Drug addicts are always picked on in times of anxiety and so it is today. The hardline right-wing approach is seen at its most extreme in the war on drugs waged by President Duterte of the Philippines and condemned by Catholic bishops. After he was elected last year Duterte visited a slum in Manila and said: “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.” More than 7,000 have been murdered by police and vigilantes.
In the West – in the US particularly – the worry is over the heavy use of opioids, both painkillers too freely prescribed and illegal heroin. What to do about it? Conservative commentators like the American Christopher Caldwell think the answer is to get tough – on users as well as dealers.
Drugs have always been the bane of society, says Caldwell in First Things, and he claims that “the tally of wrecked middle-class families and lives was already high by the time Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914”.
But that is not true. What there was in 1914 was a lot of hysteria and prejudice – like the belief that cocaine caused “negroes” to rape white women or the irrational fear of Chinese opium dens.
As the academic Virginia Berridge showed some years ago in her exhaustive study Opium and the People, the clamping down through legislation at the time of the First World War was tied up with global politics and the desire to control the opium trade in the Far East, as America expanded its interests into that region. It was convenient to characterise addiction as a medical and social problem.
Before that, Berridge says, throughout the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, opiates were freely available over the counter in powder, pill or liquid form (laudanum was invented by Thomas Sydenham in the 1660s). They were used to varying degrees in all levels of society.
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