Making light of an epidemic

A BAR named Opium is set to open in Portland, Maine. You may think that's a thoughtless or callous name for a new bar in a city that's being hit extremely hard by the rising rates of opioid use, but the owner doesn't agree. Owner Raymond Brunyanszki recently said, "It's a niche and well-educated market that understands the difference between opium and heroin, and this is a reference."

The U.S. has had a long-standing fascination with opium, opioids and heroin, and the ruling class has always referenced the drug's euphoric effects as a marketing tool. In fact, According to Brunyanszki, "[The name is] a metaphor for relaxing and having a happy time."

Whether it be the "heroin chic" fad of the 1990s and early 2000s or the hazy sensuality associated with the orientalist "opium dens" from the early 20th century, which is the Portland bar is explicitly referencing, business owners are more than happy to exploit a drug crisis to appear "edgy."

More specifically, Opium plans to model its aesthetics on "Shanghai in the 1900s." But Shanghai in the 1900s was suffering the effects of colonialism and Western imperialism. Shanghai in the 1900s was still reeling from the multiple "Opium Wars," in which the imperial West forced China to grow opium and open up to trade. Again, we should ask ourselves, is the choice to model a bar after an imperial center for drugs callous or thoughtless?

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The U.S. is suffering through what some are calling an opioid "epidemic." While popular narratives may attempt to paint drug users as mainly people of color who live in cities, most research shows that the opposite is true: The majority of drug users are white, and large numbers live in rural areas.

One of the clearest cases of this rural drug crisis is in Maine. According to an article in the Portland Press Herald: "The death toll [from drug overdoses] reached 376 in 2016, driven almost entirely by opioids--prescription painkillers, heroin and now fentanyl, a powerful synthetic. More than one victim per day. More than car accidents. Or suicide. Or breast cancer." The article goes on to state that in 2013, the number of people who died of an overdose was 176.

On top of the soaring rates of drug use, Portland, Maine's largest city, recently closed the India Street Clinic, one of the only clinics in the city that provided screenings for sexually transmitted infections, needle-exchange programs and general health care for people diagnosed with HIV who didn't have insurance. Now it's closed, leaving a vulnerable population with few other resources.

So was the choice to name a bar in Portland Opium thoughtless or callous? That part seems up for debate, but it seems clear that it is a slap in the face to everyone who has suffered from addiction themselves or had a loved one suffer through it.

Bradley Thurston, Portland, Maine