HARDLY one of the new commodities of the seventeenth century escaped
proscription by someone, somewhere. Sugar fared best because its immediate
physiological consequences do not take a visible form --slurring of speech
or dizziness, for instance. In all cases, the medicinal effects of the
substance were touted at the outset. From medicines, tea and coffee became
"foods": tobacco became food for the spirit.
As part of the struggle to get workers to the factories on time every Monday morning, tea --whatever its nutritive deficiencies-- appeared to increase productivity over the short term: tobacco helped to suppress hunger and calm the user; sugar provided large numbers of calories quickly. All yielded great profit to capital and the state and eventually became respectable, as control of production and sale came under the state's purview.
But what of opium? It too was an essential player in the unfolding British imperial chess game. Before tea was planted in large quantities in India, China was subjugated with opium. Grown in India and smuggled into China by the British, it paid for the... tea the Honourable East India Co. took out.
The Chinese complained fairly that the British refused to peddle it in England. In dramatic contrast to tea, the damage opium effects is rapid and catastrophic --nearly complete physiological degeneration. Like heroin, cocaine, "crack" and possibly marijuana, absolutely no increase in productivity results from its use.
THE pharmaceutical difference between opium and cocaine on the one hand,
and tea or coffee on the other, conceals the more important issue of the
role of capitalist enterprise in the production and movement of these substances.
The right of the consumer to use his/her buying power freely is one of
the touted political achievements of capitalist society. The right to kill
oneself with chosen products is not unlimited, to be sure, but it is substantial.
After all, Coca-Cola began as an imitation of the famous French "medicine"
Mariani: an inferior red Bordeaux generously laced with coca leaves.
Cocaine alkaloids only disappeared from Coca-Cola when federal narcotics
laws made it illegal; spent coca leaves still figure in its production.
Toxic substances such as tobacco and saccharine are actively retailed.
The public's right to consume alcohol remains so stoutly defended it is
Yet there are times when the consumption of such substances [is] so deleterious that it interferes with worker efficiency and production. Ought not "capitalism" somehow attempt to control it, even while trying to protect the sacred rights of the consumer? Of course, capitalism as an abstract category "does" nothing; capitalists do. And they struggle with each other where their interests differ: individual against individual, corporation against corporation, region against region, government against government --at each level submerging the interests of lesser groups to attain "higher" ends. The risks alcohol poses for labor productivity, for instance, are of less interest to the liquor industry that to others. Lung cancer that adds to the public debt burden does not distract tobacco corporations.
What makes cocaine truly sinful, even for those who can't just say no, is not its toxicity: It is produced, bought and sold under circumstances that prevent the state from taxing it, or even from taxing the investments made with the profit it yields. The galling difficulty of being unable to profit from unregulated consumption, experienced by capital and state alike, may be at least as irritating as the presence of so toxic a substance in the public schools. In the modern world, cocaine sins thrice: It interferes with labor productivity; the profits it garners are not made by "respectable" capitalists; and the state, in addition to what is spent to control and harass the purveyors, has trouble claiming its share. How many billions are channeled away from company coffers to be spent on cocaine rether than automobiles, transistor radios or ski vacations? In this case, the paramountcy of consumer freedom tends to be played down, even by the most enthusiastic advocates of free trade.
SINCE cocaine can sharply reduce general consumption, as well as wreck
individual productivity and taxpaying, a vigorous capitalist economy has
difficulties with widespread addiction among wage earners. One can barely
imagine a time when a milder version, properly prepared under state supervision
for public purchase, might enter into the circuits of everyday commerce.
Legalization of marijuana seems less improbable, in view of the hallowed
place of alcohol and tobacco in daily life and the general view that consumer
sovereignty is sacred.
Even as an illegal commodity, cocaine has acted much like its predecessor stimulants. It has found a ready and growing market, transforming the habits of millions of consumers while wreaking... irreversible changes on producer nations. And, perhaps more like opium than the others, cocaine has provoked a bitter struggle between two kinds of "free enterprise," a struggle which is bound to continue until the drug economy is domesticated by respectable capitalists and the state, and the drug itself is made less toxic.
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