No Blood for Dope
We heard America's wars in the Middle East were about “oil.” Maybe it was really about Big Pharma all along.
NO WAR FOR OIL.
Were you alive and watching the news in the years following September 11, 2001? I was, and I remember this slogan well. The anti-war crowd insisted America’s dual wars in the Muslim world—in Iraq and Afghanistan—were about “oil.” The War on Terror had nothing to do with the Taliban or terrorism, only oil and America’s access to it. Even Nancy Pelosi called George W. Bush and Dick Cheney “two oilmen” who were dragging American troops to the Middle East in shameless financial self-interest. Bush’s name became “Bu$h.”
I turned 18 in 2003, and my first Presidential election in which I could vote was George W. Bush versus John Kerry. As the daughter of an oil and gas engineer, I knew many of these people were way off the mark. Others were flat-out liars. I enrolled in Ohio University, a public school in the most important swing state, and started campaigning for Bush the second I arrived on campus. I teamed up with the local Republican party in Southeast Ohio. It turned out the American people believed us, and we won. That January, I attended Bush’s second inauguration, bouncing between invite-only balls in various long, black gowns I’d bought just for this. Years later, I would start questioning my activism—mostly because I was still questioning that war.
It wasn’t about oil. Afghanistan has never been a major exporter of oil, and that’s not what it’s known for.
One year out of college, I was an alcoholic drinking a pint of vodka by myself every day, starting first thing in the morning. (That was in addition to the ten to twelve beers I’d drink when I headed out with friends that night.) By age 26, I enrolled in my first addiction treatment program. I was a young mother living in Toledo, Ohio—a rough Rust Belt city—and I was determined to get sober for my baby. I was surprised to learn that my treatment program was affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, but most of my fellow patients were not drinkers. They were there because they popped pills. This was the first time I even heard or understood the word “opioid.” Opioid is a class of drugs, which includes heroin and morphine, but also common prescription drugs like OxyContin, Percocet, and hydrocodone—commonly known as “Vicodin.” All of them belong to the opioid class, “the group of medicines called narcotic analgesics (pain medicines),” according to the Mayo Clinic. My initial thought was: What a weird thing to get addicted to. But my counselors and fellow patients educated me: these drugs are extremely addictive, because they act on your endorphin receptors. Even foods containing natural opioid compounds are addictive for many people.
As I read more, I remembered how my best friend and I would bike to school sometimes in the late spring, when we had one or two weeks of school left for the year. It was a two-mile ride for us, and we would celebrate the end of our long, sweaty ride by stopping at a coffee shop up the street from our school. I had to have a lemon-poppyseed muffin every time. I had no idea why I was set on eating only this, but I had to. If they were sold out, it ruined my morning. Eventually, the manager knew to save one lemon-poppyseed muffin just for me. I told them it was “addictive.”
I wasn’t wrong: poppy seeds, the tiny black seeds of the poppy plant, are the world’s premier source of natural opioids. By the late 1990s, America’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma, had started manufacturing prescription painkillers, like OxyContin, en masse. They were getting the drug’s base from the poppy seed. OxyContin was then sold to suffering blue-collar workers, like the coal miners of West Virginia, who had chronic pain from work-related injuries. They were assured it was not addictive. As my friends in Toledo told me, these drugs were actually highly addictive—especially when you have to go back to your soul-crushing, physically demanding job every morning. Nearly everyone I met in my treatment program worked at a factory for months or years before they got addicted to pills.
Although no one warned them, this outcome was normal and expected. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, “Opium is a highly addictive non-synthetic narcotic that is extracted from the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum.”
And where does the poppy flower naturally flourish? The valleys and meadows of central Asia, particularly Afghanistan. I remember watching FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly berate a self-described Canadian “leftist” on his show, slamming her for opposing the war in Afghanistan. Bill O’Reilly insisted the war there was going great. The woman responded sarcastically, “Oh yes, everything is great—the poppy plants are blooming...”O’Reilly cut her mic and spent the rest of the segment ranting about the nerve of this idiot socialist in Canada who ironically wants to “distribute heroin,” but opposed America’s war in its natural habitat. He had some good points. However, I wish I had spent more time researching this narrow issue before marching merrily along with my right-wing activism. I was probably 19 years old when I watched O’Reilly’s rant live.
By the late 2010s, the tide had turned against Big Pharma. Their late-90s claim that OxyContin and other prescription opioids were non-addictive now seemed laughable, insulting—and fraudulent. States impacted by the opioid epidemic, including Rust Belt states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio (where I grew up and still live), began suing Big Pharma and winning. The OxyContin craze was over, and doctors handing it out en masse were under immediate suspicion. There was also no reason for America to control the poppy plant industry any longer.
When George W. Bush’s daughter, Jenna Hager, gave birth to a baby girl in 2015, she named her daughter Poppy.
I still have love for the Bush family. When people say George W. Bush was a naive but well-meaning leader who took advice from all the worst people in the universe, I think they’re exactly right. George W. is now a painter, author, and advocate for immigrants. His daughter Jenna wrote a novel about an HIV-positive single mother, bringing light to the suffering of this woman in a fictional form. She named her daughter after the bright red Poppy flower, I’m guessing, as a sort of double entendre. She knows the beauty and the destructive power of this plant, and who had a huge financial interest in controlling its distribution.
Last week, watching the news about America pulling out of Afghanistan, the only image that stuck with me was an American tank careening across an Afghan meadow, a handful of bright red poppy flowers blowing in the wind.