When the Chinese were using opium in small doses at the beginning of the 19th century, it was viewed as a drug to treat minor ailments like dysentery and as a novelty for a small percentage of the elite.

No one foresaw that 25% of the male adult population would be addicted by the end of the century, despite successive emperors’ efforts to limit or ban its use. It was not some belief that opium was beneficial to society that drove its increased consumption, but rather Great Britain’s drive to generate hard currency to pay for its growing trade deficit with China. The Chinese never intended opium to form a notorious part of its culture; it was more forced upon them through incredibly easy access, first from British imports and then through domestic cultivation. Today, few would advocate the harsh policies used to expunge Chinese opium addiction over the 20th century, including prison camps and forced labor. Yet, it took the firm commitment of the Chinese government and three generations to achieve such an outcome.

During the same time, a negligible number of Americans were smoking opium, brought over primarily from Chinese immigrants who helped build America’s railroads. However, it was the drug’s recently discovered derivative of morphine —used in mass quantities to treat wounded Civil War soldiers— that produced the U.S.’s first drug addiction epidemic. The recent discovery of the hypodermic needle further facilitated its administration. Society accepted the drug for legitimate medical purposes, although its subsequent misuse use for women’s ailments would prove controversial after its highly addictive properties became evident.

Morphine would continue to be used as the main palliative for acute pain up until this day. The drug was not used for used for recreational purposes, but the search for a less addictive derivative led to the discovery of heroin in 1874, which paradoxically turned out to be both more potent and addictive, becoming one of the most dangerously used recreational drugs ever since.

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Posted by Anaïs Faure