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DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Major Studies | Licit and Illicit Drugs
by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972
Chapter 6 Opium smoking is outlawed
To summarize the data reviewed so far, opiates taken daily in large doses by addicts were not a social menace under nineteenth-century conditions, and were not perceived as a menace. Opium, morphine, and heroin could be legally purchased without a prescription, and there was little demand for opiate prohibition. But there was one exception to this general tolerance of the opiates. In 1875, the City of San Francisco adopted an ordinance prohibiting the smoking of opium in smoking-houses or "dens." 1
The roots of this ordinance were racist rather than health-oriented, and were concerned with what today is known as "life-style." Opium smoking was introduced into the United States by tens of thousands of Chinese men and boys imported during the l850s and 1880s to build the great Western railroads.* The Chinese laborers then drifted into San Francisco and other cities, and accepted employment of various kinds at low wages --- giving rise to waves of anti-Chinese hostility. Soon white men and even women were smoking opium side by side with the Chinese, a life-style which was widely disapproved. The San Francisco authorities, we are told learned upon investigation that "many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the [Chinese] opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise ** 4 The 1875 ordinance followed, "forbidding the practice under penalty of a heavy fine or imprisonment or both. Many arrests were made, and the punishment was prompt and thorough. 6
* Professor Jonathan Spence of the Department of History, Yale University, presented a fascinating account of opium smoking in nineteenth-century China at the Conference on Local Control and Social Protest during the Ch'ing Period, held at Honolulu, Hawaii, from June 27 to July a, 1971. He reported, for example, that "opium was highly regarded in China, both as a medicinal drug (that checked diarrhea and served as a febrifuge), and as an aphrodisiac. Therefore people might become addicted either because they took opium intensively during an illness for instance in the great cholera epidemic of 1821--- or because they had vigor, leisure and money and wanted to make the best of it.
"Those who ate regularly and well did not suffer physiologically from their addiction, but for the poor, addiction was a serious health hazard (even though, ironically, it was often first taken for health reasons), since scarce cash resources were put to opium rather than food purchases. The rewards for the poor were a blurring of the pains of prolonged labor, and an increase in work capacity over short periods of time. Then there was heavy addiction among coolies and chair-bearers, and among such groups as boatmen who had to work their boats upstream, and stone-cutters working out-of-doors in cold weather. The last Chinese to become addicted seem to have been the peasants, though as they grew more opium crops the incidence of heavy opium smoking rose, and by 1902 one could find entire rural communities that were in desperate straits because addiction had become almost total. By the late Ch'ing, it scans that no major occupational group was without its addicts." 2
** One white girl of good family and education began opium smoking at sixteen in San Francisco in 1880, later became a prostitute, moved to Victoria, British Columbia, and was found in an opium den in 1884 by a Royal Commission. The transcript of her answers to questions reads, in part:
Q. Why did you commence to smoke opium?
A. Why do people commence to drink? Trouble, I suppose led me to smoke. I think it is better than drink. People who smoke opium do not kick up rows; they injure no one but themselves, and I do not think they injure themselves very much.
Q.... Why do you smoke now?
A. Because I must; I could not live without it. I smoke partly because of the quiet enjoyment it gives, but mainly to escape from the horrors which would ensue if I not smoke. To be twenty-four hours without smoking is to suffer worse tortures than the lost.
Q. But does not the smoking make you wretched, past as drinking would?
A. No; I require about twelve pipes, then I fall into a state of somnolence and complete rest. When I awake I feel all right, and can attend to fixing-up the house. I am brisk, and can work as well as anybody else. I do not feel sick or nervous, neither have I the inclination to smoke more opium.
O. Then why do you return to the use of the drug?
A. Ah! that's it; there is a time when my hands fail me; tears fall from my eyes, I am ready to sink; then I come here and for a few bits have a smoke which sets me right. There is too much nonsense talked about opium-smoking. Life without it would be unendurable, I am in excellent health; but, I suppose, every one has their own troubles, and I have mine.
Q. I do not want to be offensive, but are you what is called a fast woman?
A. I am. But you would be greatly mistaken if you imagined that all the women who come here to smoke are of that character. In San Francisco I have known some of the first people visit opium houses, and many respectable people do the same here.
Q. Are women of your class generally addicted to opium-smoking?
A. No; they are more addicted to drink, and drink does them far more harm. Drink excites passions, whereas this allays it; and when a fast woman drinks she goes to min pretty quick....
Q. Have you anything else to add . . . ?
A. No; I would say this, though: that if opium houses were licensed as drinking saloons are one need not have to come into such holes as this to smoke. There would be nice rooms with nice couches, and the degradation would be mitigated. At all events I think the government that will not license an opium saloon should shut up public houses and hotels where they sell vitriol for whiskey and brandy, and where men idle themselves with a certainty and a rapidity beyond the power of opium. 3
This first law, however, like so many subsequent anti-narcotics laws, failed to work despite the promptness and thoroughness of the punishment. When opium dens became illegal, "The vice was indulged in much less openly, but none the less extensively, for although the larger smoking-houses were closed, the small dens in Chinatown were well patronized, and the vice grew surely and steadily." 6 Indeed, the new law "seemed to add zest to their enjoyment." 7
A similar ordinance was passed in Virginia City, Nevada, the following year. 8 This also failed to accomplish its purpose; hence the State of Nevada passed a more stringent act a year or two later. 9 Other states and cities voted similar statutes soon after.
When these laws failed as well, Congress took a hand. Before opium can be smoked, it must be specially prepared; and weak opium containing less than the usual amount of morphine is used in its preparation. In 1883, Congress raised the tariff on opium prepared for smoking from $6 to $10 a pound; 10 and in 1887 it prohibited altogether the importation of the kind of weak opium--- that containing less than 9 percent morphine--- used for preparing smoking opium. The 1887 law also prohibited the importation of opium by Chinese, and a law three years later limited the manufacture of smoking opium to American citizens. 11
The results of these steps were set forth in a letter dated January 12, 1888, from the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The effect, he wrote, had been "to stimulate smuggling, extensively practiced by systematic organizations [presumably the Chinese "tongs" or mutual benefit societies on the Pacific coast. Recently completed facilities for transcontinental transportation have enabled the opium smugglers to extend their illicit traffic to our Northern border. Although all possible efforts have been made by this Department to suppress the traffic, it is found practically impossible to do so." 12
The law was not changed, however; indeed, the tariff on smoking opium was further increased, from $10 to $12 per pound in 1890. Then, in 1897, it was reduced to $6 a pound "experience having at last taught that it could not bear a higher rate without begetting an extensive surreptitious manufacture or serious smuggling operations." Following the reduction in the tariff, "the amount that passed through the customs houses . . . progressively increased." 13
Throughout this period, states and cities continued to pass laws against opium smoking;* by 1914 there were twenty-seven such laws in effect.. Yet the amount of smoking opium legally imported continued to rise steadily, as shown in Table 2. 14
*Several of these laws also made it a crime to possess a pipe for the smoking of opium precedent for later laws prohibiting the possession of hypodermic needles and syringes without a prescription.
There was a lesson implicit in these import figures. During more than thirty years of city, state, and federal efforts to suppress opium smoking, the amount smoked per year increased sevenfold--- without taking account of smuggled supplies.
In 1909, the importation of smoking opium was prohibited altogether. l5 This law was successful in the sense that smoking opium imported through the customhouses fell to zero, but it did not solve the opium-smoking problem. Congress in January 1914 found it necessary to amend the 1909 law 16 and to pass an additional statute imposing a prohibitive tax ($300 per pound) on opium prepared for smoking within the United States. 17 In December 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotic Act, with far broader provisions 18 (see Chapter 8). Yet as late as 1930, according to Federal Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger and United States Attorney William F. Tompkins, "opium dens could be found in almost any American city." 19
Table 2. Rise in Legal Importation of Opium, 1860-1909.
One reason for the failure of these anti-opium-smoking laws, and of subsequent anti narcotics laws, appears obvious. They were aimed at private transactions between willing sellers and willing, usually eager, buyers. Thus there were no complainants. Other such laws include the Volstead Act, since repealed, which prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages; the laws against fornication, homosexual acts, and other sexual acts between consenting individuals in private; the laws against gambling; and the drug laws generally. The phrase "crimes without victims" has been applied to such acts; they can more accurately be called "crimes without complainants." It is hard to cite a law aimed at crimes of this class which has had much effect in curbing the behavior aimed at. *
* "All laws which can be violated without doing any one an injury are laughed at. Nay, so far are they from doing anything to control the desires and passions of men that, on the contrary, they direct and incite men's thoughts the more toward those wry objects; for we always strive toward what is forbidden and desire the things we are not allowed to have. And men of leisure are never deficient in the ingenuity needed to enable them to outwit laws framed to regulate things which cannot be entirely forbidden.... He who tries to determine everything by law will foment crime rather than lessen it."--- Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). 20
The mere fact that a law fails to achieve its goal fully is of course not a sufficient reason for repealing it; witness the laws against murder. The basic argument against laws creating crimes without complainants must rest on evidence that they not only fail but also, in the process of failing, do more harm than good. Such evidence exists with respect to the laws against opium smoking. For one effect of these laws was to convert opium smokers to more hazardous forms of opiate use.
"Opium smoking is vastly less vicious than morphine-taking," wrote an American authority on opiates, Dr. Charles B. Towns, in 1912. 21
Dr. Marie Nyswander also commented on opium smoking, in 1956:
There is a pattern of self-limitation or restraint in opium smoking as practiced in countries where it is socially acceptable. It is common for natives of these countries to indulge in opium smoking one night a week, much as Americans may indulge in alcoholic beverages at a Saturday night party.... families who accept opium smoking as part of their culture are mindful of its dangers much as we are mindful of the dangers of overindulgence in alcohol. 22
The reasons for the lesser harmfulness of opium smoking in moderation are not hard to find. The opium used, as noted above, is of a specially weak type containing less than 9 percent morphine. Only about 10 percent of the morphine in this weak opium enters the vapor, and only a portion of the morphine in the vapor enters the human bloodstream when inhaled. Since the opium is heated rather than burned, only smoke-free vapor is inhaled; there are no "tars" or other carcinogens to cause cancer. The so-called "opium smoker" is actually a vapor inhaler. At a very rough estimate, a smoker would have to smoke 300 or 400 grains of opium to get a dose equivalent to the intravenous injection ("mainlining-) of one grain of heroin. Even heavy opium smokers actually smoke less than this daily. * And the opium-smoking dose is necessarily spread over a considerable span of time rather than being absorbed into the bloodstream almost instantaneously, as in mainlining. Surely the nineteenth-century enemies of opium smoking did not and could not foresee that the new laws were starting this country down the dismal road from that relatively innocent "vice" to the intravenous injection of heroin--- the dominant form of illegal opiate use today; yet that was in fact the sequel. **
*Dr. Charles B. Towns wrote (1912) "The average opium-smoker consuming twenty-five pills a day gets only the equivalent of about a quarter grain [15 milligrams] of morphine taken hypodermically or of a half grain taken by the mouth. A beginner could not smoke a quarter of that quantity.... 23
**Dr. Lawrence Kolb wrote (1925): "Case 35, now thirty-eight years of age, started smoking opium twenty years ago [in 1905]. After the importation of smoking opium was prevented by law, he used morphine, and when this could no longer be secured, he changed to heroin." 24 This was the common pattern.
1. H. H. Kane, Opium Smoking in America and China (New York, 1882), cited in Terry and Pellens, p. 73.
2. Jonathan Spence, ''Opium Smoking in Ch'ing China," presented at the Conference on Local Control and Social Protest During the Ch'ing Period, Honolulu, 1971 (under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies and the University of California); unpublished.
3. British Columbia Study pp. 498-500.
4. Kane, in Terry and Pellens, p. 73.
7. Cited in Alfred R. Lindesmith, Opiate Addiction (Evanston, Ill.: Principia Press. 1947), p. 186.
8. Kane, in Terry and Pellens, p. 808.
10. Terry and Pellens, p. 747.
11. Ibid., p. 748.
12. Exec. Doc. No. 79, House of Representatives, 50th Cong., 1st Sess., C. S. Fairchild to Mr. Carlisle, Jan. 12, 1888, cited in Terry and Pellens, p. 747.
13. Terry and Pellens, pp. 747-748.
14. Lawrence Kolb and A. G. Du Mez, The Prevalence and Trend of Drug Addiction in the United States, and Factors lnfuencing It, Treasury Department, U.S. Public Health Service, Reprint No. 924 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1924), p. 14.
15. Outlook, 91 (February 6, 1909): 275; Public law No. 221, 60th Cong., approved February 9, 1909.
16. Public Law No. 46, 63rd Cong., approved January 17, 1914.
17. Public Law No. 47, 63rd Cong., approved January 17, 1914.
18. Public Law No. 233, 63rd Cong., approved December 17, 1914.
19. Harry J. Anslinger and William F. Tompkins, The Traffic in Narcotics (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1953), p. 54.
20. Baruch Spinoza, quoted by Joel Fort in Richard Blum and Associates, Utopiates, (New York: Atherton Press, 1968), p. 205.
21. Charles B. Towns, "The Peril of the Drug Habit," Century Magazine, 84 (1910 583.
22. Jerome H. Jaffe, in Goodman and Gilman, 3rd ed. (1965), p. 285.
23. Charles B. Towns, "The Peril of the Drug Habit," p. 583.
24. Lawrence Kolb, "Pleasure and Deterioration from Narcotic Addiction," Mental Hygiene, 9 (1925): 719-720.
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