by Paulo Pereira
In recent years, tens of thousands of Americans have died of opioid related overdoses, and millions of Americans are classified by the country’s health agency standards as having some sort of problematic opioid use. Canada is facing a similar situation. Current research shows that it may also emerge in Latin America and even reach a global dimension, fuelled by the actions of transnational pharmaceutical corporations.
The current opioid crisis in the United States highlights not only the complexity of the drug market, but also the difficulties and dangers of antagonizing the legal and the illegal. The multibillion-dollar drug market for illicit and licit drugs is transnational, mobilizing public and private actors operating on a local, national, and global scale in different scenarios of formal peace, peacebuilding, and war. These two social spaces of drug circulation — illicit and licit — connect in different ways, generating contradictions and ethical and political dilemmas.
Donald Trump, who last year defined US opioid consumption as a crisis and a “Public Health Emergency” is now stating that the only way to address the problem is through tough penalties for traffickers, the most effective of which would be the death penalty. According to Trump, “other countries” have reduced problems with illicit drugs in this way.
The countries Trump refers to are China and the Philippines, with which he has shown great empathy regarding their treatment of drug issues. A senior Trump administration official quotes the president having said, “You know the Chinese and Filipinos don’t have a drug problem. They just kill them [the traffickers].” Indeed in 2017, in a phone conversation that was leaked to the public, Trump congratulated Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on his drug policy, stating, “What a beautiful job you are doing!”
Duterte’s policy consists of extrajudicial killings through the Philippine National Police as a means of stopping illicit drug trade and consumption in the country. Denounced by several human rights groups, an estimated 12,000 murders have resulted from this policy so far. China, for its part, has a recurrent practice of conducting public trials at stadiums for thousands of accused. Those charged with drug trafficking, murder, or theft, if convicted, are executed immediately.
In the wider political landscape, the US administration, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has pressured Congress to reduce the threshold of drugs for mandatory minimum sentences on people convicted of marketing opioids, to increase surveillance on the internet (a common way to purchase opioids), and to demand a more punitive stance by prosecutors throughout the country.
In the international sphere of illicit opium market repression, Trump’s policies target Mexico, one of the countries producing heroin consumed in the United States and a transit route for synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, produced in China. At the heart of this policy is the infamous wall to be built on the US–Mexico border, the lynchpin of Trump’s segregationist mantra during his election campaign. It is worth noting the 16% increase in resources aimed at reducing the supply of illicit drugs between 2007 and 2017, from US $13.3 billion to US $15.4 billion. The demand for 2018 is $15.6 billion, an increase of more than $200 million.
But the heavy-handed tactics used against the most vulnerable operators of the illicit market contrast sharply with the light touch towards those in the legal market. Led by several transnational pharmaceutical corporations under the seal of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — the federal agency responsible for authorizing the marketing of medicines in the country — the development of this market has been identified as being responsible for the surge in opioid addiction in the United States. Even Jeff Sessions, who leads the repressive blitz against the illicit market, acknowledged some months ago at the White House Opium Summit that “about 80% of addictions today start with prescription drugs.”
Thus, Trump’s clamour for a “drug-free society,” repeated ad nauseam in speeches across the country, seems contradictory, yet justifies the maintenance of the licit opioid market status quo. It is not about the drugs themselves, but about the way they are produced and marketed. Trump’s aim is not a society without opioids, but a society in which the only opioids used are those considered by the state as licit. In other words, those integrated with the dynamics of capitalist accumulation via transnational pharmaceutical corporations.
It allows us to understand, for example, government actions to establish public–private partnerships with pharmaceutical corporations to ensure the expansion of the medicine market. The invention of the “non-addictive analgesics” panacea, for example, for which “a lot of money” has been earmarked. Public money, by the way. This is seen as one of the main “solutions” to the so-called “opioid crisis.”
In this sense, the reassertion by the State that pharmaceutical corporations are legitimate opioid drug dealers reinforces the criminalization of groups excluded from this licit circuit that connects, in a very specific way, capital and power. In this game of politics and money, where the illicit is the by-product of the licit, the focus of state protection is capitalist pharmaceutical corporations. The focus of state repression, on the other hand, targets individuals in an extensive degradé along the domestic and international spheres. Latin American groups within and outside the United States are the most affected, particularly Mexicans and Dominicans, identified by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as being responsible for running this illicit market.
It seems that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” or rather, in the capitalist realm of opioids, led by pharmaceutical corporations under the protection of the US State. The maintenance of this kingdom now demands the death penalty.
Paulo Pereira is an assistant professor of the International Relations Department at Pontificia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP), Brazil. He researches security issues on transnational crime and international drug control in the Americans. He was a visiting researcher at the University of Ottawa in 2017–2018. You can reach him at [email protected].