The New Opium War?

The use of opium-derived drugs is causing an unprecedented health crisis in the United States. But contrary to the myths perpetuated by Trump or Bannon, it is not China that is poisoning America.

Welcoming the United States’ aggressive position toward China a few days ago, Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Donald Trump, summed up in one sentence the conviction behind this crusade: “The jobs went to China, and the opioids came in.” This narrative, which has become somewhat of a repeated chorus since 2016, implies that China orchestrates the Americans’ comedown and despair in two ways: by closing their factories, thereby confiscating their futures, and by flooding them with synthetic opioids with the help of complicit Mexican cartels that transport the drugs to the most remote towns of Virginia or Kentucky. America is facing one of the most serious health crises in its history, an addiction to devastatingly harmful opioids, which in recent years has seen millions of people who are addicted to painkillers turn to illegal and cheap substances produced in China. The blame is therefore easy, and its subtext is old. By taking away Xi Jinping’s right to export fentanyl, the most lethal form of opioids in circulation, into America, Trump has redeployed the age-old myth of China as conspiring to cover the Western world in a thick, psychoactive smoke.

When the first Chinese immigrants arrived in California in the 1850s, they faced profound racial hostility. They were accused of stealing jobs from deserving workers and using their opium dens as laboratories where they would prepare to sedate white women. Called “coolies,” a servile class, they were also seen as a threat to the dignity of white workers and to national strength. As early as 1862, an “anti-coolies” law sought to exclude them from California, foreshadowing the 1882 federal law that excluded the Chinese. For the first time in its history, the American government discriminated against immigrants according to their ethnic origin, and there is no doubt that violent anti-Chinese hatred in the West motivated their exclusion. The Chinese are “unassimilable,” so they say, and their presence on American soil is a promise of debauchery and degeneration.

Fighting against opium, the drug that is “racially” attached to the Chinese (although opiates are widely consumed by all of society), is therefore a weapon in the nativists’ arsenal to protect themselves against “cultural invasion.” It is only by bearing in mind this fantasy of a “yellow peril” that we can understand the first narcotics law ever adopted in the United States, passed in 1875 in San Francisco, which only targeted opium. In 1909, the “anti-opium law” adopted by Congress was highlighted by its xenophobic foundations that granted amnesty to those who drank or injected opiate solutions, the method favored by whites.

This underlying ideology has never disappeared, and the myth of China as America’s drug dealer has endured. In the 1950s, Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the national anti-narcotics agency working in tandem with the FBI, started the rumor that “red” China was conspiring to destroy the West by flooding it with powerful opiates, particularly heroin. Reported in the press, he claimed that the communist republic was engaged in a 25-year plan to transform the people of the “free world” into depraved addicts. At the heart of the Cold War and its accompanying paranoia, this fable was hardly contradicted, and people willingly believed that Americans’ homes and their most private lives were threatened by the Chinese enemy.

This rhetoric had disastrous consequences for the perception and the care of young American drug addicts. Since it was a question of fighting against the enemies of freedom and democracy, only brutal punishment and incarceration were applied. Narcotics and anti-American subversion become synonymous. From then on, every street user was a criminal, an equation that reached its peak with the “war on drugs” launched by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. By toughening the punishment on marijuana and by depriving drug addicts of care, the government directed users toward a more affordable and equally violent substance − crack, a second-rate form of cocaine. It is this crack cocaine that was racialized, identified with black people. The criminalization of users had dramatic repercussions for the communities in question, which have high rates of imprisonment.

The myth of an evil China flooding America with its opium has contributed to the country’s confinement within a system that has given rise to Americans’ addictions: the criminalization of street addicts, who are, of course, often black and brown, and − in a mirror image − has also given rise to lax complacency toward addiction inside the doctor’s office, engineered by predatory pharmaceutical companies and relayed by doctors under their influence and private insurance cartels in search of profit. By targeting the small middle class beset with social suffering, and by cleverly promoting the lawful and racially appropriate nature of prescribed pills, manufacturers went unpunished when millions of small-scale dealers and their customers were being locked up.

Today, blaming the lack of Chinese regulation is far-fetched. It is the lack of public control in the United States that has allowed the premeditated addiction of millions of Americans, followed by the lack of health policies allowing access to rehabilitation centers and to alternative treatments, which have forced helpless addicts to resort to synthetic drugs “made in China.” The “Obamacare” demolition company, currently being pursued surreptitiously, and its replacement, a health plan known as the Graham-Cassidy bill, both promise to restore the deregulation of the health industry as soon as 2020. Despite the ongoing trials, big pharmaceutical groups are thriving, and no one in government (certainly not Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, former director of one of the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and a registered lobbyist) is considering regulating their activities. Yet they are the ones who flooded the country with opiates. Just as it was England in the 1830s that flooded China with opium and not the other way around, it was in Washington, not Beijing, that the great dragon of drug addiction was born.

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