Mind and Body

Connecting the Sacklers, Afghanistan and addiction

A history lesson for those who still pretend to know nothing, recall nothing, and deny everything

Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History

A British East India Trade Company coin struck in 1835, the firm that declared a monopoly on opium sales and distribution beginning in 1775, and which was very involved in opium production in Afghanistan.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/23/21
From the war zone in Afghanistan to the mean streets of Rhode Island, from the federal bankruptcy court in White Plains, N.Y., to the efforts to promote harm reduction policies in Rhode Island, the common denominator is big time corporate drug trafficking – heroin in Afghanistan and opioids in the U.S., something that just does not get talked about.
What is the role of the Pakistani intelligence services, in coordination with the U.S. military and the CIA, in providing cover for the heroin trade in Afghanistan? How involved was the Pentagon and U.S. military contractors in supporting the Taliban’s heroin business? Given the role of McKinsey & Co. in turbo-charging the opioid epidemic on behalf of Purdue Pharma, what are the consequences of their bad behavior regarding any future contracts with the state of Rhode Island? What is the current status of R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers, scheduled tentatively to go to trial in January of 2022?
Slavery, sugar cane, rum and opium. In the late 1700s, the British East India Trading Company secured the exclusive rights to sell opium products across the British Empire, including in China, which would lead to what were known as the “Opium Wars” with China in the mid-1800s. Much of the cultivation of poppies to produce opium occurred in what was known as Afghanistan, which included what is now known as Pakistan.
During the Vietnam War, a significant amount of heroin production was “protected” by the CIA in Laos, with the illicit drugs being transported by Air America.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a shift in the global heroin markets from Southeast Asia to Pakistan and Afghanistan, supported by the CIA and by the Pakistani intelligence service, as a lever in the Cold War strategies practiced by both Russia and the U.S.
In the 1980s, under President Reagan, the black ops of the Contras in Central America were financed in large part by cocaine drug trafficking with CIA involvement and coordination.
And, for the last 20 years, the Taliban has been the force behind poppy cultivation, opium production, and heroin trafficking, supported by the Pakistani intelligence service and rogue banking operations and money laundering.
Yet, for all intents and purposes, the role of heroin trafficking in the U.S. Afghanistan policies has been suppressed, even though it would take acts of willful blindness for the U.S. military, the CIA, and the U.S. government not to know what was going on.
What has been missing has been any lucid policy discussion about the role of heroin and cocaine as levers in international diplomacy. That kind of willful forgetfulness, the “I do not recall” strategy of the Sackler family in denying their involvement in profiting from the sale of addictive prescription painkillers, is a chord that resonates with the wholesale “blindness” around heroin trafficking, corruption, and money-making by the Taliban and their enablers.

PART One

PROVIDENCE – Rachel Maddow does not often miss capturing the nuance behind the news in her reporting. But when she retold the harrowing tale of Afghanistan interpreter, “Zak,” who finally found his way out of Afghanistan with his wife and four children, thanks to the intervention of a former marine, Major Thomas Shueman, now living in Newport, R.I., Maddow seemed to have missed the story behind the story, which was hiding in plain sight, to borrow a phrase from author Sarah Kendzior.

In 2010, the U.S. Marines had been sent in to relieve British forces, where the British had been fighting to maintain control of the Sangin province against the Taliban forces, sustaining heavy casualties. During the subsequent fighting, the interpreter “Zak” had proven his mettle numerous times, heroically fighting alongside Shueman and his fellow Marines.

The missing part of the story was the fact that Sangin was what was known as a “poppy” province, where the Taliban was defending its investment in growing opium and then refining it into heroin.

As The Washington Post documented in its Dec. 9, 2019, story, “Overwhelmed by Opium,” the Taliban controlled “a network of clandestine opium production labs that U.S. officials said was helping to generate $200 million a year in drug money for the Taliban.”

Since 2001, The Washington Post reported, “The United States had spent about $9 billion on a dizzying array of programs to deter Afghanistan from supplying the world with heroin,” without success.

The story laid out the hard-to-refute details: “Afghanistan dominates the global opium markets. Last year [in 2018], it produced 82 percent of the world’s supply, according to estimates by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.”

Further, the story continued: “Defying U.S. efforts to curtail it, Afghan opium production has skyrocketed over the course of the 18-year war. Last year [in 2018], Afghan farmers grew poppies – the plant from which opium is extracted to make heroin – on four times as much land as they did in 2002.”

The story laid out the consequences of the Taliban’s control of the heroin trade: “The booming industry tightened its stranglehold on the Afghan economy, corrupted large sectors of the Afghan government, and provided the Taliban with a rising source of revenue.”

Translated, the 20-year war in Afghanistan was being fought by the Taliban to maintain control of the lucrative drug trade in heroin, which fed the demand for heroin in Europe, Iran and other parts of Asia.

All of the previous U.S. administrations – including President Bush, President Obama, and President Trump, were complicit in the policies around turning a blind eye toward the heroin production, after some initial attempts to control it, according to the reporting. So, too, were the U.S. military and the U.S. Congress, it appears. By ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the Biden administration was calling it quits on the illicit narcotics empire underwriting the flow of heroin.

To put it bluntly, the failure of American policy in Afghanistan was rooted in the financial rewards of drug trafficking and the corruption that sustained the Taliban and financed intelligence work by U.S. agencies and the military.

As Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald, the authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, explained to ConvergenceRI in an interview, “The drug trade provided the financing for the black projects for intelligence.” [See PART Two.]

What history could tell us, if we were willing to listen
The inconvenient narrative about the economics of the heroin trade in Afghanistan eluded not just MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow but also WPRI’s Ted Nesi, who, in his recent “Newsmakers” interview with Sen. Jack Reed, attempted to explore the reasons about what went wrong with American policy during the 20-year war, begun in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Afghanistan was the lead item in Nesi’s Notes on Saturday, Aug. 21: What went wrong in Afghanistan? It’s a question that must be asked about not only the chaotic evacuation of the past week but also the entire American military commitment over the past two decades. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Jack Reed offered this answer: “Very succinctly, the capacity of the Afghan government and the military forces – and they’re linked – was overestimated, and the capacity of the Taliban was underestimated.”

What was “missing” from the discussion was the role that heroin trade played in Afghanistan. Both Sen. Reed and Nesi are considered astute political observers. The question is: Why did the drugs get left out of the conversation?

I do not recall
The answer could perhaps be found in a federal courtroom in White Plains, N.Y., as the final stages of a bankruptcy trial were taking place before Judge Robert Drain, involving the attempts by the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of OxyContin, an addictive prescription painkiller that many have alleged helped to fuel the opioid epidemic in the U.S., to escape future liability from civil lawsuits.

A wave of forgetfulness seemed to have afflicted the Sacklers throughout their time on the stand last week, a kind of selective memory, perhaps a diagnosable condition for those that pimped addictive painkillers for profit, similar to the forgetfulness that afflicted U.S. government officials in the way that they rationalized how the war in Afghanistan was prosecuted for two decades.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, David Sackler testified that family members would contribute $4.5 billion in cash and control of a charity fund as part of pending settlement only if one provision stayed in place – providing protection from all present and future lawsuits over opioids and Purdue activity for family members, according to reporting by Geoff Mulvihill for the Associated Press.

The next day, Richard Sackler, who is David Sackler’s father, and who served at different times as president and chairman of Purdue’s board, told the court that he did not believe he, his family or the company had any responsibility for the opioid crisis in the U.S. To quote WPRO’s Steve Klamkin, “Really?”

The proceedings were carried live on a call, bad audio and all, with the best reporting being done in real time on Twitter, by insightful commentators such as Charlotte Bismuth, the author of Bad Medicine: Catching New York’s deadliest pill pusher, and Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain: The secret history of the Sackler Dynasty.

Here are some relevant moments they captured from the testimony on Thursday, Aug. 19:

“Mr. [Richard] Sackler do you have any responsibility for the opioid crisis? [in a tweet by Keefe].

“No.”

“Does the Sackler family have any responsibility for the opioid crisis?”

“No.”

“Does Purdue Pharma have any responsibility for the opioid crisis?”

“No.”

Ex-Purdue Pharma director Mortimer D.A. Sackler, testifying now, says he was shocked and disappointed when Purdue pled guilty in 2020 to federal felonies over marketing of OxyContin [from a retweet by Charlotte Bismuth of Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Randles].

He said management had been telling the board they were in compliance with relevant laws.

• This is quite a show. Sackler is mumbling, out of it, confused about the exhibits, “Dr. Sackler, we can’t hear you, can you move close to the mic?” [from another retweet by Charlotte Bismuth of Patrick Radden Keefe from the Wednesday, Aug. 18, court proceedings].

Now he’s complaining about laryngitis [?!] Shades of Vincent Gigante, the mafioso who went around in a bathrobe & feigned senility.

• I just want to nominate Dr. Richard Sackler for an Academy Award for his incredible performance of a man who knows nothing, recalls nothing and denies everything [from a tweet from Charlotte Bismuth from Thursday, Aug. 19].

• David Sackler confirms that his family will continue to market opioids through the companies they continue to own, in the countries where the products are approved… [from another tweet from Charlotte Bismuth from Wednesday, Aug. 18].

… until those companies are sold, despite all the deaths. “Yes, there are deaths from opioids in many jurisdictions around the world… that is one of the risks associated with opioid therapy.”

Truth without consequences?
If the Sackler family is successful in its quest to shield its wealth from further civil litigation, it would enable the Sacklers to preserve as much as $10 billion in assets that have been carefully stashed away.

R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha is opposing the bankruptcy settlement with the Sacklers. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “The high cost of consulting firms making policy,” and “Marking 50 years of the failed war on drugs.”

[That same kind of “immunity” seems to be the goal of former President Donald Trump and his administration, including former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who crafted the give-away of Afghanistan to the Taliban following the November 2020 election, in which Trump was soundly defeated.]

A matter of faith
Here in Rhode Island, the battle against the ever-escalating drug overdose epidemic from opioids continues to be fought in the trenches by governmental agencies, with renewed “innovative” attempts to reframe the problem and adopt harm reduction strategies.

In the midst of the Sackler bankruptcy trial, while the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals [BHDDH] announced on Aug. 18 the launch of a new program to address the overdose epidemic, focused on communities of color.

Called the “Imani Breakthrough Recovery Project,” imani meaning faith in Swahili, the new initiative is a faith-based, person-centered, culturally informed harm reduction recovery program that takes place in churches, a program that was first developed three years ago in Connecticut.

In Connecticut, the Imani Breakthrough Recovery Program was described as a “culturally, spiritually, and trauma-informed, to assist individuals recovering from opioid use/abuse and other drug or alcohol problems.”

The Connecticut program had two parts:

• A group component, with 12 weeks of classes and mutual support focused on wellness enhancement and what is known as the five Rs – roles, resources, responsibilities, relationships, and rights, and their importance to recovery and community connection.

• A wellness coaching component, where coaches provide weekly check-ins to support you in your recovery goals during the initial 12 weeks, as well as up to a month afterward.

In the Rhode Island version, the Imani Breakthrough Recovery Program also includes SAMHSA’s “8 Dimensions of Wellness,” a recovery framework, as well as the concept of recovery capital, which provides metrics to create recovery outcome measurements.

Linda Mahoney, the state’s Opioid Treatment Authority and an administrator at R.I. BHDDH, learned of the Imani project and brought the concept to the Recovery Workgroup of Gov. McKee’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, according to the news release announcing the initiative. The Recovery Workgroup then chose to pursue the strategy here in Rhode Island over the next several years.

The Imani recovery initiative in Rhode Island is being funded through $877,568 in federal funds from the Mental Health Block Grant COVID 19 supplemental funds, and Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant American Rescue Plan Supplemental Funds.

Keeping pace with the SUPERPAC RI
As if there were not already too much going on, amidst the Sackler bankruptcy trial, the disruptions in the forces in Afghanistan, the launch of the Imani recovery initiative, and the continuing struggle by Rhode Island to contain the contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, there was one more significant recovery event.

On Thursday, Aug. 18, the Substance Use Policy, Education & Recovery PAC in Rhode Island, or SUPERPAC, celebrated its third annual birthday at Layali on Weybosset Street in Providence. Uprise RI’s Steve Ahlquist received an award for his journalism, “The Watch Dog Award.”

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