Of Ragamuffins and Dens: State Legislation, Municipal Enforcement, and Opium Smoking

Social class has as much to do with effective drug demonization as race. This great article doesn’t rewrite the history of anti-Chinese racism in the prohibition of opium, but the class divide caused by criminalization and the speed of the cultural shift from upper class but bohemian acceptability to disgust, classism, and racial segregation of drug use is breathtaking. You see the same pattern throughout the general history of drug prohibition in the 19th and 20th century, with different drugs and in various societies.

Points: The Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society

On May 26, 1888, the Boston Daily Globe reported the death of a young Harvard student named Frank Mills. The front page headline read: “Fatal Opium.” According to the story, having decided that life at Harvard would not be complete without the experience, Mills and three fellow students had ventured into Boston with the hopes of securing some opium. Following suggestions from their classmates the foursome sought out a man known as Nicholas Gentleman who sold opium in the South End. The boys had “refused to go to an opium joint,” as they feared a police raid, but told Gentleman if he would come to Harvard they would “make things all right for him.” He readily agreed after several assurances that Mills was “an old hand at smoking.” That evening Mills continued to claim he was a frequent smoker leading Gentleman to oblige his numerous requests for another pipe. Mills…

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Prohibition and Prejudice: Demonization of the Drug User

After I quit methadone, people began to treat me like a different person. I unwittingly transcended the untouchable caste of the junky and became accepted as a normal member of this society that so conveniently allows for reinvention. I might as well have been a black man who turned white overnight.

Anti-Mexican racism contributed to the criminalization of cannabis

Anti-Mexican racism contributed to the criminalization of cannabis

Drug users are among the untouchables of the American class system, the melting pot’s social cousins of the Dalit of India, the Romani of Europe and the Burakumin of Japan. In America, like most places, you are treated more or less like a pariah for being on methadone maintenance. Years of negative drug tests will only make you seem to most people a somewhat more trustworthy and less repulsive specimen of your untouchable caste. Get your methadone prescription from a doctor, take the medication for pain (instead of requiring it to be able to function), and miraculously you are considered a normal human being.

Anti-Chinese racism was largely responsible for the criminalization of opiates.

Anti-Chinese racism was largely responsible for the criminalization of opiates.

I quit methadone a long time ago because I was sick of the discriminatory regulations and travel restrictions. I developed medical problems soon after–problems unrelated to methadone or withdrawal. I didn’t know it at the time, but methadone had alleviated the symptoms and functioned as a therapeutic treatment. Now I have to suffer the irony of doctors forever congratulating me for discontinuing the only medication that relieved symptoms they are trying, with little success, to address with drugs and surgeries that are objectively no better, and often worse than being on methadone.

Not many people are aware that opiates treat conditions other than pain, but as late as the 19th century opium was as widely used as aspirin is today. The public today is encouraged to believe the 19th century opium cure-all was quackery. This is a convenient lie that even most doctors believe. Of course, most doctors alive today have very little understanding of opiates. Like most people, they are prejudiced against their use.

Drug prohibition was founded on prejudice. San Francisco enacted the first U.S. opium ban in 1875, motivated by anti-Chinese xenophobia and racism. Similar laws were passed around the world for similar reasons, often by governments and groups with ulterior motives. Before Harry Anslinger demonized cannabis in Hearst newspapers with scare stories about African Americans raping white women, southwestern states were targeting “marihuana” smoking Mexican immigrants. Japan’s right wing government outlawed the same drug when confronted by a red scare and widespread left wing student protests. Many of the students used marijuana, which became a convenient cause for their arrests.

Naturally, these prejudices against targeted groups expanded to include drug users in general. The use of prohibited drugs became synonymous with belonging to a despised race or subculture. Soon, the idea of drugs—the excuse to demonize—became entangled with the act of using the drug, and thus began the demonization of the drug user in general.