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Race and the First Opium Crisis

FOLLOWING THE RACIST LOGIC Donna Murch exposes in the contemporary opioid crisis leads back to the nineteenth century. The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, is neither the first drug cartel to capture wealth by pushing opium on a vulnerable population nor the only one to sanitize profits through philanthropic donations.

Consider the following example. The Boston merchant Thomas Handasyd Perkins profited handsomely from the Atlantic slave trade, but like many others, he gradually turned his attention to opium and amassed a fortune. His nephew and fellow cartel member, John Murray Forbes (of the storied Forbes family), used ill-gotten drug loot to become the country’s earliest railroad magnate. These captains of industry were, of course, nothing if not considerate of their fellow man. Perkins used his drug money to establish hospitals, schools, and libraries throughout the Boston area, while Forbes became an ardent abolitionist, financing the free-staters in Kansas during the 1850s and working tirelessly on behalf of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860 and 1864. Slave trading and drug pushing thus helped subsidize northern humanitarianism.

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