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Scientific American 1898, p. 147



An attempt to raise the opium poppy has been in progress for several years in California. The hot days seemed altogether favorable for the production of the plant and drug, but the accompanying cold nights and the absence of cheap labor proved fatal to the project, and it has been given up as a failure. The value of the drug as a means of money making was, of course, the incentive, and the extraordinary and growing demand for opium in all countries tells a suggestive story of the habit that has obtained a firm hold among the people of all races.

In the very oldest books of the Arabs the poppy is mentioned, showing that the use of the gum is one of the most ancient of practices. The poppy used for the purpose is Papaver somniferum, a plant discovered, in all probability, by the Arabs and carried from Arabia by man over large portions of the globe. At first opium was used as a medicine. Theophrastus was familiar with it, and Dioscorides, in 77 A.D., wrote a learned paper on its properties. Up to the twelfth century Asia Minor was the source of supply, and from then on it was gradually distributed over the globe. The Chinese first obtained the drug in the thirteenth century, it being used purely as medicine; but gradually its insidious effects were realized and it became so important a drug in a commercial sense that in 1757 the great monopoly was secured in India by the East India Company. The business rapidly increased from one thousand chests in 1776 to nearly five thousand in 1790. At this time the emperor Kea King fully realized the effect the drug was having upon his people, and in 1786 its importation was forbidden. Chinese caught smoking were flogged and severely punished. This not having the desired effect, those who were found using it were transported or beheaded. Even this did not affect the sale, and in 1825 the importation of opium into China had increased to 16,877 chests.

In 1839 the Chinese government made a desperate effort to drive off the English opium sellers by ordering off the English opium ships. This not being complied with, nearly thirty thousand chests of opium were destroyed, entailing a loss of ten million dollars. This led to the war and final treaty of Nankin in 1842.

The Chinese government appreciates the dangerous nature of the drug and its effect upon the nation, and has never ceased its endeavors to stamp it out; but without avail, and today China is probably the largest poppy producing nation. The provinces famous for it are Chekeang, Yunnan, While southwestern China produces 224,000 peculs, against 100,000 peculs from India. Today over half the provinces of China produce opium, and the habit of opium smoking seems confirmed. Turkey is noted for its production, and the best opium used in the United States by druggists comes from there.

Some idea of the importance of the trade and the amount used can be obtained from the following: In Macedonia the crop is estimated at 140,000 pounds per annum. In Bengal, where it is a government monopoly, the output is equal to about 90,000 chests, valued at $55,000,000. Persia produces about 10,000 chests: Egypt about $10,000 worth annually, and Mozambique has 60,000 acres under cultivation. Opium has been raised in Virginia and Tennessee, as well as California, but owing to the lack of cheap labor and the uncertainty of the crops, due to frosts, the business is unprofitable.

Nearly all the opium smoked by the Chinese in this country comes from the Fook Hing Company, of Hong-Kong, which pays the government $300,000 per year for the privilege of carrying on the business. The opium is packed in five-tael tins, which bring in San Francisco $8 each. Some excessive smokers use from four to eight dollars' worth a week.

It has been estimated that in San Francisco thirty per cent of the Chinese are addicted to smoking and that ten per cent of the entire population of Chinatown are habitual "opium drunkards." The drug is smoked as freely as tobacco. First, there are the opium dens. There are scores of these dens in the Chinese quarter of every large city. There the Chinaman can buy his pipe and smoke in peace. In San Francisco white people are forbidden to visit these dens, but they have such places of their own, which are well known to the police, and the vice is ever spreading and increasing.

It is somewhat difficult to determine the amount of opium received in San Francisco, but during the past decade about 600,000 pounds has been taken into that port. In one year the importations for smoking purposes amounted to 100,000 pounds. Previous to 1883 the duty was but $6 per pound. At that time it was increased to $10 per pound on the smoking extract and $1 per pound for crude opium. This had little or no effect upon the trade, as consumers were obliged to have the drug at any price. In 1889 the McKinley bill raised the duty to $12 per pound on opium of all kinds which contained less than nine per cent of morphia. Even under this restriction, and despite the fact that the exclusion bill was in full force, over 63,000 pounds of opium were legitimately introduced in that year, and probably twice as much more smuggled in, the government receiving nearly a million dollars from the duties.

At the present time the importation of crude opium is decreasing. This is due to the law of 1889, which states that only native Americans can legally manufacture the extract, and the law also demands a tax of $10 per pound. The duty on the best Patna opium is $12 per pound, and as it requires two and one-half pounds of this to equal one of the extract, this would make the latter cost about $30 per pound. To this would have to be added $10 per pound revenue tax, which makes a total of $40 per pound on American made opium extract. It need not be said that very little is made, as the Chinese preparation can be had for $18 per pound. The great demand for the extract has induced smuggling, and illicit stills were started everywhere. Opium was and is still smuggled in at the Canada and Mexican lines. It is landed at the islands off shore and brought in by Chinese fishermen, smuggled in on steamers, dropped into the bay and the law evaded in numerous ways familiar to the "heathen Chinee."

In San Francisco hundreds of "opium kitchens" were started. These were extremely difficult to find. Some were established in boats, others in dark cellars, others in the rear of private dwellings. Scores have been closed up by the police, yet some undoubtedly thrive, just as the whisky [sic] distillers escape the law in the wilds of Kentucky and Tennessee. The city of San Francisco has aided the government in restricting the sale. In 1881 the city passed a bill declaring it unlawful for any one to sell opium for smoking purposes without a license, the amount of the license being gagged by the amount of business. Thus if a den did a business of $5,000, the owner was charged $150 for the privilege. In 1889, at the earnest request of reformers, an ordinance was passed making it illegal to sell opium without a physician's prescription. There is also a law which makes it illegal for any one to keep or even visit an opium house. Three months' imprisonment is the punishment, but this has no effect. The dens are crowded, as every tourist who goes through Chinatown knows, and the only result is that whites are not found in the Chinese dens; they start dens of their own.

The difficulty of conviction lies in the universality of the habit, as it pervades the home and business. Wherever the Chinese are found there will be the odor of opium. They smoke it as Americans do tobacco. Nearly every well regulated Chinese home has its opium smoking outfit, where the guest is invited to smoke. Many of the merchants have such a retreat in the rear of their shops, into which a customer may be asked to smoke as an American merchant is invited to take a cigar. The difficulty, then, lies in the impossibility of drawing the line between professional and private opium dens.

[NOTE: The article from which this file was excerpted may include additional text and accompanying illustrations.]

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