About face

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Time to finish off the 19th Centurty. We pick up as the “crestfallen dude” is being escorted out of the courtroom…

Opium and alcohol are rather different experiences that don’t mix—either physically or psychically—which might account for the dude’s memory lapse. Thomas De Quincey, the popular author of the 1822 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, describes it well: “The pleasure given by wine is always rapidly mounting…after which as rapidly it declines; that from opium, when once generated, is stationary for eight to ten hours: the first, to borrow a technical distinction from medicine, is a case of acute, the second of chronic, pleasure; the one is a flickering flame, the other a steady and equable glow. But the main distinction lies in this—that whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in a proper manner), introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony.”

At the time, there was little research done exploring the relationship between opium use and drinking. But there was at least one noteworthy study: an 1872 look at the opium boom by the Massachusetts State Board of Health. The reason for the dramatic upswing in opiate use, it concluded, wasn’t the Chinese or the Civil War—it was the temperance movement.

This unintended consequence of the call for sobriety wasn’t unique to the United States, the board found. “It is a significant fact…that both in England and in this country, the total abstinence movement was almost immediately followed by an increased consumption of opium,” it notes. The study suggests that easy accessibility to the drug through pharmacies was part of the reason for the increase, but that many other sources existed as well: “Opium has been recently made from white poppies, cultivated for the purpose, in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut, the annual production being estimated by hundreds of pounds, and this has generally been absorbed in the communities where it is made. It has also been brought here from Florida and Louisiana, while comparatively large quantities are regularly sent east from California and Arizona, where its cultivation is becoming an important branch of industry, 10 acres of poppies being said to yield, in Arizona, twelve hundred pounds of opium,” one official, referred to as a State Assayer, reported to the board.

Although this description of a thriving domestic opium crop might sound surprising today, the board’s characterization of that crop’s consumers certainly doesn’t: “[T]he opium habit is especially common among the manufacturing classes,” it asserts, “who are too apt to live regardless of all hygienic laws.” It puts some of the blame for such lower-class use on doctors, who are “in no small measure responsible for the moral, as well as physical, welfare of their patients,” and shouldn’t be allowed to get away with the “injudicious and often unnecessary prescription of opium.” America’s better half made up “so large a proportion of opium takers,” the study suggests, because women were “doomed, often, to a life of disappointment…of physical and mental inaction, and in the smaller and more remote towns, not unfrequently, to utter seclusion.”

The “most important cause” of opium taking, however, is “the simple desire for stimulation,” an urge hitherto satisfied by alcohol consumption. Opium, the report notes, was both more available and more socially acceptable than alcohol. The narcotic “can be procured and taken without endangering the reputation for sobriety. In one town mentioned, it was thought ‘more genteel’ than alcohol.” The report goes on to say that it was “between 1840 and 1850, soon after teetotalism had become a fixed fact, that our own importations of opium swelled”—citing a rise of 350 percent. In England, “one doctor noted,” “opium chewing has become very prevalent, especially since the use of alcoholic drinks has been to so great an extent abandoned, under the influence of the fashion introduced by total abstinence societies.” The board also found it “curious and interesting” that as wine drinking advanced in Turkey, opium eating retreated.

As always in America, the limits of what exactly is moral behavior depend on what the meaning of “is” is. By following God’s code to the letter, teetotaling Americans of the 19th century freely violated its spirit.


Opium’s boost was not only due to its acceptability as a booze replacement, but also because it was a good fit for the times in other ways. As the Massachusetts board of health and De Quincey both noted, opium made for a good remedy for the negative side effects of the century’s rapid industrialization and urbanization—boredom, back pain, anxiety, and, because of poor sanitation, all sorts of stomach problems.

In the United States, the negative consequences of a particular drug’s use are typically dealt with not only by condemnation, but also by searching for a better, less harmful drug—as optimistic, potentially profitable, and quintessentially American a project as any that can be conceived.

Morphine was isolated from opium around 1805. Big Pharma got into the business of manufacturing and distributing the drug, usually dissolved in alcohol. In the 1830s, just as folks were starting to put down the bottle, pharmaceutical companies in Philadelphia became major morphine producers. Medicinal opiate imports doubled per capita between 1870 and 1890. By the 1890s, there were a quarter of a million morphine addicts living in the United States.

Significantly, these new drugs came with no baggage. Opium wasn’t an evil poison like alcohol, at least initially. Morphine taken through a needle, it was first assumed, had no chance of causing addiction. When that myth was dispelled, the search was on for a nonaddictive substitute. Bayer, the world’s first pharmaceutical giant and the maker of aspirin, claimed to have found it and trademarked the wonder drug Heroin because it made people feel heroic, or, in German, heroisch. “It possesses many advantages over morphine,” claims the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1900. “It’s not hypnotic, and there’s no danger of acquiring a habit.”

Heroin had been synthesized from morphine in 1874, but its commercial value wasn’t recognized until Bayer began selling it, in 1898. It took off in the United States, where manufacturers were soon lacing products ranging from lozenges to pills to salts that dissolved in water with Bayer Heroin.

An ambitious drug connoisseur might have been able to find meth back then, too. German scientists synthesized amphetamine in 1877, and Japanese researchers developed methamphetamine in 1893 (but didn’t come up with crystal meth until 1919). In 1933, the first amphetamine derivative met the mass market, in the form of the Benzedrine inhaler sold by Smith Kline & French. It quickly integrated itself into bohemian culture to such a degree that it was regularly referenced by the earliest members of the Beat Generation, but speed wasn’t much a part of the Progressive Era pharmacopeia.

That doesn’t mean there was no way to get a rush. Cocaine, isolated from the coca plant, added to the libertarian utopia. Merck was the first pharmaceutical company to manufacture it, and the drug was commercially available in the United States by 1884. Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, was a mixture of coca, sugar, and another mild stimulant, the West African kola nut. It was marketed as a temperance beverage, a substitute for alcohol—an intoxicant without the poison. Even Coca-Cola, though, hasn’t always been safe from temperance activists: A movement leader took the drink to court in 1911, charging that its caffeine was dangerously addictive. After drawn-out litigation, Coke cut the caffeine by half.

With the power of industry marketing behind it, cocaine swept across the nation. The new drug could “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent,” promised the Parke-Davis Company, which sold cocaine kits complete with a syringe.


So there we were, at the turn of the last century, with full legalization. Coke, heroin, and morphine—all readily available. It wasn’t just a druggie’s paradise; it was the natural experiment that present-day drug-policy experts dream of.

What would happen if drugs were legalized? Well, it happened. And history suggests that if we ever legalize them again, it won’t be long before we ban them all over again.

Yet legalized drugs weren’t an accidental byproduct of the 19th century’s economic and technological advances. They were its foundation. By the late 1800s, levies on alcohol, tobacco, and tea made up almost half of all British government revenue. They financed the country’s imperialist aspirations, and along the way cost it the American colonies—which financed their own war for independence with tobacco proceeds.

The role of opium in furthering British colonial ambitions is well known. Rum propped up the transatlantic slave trade. “With these psychoactive products [colonial powers] paid their bills, bribed and corrupted their native opponents, pacified their workers and soldiers, and stocked their plantations with field hands,” writes David Courtwright in Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World.

By 1906, tens of thousands of opium-containing medical preparations had been patented. In America, producing and selling these nostrums was a massive and far-reaching undertaking, one that helped create modern advertising and the mass media—not to mention the monolithic, multibillion-dollar business that is Big Pharma. With the advent of the 20th century, however, the world’s elite began to embrace a much different stance toward drugs, a reversal that Courtwright calls “one of history’s great about-faces, however slowly and imperfectly executed.”

This about-face was driven by the United States. As the country emerged from World War I a preeminent power, it sought to enact its own tightening drug policies on a global scale, creating a regime of worldwide narcotics control that persists today even as other forms of American dominance falter.

Digg it |  reddit |  del.icio.us |  Fark

11 Responses to “About face”

  1. #1 |  chance | 

    “What would happen if drugs were legalized? Well, it happened. And history suggests that if we ever legalize them again, it won’t be long before we ban them all over again.”

    Interesting point. One proponents of legalization need to keep in mind.

  2. #2 |  Jimi G | 

    “Yet legalized drugs weren’t an accidental byproduct of the 19th century’s economic and technological advances. They were its foundation.”

    I found this interesting. I once read that Thomas Edison lived on only three hours of sleep per day. Is it possible he was a speed freak? Could it be that the incredible leaps of technology that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were made possible by drug-supported obsessive-compulsive behavior among scientists?

  3. #3 |  William | 

    Chance: thats a poor argument against legalization. Just because moralists might make the same arguments and attempt to enact the same ruinous legislation in the future doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t challenge the current ruinous legislation. Just because individuals made poor choices in the past (and, to be perfectly honest, continue to make poor choices today) doesn’t mean we should continue to accept wholesale restrictions on the choices of everyone.

    Alcoholism went up after prohibition ended, as did deaths related to drinking, (eventually) deaths related to drunk driving, and all of the other ills that come with prolific alcohol use in a society. Indeed, today we’re seeing many of the same arguments that had been made to justify prohibition a century ago being made by public health activists today. Should we have simply accepted prohibition so many years ago? Should we have said “well, innocent people are going to jail, criminal syndicates are becoming rich and gaining power, but hey, if we turn back we’ll just start over again?”

  4. #4 |  chance | 

    William: who is making an argument against legalization? It seems to me it is simply being pointed out that proponents of legalization should be aware that besides the initial fight to legalize, they will have to continue fighting in order to maintain their victory (if they win that is).

  5. #5 |  Michael Pack | 

    This shows that people have abused drugs since the beginning of time .Yet,the worst violence and corruption only occur during prohibition.The lesson is,when you turn millions of people[of all types] into criminals overnight a black market will fill the void.Government will need to take harsher measures,many in law enforcement will take the money and respect for the law will diminish.In my parents generation,every one new someone who had drank or sold illegal booze.In mine,we all know people many people(myself included) who have at least smoked pot and yet most never became addicts or drunks.

  6. #6 |  Michael Pack | 

    William,deaths do to drinking went down after the repeal.You need to count the thousands that died each year due to poison bootleg and home brew and the murders cause by gangs due to turf wars.

  7. #7 |  Dan Brown | 

    “following God’s code to the letter”? Well, the Bible certainly doesn’t support total abstinence from alcohol.

  8. #8 |  togolosh | 

    The lesson of history is clear: If you want legalization, make sure the drugs are taxed. If politicians are addicted to the revenue stream they’ll be hard pressed to ban the source.

    VA sells all hard liquor through state stores which kick money directly back to Richmond. It would be a very small step indeed to add Marijuana to their stocks. I doubt we could get them to stock Heroin, but down the line perhaps tincture of opium might be a possibility.

  9. #9 |  Me | 

    They were its foundation. By the late 1800s, levies on alcohol, tobacco, and tea made up almost half of all British government revenue.
    The 1800’s? late 18th century maybe?

  10. #10 |  Ryan Grim | 

    I’ll check on that. You may be right. And Dan Brown: Good point. I’m adding “their version of” to make that clear.

  11. #11 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Temperance unleashed | 

    […] temperance movement marches on — as does the book. This excerpt picks up where this one left off. Thanks again for the helpful comments you’ve been providing so far. The book is improved […]