Poppy plant.
Poppy plant.
Opium Smoking in 19th Century America

Opium: is a bitter, brownish, addictive narcotic drug that consists of the dried latex obtained from immature seed capsules of the opium poppy plant. In the United States in the nineteenth century, due to an ongoing trade with China, opium smoking became prevalent, primarily in underground "dens" operated by Asian immigrants. It's termination as a popular drug in the late nineteenth century coincided with the expulsion of Asian immigrants from America, fueled by an overall hatred towards Asians immigrants in general.

Origins in China/Asia:
While the exact origins of the opium plant are not known, most scholars believe it can be traced back to 50 A.D. in Mesopotamia, when Greek physician/botanist Dioscorides put together an organized discussion of the medicinal and therapeutic uses of opium entitled De Materia Medica. After this time period, not much is known about the growing, harvesting, distribution, consumption of opium. Various ancient physicians, herbalists, botanists and scientists wrote brief reports of their research into the drug throughout the centuries, but nothing of significant relevance or importance.

Movement into America:
Typical 19th century American opium den.
Typical 19th century American opium den.

In 1849, races from various Asian countries (primarily China) followed the example of tens of thousands around the world who were immigrating to the United States, seeking fortune in the gold fields of California. These immigrants, who were primarily men, left their families in their home country hoping to return to them one day with a great fortune. Within the first 20 years of Asian immigrant arrival, recreational opium smoking spread to the Anglo-American communities in the U.S., and proved to have a drastic negative effect on society.

Prevalence in America:
According to famed Dr. Harry Hubbell Kane, the most prolific American writer on opium, the first Anglo-American smoked opium in 1868. Soon after this event, the habit spread to the class on the fringe of respectable society, then to the actual respectable society, then naturally, their children. In actuality, once the drug was introduced to to white communities in the U.S., they made it their own, and by 1882 Chinese involvement in opium distribution declined drastically and Euro-Americans became the main opium entrepreneurs.

Effects of Smoking Opium:
Aforementioned herbalist Dioscorides mentioned in his ancient medical journal that the narcotic could be used as a successful pain reliever, sleep inducer, and cough suppressant, while also stating that it made the smoker lethargic and could be lethal in large doses. Seven centuries later, a similar herbalist/physician Paulus Aegineta came to the same conclusion as Dioscorides, stating in his own research that the drug relieved pain of headaches and earaches, inflammations of the eyes and gout, as well as alleviating diarrhea, but also, once again, made users lethargic and could lead to death when taken in large quantities. Dr. Kane found in his research that opium affected how the body physically functioned and, in turn affected how men and women performed at their jobs or in their homes. In the same way, Dr. Nathan Allen's famous 1850 essay took on a new significance. He stated that while opium smoking excited the intellect and stimulated the imagination, it also caused the smoker to lose all interest in labor, care, and anxiety. Dr Kane's research proved that novice smokers experienced dizziness, nausea, and heavy perspiration, as well as a decrease in appetite. However, these symptoms seemed to disappear with regular smoking. An 1870 publication by Samuel B. Collins, owner of an opium addiction clinic, offered the fact that the intoxication from smoking opium lasted 6-10 hours and gave the smoker a feeling of " 'repose and satisfaction', indicating the smokers inclination to ignore their duties and responsibilities." For example, in the 1870's and 1880's about 700,00 Anglo-Americas partook in smoking opium which "lured workers away from the needs of industry."
Chinese opium addict.
Chinese opium addict.

Researchers also found that the drug had a drastic effect on sexual behavior. The elite, as well as the middle-class in America at the time, believed it was vital to practice self-control, particularly sexual self control, and that having sex any more than once a month could be considered excessive. In the same way, they believed that excessive sex "taxed the limited quality of vital force in men, and that women lost a vast amount of nervous energy". The use of smoking opium definitely raised new problems for the general view of opposition to recreational sex because researchers found the opium could be utilized as an extreme aphrodisiac. Dr. Kane found that smoking opium caused men and women to experience an almost uncontrollable sexual urge. He claimed that users were, "Habitually tormented with a satyriasis as abortive as it is insatiable." Kane came across these findings through self-experimentation. he also found that men had a delayed completion of sexual acts and women's sexual appetite "sometimes approached a frenzy, causing the woman to lose all modesty". Naturally, Kane came to the conclusion that a process was created in which overtly, sexually active males seduced intensely aroused women. This was only one factor that contributed to the belief that opium would slowly cause the destruction of the U.S.

There were also some humorous, less accurate theories that emerged on the effects of smoking opium. A anti-smoking belief soon developed claiming that the frequent smoking of opium caused its users to develop Chinese characteristics. The British claimed that recreational opium smoking caused a contagious disease known as "Orientalness" that changed the European in ways such as attitudes, customs, and physical appearance into that of a Chinese fashion. Not only Europeans, but also Americans believed that the drug caused a change in appearance. They believed that addicted smokers turned pale with yellow-streaked appearances with blackish and yellowish-blue circles around the eyes.

Chinese immigrants being inspected.
Chinese immigrants being inspected.

Opium and Prostitution:
When opium addiction was in its prime within America, prostitution also reigned heavily in a stratified underground society. Even within this black market world, there was still a class system, chinese prostitutes being at the bottom. In fact, 87% of Chinese women in the United States were prostitutes. Between 1852-1873 Chinese secret societies such as the Hip Yee Tong transported over 6,000 Chinese women to the United States solely for the purpose of serving as prostitutes. Both Chinese and Anglo-American prostitutes frequently visited opium dens for the same purpose that men did, using the drug as an escape from their lives or possibly even suicide. In some occasions, Chinese-run brothels doubled as opium dens. Owners would lure men into the dens with opium and took advantage of the sexual urges that opium caused by leading them next door to the brothel.

Public Reaction:
As the number of regular opium-smokers grew vastly within normal society, physicians naturally began to put more research and study into the substance. Their popular conclusion was the theory that, given the alarming number of addicts in American, opium-smoking may cause the deterioration of the United States, in more ways than one. Dr. Kane wrote in 1882: "[opium] is a reef that is bound to sink morality...a fertile cause of crime, lying, insanity, debt, and suicide; a poison of hope and ambition; a sunderer of family ties; a breeder of sensuality and, finally, impotence." Dr. Kane also explained the similarity of opium addiction to that of other drugs and even alcohol. He believed that American citizens were drawn to opium for the same reasons they were drawn to other drugs: the relief of stress and anxiety from their busy lives. Kane states that the user "voluntarily and knowingly drifts into a habit, the undercurrent of which is sure to carry him beyond his depth and draw him down, indicating the smoker's desire to escape his worldly concern." This supposed destruction that was occurring within large quantities of american society eventually led non-smokers to find a scapegoat, and who better to receive the blame than the accused creators of the problem: the Asian immigrants.

Questions (Poll conducted of 15 average Baylor University Students)
Have you ever smoked Opium?
Do you know anyone who has ever smoked opium?
Do you think that drugs should be legalized?
In terms of drug related crimes, are drugs the problem or the people?
If legal immigrants bring a drug over to the U.S. and it becomes a problem, is the U.S. justified in deporting them as an entire race?

Attitude Toward Immigrants:
Through out the years of opium abuse in America, many opinions were formed on the matter. None opium smokers (and even some regular opium smokers) listed many reason on why they hated the drug and everything that came with it. First, they argued that opium caused a drastic decline in the American workforce due to its lethargic and apathetic attributes. Second, it was believed that opium smoking furthered the already socially detrimental, socially unacceptable, not to mention illegal, concept of prostitution. Third, it created a perverse obsessive society, solely preoccupied with sex. It also caused extreme health problems, including death and infertilization, and ate away the income of Americans. Another large problem, stemming from prostitution, was the existence of bi-racial children from Anglo-American men to Chinese prostitutes. This lead Americans to believe that the United States would deteriorate if the Americans intermarried and reproduced with non Anglo- or European peoples, especially the Chinese. Dr. Arthur B. Stout, a famed advocate of Chinese exclusion, as well as an accurate representation of the opinion of Americans during this time, made it known that, "the Caucasian race with its very types has been assigned the supremacy in elevation of mind and beauty of form over all mankind" and " no new combination of distinct existing races can improve this divine excellence. Whatever enters it, tends to destroy it." Also, American doctors supported the concept that the United States government should protect his people and "should strive to preserve the purity of the race." As a result, not only was opium made illegal outside of the medical world, but the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This act allowed the U.S. to suspend immigration, and Congress subsequently acted quickly to implement the suspension of Chinese immigration, a ban that was intended to last 10 years, but ended up lasting over 20 years.

Modern Chinese opium den.
Modern Chinese opium den.

Opium in Modern Times:

In modern times, opium abuse is not nearly as prevalent as it was in the nineteenth century. In addition to the modern negative statistics on opium being very low in the first place, according to the World Drug Report, "Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the source country for most of the world’s opium, decreased by 19% in 2008." The Report also states that, "Reports coming from traditional opium using countries in South-East Asia suggest that the use of this drug may be declining there." Also, "Total potential opium production in the major opium-poppy cultivating countries has thus decreased from the previous year."


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