'White-collar Narcos: The Respectable Face of the Junk Trade', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on history.

White-collar Narcos: The Respectable Face of the Junk Trade

The accumulations of wealth created by a succession of historic drug trades have been among the primary foundations of global capitalism and the modern nation-state itself. Indeed, it may be argued that the entire rise of the West, from 1500 to 1900, depended on a series of drug trades.

(Trocki, Carl; Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy (Routledge, 1999), p.xii

The British East India Company and Jardine Matheson

Sugar, slavery and opium. These are the three things the British Empire was built on and the foundation of its wealth and power. The institutionalised trade in drugs goes way back. By the early 1800s, opium was one of the biggest marketable commodities in the world and the foundation of European trade in Asia. Global capitalism arose as a side effect of the (entirely legal) trade in opium and was the stuff that the nations of Britain, Holland, Portugal and America were using to grow their trade bases and expand their economic power. How was it that narcotics came to be the foundation stone of a global economy and an immense force in international politics? Simple. The same way that today the pharmaceutical companies in the US are raking in billions a year from the completely legal sale of opioids (heroin, in other words), back then they set out to create a drug ‘epidemic’ of a magnitude never before seen, an operation which they pulled off with unprecedented success. They got the world hooked then peddled narcotics till they were shitting silver. Some would call it astute business practice.

The British were not responsible, however, for introducing opium to Asia. The Portuguese discovered opium in India in the seventeenth century and by the early 1800s had a significant trade with China, and by 1677 the Dutch East India Company had the monopoly on opium trade with Java and much of the Malay Peninsula. But it was when the British expanded into the trade in the late eighteenth century that there was an explosion in the quantity of opium flooding Asia. Coming to view opium as an answer to the trade deficit with China, Britain really set things moving. Having discovered tea in the 1800s, Britain pretty quickly became reliant on the stuff, a predilection that went hand in hand with their taste for sugar, which was being produced in vast quantities using stolen land (plantations) and stolen labour (slaves) in the West Indies. The problem was that there was so much silver flowing out of the state coffers for the purchase of tea that there was a massive trade imbalance, known as the ‘tea remittance’.

Enter opium.

Writing in Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy, Carl Trocki states that,

‘…it seems that there is one key ingredient necessary to create a true drug “epidemic”: In addition to exotic introduction and changes in production, the commercialisation of drug production, trade and marketing seem to have been crucial.’ (Trocki, p.xii)

The British used their huge trading bases in Calcutta and Bombay to develop the production and trade, and soon there were inhuman quantities of the drug leaving the country. ‘Patna’ opium (from Bihar in India) became synonymous with the British East India Company and was the most highly regarded product of its day. It was enough to see the logo on the side of a crate to guarantee quality. Between 1810 and 1820, about 10,000 chests (600–700,000 kg) were being imported annually into China. Not all of it was British. A huge amount of American ships were plying a trade in Turkish opium (exported from Smyrna), and the Dutch and Portuguese were in on it too, but no opium was as prized or as desirable as the British product. 

In 1813, the British East India Company lost its trade monopolies as a result of parliamentary acts passed at home, and this is when private interest stepped into the fray. William Jardine and James Matheson were two Scotsmen who set up company in Canton in 1832 in order to take advantage of the economic climate. Jardine Matheson & Co still exists today, with an immense portfolio trading in property, hotels, automotive, food and much else besides. Their total revenue in 2019 was some 40 billion dollars. Yet they started out exclusively in opium. By 1838, they had helped to increase the annual import of opium into China to almost 40,000 chests (almost 3 million kilos). It was around this time when the Chinese authorities decided that Jardine and Matheson and other ‘barbarians’ would have to be expelled from Chinese soil for the suffering they were inflicting upon the country. The Emperor decided to appeal to Queen Victoria to ‘reign in’ her subjects, and a letter was sent but was lost in the mail. Receiving no reply, the Emperor ordered all opium in Canton to be seized and dumped in the bay. Over 20,000 chests of opium were destroyed, the total value around two million pounds. It was then that William Jardine, recently returned to Britain, took up the cause of reparations. Wielding his not-insignificant influence, he harried the British Government, the Foreign Office and the British public to his cause, and to cut a long story short, the First Opium War was launched against China in 1841, leading the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, in which Hong Kong was ceded to the British and several Chinese ports were forced to open to European trade in opium and all else besides. 

The Sacklers and the Opioid Crisis   

I hadn’t heard of the Sacklers until a few weeks ago when I read an article that led me to the HBO documentary, The Crime of the Century. It seems the Sackler family kept a high profile in the arts and education with a very heavy investment in philanthropy, but in business they liked to fly under the radar. The Sacklers (if you’ve been living under a rock like me) are the biggest name in the opioid crisis that has rocked the States in the last few decades. In 1952, the Sackler brothers bought the small pharmaceutical company, Purdue-Frederick, which was turned into Purdue Pharma in 1987 after the death of Arthur. In 1996, Purdue first released OxyContin onto the market. OxyContin is a variation of oxycodone, an opioid used to treat severe pain. Opioids (another variation of which is fentanyl) are derived directly from the alkaloids found in the opium poppy. Make no mistake, this is heroin, just by another name. (Heroin, incidentally, has an established history in the West: It’s the brand name for a variation of morphine that was trademarked by the Bayer pharmaceutical company in 1895.)

Having unleashed OxyContin onto the market, Purdue wasted no time in developing ‘the commercialisation of drug production, trade and marketing’, and from its release in 1996 to 2000, the company’s annual revenue increased from 48 million to 1.1 billion dollars. Prescriptions rose from 670,000 in 1997 to 6.2 million in 2002. Fast forward a few years to 2017, and the number of prescriptions for (all) opioids in the US was 191 million. Talk about creating an epidemic. The number of deaths from opioid overdose from 1999 to 2017 is quoted at over 200,000. All of the above was facilitated and made possible by what are essentially white-collar drug peddlers. The numbers above are only for prescription-related deaths and do not count those who died from illegal narcotics. Once the epidemic was set in motion, the US then became victim to illicit opioids manufactured in Mexico and China and imported into the country.

Where it gets sinister is with the ‘Ensuring patient access and drug enforcement act’ of 2014. With the opioid crisis in full swing, the DEA was at war with the pharmaceutical companies, in some instances shutting down distributors directly in order to slow the output of opioids onto the street. The act, also known as the Marino Bill, was drafted by a former lawyer for the DEA who knew exactly the kind of language with which to pepper it, and with a smattering of bribes to congressmen and women, the bill was pushed through, enabling the industry to tie the hands of the DEA and ensure continual and unrestricted access to the markets. Big pharma was once again free to peddle their narcotics. Much like William Jardine had rallied the British government to go to war with China to protect the opium trade, the pharmaceutical companies bought the US government so that their business could continue unabated.

One of the most pernicious, yet well-organized and profitable drug trades that has ever existed.

That’s how Trocki described the (primarily British) European drug trade in Asia that almost destroyed entire countries. Yet the quote above may well have been a tagline for the HBO documentary, attributed to the Sacklers and the owners of the major pharmaceutical companies involved in manufacturing the modern opioid epidemic.

Corruption isn’t new, it’s been around ever since political systems first arose. But it’s a sad fact that money, everywhere and at any time, is the major deciding factor when it comes to political policy, and, indeed, justice. What’s the difference between William Jardine and Lo Aqui, or Richard Sackler and El Chapo, for instance? Essentially, nothing. One wears a suit and the face of respectability, the other is vilified. All are high-level dealers. Junk peddlers, nothing more.

Accountability? Not something you need to worry about if you’re a narco but buy your shirts from the same tailor as your local politician.    

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘White-collar narcos: the respectable face of the junk trade’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

%d bloggers like this: