Pubdate: Thu, 11 Jun 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: ChemTales
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts


"It was stated the other day, before the San Francisco Board of 
Supervisors, that as many as eight Chinese opium smoking houses had 
been fitted up in that city for the use of white men and women, and 
the announcement has created a good deal of discussion, and elicited 
from the press recommendations for the suppression of these places.

"We are inclined to doubt whether the spread of the opium habit can 
be checked in this way. Opium smoking is a species of intoxication, 
and legislation has certainly not proved effective in dealing with 
vices of that kind." - Sacramento Daily Record, Nov. 20, 1875

San Francisco sometimes lives up to its own hype. The city was indeed 
an "innovator" well before the tech boom's addiction to buzzwords 
hijacked the term. It was here that the war on drugs began.

 From the beginning, San Francisco served as a hub for a legitimate 
international drug trade. But when city fathers saw fit, San 
Francisco was also the first municipality in the United States to try 
- - and fail - to put a stop to it via prohibition and police.

This is a worthwhile story to revisit today, as the city and state 
struggle to figure out what to do with the multibillion-dollar 
cannabis industry (in San Francisco, it's alternating between 
ignoring and hampering it, while collecting tax dollars; other places 
in California, like San Mateo County, have imposed blanket bans on 
taxpaying marijuana businesses).

And in a twist, the people today who are least likely to appreciate a 
cannabis dispensary in their neighborhoods - the Chinese - were the 
direct targets of that first front in the country's long and bitter 
battle with drugs.

Cannabis was here early on - newspaper ads from the 1860s offer 
"hasheesh" confections, ideal for the "Debilitated, Hypochrondriac 
sufferer... in need of an invigorator, pleasant and harmless." But 
the first popular drug to appear in San Francisco, after whiskey and 
tobacco, was opium.

This is credited to Chinese immigrants who, in addition to providing 
the labor that constructed the Transcontinental Railroad, also helped 
to build the West. That is literal: Nearly every settlement from 
Mexico to Canada had at least one Chinese merchant during the late 1800s.

While it's accepted that opium smoking arrived with the first wave of 
Chinese immigrants, it's doubtful that the first opium smokers in 
America were Chinese; sailors from ships on the Canton route surely 
observed and picked up the habit.

It's also unclear exactly how popular the habit was. After China's 
loss of treasure, land, and sovereignty to Britain after the Opium 
Wars, the drug had fallen out of favor. Some contemporary accounts 
guessed about a third of the 41,000 Chinese immigrants in California 
used the drug - but it was also popular with whites, for whom there 
were eight opium establishments, "exclusively" for their use, within 
a few blocks of City Hall.

The drug was not unwelcome. It was one of the few painkillers 
available to a Civil War-era surgeon. Opium also meant trade. By 
1870, San Francisco customs officials reported annual imports of 
24,000 pounds of opium from China. And compared to the masses' 
preferred drug - then alcohol - opium was seen by many doctors and 
ministers as a lesser or even preferable evil.

Early opium "enforcement" amounted to consumer protection: A 
newspaper account reported a white man in trouble with the law for 
trying to sell bunk opium to a Chinese person.

The Chinese themselves were coolly accepted, too. (At the time, the 
San Francisco Examiner was just as likely to run a story pondering 
the "Mormon Question" as it was the "Chinese question.") But that 
changed with an economic crisis. An extended boom in railroad 
building and investment, partially supported by public dollars, 
proved unsustainable. Banks that had invested in railroads failed. 
That put factory workers and tradesmen out of work - and in direct 
competition with Chinese labor brought here cheaply by Chinatown's 
controlling Six Companies via the "coolie" system.

Overnight, anti-Chinese sentiment was everywhere. Authorities began a 
crackdown on "Mongolian vices" of all kinds, including opium. That 
"young [white] men and women of respectable business avocations," as 
the Examiner wrote, were susceptible to opium's effects helped whip 
up public furor, and led to the Board of Supervisors approving a ban 
on opium dens in 1875.

(It's worth noting that banning dens and not the drug itself was a 
transparently classist maneuver. The poor and middle-classes 
patronized dens; privileged people with opium habits smoked in the 
privacy of their expansive homes.)

As the Sacramento Union predicted, the ban was a spectacular failure.

A Chronicle account from the 1890s reported "hundreds" of opium dens 
in the city. It took the 1906 earthquake, when fires destroyed 
Chinatown along with much of the rest of the city, to eradicate the dens.

Meanwhile, a trend was born.

The state banned nonmedical sales of opium and cocaine in 1907. That 
ushered in the era of the drug raid. Agents from the newly formed 
California Board of Pharmacy, charged with enforcing the ban, burned 
seized pipes and opium stashes on the street in massive public 
spectacles. That drove the drug underground by the 1940s, when public 
officials had lost interest and were instead agitating about Mexican 

In that sense, San Francisco's opium war was a smashing success: it 
provided pretense for harassing the lower classes and people of 
color, a plan still followed today.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom