Pubdate: Mon, 08 Dec 2003
Source: Straits Times (Singapore)
Copyright: 2003 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.
Author: Deep K. Datta-Ray
Note: The author, a visiting researcher at the Institute of South-east Asian
Studies, is currently pursuing an MA at King's College, London.


LONDON - British Home Secretary David Blunkett has reclassified
cannabis to the lowest grade on the scale of controlled substances.
The British government - and others including Canada and several US
states - are re-evaluating their narcophobic views which took root a
century and a half ago in China and led to the Opium Wars.

Governments are realising that not all drugs are an unmitigated evil
and a difference is being drawn between synthetic hard drugs that
threaten society and purified natural substances with medicinal values
and a place in Asia's traditional cultures.

The war that Western imperialism forced on the decaying Qing empire,
and which identified China as the original victim - Patient Zero - of
a global drug plague, actually coincided with the conviction among
both the Chinese and British governments that drugs were bad and
required suppressing.

Understandably, the opium trade has been called 'the most
long-continued and systematic international crime of modern times'
perpetrated by the West on a vulnerable Asian nation. But what exactly
was the effect of this supposedly pernicious substance?

Opium's impact on health has been dramatised. Medical evidence points
to only one effect - mild constipation. In Britain, frequent users did
not suffer any detrimental effects. On the contrary, they enjoyed good
health into their eighties.

South Asians took opium pills without any serious social or physical
damage. In contrast, imported European spirits faced strong opposition
from India's Hindus and Muslims. Contrary to folklore, few opium users
in China or elsewhere lost control of themselves.

In the late 1930s, when prices soared in Canton, most users halved
their consumption to make ends meet. Obviously, spiralling addiction
was not the inevitable result of smoking.

China's elite in the tumultuous 1800s regarded opium as the new status
symbol - like fine calligraphy in traditional society. Connoisseurship
was a carefully cultivated gentleman's art and 'Patna opium' the
exotic indulgence. Smoking paraphernalia became collectors' items,
much like Europeans collected Wedgwood tea sets. Expensive pipes
fashioned out of precious blackwood or jade and inlaid with ornate
silver decoration became social markers.

Rock-bottom prices in the late 19th century nationalised an elite
pastime without any of the sinister effects that haunt the lay
imagination. A British consul in Hainan reported that 'although nearly
everyone uses it, one never meets the opium skeleton vividly depicted
in philanthropic works, rather the reverse - a hardy peasantry,
healthy and energetic'.

Seeking the dismal opium den of lore, Somerset Maugham found clean and
tidy places, as a League of Nations report in 1930 noted, where the
only customers were an elderly rubicund gentleman reading a newspaper,
two friends chatting over a pipe, and a family with a child!

'Opium was our medicine, it was all we had,' cried an ex-Kuomintang
soldier. Opium was the only pain-killer available to Britain's working
classes until penicillin appeared in the 1940s.

In the early 1820s, a painful global cholera epidemic proved opium to
be the perfect analgesic though, admittedly, it also caused

So why did the world engage in what Professor Frank Dikotter of
London's School of Oriental and African Studies calls a narcophobic

As modern medicine developed, the new European medical associations
sought moral authority and legal power by transforming opium from a
European and Asian folk remedy into a controlled substance.

At the same time, narcophobia became an effective scapegoat for
China's rulers. Opium was both the enemy within - morally depraved and
physically weak addicts - and the enemy outside - conniving foreign
powers bent on enslaving the country.

But the cure proved worse than the disease. Smokers incarcerated in
detoxification centres died often within days after relying for years
on opium to combat various diseases.

Tragically, the ban encouraged smuggling of hard drugs like morphine,
heroin and cocaine which are a menace to stability. They did not
require complicated user paraphernalia. What was needed were syringes,
which the poor re-used without disinfecting. Needles spread disease
and hundreds of bodies with injection marks were found by the road in
Manchurian cities.

In trying to erase an unhappy past, communist China also stamped out a
sophisticated smoking culture that had evolved over centuries.
Europeans introduced tobacco in the 16th century, the Chinese laced it
with opium in the 18th century, and dropped the tobacco in the 19th as
the quality of British opium improved and stabilised.

The circle closed in the 20th century with a return to tobacco in the
form of cigarettes. Deng Xiaoping attributed his longevity to
cigarettes. 'Young Asia no longer smoked (opium) because grandfather
smoked,' noted the famous French philosopher Jean Cocteau.

Mr Blunkett is forcing Britain to shake off a century of narcophobia
by downgrading marijuana and focusing on the very real danger posed by
synthetic substances. That is well and good. What is still required,
though, is more examination of Patient Zero's example and experience,
and a truly effective global drug policy that protects public health
without counter-productive alarms and excursions.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin