From 1839-1842, China’s sovereignty was threatened by drugs in what came to be known as the Opium Wars. It’s a long story, but to make it short and sticking to the facts, Great Britain wanted what China had, mostly tea, porcelain and silk, but other exotics too. The trade went through Hong Kong and Guangzhou (aka Canton). But the cost in currency (silver) was high for what amounted to 20 million pounds of tea and silk a year; so, introduce opium from India, about 5,600,000 pounds per year, and drug dealers did their work by selling opium to Chinese merchants in exchange for desired Chinese goods. By 1839, the East India Company was realizing about $280 million in profits.
Drugs were saturating imperial China and the Qing government had lost control over the sale and proliferation of drugs poisoning its people. War ensued and the Chinese government basically bowed to western demands in the Treaty of Nanjing which included judicial extraterritoriality, meaning Europeans couldn’t be charged and prosecuted for crimes in China, and had the right to trade, unrestricted, through any Chinese ports Europeans wanted.
Why this historical summary of drugs into China in the 19th century? Well, because in some ways the tables have turned. We have a drug problem in America, and it is arguably rotting our society with poisonous, proliferating effects.
We think that our drug problem is with Mexico, and in many respects it is, because the Mexican government is passively indifferent to our drug problem. However, the facts are that the Mexican government has been largely bought off by the drug cartels in Mexico.
Historically, China had to deal with the socially corrosive effects of opium. Today the U.S. is dealing with a much more lethal poison, fentanyl. There is no weighted equivalency between opium and fentanyl. What makes fentanyl so scary and difficult to intercept at our borders is that tiny amounts, say in a camera case or a ballpoint pen, can kill tens of people. Also, it’s border-proof, because Americans are buying it via the internet, camouflaged in otherwise benign pretty-colored pills or powders. It’s very easy to make and because its doses are so small it’s also very easy to smuggle into the country, states, cities and towns.
So, where do the simple, rudimentary chemicals to formulate fentanyl come from? The People’s Republic of China. Hence, the great reversal, or the turning of the tables. China has not been helpful in limiting the flow of these component chemicals and doesn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry to help us out with our problem. The Biden Administration has not made this enough of a priority issue in its diplomatic dealings with China, which is troubling since fentanyl killed about 70,000 Americans last year (over 110,000 all drug overdoses — NPR). For perspective, that’s about 40,000 more Americans last year than were killed in the war in Vietnam.
It’s estimated, according to a recent report on PBS by Anne Milgram, U.S. Drug Enforcement administrator at the Department of Justice, that the U.S. seized about 14,000 pounds of fentanyl last year, which is equivalent to about 410 million doses of the lethal drug. She went on to say that social media and its carrier, the internet, have become the “superhighway” of drugs, especially for teens.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a problem with teens. Because so many drugs now are laced with fentanyl, many adults who think they are just having a weekend lark with a pill from a “trusted” source don’t realize that the “safe” pill is actually juiced up with fentanyl. Brian Mann of National Public Radio who has followed the drug problem for years was quoted recently as saying that between fentanyl and methamphetamine, over 100,000 people have died this past year from overdoses, overdoses which he calls “poisonings.”
Senator Menendez of New Jersey, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is holding hearings on combating fentanyl trafficking into the U.S. In his opening remarks he said that Mexico has shown a lack of urgency and an unwillingness to take action on the trafficking and was not a sincere partner in trying to stem the flow of fentanyl into the United States.
Greed is the grease that lubricates the entire supply chain of drugs infiltrating the United States. It’s a profitable but criminal business. Yet if China can make good money on component chemicals, and cartels can buy off government officials in Mexico and unscrupulous ne’er-do-well drug dealers in the U.S. can make large, tax-free profits, the problem gets to be almost intractable.
Our sovereignty is at stake, control over the governance of our own nation. It’s time for our own “Opium War,” a war on drugs that re-establishes our control over the depredations of this epidemic. That means diplomatic discomfort where necessary and painful international and domestic consequences for drug dealers and their enablers no matter how high up those connections may go.
We’re better equipped for such a fight than China was in the mid-19th century, but it takes a fierce willingness of leadership to do more than implore, rant, hold hearings or hope that the poison will just go away like another hazardous waste leak into the Ohio River.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.