Saturday, October 19, 2013

Opium Dens and Shooting Galleries

In the 19th century when opiates were legal, consumed as opium, morphine or patent medicines containing opium among other ingredients, there were two primary types of addicts. One was predominantly white, and had been introduced to opiates from a doctor (iatrogenic addiction). They took their opiates orally, or increasing through a syringe. Women outnumbered men, middle-class housewives were typical cases.
The second type of addict was the opium smoker. Opium smoking was a Chinese custom, one they brought with them upon mass immigration to the US in the latter part of the 19th century. 

The Chinese immigrant largely isolated themselves, in part due to racism and in part by choice. Most immigrants were young men hoping to earn enough money to return home a wealthy man, a dream few actually realized. Regardless most thought of themselves as temporary workers and saw no reason to assimilate with US society. Mass influx of Chinese labor willing to work cheap was seen by some as taking away jobs from white native Americans, when combined with racism and xenophobia, contributed to the exclusion of the Chinese.

One major exception was the opium den, which attracted the more deviant members of society. The opium den was more than just a place to get high. "More formally, the opium den had become the matrix of a deviant subculture, a tightly knit group of outsiders whose primary relations were restricted to themselves." (Courtwright, 1982) The den was one of the few places where Chinese and whites, of both sexes, mixed openly. Lurid charges were leveled at proprietors, charges that Chinese perverts were using opium to seduce young white women into a life of immorality. The labor leader Samuel Gompers excelled at using hysterical rhetoric, complete with anxieties over miscegenation, to drum up popular support against the opium den:

"...tiny lost souls...forced to yield up their virgin bodies to their maniacal yellow captors...What other crimes are committed in these dark fetid places when these innocent victims of the Chinaman's wiles were under the influence of the drug opium is too horrible to imagine. There are hundreds, aye thousands, of our American girls and boys who have acquired this deathly habit and are doomed, hopelessly doomed, beyond redemption.

They carry the curse of China, opium, as their weapon. They and their poison must be rooted out before they will decimate our youth and emasculate the coming generation of Americans."
Opium Dens from around the world, some are more affluent than others but the basic accommodations for those on the hip are the same.
The reality was quite different, as the historian David Courtwright documents:

"An opium den was more than a school, however; it was also a meeting place, a sanctuary, and a vagabonds' inn. Member's of the underworld could gather in relative safety, to enjoy a smoke with their friends and associates. One addict has left us a memorable portrait of life in the New York City dens. 'The people who frequent these places,' he recounted, 'are, with very few exceptions, thieves, sharpers and sporting men, and a few bad actors; the women, without exception, are immoral.' In spite of the desperate character of clientele, fights were practically unknown. Instead, the smokers passed the time between pipes by chatting, smoking tobacco, telling stories, cracking jokes, or even singing in low voices...Within the den a rigid code of honor prevailed: smokers would not take advantage of other smokers, or tolerate those who did. 'I have seen men and women come to the joints while under the influence of liquor,' continued the New York addict, 'lie down and go to sleep with jewelry exposed and money in their pockets, but no one would ever think of disturbing anything.' 'The joint,' confirmed an experienced Denver smoker, 'is considered a sacred sanctum, and to betray...any conversation between the fiends is considered an unpardonable offense, and a fiend who commits a second offense of this character is generally debarred from all the rights and privileges of the joint.'" (Courtwright, 1982)

In many ways the opium den represented the start of the drug subculture in the United States. Language still in use today originates from the opium den culture. "Hip", which is used by drug users to distinguish themselves from non-drug users ("squares", "straights"), originates from opium smokers lying on their hip while on the pipe. The word "dope" is adapted from the Dutch, originally meant a thick, viscous sauce, probably adapted during the process of preparing the opium for smoking. Today "dope" is a generic term for any illicit drug (though where I come from if you ask for dope on the street you are referring to heroin).

If the opium dens were left alone, perhaps by today they would be legitimate. People would be able to choose whether to frequent an alcohol bar, cannabis cafe or opium den. Because opium is smoked slowly, overdosing is more difficult than taking concentrated derivatives. Proprietors would be on hand to treat any cases of overdose.
"Needle Park" in Zurich, Switzerland (prior to heroin maintenance)

Unfortunately the War on (the people who use certain) Drugs has perverted this possible scenario. Opium smoking is almost unknown in the US, almost all the opium produced for the illicit market is manufactured into heroin. Because of prohibition, the cost of this inexpensive to produce, plant-based medicine is astronomical. This encourages methods of ingestion that maximize the effect: intravenous injection.

So instead of opium dens, we have shooting galleries. A shooting gallery is a place where addicts can inject together in relative safety, they are also synonymous with disease and degradation. In contrast to the opium den described by Courtwright, if someone nodded out in a shooting gallery their money and jewelery would almost certainly be stolen.

By ending the drug war and bringing back the opium den, the problems of accidental overdoses will be reduced. Diseases associated with injecting drugs of unknown purity and subject to no quality control (meaning they may be adulterated with other drugs or diluted with substances never meant to be injected), in addition to blood born infections from sharing syringes, will be reduced or eliminated altogether. Crime brought about by the poverty resulting from being dependent on an (artificially) expensive drug will disappear. Drug dealers and criminal cartels will be replaced by taxpaying opium den proprietors.

Further Reading and References:

Courtwright, David T. (1982) Dark Paradise Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

1 comment:

  1. I really like the idea of bringing back the opium den. However, I would hate to see it be a failure. If it results in an extremely high addiction and/or overdose rate, many people will fight to get rid of opium dens again and come back with an even more closed-minded drug war. I think we should propose a bill that would start off by permitting opium dens as long as they meet the following requirements: membership license allowing once/month ceremonial use, medical professionals and supervisors,
    and surveillance cameras. What do you think of this idea? I know it has some work to do, but I think it's a good starting point.