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Labor Action, 20 January 1947


Arthur Stein

Opium: A Device of Imperialist Policy


From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 3, 20 January 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Addiction to one of the narcotic drugs – opium, heroin, marihuana, cocain, among many others – is a striking symbol of human degeneracy. There are many avenues of escape from the problems of the real world – insane fanaticism, for example. Of these, the one with the most complete, most dehumanizing, and most suicidal effect is the addiction to narcotics.

In this sense, opium has become the symbol of capitalist imperialism. For though it was mainly Japan which used opium as an imperialist weapon during this last war, it should never be forgotten that opium has always been part of the paraphernalia of imperialist exploitation. The beastly use to which the Japanese put the drug during the last two decades is merely a magnified continuation of practices learned from the western powers.

The Portuguese were the first to introduce the opium vice to the Far East, but it was the British who were largely responsible for the popularization of the drug. It was they who saw to it that India-produced stocks reached China; it was they who fought the infamous “Opium Wars” with China for the right to pour the poison into that country. And in regard to the role of American capitalists, I wish to quote Dr. Herbert H. Gowen from his history of Asia:

“If should be remembered that American traders had their share in the opium traffic. American vessels had the monopoly of taking Turkish opium to China. In 1839, 1,500 of the chests of opium seized by Commissioner Lin were the property of one American firm. When the trade was legalized in 1858 the action had the support of the American plenipotentiary.”


A favorite method of keeping an oppressed population fairly content is to provide it with a frequent and cheap means of escape from the world. From the point of view of the imperialists, the spread of opium to achieve this end has the added advantage of slowly undermining all the tissues of the human body, thus weakening the people’s power of resistance. Opium is fatally habit-forming: an addict who has become accustomed to the daily consumption of the drug dies soon after when deprived of his ration. And yet, while he cannot stop his consumption, each additional ounce he smokes further destroys his body and brings nearer his premature death.

Forced upon People Against Their Will

The Japanese militarists, with their unusual ability to assimilate and improve upon the lessons taught by the Western powers in the art and practice of imperialist plunder, had the conscious aim of spreading the opium vice to the majority of the population under their control. They succeeded, according to an official report published in Vol. 5, No. 1 of The China Quarterly, in providing between one-fourth and one-third of the population of occupied China with opium and heroin, an opium derivative. In order to assure themselves of an adequate supply of the drug, they forced peasants to cultivate the opium poppy by making land taxes payable in this crop. Thus, it is reported that the poppy acreage in Manchuria doubled in 1934, increased threefold in 1936, and doubled again in 1937.

Since the resistance against the drug was often strong, the Japanese designed methods of converting people into addicts against their own will. Japanese-imported candy in China and Manchuria often contained opium, and innocent children thus became hopeless addicts before they were old enough to know the meaning of that word. Heroin-loaded cigarettes sold for much less than the Chinese type, and patent medicines, sold in Japanese-occupied China, often served as disguises for the “imperial drug.”

The sale of narcotics, moreover, was publicly advertised wherever the Japanese army was in control. In 1939 there were 200 heroin factories in Tientsin, each producing between 25 and 100 pounds a day. Nanking, a year later, had 32 wholesale establishments dealing with narcotic drugs, 340 opium smoking dens, and 120 hotels licensed to sell dope. With typical imperialist cynicism, the official Japanese agency responsible for opium distribution was called the “Opium Suppression Bureau.” Paragraph 18 of the official Japanese military handbook, issued to all Japanese soldiers, read as follows:

“The use of narcotics is unworthy of a superior race like the Japanese. Only inferior decadent races like the Chinese, Europeans and East Indians are addicted to the use of narcotics. This is why they are destined to become our servants and eventually to disappear.”

But it was impossible to control the spread of opium to the occupying troops. Many Japanese workers, conscripted against their will into the military death machine of the bankers and industrialists, often faced the added peril of falling victim to opium addiction.

British Continue Sale, Manufacture of Drug

The defeat of Japan has eased the opium situation in the Far East to some extent. But it should not be supposed that the problem is solved, or ever will be solved as long as imperialism remains. In India and Burma, Britain continues its policy of growing, producing, and selling opium without restriction. To a suggestion by the United States (which, not having formal governmental control over any territories in the Far East, can well afford to appear as the great humanitarian) to the effect that the selling of opium should be limited to purely medical and scientific needs, the British Foreign Office, in a note to the State Department dated August 13, 1945, replied as follows:

Until medical facilities are available on a greatly increased scale, it would not be practicable, wise, or indeed humane, to require that consumption of opium should be limited to purposes formally certified to be medical and scientific.”

Thus, after having deprived the Indian and Burmese peoples of adequate medical facilities, it seems to be the position of the British government that feeding them opium is “humane.” The somewhat dubious logic according to which two wrongs make one right has become the logic of His Majesty’s Foreign Office.


But what about the United States – what about all those countries where the illicit sale and consumption of opium is rigidly suppressed by the government?

It would be entirely wrong to assume that addicts are made only through force and violence. As in the case of some Japanese soldiers during the war, many seek dope in the face of the strictest attempts by governments to curb the practice.

For although in America and Europe it is in the interests of the capitalist class to try to protect he bodies of its wage slaves and future cannon fodder from opium, the life capitalism has to offer to its victims is so full of misery and sordidness that the consumption of illegally acquired narcotic drugs is a popular method of escaping into a world of bliss.

As the hero of Aleister Crowley’s The Diary of a Drug Fiend put it, after he had returned from combat duty in the First World War:

“What we had to do was to get married as quickly as we could, and lay in a stock of cocaine, and go away and have a perfectly glorious time for ever and ever.”

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