VOICES FROM THE STREET: A story about opium

To show how long the opiate wars have been going on, we’d have to go back to the mid 1800s when the East India Company sponsored by the British was forcing ships full to the brim with opium cakes on China.

Every year ships would arrive at China’s shores and dispense the opium to the Chinese people at a hefty price. There was actually a stock market where all the deals took place in advance in India and it was run in sign language so no one knew what was being said—only those who were players in the market.

The Commissioner of China banned the import of opium but the British attacked—in defense of “free trade,” as they called it. The first Opium War took place between 1839 and 1842 and the players were Great Britain and Ireland—represented by the East India Company, which shipped from India—against the Quing Dynasty.

The Quing Dynasty lost the first war and opium continued to pour into China and millions of Chinese were addicted. After another Opium War, the substance was legalized around 1860.

Back in Europe, in the late 1800s, the Bayer Company produced bottles of tablets that they trademarked Heroin as a cure for anything, even morphine addiction. Things went a little haywire from that point on and after making a hefty profit, Bayer took heroin off the market and replaced it with aspirin.

How far back does opium go? The excavators who were exploring in Egypt actually found stores of opium in the pyramids. The quality of the drug was still effective after all those years. Opium was the perfect product. It never went bad; it only affected those who used it.

In the United States, during Prohibition, Opium was used quite often and heroin became a drug of choice in the underworld. Opium, altered and sold as laudanum was used by housewives, factory workers, physicians, lawyers and almost anyone to ease their stress.

Oddly, when it was legal, there was very little crime associated with it. When Prohibition ended, a man named Harry Anslinger was in charge of the agents that chased down the alcohol gangsters, and he found himself with a giant police organization with no target. He and his fellow workers were about to be on the unemployment rolls.

Anslinger turned his attention to opiates and marijuana and formed the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs. He pursued this endeavor with zeal, publicizing the evils of drugs on the radio, on television, in the newspapers and any other media that existed. The new Prohibition had begun here in the United States.

Today, because of policies brought about by overzealous bureaucrats carrying badges and guns, people who had never been in trouble with the law before found themselves assaulted by the very system that was supposed to protect them.

In the beginning, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, led by Anslinger, chased jazz musicians and people of color, so as not to turn the public against them. Once they were firmly entrenched in power, they focused their eyes on physicians who were helping middle-class people and others obtain opiates through prescriptions.

A series of arrests of a few physicians scared the majority of the other medical professionals, and with the exception of a few doctors, most medical professionals stopped prescribing opiates unless the patient was in pain from another disease.

Just like the underground during the Prohibition, an underground market began to grow, supplying products to people who used opiates and other drugs. Alcohol was commonly used, but opiates were not as mainstream, so the opiate underground grew slowly, coupled with cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs.

Actually, in the 1950s methamphetamine was widely prescribed by doctors for obesity and other ailments. During the hippie era, the use of meth or “speed,” as it was called, exploded with young people. The Bureau of Dangerous Drugs quickly moved to make it illegal, meaning that more people were employed by the “system” and the prison population in the United States began to grow. In the past 40 years, the United States prison population rose by 500 percent. More people are in prison today for nonviolent drug offenses than the entire prison population in 1970.

The Unites States contains less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, yet it has more than 25 per cent of the entire world’s population of prisoners.

Another shocking fact is that one in every 87 white people are in prison, yet if you are a person of color, one in every 12 African-American men are in prison or have been in prison. More black men born in the post-civil rights era have been in prison than have graduated from a four-year university.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the cost of the War on Drugs. In the June 28 edition of the Boston Globe, the front-page article was about the epidemic of babies being born that have to be withdrawn from drugs.

Crime is rampant and the drug cartels fight for territory constantly, outgunning and outspending the DEA in the drug war. Something is definitely wrong with the way we treat people with the illness of addiction, but slowly, very slowly, the pendulum is swinging.

In Gloucester, Mass., people can now go to the police station, turn in their dope and the police will help them get into detox.

Also, in many places, Narcane is available, so junkies can carry it in case one of their friends overdoses. God, when I think about it, I know that opiates should be legalized: controlled but legal. Let’s put the cartels out of business. This war could be over. Right now, the opiate crisis appears to be a war on the American people.



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