The Home Highs

"There are two varieties of drug vice: the exotic, fascinating* tempting and debasing kind that goes with illicit, drugs and has something to do with desired but disapproved sexual activity; and the homey, domesticated kind connected with legal drugs* which is regarded with less fascinated interest and more tolerance."

-Grinspoon and Bakalar, Cocaine.

Evidence for this revisionist proposition can first be found in the ban against prepared opium, the drug prohibition that set the pattern__ for the future. Prepared opium is what you need if you smoke opium, and it was the favored drug of the Chinese who were brought here in the middle of the nineteenth century to help build the railroads and work the gold mines. They performed hard labor for practically., no wages, and except when their employers decided it was cheaper to shoot them than pay them, white and yellow coexisted fairty welF until 1875* a year of severe economic depression. The Chinese then became exceedingly cheap members of the surplus labor _ pool that threatened the job prospects of native-born workers. They also became the objects of bitter resentment and racial prejudice. It was then, too, that the country discovered the teiri ble threat that opium presented to the American way of life.

It was a belated discovery. The Chinese had been smoking opium for 25 years in this country, and white America had been consuming large amounts fot: even longer. Prior to 1875* however, it is haid to find a word in the popular press about the inherent evijg of opium. But that year, the press, horrified by the awful injustice of millions of while workers losing their jobs to a hundred thousand ot so Chinese scabs* discovered the "white slave traffic." Diabolical Chinamen plied young white women with opium, destroyed tlteir wills, soiled their bodies and sold the used goods to sordid boidellos.

The outraged city fathers of San Francisco immediately passed an ordinance against opium-smoking. Virginia City, Nevada, followed suit in 1876. The state of Nevada prohibited the sale of opiates for nonmedical purposes a year later. By 1891, prepared opium had been outlawed by most of the western __ states. The Chinese, of course, were established chiefly in the West..

The depression had long passed but the Chinese still remained, and a good story is certainly worth telling as long as il sells newspapers. Or persuades congressmen. So the yellow peril lingered on. And in l90l Samuel Compers, president of the American Federation of Labor and patron saint of the union movement, successfully, stumped for renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act with lurid accounts of ''liule boys and girls'' ruined by opium and, "Condemned to spend their days in the backs of laundry rooms, these tiny lost souls ... yield up their virgin bodies to their maniacal yellow capiors."

Contrary to appearances, Compers was no more worried about opium destroying the American character and depraving children than were the legislators who passed the opium bans. The prohibitions were against the prepared opium smoked by the Chinese; they didn't affect the stronger stnfL (it had a higher morphine content) consumed by millions of white Americans via physicians' prescriptions and the more than 600 opium-based patent medicines. Which made perfect sense. Hardly anyone then believed opium to be a harmful drug, but virtually all Americans agreed on the essential eviL of the Chinese. And banning their opium provided everyone with all the justification they needed to harass, arrest, blacklist and generally thwart the race they most feared.

The prohibiting of cocaine follows a similar script and illustrates how little imagination is required to face and conquer a new threat.. Stories about

New Orleans, Times-Picayune, June 5, 1930


"A squad of policemen gave Chinatown a raking over oil Sunday night last.. They scooped in 39 pretty girls, none over 23 years of age, and the youngest 18. The prisoner's had all been smoking opium, their associates being Chinamen and tough young men. One girl, not over 18 years of age, was found lying on one of the bunks, partly disrobed, sucking from a poisonous pipe, an ugly-looking Chinaman beside her. Someone gave a signal, and the Chinamen all escaped.

"The girls were crowded into cells ai the station house, half a dozen or more in each. Some of the younger prisoners clung lo the bars and cried for mercy, but their more hardened companions jeered at them. Ribald songs were sung, and the night was made hideous."

-Police Gazelle, May 2, 1891.

white women being raped by "cocaine-crazed blacks" began emanating from the South around the turn of the century. The Yankee press look them at face value and speedily alerted the nation to the dangers il faced at the hands of black coke fiends. No one investigated these fabrications, and no one bothered to mention that their appearance just happened lo coincide with the dismantling of the last remnants of the Reconstruction era. The new industrial South was taking over Congress and relegating the 15th Amendment to the woodpile. Blacks who objected to losing their voting rights and other constitutional liberties were being lynched all over the landscape. The

Inside a San Francisco opium den

Continue reading here: Interview With Michael Stepanian

Was this article helpful?

0 0