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the Use and Abuse of Opium in Western Countries in the 19th Century

Until 1900, few countries besides China prohibited drugs like opium. Until that time, they were used by many in mainstream society.

Although some of the most popular drugs used today in the international drug trade, like cocaine and heroin, are relatively new inventions, the drug trade itself is nothing new. Older drugs, like opium, have been traded legally and illegally for centuries and have been used for recreational purposes for over five hundred years. Indeed, until 1900, few countries besides China prohibited drugs like opium. Until that time, they were used by many in mainstream society.

Opium has been used as a pain reliever for several thousand years and was produced by the Greeks, Babylonians, Egyptians, and many other ancient civilizations. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Islamic world continued to use it and eventually reintroduced it to the West around 1300 AD. Perhaps because it had come to them from the Arabs, however, it took Europeans over two hundred years to fully accept opium as a medicinal drug again. By 1527, Western doctors had begun using an opium tincture called laudanum. Laudanum was used widely until the late 19th century for all sorts of ailments including pain, sleeplessness, nervousness, and diarrhea.

Recreational use of opium has always connected to the Chinese who were the first to use the drug recreationally in the late 15th century. For many years, only the elite could afford to indulge in it because of its great expense. As the price dropped, however, more and more people began using it. By the 18th century, many common people could afford to smoke it mixed with tobacco and later in its pure form. In 1729, the Chinese emperor saw opium as such a blight that he banned it in his kingdom. Despite the ban on opium and despite fighting two wars with Britain to keep British opium from India out of Chinese ports, Chinese demand for opium soared during the 19th century. By 1906, China consumed 39,000 of the 41,000 tons of opium produced that year.

Opium use was also connected to the Chinese outside of China. Opium use was exported to cities like San Francisco, New York, and London through Chinese immigrants. From there, opium use spread to many non-Chinese although the Chinese remained the group most closely associated with it. Even though opium came to be associated with the poor and the criminals, prominent people indulged in it as well. Perhaps the most famous example is the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose poem “Kubla Khan” is thought to have been written while the author was high on opium.

References to opium, both favorable and unfavorable, in literature abound. Examples include Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”, Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”, Charles Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters.” Although these references may lead one to believe that opium us was more common in Western countries in the 19th century than it really was, it was in widespread use. Especially in France where it was popular with French sailors and in America, it was used by many Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, most countries of the world began prohibiting opium. This along with the development of more potent drugs almost made opium a thing of the past. Since 2001, however, opium production in Afghanistan has soared and has renewed black market demand for this ancient drug.

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