Blog o’ the Humours

In which one modern American man, semi-permeable in both mind and body, through rarefied feats of biochemical introspection (powered by an impeccably cursory knowledge of contemporary biochemistry in admixture with an equally negligible grounding in thoroughly discredited medical theories of antiquity), (a) pinpoints the one internalized substance that has bested all others to govern his thought, temperament, behavior, and overall mojo on a given day, and (b) offers random ruminations on same.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


“Great Role Reversals in Drug History” Dept.:
• 1839: In the first of the “Opium Wars,” British gunships attack several Chinese port cities in an effort to compel the importation of opium into China. (China concedes.)
• 2001: In the (first of the?…) U.S.–Afghanistan War(s), Britain beseeches the U.S. to bomb 20+ drug labs in an effort to curtail the export of Afghan opium into Britain. (The U.S. refuses.)

Now, Great Britain is a nation that knows a thing or two about opium. In addition to spending a total of eleven years and two wars fighting the Chinese over the resin from the pods of Papaver somniferum L. (i.e., the “sleep-inducing poppy”), along with some similar 19th-c. adventures in Burma, the Brits have a proud opio-literary history that includes classics like Coleridge’s 1797 poem “Kubla Khan” (supposedly composed in mid–laudanum trip) and DeQuincey’s 1822 book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (the Million Little Pieces of its day, except that Mr. DeQuincey published his book as a novel, in light of the made-up bits, whereas Mr. Frey, uh, forgot to, or was, like, stoned at the time, or something….). More recently on the British storytelling landscape, the BBC’s 1989 TV miniseries Traffik schooled households throughout the British Isles in the intricacies of the flood of Pakistani and Afghan opium and heroin into the U.K. (The subsequent Hollywood film, of course, changed the title’s “k” to a “c” and the drug-in-question from “H” to “C”—dovetailing more conveniently with U.S. narco-geography.) So, in sum, you’d think any nation with a lick of sense would lend an ear to British beseechings when it comes to opium.

That said, the U.S. knows how to spin a good druggy yarn too, of course. Remember the “War on Drugs”? That is to say, the loosely and conveniently elusively defined, never-winnable thus always-fundable straw-man/bogey-man war before the “War on Terror”? That was a good tale that had a good long run. As late as May 24, 2001, The New York Times was reporting our government’s delight with the Taliban for their ban against growing opium poppies as “a sin against the teachings of Islam,” with Colin Powell announcing a $43 million grant to benefit “those farmers who have felt the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome.”1 That it took the Taliban such a very long time to reach their particular religious epiphany vis-à-vis opium was beside the point, apparently, as was the fact that we were dropping this money in the laps of the Burqa Fashion Police. Mullah Omar had just said no, and that’s what counted—then.

But fast-forward to just after 9/11, when the millions we dropped in the Taliban’s laps came in the form of explosives. The Brits, still mindful of the Taliban’s ongoing role in opium processing and trafficking (and that cessation of growing poppies for a spell had driven up the street price of heroin nicely, it turns out), thought it might be a good idea, since we were (bombing) in the neighborhood anyway, to take out upwards of 25 Taliban-supported Afghan drug labs. As N.Y. Times reporter James Risen (he of the "Warrantless Wiretapping" scoop) described the scenario in his recent book State of War, quoting one of his sources inside the C.I.A., “‘On the day after 9/11, that target list was ready to go, and the military and NSC threw it out the window,’ said the CIA source. ‘We had tracked these targets for years. The drug targets were big places, almost like small towns that did nothing but produce heroin. The British were screaming for us to bomb those targets, because most of the heroin in Britain comes from Afghanistan. But they refused.’ If the United States had bombed those facilities, the CIA source added, ‘it would have slowed down drug production in Afghanistan for a year or more.’”2

But, of course, there was a new administration- and budget-defining “War” on the horizon, so Drugs took a backseat to Terror, just as bin Laden would soon take a back seat to Saddam.

Fast-forward to late 2003, when the war in Afghanistan was as forgotten as yesterday’s turd: Once again, the American military was made aware of wide-open drug trafficking in Afghanistan, and once again, the easy targets were ignored, because, as Risen quotes Bobby Charles, former head of the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, “‘Rumsfeld didn’t want drugs to become a core mission.’”3 (The Brits took things in their own hands this time, it turns out, when a U.K. special forces team called in a U.S. air strike on just one Afghan drug lab in January of 2004, driving the price of heroin up 15% in a single stroke—as if further proof were needed of the connection between Afghanistan and international drug trafficking.)

And furthermore, per Risen: “Charles asked the CIA to analyze where the drug money was going in Afghanistan. The answer was chilling. The agency told Charles that it was probable that some of the drug profits were being funneled into the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al Qaeda–related group; the Hezb-i-Islami Group, controlled by an anti-American renegade, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the Taliban; and possibly al Qaeda itself.”4

And so our two recent national-fairytale nemeses come together in the end—Drugs coming to the rescue of Terror, with the “War” on neither doing much to stop either. And what somniferous yarn will the Spinner-in-Chief spin next?….

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

1 “At Heroin’s Source, Taliban Do What ‘Just Say No’ Could Not” by Barry Bearak, The New York Times, May 24, 2001
2 State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration by James Risen, p. 154
3 Risen, p. 158
4 Risen, p. 159
5 From “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


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