The History of Opium in the United States

June 14th 2015

"It has been estimated that in San Francisco thirty per cent of the Chinese are addicted to smoking [opium] and that ten per cent of the entire population of Chinatown are habitual 'opium drunkards,'" reads a Scientific American article from 1898. "The drug is smoked as freely as tobacco. First, there are the opium dens. There are scores of these dens in the Chinese quarter of every large city. There the Chinaman can buy his pipe and smoke in peace. In San Francisco white people are forbidden to visit these dens, but they have such places of their own, which are well known to the police, and the vice is ever spreading and increasing."

First of all, "Chinaman" is not the preferred nomenclature these days, but that was the scene when opium was starting to become a concern to the American government. The Scientific American article goes on to describe how the laws were changing regarding opium, including referencing San Francisco's place as the first city in the U.S. to effectively ban smoking the drug toward the end of the 1800s, which we've illustrated before. White men were becoming concerned with Chinese men luring their women into opium dens, so they outlawed smoking it, which made it possible to throw Chinese men in jail if they were seen as threats. Drinking and injecting opium was popular among white men and women at the time, so that was not outlawed in the city. During the 1890s, tabloids owned by William Randolph Hearst led a fear campaign, claiming white women were being seduced by Chinese men in the opium dens, and they referred to it as the "Yellow Peril."  

The Chinese immigration experience 

Some Chinese men started coming to the U.S. around 1820, and some larger groups appeared in the 1830s and 40s. These men were coming to America to work as merchants, to mine gold and for other work opportunities. The first Chinese woman to come to America, Afong Moy, arrived in 1834. By the 1860s, Chinese immigration became more common, and Chinese men helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese population on the West Coast grew quickly by the time the railroad began construction. It is estimated that between 1850 and 1889, 300,000 Chinese people immigrated to America, though many of them ended up going back to China. 

Chinese workers first became a perceived threat to white male workers in the 1870s when there was a work shortage. White Americans viewed these Chinese men as racially inferior and felt they were taking work away from them. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese immigration for 10 years, and it was extended another 10 years by the Geary Act of 1892. Prejudice against the Chinese in America remained for decades. When Congress passed the Harrison Tax Act of 1914, which effectively outlawed opium nationwide, it was became another measure to gain power over the Chinese population.

Other drugs derived from opium 

Opium, and the heroin that can be created from the opium poppy, have a long medical history in the country as well. Opium was used to calm cranky babies in the 1830s and as a treatment for asthma. Morphine, also created from opium, was used as a pain reliever during the Civil War. In 1895, the pharmaceutical company Bayer synthesized heroin for the first time, and Bayer Heroin was released in 1898. Heroin was actually a brand name Bayer created, not just some street name for the drug. Since many people became addicted to morphine during and after the Civil War, Bayer Heroin was used as a pain reliever that could help people get rid of their morphine addiction. This backfired. Using heroin for recreational or medicinal uses became illegal in the U.S. under the Heroin Act of 1924.

"Hipster" is not a new term. It originally referred to the jazz players and enthusiasts of the 1930s and beyond. From the hipsters to the beatniks of the 1950s, heroin was often the drug of choice for its euphoric effect. It may no longer be legal, but opium and opium-based drugs are still widespread in certain places across the U.S. to this day. In fact, Heroin is currently a Schedule I narcotic, along with marijuana, LSD, MDMA and others, which means that is both illegal and classified as having no accepted medicinal use. Opium may have originally become illegal because of Chinese men, but now we can all go to prison for having it.

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