The perverse priorities of capitalism are most clearly reflected in the market place; if harmful products can be sold easily, capital will be switched in the hope of realising this potential of larger profits. This often forces the capitalist class to pass legislation in which the interests of the minority of capitalists directly benefitting are sacrificed to the broader well-being of the class as a whole. Certain minimum standards of health and safety are laid down so that the usefulness of the working class to capitalist production is not too greatly impaired by such things as adulterated food, industrial pollution, or the side effects of so-called “wonder” drugs.
Naturally those capitalists profiting by the sale of a harmful product will play down the dangers and try to find a loophole in protective legislation. For when Chemie Gruenenthal, the original German inventor of thalidomide, discovered that they had produced a killer drug they at first tried to continue marketing the drug, while spreading confusion about it. Johann Goden, Gruenenthal’s representative in Cologne took the lead by suggesting that the drug be mixed with other sedatives so that “if it proves impossible to keep things dark . . . any side effect could then be attributed to the other preparations. But heaven help us if this expedient turns into a boomerang”. Later he visited a clinic and reported back “I took the opportunity to explain our standpoint over the peripheral neuritis problem” [one of the side effects] “and did my best to foster confusion over the subjects  Goden was as clear as anyone could be that considerable further harm would result from further sales of thalidomide, yet he continued to work actively to that end. This drug, like so many others, was originally considered to be safe, and the harmful side effects were only discovered later. There is however an industry, operating within the capitalist system but in most countries outside its legal framework, the harmful longterm effects of whose products have been known for a very long time. Yet it is flourishing now as never before, despite the current recession. This is the narcotics industry, which lures the wrecks of capitalism with a transient escape from all its woes, but leaves them evermore desperate for the next dose, and for the money to buy it.
The cultivation of opium from the oriental poppy, concentrated mainly in the so-called Golden Triangle in South Fast Asia, predates capitalism by many centuries. It was discovered that smoking the petals in long pipes, or hookahs, helped to relieve the drudge of the continual struggle for existence. The sensations of dreamlike euphoria, relaxation and the absence of pain are however bought at a price. The development of tolerance by the body means that ever increasing doses are required to excite the same response, and this can lead to dire consequences. This is more particularly the case with the opium derivatives which can be more easily absorbed and therefore work faster. Laudanum and morphine have genuine medical uses in emergency cases but addiction to them, and more particularly to heroin, supplied in a form which can be injected into the veins, does nothing but harm to the victim. The symptoms include lassitude, depression, sallow complexion, jitters, loss of appetite and insomnia. There is also damage to the circulatory system, as veins become useless following repeated injections.
Also of ancient origin is the cultivation of cannabis (Indian hemp) and marijuana. The latter (similar to hashish, long associated with Arabia and the Levant), is a plant which flourishes in North America. Unlike the opium derivatives, this family of drugs are much less habit forming. In consequence there is a strong lobby in many countries in favour of legalising their use. However well meaning the protagonists on either side, this is really no more than an argument about the cheapest way, from the capitalist viewpoint, of controlling the problem. Marijuana and cannabis are usually smoked in tobacco laced with the drug, which can produce a growing intoxication and sense of well being. In the long term there can be vivid colour hallucinations and relaxation of inhibitions, accompanied by a lethargy that acts to prevent the sufferer from becoming violent. Cocaine, in contrast to the opiates, is a stimulant sometimes used by doctors to relieve fatigue. Its use can lead to over-confidence, garrulousness and unnatural euphoria, overdosing to weakness, emaciation and depression.
Drug addiction is a serious problem to the capitalist employers because the addict cannot operate as an efficient cog in the production machine, indeed is often incapable of any work effort at all. Because of this inability to find employment, the confirmed addict will turn to crime in order to pay for “shots”. It was however not until 1909 that the capitalist class were sufficiently concerned to undertake any collaborative international action in this sphere. In that year an Opium Commission met in Shanghai, involving 14 countries led by the USA, the country which had then, and still has now, the most serious addiction problem. The object was to control movement from one country to another. The first Interhational Narcotics Convention met at the Hague in 1912, and five other Conventions up to 1936 were attempts progressively to check the traffic at its source and to control opium production, importation and exportation. This Convention eventually totted up 85 signatories, but all these efforts have been almost totally ineffective. The producing countries did not take the drastic action demanded to license production and collect all the opium produced. They were unwilling for the simple reason that the trade was too profitable and the effect on their own national economics would have been too severe. Consequently cultivation has continued and efforts to illegally smuggle the drug into other countries have been intensified. Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok are the main ports involved, but there is now a growing traffic by air. In the 1950s and 1960s “Communist” China became a major source of smuggled heroin, most of the supply to Hong Kong now arriving by the overland route.