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Dope Peddlers at the Museum

What does a family of wealthy philanthropists have to do with a gang of drug traffickers?

What does a family of wealthy philanthropists have to do with a gang of drug traffickers? At first glance it seems absurd that the low-profile yet spectacularly generous Sackler family would have any connection to the egregiously violent drug gang MS-13. The Sacklers have contributed to just about every major museum in London and New York, and nearly every major medical school in the United States, Britain, France and Israel, and are demonstrably munificent benefactors to worthy causes. Meanwhile, the largely central American migrants to the United States who make up MS-13’s membership have come to epitomize the horrific violence of drug trafficking. Their particular association with all the ills of drugs, immigration and gangs been made infamous by the prolific efforts of Donald Trump’s Twitter finger.

But a growing body of investigative journalism has revealed in recent months how the Sackler Family and MS-13 made their money in the same business. The Sackler fortune is built on pharmaceuticals, infamously Oxycontin, but also on pioneering the aggressive – some would say deceptive – pharmaceutical marketing that is now the norm in much of the world. When patients addicted to prescription opioids can no longer afford their habit they turn to the heroin and fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) offered by groups like MS-13. The Sacklers and MS-13 provide essentially the same psychoactive substance, to the same customers, and use many of the same aggressive sales tactics. It is however unlikely that a member of MS-13 has ever set foot in the museum wings graced by the Sackler name, and even less likely that a member of the Sackler family has set foot in the blighted neighborhoods terrorized by MS-13. The philanthropists and the gangsters seem to occupy different universes even if they serve the same customer base.

The convergence of these two groups seems extraordinary and exceptional, but it is not. The intertwined relationship between prominent businesses and criminal traffickers is probably as old as trade itself. It is certainly as old as the English East India Company’s cooperation with Chinese smugglers to contravene regulations on opium dating back to the eighteenth century. But it is worth noting that this convergence usually happens in specific and racialized formations. To a certain extent we can trace this coupling of respectable and reprehensible to the particular forms of governance that characterized European colonialism.

All governments are plagued with their own genre of corruption, but the racialized nature of colonialism generated a specific arrangement of corruption. European businesses and imperial governments worked hand-in-glove across the globe. This was hardly a secret: British French and Dutch colonialism all began with chartered companies aiming to trade in far flung corners of the globe. England’s first colony (beyond Ireland) was settled by the Virginia Company, a joint-stock venture funded substantially by privateers. Meanwhile the Dutch East India Company conquered its first colony in modern Indonesia while seeking to break Portuguese monopoly on the spice trade. Well into the second half of the twentieth century European multi-national firms profited from their deep connections to colonial officials. This cooperation was deemed necessary and indeed indispensable for the civilizing mission and later “development” of colonial territories and post-colonial states. The trade in opium, tobacco and cannabis was often under colonial monopoly or granted to specially licensed firms. Many of the most destructive narcotic substances being abused today were developed from less potent plants by the German pharmaceutical industry, most notably cocaine and heroin. Yet the taint of tens of millions of addicts and countless deaths adheres no more to Bayer AG than it does to the British Museum’s Sackler Rooms.

Instead the spectre of dissolute addicts and destroyed communities is fused in the (Western) public imagination with Mexican cartels and Chinese triads. Failed states and corrupt regimes in Colombia, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia are blamed for the large scale production that supplies the European and North American market for narcotics. Somehow the corruption of non-western societies is endemic and intractable, while corruption in “the West” is always an aberration.

In a recent piece in History Workshop Journal, I explore the historical beginnings of this discourse, particularly with reference to cannabis smuggling. The turn of the twentieth century saw the rise of temperance movements across the globe, culminating in the international convention on opium in 1912. The 1920s saw the extension of these restrictions to cannabis (or Indian Hemp as it was known). This legislation was in part the consequence of an extraordinary smuggling voyage undertaken by a man named Abd al-Hai. Right under the noses of British officials, Abd al-Hai moved a distinctive form of cannabis from the foothills of the Himalayas to the banks of the Nile. He did so by exploiting the deeply racialized structure of colonial states around the Indian Ocean.

Abd al-Hai was protean in his ability to make himself and his cargo change their appearance as they crossed the ocean. On the one hand Abd al-Hai was able to master the complicated customs regulations and exploit the legal loopholes necessary to transport potent narcotics across the globe. He could call upon influential connections in the French colonial government of Djibouti, and charm British officials in India to make sure that his cargoes were well cared for. He would have been quite at home hobnobbing in an art gallery in Paris if the occasion required it. However Abd al-Hai was also quite at home with illiterate sailors on a sailboat in the Indian Ocean. He would ultimately make his fortune smuggling guns and drugs across the Red Sea. He could in one moment purchase controlled substances as a reputable citizen and in the next traffic contraband to the denizens of the underworld. Indeed he was successful precisely because of his ability to operate with ease in both worlds. In the figure of Abd al-Hai then, we might begin to see how closely intertwined and indeed inextricable are the worlds of vilified drug dealers and illustrious museum benefactors.

Johan Mathew is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. He is the author of Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (2016), and is currently working on the history of narcotics consumption in the global south. This article was originally published by the History Workshop Online on November 1st, 2018. 

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