170 years after Marx first suggested that religion is the opium of the people, his dictum still resonates as it has done down the years. The idea that society has a mechanism for distracting people from remedying the ills that really assail them won’t go away. As the grip of religion fades in increasingly secular societies, new candidates for distraction emerge. The most potent of these is opium itself, in the form of synthetic opioids, principally Fentanyl.
‘Potent’ is an understatement. The BBC reports that ‘According to America’s Drug Enforcement Agency, just 2mg of fentanyl – equivalent to a few grains of table salt – is a lethal dosage for most people.’ The available statistics concentrate on the most dramatic consequence of the drug, overdoses, but this is the tip of an extraordinary iceberg. In 2017 more than 190 million prescriptions for opioids were issued in the US. This is down from a peak of 255 million in 2012, but still a frightening figure. At the same time the non-prescription market is burgeoning, facilitated by cheapness and ease of availability: an attractive combination in the illegal drug market where Fentanyl is increasingly used to adulterate heroin in pursuit of higher profit margins. Terms like ‘crisis and and ‘epidemic’ are freely applied. At present, it is the US where the problem is prevalent, but other jurisdictions have no cause for complacency – there is a long and well-established history of American patterns of drug abuse spreading abroad after a while.
How does this fit with Marx’s dictum? It is instructive to take a look at the specific effects of opiates, opioids and Fentanyl in particular. Blotting out pain (psychological as well as physical), euphoria and dreamlike apathy are all instrumental in reducing the user’s likelihood to address the causes of discontent. Beyond this, the lifestyle of addiction constitutes an all-pervading displacement activity: eventually everything revolves around and is driven by the need to acquire the drug. No space for any other thought.
So this is where my worst suspicions are aroused. Are those with most to complain about also the ones most likely to lapse into opioid abuse? Are ease of availability and comparative cheapness providing a highly accessible route out of the misery of poverty or the anguish of inequality? Does a drug like Fentanyl become an all-consuming preoccupation, negating the possibility of political mobilisation? Are the most depressed and deprived parts of the US undergoing a process of chemical/pharmaceutical pacification? I can’t get rid of these questions. How useful is it for elites to have a potentially rebellious underclass intellectually neutered while generating megaprofits for Big Pharma?
I am not suggesting that there any great conspiracies at work here. Lots of well-intentioned people work and lobby hard to solve the problem. Some of these people are influential politicians. But at the same time time it feels as though, as problems go, this one is just too convenient to be solved.