What You Might Not Know About China

With trade politics thickening the air like an April snowstorm, you might be intrigued to know a bit about China’s past history with exports and imports. As in, we should be very careful.

We all know China’s civilization is one of the world’s oldest with historical records dating back at least to 2000 BCE when the Xia dynasty began. Legendary emperors introduced natural medicines including ephedrine, cannabis, and tea—the latter being the crux of a trade matter that would come back to haunt Westerners today.

Over 3000 years passed as the country went through various changes in leadership and cultural developments but here’s the important thing—they stayed within their borders. With all their advancements, they seemed content for all those centuries to keep to themselves.

Just because the Chinese did not use their advancing sophistication in efforts at world conquest did not meant they didn’t trade. Bits of Chinese silk have been found in Egypt from around 1000 BCE. The famous Silk Road, established around 200 BCE, accommodated the trade of Chinese silks, herbs and spices, and cultural ideas ranging from Buddhism to use of horses. Only with the Mongol invasions in the early 13th century were the Chinese forced to deal with outside forces.

The Chinese bounced back with the founding of the Song dynasty, considered the high point of classical Chinese civilization.

Empress Zheng (1079–1131)

The Song economy, facilitated by technology advancement, had reached a level of sophistication probably unseen in world history before its time. The population soared to over 100 million and the living standards of common people improved tremendously due to improvements in rice cultivation and the wide availability of coal for production. The capital cities of Kaifeng and subsequently Hangzhou were both the most populous cities in the world for their time, and encouraged vibrant civil societies unmatched by previous Chinese dynasties. Although land trading routes to the far west were blocked by nomadic empires, there were extensive maritime trade with neighboring states, which facilitated the use of Song coinage as the de facto currency of exchange. Giant wooden vessels equipped with compasses traveled throughout the China Seas and northern Indian Ocean. The concept of insurance was practiced by merchants to hedge the risks of such long-haul maritime shipments. With prosperous economic activities, the historically first use of paper currency emerged in the western city of Chengdu, as a supplement to the existing copper coins.

The Song dynasty was considered to be the golden age of great advancements in science and technology of China …Inventions such as the hydro-mechanical astronomical clock, the first continuous and endless power-transmitting chain, woodblock printing and paper money were all invented during the Song dynasty.

China’s military and imperial ambitions did eventually lead to imperialistic ambition. By the 1400s, Chinese colonialization in foreign lands extended to Japan and Vietnam. That was small potatoes compared to the Europeans who had begun far-flung expeditions to virtually every corner of the earth. In fact, by 1500 a strong isolationist fervor developed in China. When contacted by Western powers such as Portugal in 1520 and the Dutch in 1622, the Chinese vigorously repelled any and all attempts at collaboration.

Meanwhile, the West had begun to thirst for all things exotic including spices from Indonesia and India and especially tea, silk, and porcelain from China. Despite rich colonial profits from Caribbean sugar and tobacco to American cotton, African ivory, and Mexican silver, imperial appetites were insatiable. Just like today, the West—especially the fanatical tea-drinking British—suffered a terrible trade imbalance with China. China didn’t have much interest in the woolens and other commodities offered in trade by Britain and insisted on silver payment for its tea. By the late 17th and early 18th century, Britain faced a monetary crisis over its trade with China.

And here’s where it becomes very instructive as to our current trade situation with China, “we” meaning Americans, that peculiar offshoot of the British Empire who fired its first shot over the king’s helm by dumping, yes, you’ve heard this before, crates of tea overboard in Boston Harbor. British efforts to shore up its finances meant hiking taxes on tea, and the colonists weren’t having it.

Meanwhile, among its other conquests of empire around the world, British invasion of India brought them local merchants dealing an ancient and powerful substance known as opium. Clever Brits thought to import opium to China in the belief that it could balance its trade debts from tea. It didn’t take long for Chinese authorities to recognize the threat to their social order posed by widespread opium use. In 1780, the Qing government issued an edict against opium and other restrictions soon followed.

… Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor wrote to King George III in response to the MaCartney Mission’s request for trade in 1793: “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Tea also had to be paid in silver bullion, and critics of the tea trade at this time would point to the damage caused to Britain’s wealth by this loss of bullion. As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for tea, Britain began exporting opium from the traditional growing regions of British India (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. Although opium use in China had a long history, the British importation of opium, which began in the late 18th century, increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837, and usage of the drug became more widespread across Chinese society. The Qing government attitude towards opium, which was often ambivalent, hardened due to the social problems created by drug use, and took serious measures to curtail importation of opium in 1838–39. Tea by now had become an important source of tax revenue for the British Empire and the banning of the opium trade and thus the creation of funding issues for tea importers was one of the main causes of the First Opium War.

Delicate business, trade. By the early 1800s, Americans also began importing opium to China as a blend of opium and Turkish tobacco. The resulting competition between America and Britain brought opium prices down resulting in easier access for the average Chinese resident. By 1838, Britain alone imported more than 1,400 tons of opium to China. It was estimated that 27% of adult male Chinese were addicted.

China’s emperor wrote an impassioned letter to Queen Victoria, explaining the harms of opium use and questioning Britain’s “moral judgement.” Sources say the queen never received the missive, but it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The economics of trade meant that the nation’s leaders bowed to commercial interests.

Under the new law in 1839, Chinese began boarding British ships and confiscating opium. In one raid alone, authorities destroyed over 1,200 tons of opium on a public beach. Outraged, British importers demanded the assistance of British military. Matters devolved as Chinese banned British ships from taking supplies or water at Chinese ports and various skirmishes ensued, leading to debate in British parliament. The House of Lords (which included owners of most of the ships and trading companies) wanted war with China. The House of Commons, more sympathetic to the problems caused by opium, wanted the opium trade to stop.

No extra points for guessing who won. In a military buildup of British ships and personnel beginning mid-1840 and supplemented by Indian dragoons by 1841, Western powers with their heavily armed gunships and superior technology sailed up the Pearl River and destroyed less-well-armed Chinese vessels and troops. The British blockaded Chinese ports up and down the coast. In July 1842, British warships steamed up the Yangtze River to Canton where they destroyed Chinese forts protecting the city. Ultimately, China had no choice but to surrender and accept terms including stiff fines payable in silver and British control over Hong Kong and Singapore, initiating what the Chinese called “The Century of Humiliation.”

Meanwhile, the East India Trading Company [British] sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to sneak into China to steal tea plants and a few Chinese men who knew how to grow it. Vast tea plantations in India were the result. Under British control until 1947, India’s tea crops bypassed China’s, thus ending the need to trade with China for the tea supply.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point. It seems the Chinese have learned their lessons well.

~~~

Quoted passages pulled from Wikipedia articles:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_China#Xia_dynasty_(2070%E2%80%931600_BC)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Opium_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tea

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Fortune

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More Ignorance in Arkansas

Opium Poppy

Willful ignorance is a pathetic condition I’ve written about before, but a new and unexpected manifestation came to my attention in the Saturday paper.[1] In an extended interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dr. J. Carlos Roman voiced his thoughts on the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act and the various twists and turns on its way to becoming a functioning service to people in need. Among those thoughts was this stellar quote: “What are we going to do as a state and culture to make sure medical marijuana doesn’t become the next opioid crisis?”

Oh please, Scotty, beam me up now.

It’s possible Dr. Roman made this statement in an attempt to be politically correct, considering that he’s under fire for possible conflict of interest in his role as one of five members of the commission that oversees the licensing of Arkansas’ first growing and dispensing facilities. As such, he gave the highest score to the Natural State Medicinals Cultivation group. Entities that didn’t score so high were understandably miffed that Natural State was one of only five chosen for a license, considering that Dr. Roman’s friend Dr. Scott Schlesinger is one of the Natural State’s owners. Consequently, several of those potential licensees not chosen have sued for bias.

Roman argues that he didn’t expect or receive any quid pro quo for his ranking of Natural State. He also pointed out that he has worked for years in his role as a pain management physician to fight the opioid crisis. He says his reason for accepting the voluntary role on the licensing board was in part to “ensure that the medical marijuana industry gets off the ground responsibly.”

He goes on to admit that he was initially opposed to the amendment that voters passed in 2016 legalizing medical use, not because he was totally opposed to marijuana’s medical use but because of public “ignorance” and so-called false information about its medical potential touted by many supporters of the new law. He concedes a few benefits of natural marijuana might be in its use in appetite stimulation and anti-anxiety and admits he will “reluctantly” certify patients to receive ID cards required in the program.

He’s such a great guy, isn’t he? And now, through no fault of his own, he’s being villainized by permit applicants who didn’t score as high as the group co-owned by his friend.

Sometimes you have to appreciate karma. Because this scandal about his potential conflict of interest is exactly the kind of spotlight that’s needed for people like Dr. Roman.

Why? Because who should be more qualified or informed about medical research than a physician? Yet here we have a physician who specializes in pain management worrying that marijuana could become the next opioid crisis. Talk about willful ignorance.

Farmer slicing opium flower pod to harvest the resin. Condensed resin forms raw opium.

Any physician, especially a specialist in pain treatment, should be fully aware of the history and effects of opiates. The opium poppy has been used medically as far back as 4000 BCE. For that matter, so has marijuana. But opium has served a greater role in pain relief.

Not content with what nature had to offer in the opium plant, chemists in the 19th century began tinkering. The first result was morphine, introduced in 1827 by Merck. But after the Civil War with thousands of injured soldiers becoming addicted, Bayer Pharmaceuticals gallantly invented heroin which hit the marketplace in 1894 as a “safe” alternative. Less than twenty years later as the addictive potential of heroin became more widely known, German chemists synthesized oxycodone.

This new “safe” alternative medication spawned generations of synthesized opiate clones, each touted as safer than its precursor: Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan, Tylox, and Demerol, to name a few. Now we have the latest spawn, Fentanyl, at fifty times the strength of heroin.

Now, in order to capitalize on marijuana’s therapeutic gifts, the chemists are busy again. Already pharmaceutical grade THC, one of many active ingredients in marijuana, has been synthesized for legal sale as Marinol. You see where this is headed. Soon, coming to a town near you, we’ll have a potentially lethal form of marijuana.

But not yet. What Dr. Roman should know and apparently doesn’t is that marijuana is very different from opiates is two important ways. It’s not addictive. Opiates are. And marijuana is non-toxic, meaning no matter how much you manage to ingest, it won’t kill you.

And therein lies the absurdity of his statement.

Not to single him out. I’d wager that most physicians in Arkansas and elsewhere have made zero effort to learn more about the chemical properties of cannabis.

…In a large-scale survey published in 1994 [by] epidemiologist James Anthony, then at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and his colleagues asked more than 8,000 people between the ages of 15 and 64 about their use of marijuana and other drugs. The researchers found that of those who had tried marijuana at least once, about 9 percent eventually fit a diagnosis of cannabis dependence. The corresponding figure for alcohol was 15 percent; for cocaine, 17 percent; for heroin, 23 percent; and for nicotine, 32 percent. So although marijuana may be addictive for some, 91 percent of those who try it do not get hooked. Further, marijuana is less addictive than many other legal and illegal drugs.[2]

Please note that “dependence” and “addiction” are two very difference things, no matter how Anthony and others might interchange them.

Addiction is a primary, chronic, neurobiologic disease, with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. It is characterized by behaviors that include one or more of the following: impaired control over drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm, and craving.[3]

Psychological dependence develops through consistent and frequent exposure to a stimulus. Behaviors which can produce observable psychological withdrawal symptoms include physical exercise, shopping, sex and self-stimulation using pornography, and eating food with high sugar or fat content, among others.[4]

Marijuana plant showing leaves, generally not containing much of the active ingredients, and flower buds, the primary medically-useful portion of the plant.

“Dependence” in itself is simply an adaptive state associated with a withdrawal syndrome upon cessation of repeated exposure to a stimulus such as the ‘high’ associated with marijuana. Some studies report that ending heavy marijuana use causes some users to experience wakefulness in subsequent nights and possibly headaches.

Compare that to opiate withdrawal. Within six to thirty hours of last use, symptoms include tearing up, muscle aches, agitation, trouble falling and staying asleep, excessive yawning, anxiety, nose running, sweats, racing heart, hypertension, and fever. Then within 72 hours, more severe symptoms ensue and last a week or more, in including nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, goosebumps, stomach cramps, depression, and intense drug cravings.

But more important than symptoms of withdrawal are the risks associated with use, most critical being the risk of overdose death. And this is where Dr. Norman’s ignorance takes center stage. People die from opiates at an increasing rate, about 181 people per day in 2017.

…Victims of a fatal [opiate] overdose usually die from respiratory depression—literally choking to death because they cannot get enough oxygen to feed the demands of the brain and other organ systems. This happens for several reasons… When the drug binds to the mu-opioid receptors it can have a sedating effect, which suppresses brain activity that controls breathing rate. It also hampers signals to the diaphragm, which otherwise moves to expand or contract the lungs. Opioids additionally depress the brain’s ability to monitor and respond to carbon dioxide when it builds up to dangerous levels in the blood.[5]

Compare that to the effects of marijuana.

Because cannabinoid receptors, unlike opioid receptors, are not located in the brainstem areas controlling respiration, lethal overdoses from Cannabis and cannabinoids do not occur.”[6]

Here’s a wake-up call to Dr. Roman and others in Arkansas playing this Mickey Mouse game over marijuana: in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, opiate-related deaths have decreased.

Over the past two decades, deaths from drug overdoses have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States. In 2011, 55% of drug overdose deaths were related to prescription medications; 75% of those deaths involved opiate painkillers. However, researchers found that opiate-related deaths decreased by approximately 33% in 13 states in the following six years after medical marijuana was legalized.

“The striking implication is that medical marijuana laws, when implemented, may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates of non-intentional opioid-analgesic-related deaths,” wrote opiate abuse researchers Dr. Mark S. Brown and Marie J. Hayes in a commentary published alongside the study.[7]

We are nearly two years from the day Arkansas voters approved a measure to provide medical marijuana to citizens of the state. With these lawsuits filed against the commission for potential conflict of interest, the date when persons in need might obtain legal weed moves even further from reach.

Dr. Roman’s apparent failure to educate himself is only the last of so many failures regarding public health and marijuana. Prohibition propaganda remains deeply entrenched in those who don’t bother to become informed. Legislative foot dragging has never been more egregious than in the months of throwing everything but the kitchen sink in front of the voters’ choice on this measure. The tragedy is that while all these men and women responsible for the public welfare fiddle with the law’s implementation, people are suffering needlessly. And dying.

~~~

[1] March 31, 2018 issue, page 1

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-pot/

[3] https://www.naabt.org/faq_answers.cfm?ID=15

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_dependence

[5] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-opioids-kill/ 

[6] See https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/cannabis-pdq#section/all; also https://www.leafscience.com/2017/10/17/overdose-marijuana/

[7] https://drugabuse.com/legalizing-marijuana-decreases-fatal-opiate-overdoses/