Opium In America


Opium In America Essay, Research Paper

When looking retrospectively at the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it is easy to recognize the numerous inventions that helped shape mankind into its present form. Inventions like electricity, the assembly line, cars and trains, the telephone and so on. We see the influence that these inventions have on us every day, because life as we know it is dependant upon these items. They play an intricate role in defining and explaining who we are as individuals, but they also define what is America or American culture.

There were other items, however, that were introduced to American culture during this time period that are as important to America as the famous inventions noted before, yet they were not as public as the others nor were they as universally accepted as good. These items were mind bending narcotics, drugs that changed people’s perception of the world around them. Although they did not have as wide of an influence as did the wholesome inventions, those narcotics still played an intricate role in defining and creating the American culture we know today.

Many different types of narcotics have been used all over the world for centuries. The Chinese have smoked Opium for thousands of years, the native Americans have always used both Peyote and hallucinogenic mushrooms for religious purposes and the Rastifarians have used Marijuana as a prayer tool since the beginning of their bloodline. But narcotics were not used by most Caucasoid peoples whose lineage came form Europe until the twentieth century. Before that their only narcotic was alcohol. But once these narcotics were introduced to the general American public they integrated themselves into our culture.

It is ironic that the drugs that are strictly illegal today were not always looked down upon. Opium was introduced to the American public around the beginning of the 1800’s. Between the years of 1840-1890 per capita consumption of opiates increased at a steady pace from year to year. During this time Opium was, in all its forms, legal. Most of the Opium was bought and distributed by doctors and Pharmaceutical companies. It served many medical purposes such as an Anesthesia for surgery and as a device for relieving severe pain in the body. It was the only hope for those in constant pain, many of whom were in their last hours of life. Those doctors would give the opium in pill form and after the siring became a common medical tool they began injecting it intravenously.

During that time period Cocaine was also widely used by doctors for helping depression and physical pain. Cocaine was so widespread and accepted that it was used in elixirs for sore throats. The original Coca-cola formula did contain cocaine. Heroin’s predecessor Morphine was also used by many in the health profession and was available to anyone.

Another drug that is heavily shunned today but was widely accepted in the 1800’s was Marijuana, or the technical term Cannabis sativa. It first became noticed by America when many reports from Britain’s medical community were heard that praised the drug and its attributes. Between the years of 1840-1900 dozens of articles praising Marijuana’s’s innumerable medical capabilities were printed in British medical journals, and it entered their pharmacopoeia in 1870. Marijuana was originally used for venereal infections, chorea and even an antidote for strychnine, but later it was learned that it could also be used as treatment for insomnia, nervousness and Arthritis.

Prior to the turn of the century public opinion about many narcotics was open and optimistic yet the nation’s feeling began to change when the negative effects, mainly addiction, became alarmingly apparent. Doctors began to change their feelings about the drugs when they were faced with the task of curing their patients addiction, an addiction caused by the doctor’s tools. Leading public health authorities, such as Herman M Biggs of New York State warned doctors against getting involved in addiction treatment. In 1902 Dr. Thomas D. Crothers, a specialist in drug abuse treatment, accepted 100,000 people to his clinic. In 1909 a story stated that a hospital in Atlanta admitted over 100,000 people who were addicted to Opium and Cocaine. By 1917 a witness at a New York Legislative investigation stated that there were at least 300,000 addicts in New York City alone. Marijuana use was also questioned by the medical profession. In 1845 a doctor warned that it is a “very disagreeable article and exceedingly uncertain.”

Drugs were an intricate part of the American culture for over a century when it played its role in the medical field. But soon the nation developed hostile feelings towards many drugs. An unfortunate stepping stone to the nation’s sentiment were ethnic stereotypes which became associated with the use of certain drugs due to the race of its main consumers. Drugs claimed an entirely new role in American society; a scapegoat. Drugs became looked upon as a social evil unbecoming of Americans. Ideas began that no loyal American, Christian, or any individual of good heart and moral character would habitually use drugs.

Cocaine, Morphine and Heroin use was so rampant throughout the United States that it seemed as if the drugs not only had a stronghold on their practitioners, but on the nation as a whole. In 1911 an article in the New York Times titled “Uncle Sam, the worst drug fiend in the world” spoke of the immense role drug trafficking and distribution had on the American economy. Before this time the drug trafficking from other countries seemed an invaluable part of the economy, but once World War One broke out sentiment towards foreigners and their products changed dramatically. U.S. foreign policy makers began to believe that other countries were not only transporting drugs, but their ideology as well. Many Americans believed drugs to be a foreign plot against Americans.

During the time when the use of Opium was accepted by most, it most be known that it was only accepted by most if used the “proper way.” Smoking Opium was a common practice among the Chinese and they had many “smoking dens” where Opium was sold and places to relax and smoke were offered. But this was primarily, if not exclusively, used for the Chinese and not White Americans. Most White Protestant Americans were very racist towards the Chinese and did not accept or approve of the Asian culture. However, during the 1870’s smoking began to spread to non-Chinese communities throughout the country. Some medical and political leaders tried to find the beneficial attributes of smoking but the general consensus was that it was a improper and morally wrong. H. H. Kane thought that “opium smoking is essentially a vice, being a gross indulgence of a passion or appetite.” Smoking, like the Chinese, became identified with the underworld of America. William Rosser Cobbe wrote “…the opium smoking habit comes of association with unholy persons and is entered into with deliberation.”

Marijuana’s also enjoyed the same type of stereotypical generalization that Opium did and it helped develop America’s disposition towards the drug. Marijuana’s primary recreational users were Blacks, mostly of Carribean heritage and Mexicans from the Southwest. It is obvious that the anti-marijuana sentiment was in many ways sparked simply because its main users were Blacks and Mexicans. America was still country divided and racism was rampant and many equated Marijuana with minorities and they equated minorities with ignorance, violence and crime.

Although certain drugs were accepted at one time many have always been rejected. The use of Hallucinogenic mushrooms and Morning Glory seeds was popular and widespread among the Native Americans. Most, if not all, European Christians were never introduced to these types of drugs. Probably the first interaction between the Christian Conquerors and these drugs took place when the Spanish Conquerors invaded South America. In the New World many of the Spanish military leaders and clergymen witnessed native Americans during religious ceremonies using these drugs. They noted the Native Americans bizarre countenances and hypnotic trances and dances. Many of the Spaniards came to the conclusion that they were under the influence of the devil and they believed that these hallucinogens were how the devil kept the Native Americans from converting to Christianity. Their drugs and their methods for using them were immediately shunned and an anti-drug sentiment was created that is all too present even today.

With all the negative stereotypes allocated to the use of narcotics most ?good’ Americans refused to use them. The idea that drugs were for the imbecile, the pauper and the criminal soon became a central idea of our society, as important as mom and apple pie. But what about the outcasts, those shunned by society and its definition of good? These people in many ways needed a way of rebellion against the dictatorship of American ideology and the use of illegal drugs was a perfect venue. They created a sub-culture characterized by the use and abuse of those drugs.

Everyone of formal education knows about the drug revolution of the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. But many believe that these were the times when narcotics were introduced to the American public, many also believe that our national attitudes towards drugs were spawned during these decades, but that simply is not so. It is very likely, however unprovable, that America would have a much different outlook on drugs if it was not for there widespread use and stereotypical connotations in the 1800’s. The idea that drugs are bad was created when the medical community started to abuse them. The idea of their evil and un-American attributes were not created when people were protesting during the sixties, but rather from racist thoughts and actions prevalent during the early stages of our nation. If drugs were not early on labeled with the Chinese or the Blacks and Indians a totally different attitude towards them may be present today and our society may be entirely different.

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