Drugs have been at the forefront of the American political stage since the early 20th century, and especially these last few decades when synthetic drugs have been created and made available.
Non-synthetic drugs, on the other hand, have a much longer history. Cocaine, for instance, is from South America and comes from the coca leaf.
The South Americans used to chew coca leaves to experience their effect. This was already a well-established practice by the time Europeans arrived.
Cocaine was not the only substance the Europeans found when they reached the Americas. Also in use, by various peoples, were ayahuasca, tobacco, marijuana, and peyote.
However, the eastern world was not without its own intoxicating substances. In addition to alcohol, the main drug that spread through Eurasia and North Africa was opium.
The opium drug has a long and storied history and wherever the drug spread, opium dens soon followed. We’ll go into more detail about this in the paragraphs below.
The Opium Drug–Origins
Opium is a drug that comes from the poppy plant and functions much like a sedative. This is where the idea of poppies causing people to fall asleep comes from.
The earliest evidence of opium use comes from Ancient Mesopotamia–modern-day Iraq and Kuwait, with small parts of other Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. these records trace back to somewhere around 3,400 BCE, or 5,000 years ago.
From there, the drugs spread to other Middle Eastern empires, such as Babylon and Assyria, and eventually into Egypt. Egypt was quite fond of opium and began to farm it extensively. Through trade, opium spread into Greece.
The conquests of Alexander the Great brought opium into the areas he invaded, namely Persia–modern-day Iran, and India.
Several hundred years later, traders from the Middle East introduced Egyptian opium to the Chinese.
Opium-Medieval Era to the 1800s
When the medieval era set in, opium began to be frowned upon by Europeans for religious reasons. This all changed during the Age of Exploration when Europeans began using opium and reintroduced it to Europe. The Europeans see it as a cash crop and begin trading it around the world.
In the early 1800s, a new form of opium was discovered by Friedrich Serturner, a 21-year-old pharmacist’s apprentice from Germany. It was eventually given the name ‘morphine. It took years and several unethical experiments before the medical community accepted the new drug, but it turned out to be quite effective and is still in use today.
Chinese efforts to outlaw and suppress the opium trade in their country eventually sparked off the opium wars, which the Chinese lost. After the Second Opium War in the 1850s, the import of opium was forcibly legalized.
In the late 1800s, much of the world tried to contain the opium trade and reduce the number of addicts. Their efforts lead to the invention of heroin, which was believed at the time to be safer than morphine.
The first half of the 20th century saw a series of new laws and restrictions passed that aimed to quell the drug trade. However, black markets sprouted up and began to flourish. One of the biggest black market areas was San Francisco’s “Chinatown.”
After World War II, the world’s, especially the US, relationship with opiates fluctuated quite a bit. The US provided assistance to various groups in hope of stopping the spread of communism. Oftentimes, this exchange required the US to let a few shipments of opiates slide through US security.
After the Vietnam War, the US took a more thoroughly anti-drug stance against opiates and attempted to reduce the amount being grown and brought into the US.
Unfortunately, that’s where the story ends. It seems that this is an ongoing struggle, since every time one source is destroyed, another pops up.
As the opium drug became an epidemic in the 1800s, reports of opium dens began to circulate throughout the country. It should be noted that the 19th century was the golden age of yellow journalism, so many of these reports were exaggerated, if not blatantly false.
The basic details of the story were true–there were various tiny, ramshackle rooms and buildings where people of all genders, and eventually all classes, would go to smoke opium.
It was also true that opiates were being used more extensively and by more people as the century went on. Opiate addiction was a problem back then and is still a problem now. You can learn more about that here.
Some reports claimed that two underage girls had been seen entering an opium den. This may have been true, but it’s probably safe to assume that the reporter didn’t stop and ask their ages before jumping to conclusions.
Others claimed the Chinese were using opium to lure white women into their dens for sex. In reality, it seems to have been food that brought women into drug dens for the first time.
Outrage at the Chinese
The result of all this hearsay was that much of the nation’s ire was directed at the Chinese. A lot of the drug did come to the US from China, but opium production there had been encouraged by Europeans for over a century, and the opium boom had been the result.
Plus, the earliest transporters of opium to the United States were actually British. They purchased a gigantic amount of Turkish opium to be sent to the British Isles and the United States. The Chinese did bring some opium into the country, but a lot of people were trading in opium by then, so we can’t account for most of it.
The hatred lasted for several decades but seemed to die down sometime after the fifties. By then, most of the opium dens, as we would think of them, were long gone, as was the use of opium. Instead, morphine and heroin had become the most popular drugs among opiate users.
Opium Drug Dens
Opium was a problem for many nations throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. With the rise of this new epidemic, stories of opium drug dens began to spread across the country. Yellow journalists took advantage of the fear to sell papers, which often blamed the Chinese for the drug.
In reality, most of this was conjecture at best and libel at worst. Eventually, opium was replaced by morphine and heroin, and the fight to end addiction to them continues.
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