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Rufus King Collection | Drug Hang Up


The Drug Hang Up, America's Fifty-Year Folly

by Rufus King

Chapter 2

 From Our Pusher Ancestors to the First Prohibitionists

GENERATIONS of viewers-with-alarm on the American drug scene have excoriated the nonaddicted peddler. What predator could be more vicious than this exploiter of human misery' this merchant of death on the installment plan?

But looking only a little further back, we find our European forebears, aided by not a few Yankee partners, deliberately addicting ancient, honorable China to the very drug we now fear most.

As was true of most rulers in the seventeenth century, Chinese emperors were more alarmed by the smoking of tobacco among their subjects than by the abuse of opium , both of which got their start in that era. Opium, brought to China by Arab traders about 1200 A.D., had long been favored for medicinal purposes. But the practice of smoking opium remained unknown until the late sixteenth century, when Spanish or Portuguese merchants introduced tobacco into the Flower Kingdom and taught its cultivation and use.

There may be poetic justice in the picture as now, at long last, we are coming to see it: for between the two it is tobacco, not opium which is the killer. During the three centuries China has been struggling unsuccessfully with the opium problem forced on her by "foreign devils," Western societies have sacrificed millions of their own people by encouraging tobacco smoking. There is almost certainly a relationship between these divergent selections of vice and the fact that death rates from cancer and cardiac involvement are considerably lower among most Oriental peoples than in the tobacco-saturated West.

The opium poppy, papaver soniniferum, was cultivated so long ago in Asia Minor that the precise locale of its discovery and development is unknown. It is described in Sumerian tablets now more than 5,000 years old. Egyptologists have found references to opium in the chronicles of that land, and the Greeks knew the plant well-references to its medicinal value are found in Greek writings of the Homeric era, nine centuries before the birth of Christ. Opium brought westward by Arab traders was used as medicine throughout the Christian and Islamic worlds for nearly a millennium before it first appeared in India, in the ninth century A.D., and, as we have just noted, first reached China sometime after 1200.

While it is possible that the drug was eaten by some medieval citizens who found it made them feel good even when they were not suffering from anything requiring medicine, there are no records of such indulgent use, either in the Orient or the West, until the tam of the seventeenth century, and then the first problem is supposed to have arisen when someone discovered that opium fumes, inhaled with smoke from burning tobacco, were better even than the effects of the New World novelty puffed by itself.

This was what happened in China. Some authorities say the Dutch on Formosa first mixed opium in their smokes "to counteract the malaria that abounds in the jungles of the Island," and that the practice spread to the mainland through Amoy. In any event, at about the time the Chinese were learning how to light up, India was becoming a substantial opium producer, and a steady traffic from India to the Chinese market soon developed. Early in the eighteenth century, official Chinese edicts began prohibiting all use of tobacco, and in 1729 Emperor Yung Cheng issued the first imperial ban on opium, prescribing severe penalties, including death for opium-shop proprietors, to stamp out the habit.

But in those days China was weak, while our lusty Occidental forebears were contemptuous of "natives" and greedy for profit This was the era of clipper trade, with tea, silks, spices, and Chinese artifacts moving in great volume to markets in Europe and America. The Western demand for Chinese items soon became so large that trade balances began heavily favoring China, and payments had to be made in specie. Moreover, the Chinese refused to open their markets to barbarian merchantmen. One of the devices principally relied upon to rectify this unfavorable situation was cultivation and promotion of the opium traffic.

India was always the principal source for the China market. Opium cultivation had been made a monopoly by the Great Mogul early in the eighteenth century, and on his defeat by Lord Clive in 1757 the monopoly was taken over by the British East India Company. Thereafter British merchants dominated the trade, and despite the Chinese prohibition on smoking, opium imports into that country, which had stayed at the level of 200 to 300 spice chests (150 pounds each) per annum, began to soar: to 1,000 chests in 1776, to over 5,000 in 1800, and to a yearly average of 17,000 in the 1820-1830 decade.

Succeeding Chinese emperors continued to resist this influx, banning all importation of opium in 1880 and extending the death penalty to its use. But they were no match for the pressures generated by British traders, backed up by the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, and some adventuring Americans. Canton harbor, approached through the Portuguese concession at Macao, was the principal gateway for the import traffic. To avoid embarrassment, inbound merchant ships unloaded outside the harbor into depot ' vessels anchored there, or directly into smaller coastal craft, some of which were actually owned by corrupt Chinese officials.

In 1839 Emperor Tao Kwang sent a personal emissary, Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu, to Canton to clean up the situation. Lin first appealed directly for help to Queen Victoria, who had come to the British throne two years earlier at the age of eighteen:

We have heard that in your Honourable Barbarian Country the people are not permitted to inhale the drug. If it is admittedly so deleterious, how can your seeking profit by exposing others to its malific power be reconciled with the decrees of heaven? You should immediately have the plant plucked up by the very root. Cause the land there to be hoed up afresh, sow the five grains and if any man dare again to plant a single poppy, visit his crime with condign punishment. Then not only will the people of this Celestial Kingdom be delivered from an intolerable evil, but your own barbarian subjects, albeit forbidden to indulge, will be safeguarded against falling a prey to temptation. There will result for each the enjoyment of felicity.

We have reflected, that this noxious article is the clandestine manufacture of artful schemers under the dominion of your honourable nation. Doubtless, you, the Honourable Chieftainess, have not commanded the growing and sale thereof.

There is no record of a response from Her Majesty. After increasingly hostile negotiations, Lin persuaded the British Superintendent of Trade at Canton, Captain Charles Elliot, to order all local European merchants to surrender their existing stocks of opium, and on April 3, 1839, they turned over 20,283 chests, having a claimed value of over 22 million.

However, the merchants continued receiving new supplies which had been en route, and in a series of confrontations involving outrages on both sides the British authorities were soon induced to declare war. The degree of American involvement is suggested by the fact that following the surrender to Lin, a resolution presented in the U.S. Congress denounced him as a "robber baron" and called for U.S. support for a punitive military expedition. The engagement which followed was known as the First Opium War, and was fought in two installments between 1840 and 1842. British forces first captured Chusan and exacted the cession of Hong Kong plus an indemnity of $6 million; but this was repudiated by the Chinese, whereupon the British resumed the attack with a formidable armada dispatched from India, seized half a dozen major cities, and exacted concessions in what came to be known as the Treaty of Nanking, including the opening of Canton, Shanghai, and other ports, and an indemnity of $21 million.

In 1843 the British insisted on further treaty concessions, and the following year American interests, represented by Commissioner Caleb Cushing, negotiated an agreement which put American merchantmen on an equal footing with the British except that the American treaty excluded- U.S. citizens who engaged in the opium traffic from the protection of their government Chinese resistance was soon further undermined by the accession of a very weak emperor, Hien-feng, who took the throne in 1850, and although the central government continued to ban imports and publish edicts against opium smoking, the India trade kept flourishing (50,000 chests in 1850; 85,000 in 1860), and at the same time local cultivation of the poppy was launched in many areas of China by corrupt provincial viceroys.

In the troubled years which followed, China was torn by civil war (the Taiping Rebellion), and in 1856, magnifying a trivial episode involving disrespect for the British flag, the British and the French once more declared war. Again the Chinese were easily bested, and under the new treaty, negotiated at Tientsin in 1858, not only the British and French victors but also the Americans and Russians extracted new concessions, one of which was full legalization of inbound opium shipments.

Chinese defiance continued, but to little avail. When foreign emissaries were refused access to Peking, the British renewed hostilities (in 1860), captured the capital city, forced the emperor to take to his heels, and burned the Imperial Summer Palace.

Although American clipper ships had always figured largely in the general China trade, the American share in the opium traffic was not very great at the outset and, as has been noted, the U.S. government early commenced an official campaign, through Commissioner Cushing, to discourage American participation. In 1834 the East India Company had relinquished its absolute control of British trade, however, and thereafter the company’s monopoly of Indian opium in the Calcutta market also became somewhat relaxed. American traders had tried to bring opium from Persia, unsuccessfully because of the vastly superior quality of the Indian product, and had been identified with a small traffic from Turkey (which led Commissioner Lin to believe Turkey must be an American colony).

But commencing in the 1840's, as new British traders moved in, their American competitors were also able to obtain more of the drug directly from Calcutta sources, American firms handled shipments openly, and some of the sleek opium clippers working along the China coast flew the Yankee flag. Moreover, according to British accounts, it was U.S. Minister William B. Reed who, in 1858, first suggested restoring opium to the Chinese tariff schedules as a legal commodity because be "had become an advocate of the legalization of the trade from witnessing the abuses to which its contraband character gave rise."

It would be unfair to imply that meanwhile no one in London protested this poisoning of helpless China with "foreign mud." In 1783 opium was denounced as "a pernicious article of luxury which ought not to be permitted but for the purpose of foreign commerce only." The East India Company shed tears, for home consumption, about how it lamented the spread of nonmedicinal uses of the drug, and how it would gladly curb the market "in compassion to mankind" if it could do so without merely relinquishing the profitable trade to foreign competitors. In Parliament the opium monopoly was attacked as "utterly inconsistent with the honour and duty of a Christian kingdom."

But Calcutta remained the dominant source for supplies. The East India Company clung to its control of Indian production until the company was dissolved in 1857. And long thereafter India under British control still continued to be the world's prime source of opium-without official restrictions until 1908.

It was estimated that by 1880, after twenty years of legalized importing, 2 per cent of the Chinese population was addicted to opium smoking, and that Chinese domestic production amounted to at least three times the volume of the import traffic, the latter having nevertheless risen steadily until it reached an annual average in the range of 100,000 chests. Succeeding Chinese emperors, beset by internal chaos and vainly clinging, to the attitudes and values of the old Celestial Empire, continued to protest and to issue new edicts forbidding abuse of the drug but with no effect. Corruption was universal; Chinese functionaries allegedly often made as large a share of the fabulous profits through their "squeeze" as foreign traders took for themselves.

The official attitude in Washington, although continuing to deplore this exploitation of China, did not altogether prevent participation in the trade by Yankee merchantmen through most of the balance of the nineteenth century. Several great American fortunes are supposed to have had their roots in China opium profits. And although bilateral opium agreements prohibiting exploitation of the traffic by American nationals were early negotiated with other countries in the Far East, commencing with the United States-Siam Pact of 1833, no such restrictions were agreed to with China until 1880, and Congress did not implement the Chinese commitment with express sanctions until 1887.

Chinese authority continued to disintegrate, and her drug problem kept growing. In 1894 opium comprised 14 per cent of China's total imports. By 1900 an estimated 27 per cent of the adult male population was addicted in some degree. Even though domestic growth of the poppy was now tolerated in every province of the empire, the traffic supplied from British-controlled production-and still carried on in part by smugglers to avoid the Chinese duties-continued to be a major factor. One report fixed total Chinese consumption in 1900 at 22,588 tons of the smoking preparation, and attributed at least a seventh of this total to the Indian source.

Americans learned about opium smoking from Chinese imported to build railroads, and from the large contingent of U.S. missionaries in Asia, but the habit was not spread much by these contacts. What plunged the U.S. government suddenly into the drug scene--overseas rather than at home, and the federal government instead of local authorities-was the chain of events that started with the famed explosion in Havana harbor in 1898.

Avenging the Maine, Uncle Sam emerged as a colonial power. Although Cuba and the United States were allies in driving out the Spanish oppressor, the United States found itself in a nasty operation against the Filipinos, who ungratefully resisted U.S. designs to liberate them. When the Hero of San Juan Hill became president in 1901, the Philippine insurgents had just been subdued and Civil Governor W. H. Taft in Manila was discovering, among other things, that he and his Philippine Commission faced a runaway opium problem.

The Spaniards, in a system devised in 1843, had auctioned contracts to individual opium wholesalers who then set up their own distribution outlets, which nominally only provided the drug to Chinese inhabitants but actually promoted opium eating and smoking to some extent among natives of the islands as well. In the chaotic insurrection years, local merchants took over from the contractors and the habit spread further. Taft proposed reinstating the Spanish system, which stirred protests from everyone, led by the newly entrenched merchants and den proprietors but soon echoed in an uproar among outraged moralists in the United States. The Yankee conscience was prickling over America's high-handed ways with its own Chinese immigrants as well as over the broken promise of Philippine liberation; some salve could be found in sparing new U.S. colonials what the "perfidious British" had so long forced on China; and besides, there were no vested interests in the United States, as there were in London, to defend opium profits.

In 1902 Congress expressed the mood of the country in a sweeping prohibition against any sales by U.S. traders of guns, liquor, or opium to natives on Pacific islands who had no "Civilized government" of their own to protect them.

Taft backed down and commissioned a special Opium Investigating Committee to study ways in which the problem was being handled in the Far East. The Committee, which took two years to observe and digest (while the Philippine situation worsened), seems not to have enjoyed its sojourn in China, and wrote the Chinese off: "There are no outdoor games in China, or indeed games except in a gambling sense. Absolute dullness and dreariness seem to prevail everywhere. As these two demons drive the Caucasian to drink, so they drive the Chinese to his opium. Most favored was the Japanese approach, and the Committee cannot be faulted for its choice; but its recommendation was to follow the Japanese model in Formosa, designed to deal with a situation closely paralleling that in the Philippines, and not the total-prohibition policy enforced by the Mikado among his own people. Japan had taken Formosa from China in 1895, assuming control of 3 million inhabitants, 6 or 7 per cent of whom were addicted to eating or smoking opium. Recognizing that prohibition would be cruel and unworkable, the Japanese authorities set up a government opium monopoly and a licensing system for opium shops and opium users. Progressive restrictions on licenses, plus education, treatment facilities in ten government hospitals, and low pricing to keep smuggling at a minimum, were aimed at wiping out abuse of the drug "in perhaps thirty years." In 1900 there were 1,107 Formosan opium shops catering to 169,C64 licensed users. The system was not working perfectly, but the Committee found it "humane and apt."

In Japan itself, for reasons the Committee set forth at length the native population, and even the eight thousand Chinese residents, were "practically proof against the vice. . . . The Japanese to a man fear opium as we fear the cobra or the rattlesnake, and they despise its victims. China's curse has been Japan's warning, and a warning heeded." Thus the Japanese prohibition was successful because it had been applied not as cure but as a preventative, accepted by a people whose reverence for authority was legend, and supported by strongly held popular views.

The Philippine Investigating Committee's report was printed and circulated in Washington, but Congress seems to have missed it or ignored its nuances. In 1905 the U.S. lawmakers took matters out of the hands of the Philippine Commission by slipping a proviso into the Philippine Tariff Act of that year to the effect that Philippine authorities might take measures at once "for the suppression of the evils resulting from the sale and use of the drug" (on which, otherwise, a moderate import duty was laid by the Act), but that in any event after March 1, 1908, only the government could import opium in any form, and all nonmedicinal uses would be unlawful.

Thus it came to pass that from the Olympus of democracy there emanated, in 1905, a decree almost as arbitrary-and almost as futile-as those which the Dragon Throne began issuing in 1729. Efforts were made in the Philippines in the intervening three years to register and license addicted users and to prepare for the prohibition deadline; but when it came the entire traffic quickly went underground, and Americans soon had their first taste of big-scale clandestine drug operations.

Meanwhile, American diplomats, who were being especially well received in Peking at this time because of Secretary Hay's insistence on the "open-door" policy, pressed the Chinese to take stronger measures to deal with their own drug traffic. In 1906 the Chinese government launched a ten-year program, forbidding by edict all further consumption of opium and all cultivation of the poppy. A six-month period was allowed for users to break off their habits, following which any backslider would be executed. And now the British agreed-at last-to reduce their exportation of Indian opium at the rate of one-tenth of the then-existing volume for each of the succeeding ten years, provided the Chinese made at least parallel reductions in domestic production and consumption.

The Chinese effort had surprising apparent effects. Poppy fields were destroyed, dens were closed, and smoking was repressed. By 1909 Chinese opium production was reportedly reduced by 80 per cent, causing severe economic distress in some of the producing regions. By 1913 smoking had been so curtailed that the British agreed to terminate further shipments from India, ahead of the ten-year schedule.

But Chinese smokers in large numbers seem to have turned to manufactured drugs, principally morphine and heroin. By treaties in 1902 and 1903, respectively, Great Britain and the United States undertook to limit their shipments of manufactured opiates to China to legitimate medical supplies. These obligations were indifferently enforced, however, and a route was left open to the China market via transshipments in Japan.

Visible above an allegedly large smuggled flow, China's declared imports of morphine jumped from an average of 19,766 ounces per year in the decade from 1898 to 1907 to an annual average of 478,629 ounces between 1915 and 1920, with a record high of 600,228 ounces in 1917. Japan's declared morphine imports (much of it supposedly going on to China via smugglers) reached totals of 558,862 ounces in 1916 and 880,000 ounces in 1920.

It was not until 1920 that U.S. authorities took vigorous steps to choke the flow of morphine passing to the Far East by transshipment and by transit routes from American ports.

Returning for a moment to 1906, American zeal and concern over the Philippines led the United States to take further steps. Speaking through President Roosevelt, the U.S. government proposed that all powers concerned with the international opium traffic should meet and consider cooperative measures to put an end to it Out of this overture came the Shanghai Conference, convened on February 1, 1909, and attended by representatives of China, Great Britain, Austria, Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, and the United States. At Shanghai the groundwork was laid for the Hague Convention of 1912, to which we shall soon return following different threads of this narrative.