The Forefathers of Crack

September 25, 2007

AS UNIQUELY PERPLEXING AS THE SCOURGE of cocaine may seem, it is but the youngest of a long lineage of substances which provide novel sensory experiences. The economic forces driving cocaine's pro- duction and generating hostility toward it are no differ- ent today from what they were three centuries ago when the rising flood of commerce in tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco linked Western Europe to its tropical colonies and revolutionized world consumption. Precious objects and materials in great variety-ivory, dyes, spices, medicines, plants, silk-had been carried across the earth's surface for millennia to satisfy the cravings of the rich and power- ful. In the concluding decades of the seventeenth cen- tury, merchants, plantation owners, slave traders, bank- ers and government officials discovered that satisfying the desires of the humble might prove even more profit- able than pleasing the palates of the wealthy. Chief among those nonessential foods were the bitter stimulant beverages-coffee from the Middle East, chocolate from the New World, tea from China-and sugar. Their first appearance in Europe was linked to Europe's aggressive outward thrusts beginning at the end of the fifteenth century and rising in tempo thereaf- ter. Making these beverages intensely sweet, as well as calorie-rich, was sugar-known to the Europeans for centuries, but rare and precious until it began to arrive in substantial quantities from the New World. Though not a food, tobacco accompanied these other novelties and came to be consumed with happy, almost meal-like regu- larity. As more and more disinherited rural people gathered in Europe's cities and industrial production spread, tea and sugar came to satisfy people who were hungry anyway. The sweet calories were welcome, the hot drink itself made a cold meal seem warm, and the stimulant cheered the ill, the ill-fed, the overworked, the very young, the elderly. Often supplanting more nutritive substances- including beer, ale and broth-tea led the new pattern of consumption, changing from a treat for royalty to the very symbol of working class hospitality and homeyness, the first pause that refreshed. While the English became strongly habituated to tea and sugar, the tropical areas where they were produced underwent drastic transformations. Tea remade the In- dian subcontinent and the economic life of its peoples. VOLUME XXII, NO. 6 (MARCH 1989) 31RCOC Am4a COCA The production of the leaf became a means for the control of land, the regimentation of labor and the ex- pansion of British civil and military power. In the An- tilles, sugar brought enslavement, the destruction of in- digenous peoples and the reordering of life around the plantation. It drew over a million and a half enslaved Africans to the British West Indies between the 1640s and the end of the British slave trade in 1808. H ARDLY ONE OF THE NEW COMMODITIES of the seventeenth century escaped proscription by someone, somewhere. Sugar doubtless fared best be- cause its immediate physiological consequences do not take a visible form-slurring of speech, flushing or diz- ziness, 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 nu- tritive 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 sub- jugated with opium. Grown in India and smuggled into China by the British, it paid for the vast quantities of tea the Honourable East India Co. took out. The Chinese complained fairly that the British re- fused to peddle it in England. In dramatic contrast to tea, the damage opium effects is rapid and catastrophic-nearly complete physiological degenera- tion. Like heroin, cocaine, "crack" and possibly mari- juana, absolutely no increase in productivity results from its use. T HE PHARMACEUTICAL DIFFERENCE BE- tween 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 con- sumer 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 unlim- ited, to be sure, but it is substantial. After all, Coca-Cola began as an imitation of the famous French "medicine" Vin 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 nearly unchallenge- able. Yet there are times when the consumption of such substances are so deleterious that it interferes with worker efficiency and production. Ought not "capital- ism" 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; capi- talists do. And they struggle with each other where their interests differ: individual against individual, corpora- tion against corporation, region against region, govern- ment 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 than 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 rather than automobiles, transistor ra- dios 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. S NCE COCAINE CAN SHARPLY REDUCE general consumption, as well as wreck individual productivity and taxpaying, a vigorous capitalist econ- omy has difficulties with widespread addiction among wage earners. One can barely imagine a time when a milder version, properly prepared under state supervi- sion for public purchase, might enter into the circuits of everyday commerce. Legalization of marijuana seems less improbable, in view of the hallowed place of alco- hol 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 vast and irrevers- ible 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 econ- omy is domesticated by respectable capitalists and the state, and the drug itself is made less toxic.

Tags: Coca, cocaine, drug trade, addiction

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