Friday, October 28, 2005

Opium in Hong Kong's Prisons

Hong Kong's chief medical authority says: opium isn't bad for you.

Only thing is, the report I refer to comes from 1887, when the Colonial Surgeon, Physician B.C. Ayres, was reporting on the opium smokers in Victoria Gaol. Yes that's right, the authorities saw no harm in allowing the prisoners access to the drug, not least because in their doped-up state they were much less likely to cause others or even themselves any trouble. Allow me to quote from the report of Dr. Ayres:
Among the opium smokers admitted into the jail, there were no deaths among them and no cases of Cholera occurred among them, enfeebled though they are supposed to be by this said to be pernicious habit, though they had exactly the same diet as the other prisoners and were distributed among those that were attacked [by the Cholera - Ed.]. The only cases worthy of note are first, one who was 60 years of age, had been an opium smoker for forty years, the longest time of the 75 who had come to the Gaol, smoked 3 mace per diem weight 85 lbs. on admission and the same after a month's confinement though he was subject to the penal diet the same as other prisoners, he was never on the sick list nor received any particular treatment to cure him of the habit.
The good Surgeon then gives more evidence of how some of the opium addicts actually gained weight while in prison and smoking their opium, eating only the same diet as other prisoners. He sums up his views on opium smoking later:
The habit in itself appears to be perfectly harmless. In conjunction with women, wine, late hours and gambling it is very possibly injurious, but in this case "it is not in it" to use a slang phrase, compared with tobacco as while indulging in this "pernicious" habit you must devote your whole attention to it and it alone. The opium hells of Europe and America combine more than one of these attractions as a rule. The great majority of opium smokers in China have this "vice" only and too much pity is wasted abroad which might well be spent at home. The "poor heathen Chinese" offers a better example than most Europeans, it is only a small minority even among the well-to-do that are not frugal and industrious in their habits, and sober in their enjoyments though they are opium smokers.
The more I read of the actual state of affairs in opium dens in China in the 19th and early 20th century, the more I come to the rather controversial conclusion that smoking the pipe really wasn't that bad, it was more other factors that turned opium smokers into wretched creatures.

And the Hong Kong government cannot in good faith disagree with me, surely, when it not only recognized opium smoking as a legal habit but made money off smokers for over one hundred years until 1946?

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