Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Drugging the Poor: Legal and Illegal Drugs and Social Inequality


By Merrill Singer
WaveLand Press 2008
ISBN 978-1-57766-494-9

Reviewed by Marty N.


A marker for addiction is continued use despite negative consequences. Prof. Merrill Singer’s Drugging the Poor reminds us that those negative consequences have a more devastating impact on those at the bottom of the wealth distribution curve than at the top. Looking at addiction through the perspective of Critical Medical Anthropology (CMA), an academic discipline that merges the insights of public health and political economy, Prof. Merrill finds that the use of drugs such as nicotine, alcohol, and illegal psychotropics tends to perpetuate and accelerate the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

At the heart of Prof. Merrill’s book is a description of what he calls “drug capitalism.” The dividing line between legal drug pushers (the corporations in the alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drug businesses) and the illegal ones is much more blurry than is popularly believed. Respected corporations in fact frequently engage in illegal conduct and should be classified as criminal recidivists. Illegal drug organizations, on the other hand, have on occasion provided important social services and made charitable contributions. The illegal drug trade is exceedingly violent, but its mayhem seems petty by comparison with the blood-drenched birth of the tobacco and alcohol industries, both built on the slave trade. Even today, there is evidence that Big Tobacco has a hand in wholesale smuggling of cigarettes into third world countries (to evade taxes), and Big Pharma knowingly produces vastly more psychotropic drugs than are sold through legal prescription channels. The underground merchants who run the global trade in these mood-altering commodities readily switch between product lines – now liquor, now heroin, now pills, or whatever – as political-economic conditions dictate.

This fact-laden volume is the best short critical introduction available today to the pillars of the contemporary drug business, legal and otherwise. Every open-eyed person knows that individual drug use takes place in a social setting, and that personal decisions and the social environment are webbed together. That social environment is powerfully shaped and determined by its major economic and political institutions, including those that profit from addiction to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Prof. Singer’s CMA perspective provides a readable and research-rich overview of the influence that these power centers have over our culture, and in particular, over the culture of the poor, including the lucrative and devastating marketing efforts targeted at African-American and Latino minorities.

Although the book applies a searing spotlight to the major pillars of the drug economy, and will raise hackles in the board rooms of Altria, Anheuser-Busch, and many others, it is also in some ways a na├»ve book. One looks here in vain for a discussion of deliberate governmental injection of drugs into oppressed communities, on the model of Britain’s drive to establish opium addiction in China (hence the Opium Wars), or of more recent instances, such as the flooding of Los Angeles with crack to finance the Contra insurgency, the CIA’s role in transporting opium out of the Iron Triangle during the Vietnam years, and the current resurgence of heroin production in Afghanistan thanks to the U.S. invasion. Prof. Singer rightly criticizes the “War on Drugs” as wholly ineffective in curbing the supply of illegal drugs, but he does not suggest, as have others, that this outcome is intentional. Perhaps there are limits to what a professor at the University of Connecticut can safely write. Nevertheless, this book merits a place on the bookshelf of any person concerned with the cultural contexts in which contemporary addiction occurs. Particularly noteworthy is the final chapter, which briefly describes a selection of grass-roots efforts to abridge the power of legal and illegal drug pushers in the community.

-- Marty N.

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