong Kong became British and Great Britain also extorted rights to trade freely at five other ports, among them Shanghai.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime maintains statistics, if somewhat dated, on opium and heroin consumption world-wide. A graphic produced by UNODC, which I found here, is shown below:

If we take data for 2008 on opiate user in the United States, we get an estimate of 1.335 million users in that year or, expressed as a percent of the total U.S. population, 0.44 percent. Compared to that percentage (less than half of 1 percent), the problem appears minute—unless the addict is your child.

Virtually all heroin used ultimately traces back to Afghanistan—the country where 92 percent of all opium poppies were grown in 2008. Afghanistan’s share has dropped since then to around 83-84 percent. Curiously, as the following chart, taken from Wikipedia (link) shows, the only time when poppy production was seriously challenged in the last two decades was in 2001—when the Taliban were briefly in charge…

We’re looking here are the disconcerting effects on the mind of scale—tiny numbers and vast expenditures on wars (of all kinds)—at tiny places that produce global problems, and at the persistence of problems ultimately rooted in vast cultural movements which produce, wealth, crowding, stress…and substances that help some people cope—the wrong way.

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