Centuries before the British Empire began its foray into India and China, a small percentage of Chinese (mainly the elite) ate or smoked opium either as an aphrodisiac or to cure dysentery.
As the British appetite for Chinese goods grew over the first half of the 19th century (primarily for tea), its East India Company began exporting opium to China from its base in India, aiming to secure the necessary silver to correct its growing trade imbalance with the China. The subsequent ten-fold increase in opium exports fueled a massive increase in Chinese opium consumption, this time for recreational use. By the late 1830s, over five million addicts prompted the Qing government to issue a decree banning opium consumption. A subsequent attempt to enforce the law led to the confiscation of some British opium imports in Canton, which provoked the British to attack the Chinese coast and ultimately resulted in the first Opium War.
British victory yielded lower tariffs, the acquisition of Hong Kong and a steady flow of opium into China. Further Chinese ‘mistreatment’ of British merchants in 1865 gave the British the needed pretext to wage war again. Although the resulting Tientsin Treaty did not legalize opium, it opened additional ports to the British and access to China’s interior. The growing prevalence of opium over the next half of the 19th century transformed its use into a de facto currency, since it weighed less than copper.
The increase demand for opium also provided a reliable source of tax revenue to the Chinese provinces. Opium poppy began to be cultivated domestically given its resistance to most soils. By the turn of the century, Chinese poppy production of 35,000 tons per year surpassed British imports, and sadly, half of all Chinese men used opium regularly. What had begun as a plant consumed mainly for medicinal purposes, snowballed into the world’s first major drug addiction, borne primarily out of the British Empire’s economic self-interest. Chinese historians would later dub this experience as its ‘Century of Humiliation’. It is difficult to ignore the parallels between China’s opium epidemic with the growing trend for medicinal marijuana legalization in the U.S. —primarily how prevalent access at lower prices, along with more acceptability, all lead to greater use. These factors also resemble what has contributed to the rise in prescription opiate use and abuse, and the subsequent heroin crisis.