The Opium Question

Poster for a play called “King of the Opium Ring.”

Although Chinese officials had been calling for an end to the opium trade for centuries, the global movement towards opium prohibition did not begin to gain momentum until the late nineteenth century, as the financial stake of the British in the trade waned. The movement to eradicate the practice of smoking opium, in particular, was central to debates about “the opium question.” The widespread integration of opium smoking into all levels of Chinese society by the end of the nineteenth century was often blamed by officials in both East and West, but, surprisingly, relatively few Chinese were addicts. An individual’s likelihood of becoming addicted to opium depended greatly on social class, geography, and even gender. Most estimates put the number of opium addicts at about three percent of the Chinese population (overall) during this period.

Police officer posing with confiscated opium pipes.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries to China increasingly began to rail against the opium trade, even though, ironically, the Opium Wars had opened China to Western missionaries. While many had religious motivations for condemning opium and opium smoking, opium prohibition, particularly in the US, had economic roots. The xenophobia surrounding efforts to ban opium smoking in the US reveals the economic insecurity suffered by working-class whites during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1875, the first anti-drug law passed in the US, a San Francisco ordinance against smoking opium in dens, clearly targeted Chinese immigrants. Over the following years, many similar ordinances were enacted against opium smoking, while laudanum, the form of the drug preferred by middle-class whites, remained legal and available without a prescription for some time afterwards.

Political cartoon depicting competition between working-class whites and Chinese immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.

Opium smoking and the Chinese immigrants who brought the practice to the US were an easy scapegoat for the ills of a contingent of working-class whites who felt threatened by the influx of Chinese immigrants who came to the US to work in the railroad and mining industries during the latter half of the nineteenth century. To win votes, politicians often capitalized on the resentment of white working-class voters, demonizing both the Chinese and their culture, which included opium smoking.

Because opium smoking already had a deeply entrenched erotic culture surrounding it in China, it was very easy for unscrupulous demagogues and journalists to whip whites into a frenzy over the “moral danger” posed by Chinese men who might lure white women into opium dens and use the drug to seduce them. Depictions of helpless white women being “taken advantage of” by sinister-looking Chinese opium smokers were quite common during this period and provide a stark visual reminder of the xenophobia that colored white Americans’ views of opium smoking.

Poster for a Broadway melodrama, 1899.

During roughly the same period when opium smoking was being scapegoated for social ills in the US, modern opioids which were capable of wreaking much more havoc than opium made their appearance on the market, and opium was swept up in a wave of worldwide legislation with its much more powerful derivatives, morphine and heroin.

In 1909, the first law passed against opium at the federal level, the Opium Exclusion Act, specifically banned the importation of opium for smoking, and in 1912, the International Opium Convention, the world’s first international drug treaty, was signed, opening the door to increasing restrictions on the use of the drug. The passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in the US in 1914 served to further drive the practice of smoking opium underground, although it remained common in the US until around World War II.

In China, the Communist regime, which had profited greatly from the sale of opium during the twenties and thirties, undertook brutal campaign of opium eradication, during which opium addicts were given a choice between forced detox or the death penalty. During the Cultural Revolution in China, countless precious pipes and other opium smoking implements were destroyed, and some opium addicts fled to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, where opium dens catering to the “Chinese habit” persisted until the 60’s and 70’s, when pressure from the US government forced them to close. Following the passage of anti-opium laws in Southeast Asia in the second half of the twentieth century, many who had been habitual opium smokers turned to heroin, which was easier for traffickers to smuggle, leading to an increase in public health issues associated with drug use.

The stigma against opium smoking lives on in the popular imagination, and many paint it with the same brush as they would someone shooting up with a dirty needle in a dark alley. In reality, though, the story of opium is much less depraved and much more nuanced than the history textbooks would have us believe.