The political economy of drugs

Almost all the newspapers carried banner headlines about the arrest of Makandure Madush by Dubai Police at a party held in a six-star hotel in Dubai. It was said that Makandure Madush has been the key figure behind many a crime executed in Sri Lanka in the last decade or so. As usual, all the politicians are trying hard to get the credit of the arrest of Madush.

At the same time the politicians are trying to prove appearing on media that they have no links whatsoever with him. This piece is not about the nexus between intoxicants and power politics notwithstanding the fact that it is not so difficult to establish such a relationship. The question I pose here reads something like this: How do we understand the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of drugs –narcotics – that have intoxication effect?

Imperialism and Drugs

The production, distribution, exchange and consumption of drugs has historically linked with alien powers and even today all these non-legal economic functions are carried out by people who have power or links with the holders of power. That is why ‘war on drugs’ like ‘war on terror’ has always become a farce. Powerful mafia knows how to evade laws and the execution of law. When British imperialists had started imports of opium from Kolkata and Madras to China, the Qing Government resisted imposing strict laws barring the imports of opium. The following account summarises the effort then made by the Chinese Imperial Government.

“Opium has a harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law! However, recently the purchasers, eaters, and consumers of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch’ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the General Commandant of the Police and police-censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates.

If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung [Guangdong] and Fukien [Fujian], the provinces from which opium comes, we order their Viceroys, Governors, and Superintendents of the Maritime Customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!”

However, the decree had little effect so that China by the 1820s was importing 900 long tons of Bengali opium annually draining its silver reserve and doping around twelve million people. When Chinese authorities confiscated and destroyed opium imported to China, British Imperialists sent forces that ravaged the Chinese coast in a series of battles and dictated the terms of settlement. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking not only opened the way for further opium trade at lower tariff, but ceded the territory of Hong Kong.

As many researches have revealed, alcohol played a key function in destroying native population in Africa, North America and Australia.

Political Economy of Drugs

Political economy proposes to look at the drug problem not as a moral question although it does not deny the moral implications of production, distribution and consumption of multiple form of intoxicants. Karl Marx in

analysing capitalist economy in his magnum opus Capital Vol. 2, divided the macro economy into two big departments or sectors. The two sectors are: the department of means of production and the department of means of consumption.

While the former produces all kind of capital goods necessary to carry on the process of production and reproduction, the latter produces all kinds of consumer goods. The exchange between two departments may generate either an equilibrium solution or a disequilibrium one. If the latter is the result, the economy would be in a disproportionality crisis. Although Marx’s simple model divides the entire production in capitalistic economy into two departments, the real life situations are more complex so needs some modifications or additions.

The capitalistic system in addition to means of production and means of consumption produces military goods like guns, missiles, and bombs that can neither be consumed nor be used in the process of production. However, the production these military goods may result in the creation of surplus, thus leading to increase profit. Michael Kidron added to Marx’s two-sector model a third sector called the department of means of destruction. This department of means of destruction contributes to the expansion of capitalist system in variety of ways.

Even disregarding its role for powerful nations like the USA to politically dominate small countries by military invasions, we may specify purely economic function of this new department. It can invest the unutilized surplus and the demand for military goods would help in filling the demand deficit that would emerge in the capitalist system.

I propose that the production, distribution and consumption of drugs and all forms of intoxicants be discussed as sub-sector of the department of means of destruction because of its destructive powers. It does not directly contribute to the production or reproduction. In contrast, production and consumption of drugs destroy productive powers of the people. Nonetheless, it would help capitalist production indirectly pharmaceutical production and the production of health and related services.

Hence capitalism needs the production, distribution and consumption of narcotics and all kinds of intoxicants for its continuation. That is why like the ‘war on terror’ the ‘war on drugs’ would not succeed in spite of so much rhetoric.


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