Opium as a Historical Commodity

David Bello (Washington and Lee University)

Overview: Opium as a historical global commodity

Understanding opium as a global commodity is complicated by wide and often simultaneous variations in its legal status between states and sometimes even within a single domain. Unlike most other global commodities, opium has always been illegal somewhere for certain purposes, although never everywhere for all purposes. This equivocal condition has generally arisen from distinctions different states and societies have made between production, distribution and consumption intended to control this psychoactive substance for economic, political and social purposes. Confronting the contradictions of this condition accounts for much of opium’s history as a global commodity under capitalism in general and imperialism in particular.

These contradictions often become manifest as moral conflicts over opium that influence not only its commodification in practice, but also the analysis of its historical effects. In the context of imperialism that both constructed and was constructed by opium, this conflict is often expressed as differences between “native” and “metropolitan” constituencies. Indigenous nationalism, for example, tends to be prohibitionist, while metropolitan colonialism tends to be, particularly in its early stages, pro-drug. These binary distinctions have made it difficult in the past or present to avoid passing judgment on the traffic of opium as an intrinsic part of any analysis; a problem only exacerbated by the general consensus of recent work that drug commodification was a basis for European imperialism “east of Suez”. Currently, historians of the opium traffic can be crudely divided between those who proceed from the assumptions of Fairbank’s 1978 quote to the effect that that the traffic was essentially harmful and immoral and those who proceed from Newman’s 1995 quote to the effect that the traffic’s harm and immorality have been exaggerated.[1]