Friday, June 10, 2005

The Myth of Pervasive Opium Addiction?

Xavier Paules gave a fascinating talk last night on the Opium Dens in Canton during the Republican Era. Given that we discuss opium extensively in both our Central and Tsim Sha Tsui walks, we really enjoyed his exposition. The Dens in Canton had been previously outlawed for moral reasons associated not only with the evils of opium smoking, but with the imperialist connotations they involved, and as a living reminder of China under the Unequal Treaties with the West that started with the Opium War.

However, moral qualms gave way to practicality as legalizing opium dens in Canton served as a good way to stop the proliferation of illegal dens, and to also raise revenue for the government. The KMT-ruled Canton was desperately short of funds for the Northern Expedition to conquer China from the warlords. So, for twelve years, the phenomenon of legal, openly operating opium dens provided Chinese from all strata of society to enjoy opium smoking, usually in a social context. It is important, he stressed, to realize that as well as the down-and-out dingy dives, there were also sumptuous palaces bedecked with every amenity and service for the rich.

One issue Paules addressed was the iconic image of the emaciated, near-death opium smoker, clinging to his pipe like his last connection to this world. He said these photos were often used by anti-opium societies to decry the evils of the drug and the scourge it brought to the world. But while it undeniably had addictive effects, the truth was not always evident from the photos. Given that many of the smokers in those down and out opium dens were terminal illness patients taking opium as a palliative, a painkiller, the photos often drew a spurious connection.

A debate then broke out, for one audience member was maintaining that she had it on authority that one could become addicted by trying it three times. But I would tend to agree with Paules that opium is far, far less addictive than morphine or certainly heroin, far more distilled derivations of the poppy plant. That was why, it seemed, from the evidence he had gathered, that many people were able to smoke opium moderately and largely on social occasions as a way to get together with friends.

In support of this assertion, I quote contemporary colonial sources from Hong Kong, no less than the Colonial Secretary of the time Henry May, and the Governor, Sir Frederick Lugard. According to Crisswell and Watson:

"[Lugard's] sanguine view was personally endorsed by F.H. May, now Colonial Secretary, who asserted that, as Captain Superintendent, he had visited many divans and had not seen anyone ‘worse for the drug’, indeed he himself had ‘smoked many pipes in succession, with no result’. Lugard extolled the positive virtues of divans to extenttent that he made them sound like an Oriental equivalent to the suburban golf club. Divans were ‘places where the tired coolie may rest and enjoy a little opium, or where friends of the better classes may meet and discuss affairs. Such places contrast strongly with a public house in that they are quiet and orderly. Women and children are absolutely excluded.’ He suggested that to close the divans would encourage the sale of alcohol and lead to drunkenness and an increase in crime."

How amusing to think of the cream of the British establishment smoking opium in divans! Their statements, addressed to Parliament, would be utterly convincing were it not for the fact that they were justifying the huge opium revenue made from Hong Kong's government sponsored local, legal monopoly, which made up a staggering 15% of revenues at one point.

It is impossible for me to judge, having never had the privilege, like May, of trying the drug myself, but one must believe that opium was not as bad as the modern drugs like cocaine and heroin we have today. We'd love to hear your comments!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry my comment is 4 years from the time of your post in coming. I have used opium (and dross), perhaps a couple hundred times. I have not seen it for sale on the U.S. black market for over 25 years. The use for pleasure of the plant poison opium is indeed steeped in myth and hysteria. When opium is smoked it does not lead to fatal overdose, and this is in stark contrast to the chemical drugs of the west, including "safe" drugs like tylenol, much less heroin or cocaine. The "three times and you're addicted" belief is typical of the hysterical mythology surrounding opium. Thanks to the U.S. directed war on drugs, opium has been replaced with generally "dirty" and contaminated black market heroin and other dangerous chemical narcotics on a worldwide scale.