[off the cuff research idea memo]
There is an uncanny analogy between China in the 19th century and the US this very moment: in both cases a large part of the general population could not be persuaded away from drugs by morality or prison. Opium in China then, opioids in the US now. Could it be the case that the essential mechanism is that those at the bottom of very unequal societies cannot say no to drugs and that with a stagnant society, the elites cannot say no to drugs money because growth has then come to be zero-sum? So the combination of inequality and stagnation spells great trouble with drugs? Let’s go over the core bit of this idea and how to check for it in other historical episodes.
In China, the opium offered on a large scale by foreign invaders was too seductive to the general population to ignore. China was under great strain with high inequality, no longer able to ward off foreign powers (the UK and France) or maintain efficient government. The US now too is under strain from foreign competition (from China but also the EU), has high inequality, and is subject to a quite stunning opioid crisis, one essentially engendered by corrupt insiders to the US establishment, exactly as in China the establishment was corruptible when the Opium trade came round.
Now, the US is stagnant in a very particular way: whilst its GDP is growing, the majority has seen little improvement in their lives and nearly all the growth occurs at the very top of the income and wealth distribution, so all those lowly government bureaucrats have seen their relative income and status drop the last few decades, just as was true in China when the UK pushed its opium on the people. The US is stagnation in the echelon of the elites that it needs to keep law and order functioning: in its basic bureaucratic machinery.
The EU countries are not suffering from the same opioid epidemic, where the upsurge in problems is far less than in the US. At the same time, the EU is not stagnating in its middle ground: employment levels are high, inequality is much lower than in the US, and its basic government machinery has not become corrupted to the same degree as the US’ machinery has. Perhaps most importantly, much of the EU feels it is doing well, with happiness levels up markedly in many countries (including Italy), and the Eastern countries growing in confidence and stature.
So the basic pattern fits the big power players. Let’s check some of the other drug-related knowledge history provides.
For one, we know that a conquered people are highly susceptible to a drugs epidemic, even if it has no history of government. A drugs epidemic happened to the conquered Aborigines in Australia (who never had anything resembling government); the native Americans all over the Americas, and also occurred in Russia when the economy collapsed in 1991 (a period aptly called Katastroika). So there is clearly something to be said that a discouraged population is very vulnerable to drugs, whether offered by insiders, such as Russian opium-running army officers or American pharmaceutical companies, or outsiders, like the UK in the case of China or alcohol salesmen in Australia.
We already know it is basically futile and extremely destructive to stop all mind-altering drugs, as the disastrous episode with banning alcohol in the US has so nicely demonstrated during a period that the US was doing well in terms of its economy and confidence. So we already know our societies need drugs-related mental release to a high level even in good times. Sensible governments have learned this everywhere and do what they can to maximize the benefits from taxing the drugs and minimizing the harm by pushing the idea that only losers lose control over their own drugs habits.
When a people is conquered and there is lack of optimism, it seems neither very small groups of people, like the hunter gatherers of the New Worlds, nor very large groups like the Asian societies in the 19th century could resist drugs. I think similar things are true for Africa, but there my knowledge is less solid.
Yet, we also know something about when drugs-oppression is relatively sustainable. It came in big time in the 1950s everywhere in the world, particularly in the Asian countries that introduced draconian punishment for things to do with drugs. This of course did not stop the drugs trade, but neither did societies collapse. On the contrary, they managed to thrive. Ditto in Australia, the US, and most of the rich world: whilst there was plenty of drugs taking, particularly at the very top and the very bottom, societies and economies still managed to flourish anyway. The do-gooder middle management of the state basically towed the line and kept things manageable, whilst those at the very top did whatever they managed to get away with, and whilst the very bottom couldn’t resist but was of course openly miserable and thus a form of living deterrent.
The European societies for a while moved towards a social-shaming model of drugs control, with decriminalized cannabis and also a largely social-norm based approach to hard drugs. That has worked reasonably well.
So social discouragement seems to work at least as well as draconian punishing in growing societies. In both cases of course is it then by construction the case that large parts of the population have a positive alternative to live for that keeps many smart about drugs.
If this basic story is true, it would have several implications: enforcement fails when regular economic growth runs out and zero-sum economic games emerge; the US is in serious trouble over drugs, which will last as long as the growth does not trickle down; Australia will probably experience a rapid and serious drugs epidemic as well (maybe it already is?); the EU and most of Asia is relatively safe from the current epidemic, with the key long-term indicator whether inequality is still going up.
In terms of policy consequences, they all seem politically unpalatable.
Research wise, this stuff seems easy to look at with the amount of data we have on rates of drugs use in many countries over time. There are probably already many papers on this theme.