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(en) Britain, Direct Action #35 - Centrespread - State Sponsored Druggery dru.gs, capitalism and the working class

Date Thu, 01 Sep 2005 08:38:57 +0300

Mention drugs and most people think of illegal drugs like heroin,
cocaine and ecstasy. But loads of other compounds are used daily by
millions and are rarely thought of as drugs. Alcohol is a sedative,
similar to barbiturates, but we don’t call it a drug because drinking’s
a national pastime. Medicines are seen as beneficial because the medical
profession, drug companies and governments say so. And a lot of them are,
but a lot are just as dangerous and damaging to our health and well-being
as some of the illegal ones. If drugs are chemical agents, then our food’s
so full of shite, and people are eating so much of it, that life expectancy
is going to fall for the first time in years.

Then there’s addiction – we all know heroin and fags are
addictive, but so are some medicines like sleeping pills, painkillers
and anti-depressants. Boozing and gambling and ever more abstract
things seem to be habit-forming, like TV, work, shopping and
talking shite on mobile phones. What’s more if drugs are
chemical agents, as it says in the dictionary, then the chemicals
stuffed in our food and water will make us all drug addicts. Either
that or we’ll all be dead and it just so happens that life
expectancy is going to fall for the first time in years.

So why are some drugs legal and some not? Why are some seen as
so dangerous that people are fined or imprisoned for using them?
And why are some that are just as dangerous seen as beneficial?

Humans have used drugs in one form or another for thousands of
years. Archaeologists have found that neolithic people grew plants
like cannabis, mandrake, henbane and belladonna. Opium was
grown 6,000 years ago in Turkey, Afghanistan, Spain and southern
France. People have brewed beer and wine in Europe for thousands
of years and the use of various magic mushrooms has been
widespread in every continent. One archaeologist has reckoned that
the Celtic tribes who followed Boudicca and burned London down
were probably off their heads on mushrooms.

social control

There seem to be as many reasons for taking drugs as there are
drugs but you can group them into a few areas – medicinal, ritual
or religious, enjoyment and the pursuit of oblivion. A bit general
maybe, but it covers most drug use. Add to this a more modern use
– social control.

So, let’s have a closer look at two ‘illegal’ drugs -
cocaine, drug of choice of the rich and famous, and heroin,
associated with poverty and the underclass.

Cocaine is derived from the coca plant, native to Bolivia, Colombia
and Peru. It was widespread as a stimulant, a cure for snow
blindness, toothache and loads of everyday aches and pains. The
Incas chewed their way through tons of it. When the Spanish
Conquistadores discovered silver in what’s now Bolivia they
enslaved the local population and encouraged them to chew coca so
they would work harder and longer. They paid them in coca; started
coca plantations to meet the demand; and paid the plantation
workers with coca too.

At this point we get the first example of a recurring theme
surrounding drugs – a moral panic. In 1552 the Catholic Church
had a conference in Lima to decide what to do about the new empire
in South America. One topic was the use of coca. Some said it was
the Devil’s work and wanted it banned. The king of Spain
sympathised but wasn’t about to lower the productivity of his
slaves, so nothing happened. At the second Lima conference, fifteen
years later, they had another go but by the third conference the king
had offered the church 10% of the profit from the mines. Needless to
say, priests fell over themselves to say what fantastic stuff it was and
how useful it was for the workers.

Nothing much happened to coca for the next 300 years until a
German chemist, Friedrich Wohler, brought back a bale of it. He
gave it to one of his students who developed a refining process that
produced a few crystals he called ‘cocaine’. Then, in 1863, a
chap called Angelo Moriani mixed it with wine. It became a big
success and celebrity endorsements from Jules Verne, Thomas
Edison, H G Wells and the US president, William McKinley,
boosted sales. He marketed a range of products from coca throat
lozenges to coca tea and it got into all sorts of medicines and
pick-me-ups, including fizzy pop.

Then the medical profession got in on the act. Sigmund Freud
thought it was a wonder drug for treating depression. A mate of his
used it as a local anaesthetic. But Freud then made a drastic
mistake, giving it to a friend who was a morphine addict. It seemed
as if, after three weeks, he’d cured him. In reality he’d just
replaced one habit with another, in the process inventing the
speedball, a mix of cocaine and heroin or morphine. His mate died a
slow nasty death, but the belief that cocaine could be used to treat
morphine addicts persisted for years.

By the early 1900s cocaine use in America had exploded, mainly due
to Henry Hurd Rusby who thought it would be better to produce
cocaine on the spot rather than exporting the coca leaves. The price
of cocaine dropped which was good for cokeheads, but got the
killjoys chattering. In 1905 concerns about the health hazards of
cocaine led to coca cola removing it from its drink and the next few
years saw a full-blown moral panic. The reasons were as much to do
with racism and fear of the working class getting out of control as
with any concern about public health or welfare. The power addicts
thought black men on coke would go round raping white women and
tainting the colour. While wild-eyed working class riff-raff might
become superhuman, killer rebels.


Like cocaine, heroin was chemically refined from a natural
substance, opium, which had been a medicine and narcotic for
thousands of years. Apparently, in the early 1500s, the Portuguese
found out that smoking opium gave instantaneous effects and this
became common. Later, opium was mixed with alcohol to produce
laudanum. Just like cocaine, it started appearing in all sorts of
remedies. Dovers powder was a lethal mix of opium, salt peter and
white wine. Laudanum was regarded as a cure for all sorts including
crying babies, while in 1805 a new compound, morphine, was
discovered by isolating one of the chemical components in opium.
Morphine was ten times stronger than opium.

By the 1830s opiate-use was widespread in Europe and America and
there was an epidemic of opium addiction in China, with up to 15
million users. This came about due to the East India Company
selling tons of it to local traders who smuggled it into China to avoid
import restrictions. The Chinese government got pissed off and in
1839 confiscated 20,000 chests of opium from British warehouses in
Canton. The British sent warships, shelled some cities and forced a
treaty on the Chinese. They also nicked Hong Kong in the process.
A few years later the French joined in the second opium war, and got
another favourable treaty.

Opiate consumption got another boost in the American Civil War
when thousands of soldiers were treated with morphine. European
and American doctors also treated opium addicts with morphine.
Then in 1874 a new drug was discovered – heroin, even more
potent than morphine. It went into mass production at the end of the
19th century and was used for a variety of ailments, including
morphine addiction. As the laws surrounding opium use were
tightened, addicts switched to heroin, which was cheap and easily
available. Some estimates put the number of heroin addicts in the
US at 200,000 by the mid-1920s. This was too much for some and
heroin was made illegal in 1924. It’s at this point that heroin and
cocaine diverge. Cocaine became linked to the rich and famous;
heroin to the poor.

Although the Second World War disrupted smuggling routes,
afterwards new routes were opened, especially via Cuba. These were
initially controlled by the Mafia, then by Cuban drug gangs by the
end of the 1950s. When Castro took over he chucked out the
American gangsters and their Cuban partners who flitted to Florida.
Using CIA money they set up cocaine production in Chile, Panama,
Bolivia and Colombia. By the 1960s cocaine was becoming popular
again amongst the middle classes while Colombia became an
important centre of distribution.

civil rights

At the same time heroin use was boosted by the Vietnam War.
Thousands of US soldiers came back addicted to opiates produced
by local warlords to fund private armies. Along side this the civil
rights movement in America took on a more revolutionary tone.
Riots erupted in cities across the US as poor and politicised blacks
took to the streets. It seems more than coincidental that cheap
heroin flooded into the ghettoes on a scale far outweighing the needs
of the servicemen returning as addicts. Stories that the CIA had a
hand in this have never gone away. The result was the ruination of
thousands of lives, an increase in violent crime, shattered
communities and dissipation of the revolutionary movements. But
the moral panic mongers had a field day, they could blame the whole
problem on the ‘underclass’ and keep the best
‘gear’ for themselves.

In Britain there hadn’t been much of a heroin problem. When
laudanum and other opiates were made illegal the British working
class turned back to alcohol as their drug of choice. The few heroin
addicts were mostly doctors, sailors and jazz musicians. When drug
use took off in the ’60s heroin was viewed with fear, so youth
culture was fuelled by cannabis, bluey’s, bombers and other
amphetamine sulphate pills, then later by LSD. Heroin use rose
slowly through the early ’70s but didn’t really become a
problem until the 1980s. In 1978, there were 2,402 registered
addicts; by 1995, the figure had leapt to 37,164 and estimates put the
number of heroin users at over 250,000. The Thatcher government
was directly responsible. Working class communities became
wastelands; working class culture was attacked and undermined;
and alien values like self help, thrift and selfish individualism were
promoted at every opportunity. While spivs and yuppies hoovered up
tons of cocaine, working class kids were sniffing glue and getting
turned on to cheap heroin, which seemed to get cheaper as youth
unemployment rose and rose.

So what did our modern entrepreneurial society do with these kids,
apart from create another moral panic about them? F*ck all –
sent them to prison and got them addicted to synthetic heroin,
methadone, which is even harder to get off than heroin. One reason
why people take drugs is the pursuit of oblivion and this was, and
still is, the prime reason behind heroin addiction. For many, heroin
was and is an alternative to boredom, hopelessness, low self-esteem,
poverty and exclusion from Maggie and Tony’s brave new
world. While damaged lives and communities become even more
damaged. Junkies will do anything to maintain their supply:

Junk is the ideal product, the ultimate merchandise, no sales talk
necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy. The
dealer does not sell his product to the consumer. He sells the
consumer to his product…you would lie, cheat, inform on your
friends, steal, because you would be in a state of total need, because
you would be in a state of total sickness, total possession, and not in
a position to act in any other way. (William Burroughs, Naked

Up to 1970 the few opiate addicts were treated as if they had an
illness and were prescribed opiates to manage their addiction.
Tougher penalties against use and supply in the ’60s and
’70s didn’t stop more people using drugs. The ridiculous
‘war on drugs’ promoted by successive British and US
governments has been a spectacular failure. Only the security
services have benefited, getting to play cowboys in the Colombian
jungle. There’s more prisons, more screws, more bureaucrats,
and more ex-cops paid massive salaries to be ‘drug czars’.

more drugs

The US government has done more to flood our streets with heroin
and cocaine than all the Golden Triangle warlords and Colombian
drug cartels together. US foreign policy has created the conditions
that let drug production thrive. And our problems are nothing
compared to addiction levels in producing countries. Since the US
invaded Afghanistan opium production has increased dramatically.
In 2003, the harvest provided three quarters of the world’s
heroin and 95% of Europe’s – last year’s crop topped
even that. There are now 10 million people worldwide addicted to
Afghan opiates. Washington has linked an aid package of 2.3 billion
dollars to the destruction of opium crops. But with an acre of opium
poppies earning $2,500 compared to only $120 for wheat, poor
farmers become even poorer while the richest landlords pay bribes to
prevent the destruction of their fields. Just as the war on terrorism
produces more terrorists, the war on drugs produces more drugs and
more addicts.

The role of heroin as a method of social control and its use to
undermine the black power movement has been mentioned.
Prescription-Drugs perform a similar function. We were told at the
end of the 1950s that we’d ‘never had it so good’. There
was an economic boom, more consumer goods were available to
more people, but more people were being prescribed dangerous
psychotropic drugs, which had appeared in the early ’50s. By the
1960s diazepam (valium) was the world’s most widely
prescribed drug and by 1990 one in five American women used
some kind of tranquiliser. Added to which, the pressure on women
to conform to an unrealistic physical image meant that doctors
prescribed millions of amphetamine based slimming tablets.

The popularity of tranquilisers, sedatives and sleeping pills raises an
important question – if everything was so fantastic in our liberal
democratic consumer society why were so many people prescribed
addictive happy pills? We can ask the same question about the next
generation of pills, anti-depressants. There’s no doubt that since
the Second World War our physical health has improved but our
mental health has nosedived. Depression, stress and anxiety have
reached epidemic proportions. So have allergies. Any kid with too
much energy or who doesn’t fit in at school is diagnosed as
having ‘attention deficit disorder’. At best they get
suspended, at worst shunted off to some quack psychologist to have
their behaviour modified. These kids, especially in the US, are
prescribed Ritalin, a drug with similar properties to cocaine. 4% of
American children are taking some form of anti-depressant and,
while we reached this level in Britain, more and more young people
are treated for depression and anxiety with drugs.

The mental health charity, MIND, estimates 3 out of 10 people
experience mental health problems every year. Most are treated with
anti-depressants. However, the vast majority of these people are
actually suffering from capitalism – poverty, environmental
pollution and chemicals in our food, not to mention stress at work, at
home and at school, are all products of capitalism. What’s more,
we live in a world where it’s almost a crime to be miserable.

doctor dependence

In Limits to Medicine, Ivan Illich argues that ‘recent times had
brought a medicalisation of life which involved the expropriation of
health by the medical profession whose prime aim was power and
aggrandisement’. He goes on to say that the medical profession
creates disease rather than cures it. People might be living longer but
they spend more time being ill and grow ever more
doctor-dependent. Medical costs escalate and the main beneficiaries
are not the sick, but the medical profession along with insurers,
lawyers and pharmaceutical companies. Similarly, people like R D
Laing and some radical psychiatrists have argued that it is psychiatry
that has made people mentally ill.

The medical profession, the psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists
and counsellors want to treat the depressed by turning them from
chronically unhappy introverts into confident, energetic extroverts.
In effect, this is changing people from what our culture finds least
desirable into what it finds most desirable – well-balanced,
competitive consumers.

It’s likely that in the next few years more people will suffer
depression and mental illness; there will be more alcoholics, more
addicts to gambling, shopping and sitting in front of the TV. More
kids will be given more drugs to modify their behaviour. Drug
companies will make more powerful happy pills and billions more
dollars in profit.

Drug use is a cultural phenomenon and binge drinking isn’t
something that’s just started to happen. Alcohol consumption
per head fell from 1900 through to 1960 when levels started to rise
again but per capita consumption is still much lower than in 1900.
What we’re seeing is a good old-fashioned moral panic, the type
usually used to justify a change in the law. Like at the end of the
19th century when opiates became less culturally acceptable to the
‘chatterers’. One reason for this was the middle class
reformers like the first temperance movement and the utilitarians
who wanted a drink and drug free workforce. Another reason was
the rise of the medical profession and the idea that doctors, as
specialists in health, should have total control over drugs like
opiates. While alcohol was never in danger of being banned, due to
the vested interests involved, opiates came under an international
control system that was strengthened in the early 20th century under
American influence. These controls have influenced states’
domestic drug policies for the last 75 years while the pharmaceutical
industry is seen as the only legitimate drug producer.

state control

As the medical profession became more powerful the idea that
doctors know best took hold. People who feel stressed or bad with
their nerves don’t think twice if their doctor puts them on a
course of prozac. The doctor isn’t going to say ‘right, pack
your job in and go fishing’ or ‘here’s a couple of ounces
of skunk – go and have a good smoke’. They’re in the
business of prescribing expensive medicines to ensure a docile
compliant workforce who consume state-controlled drugs.

What can be done for the thousands of addicts and the millions
taking anti-depressants and tranquillisers? A couple of things spring
to mind. We can stop the insane practice of giving addicts
methadone and argue for the legalisation of all drugs, and
specifically the provision of free heroin for addicts. Pure
pharmaceutical heroin can be taken indefinitely without any negative
effects. Before 1971 this was the norm and it would immediately
remove the need to steal to get money for heroin.

As for anti-depressants and tranquilisers, that’s more difficult
because until there’s an end to capitalism and the authority of a
few over the many, we’ll go on getting ill. All the while the war
on drugs will go on too, giving the US government the excuse to
interfere in the internal affairs of other countries under the guise of
drug control programmes and aid packages that pour money into
military and security services. These policies confine millions of
people around the world to a short and brutal life while the rich get
their addictions treated at specialist clinics like the Priory and the
Betty Ford clinic.

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