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From Mr Sin to Mr Big

Auth: Desmond Manderson

Published: 1993

Publisher: Oxford University Press Australia

ISBN: 0 19 553531 6

Background to the Book.

(From back cover)

From Mr Sin to Mr Big is a compelling legal and social history of the origins and development of drug laws in Australia. It argues that the selective enactment of 'drug' laws has been driven by fear, racism, powerful international pressures, and the vested interests of the medical profession, bureaucrats and politicians, rather than by genuine concerns about the welfare of users.

Behind the emotion and contoversy that surround the use of illegal drugs lie previously unexamined assumptions about how and why certain substances - such as opium, herion and cannabis - have been prohibited, while others - such as alcolhol and tobacco - have not. This book challenges these assumptions, while also examining the power and efficacy of law as a means of achieving social change.

Desmond Manderson traces the legislative developments, from the anti-opium laws directed against the Chinese in the nineteenth century, to the complex web of our present drug laws, and illustrates the gradual politicisation of the drugs debate. From Mr Sin to Mr Big argues that Australia's current drug laws are a product of the past, and it is only by understanding this past that we can begin a rational debate about reform in the future.


Desmond Manderson is a lawyer and historian who has written extensively on drug history and policy. After studying and teaching at the Australian National University in Canberra for several years, he is currently engaged in research at the Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law at McGill University in

Montreal, Canada. [accurate at 1993 : PH]

[summary of the research programs]

As part of his Honours thesis in History, Manderson researched for a small publication funded by the Research into Drug Abuse Program (RIDAP) of the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NCADA).

Following his Honours thesis, it was suggested that he work on a larger project into the history of drug laws in Australia, again supported by RIDAP, under the Commonwealth (Federal, for our world audience) Department of Community Services and Health.

Interesting quotes from the book.

(page 7)

In nineteenth-century Australia, opium was the preserve of neither the creative few nor the urban poor. It was freely available and freely used. Furthermore, perhaps partly as a consequence of the weakness of the medical profession, the line which is now seen to divide medical 'use' form non-medical 'abuse' was not yet apparent. Many people who consumed opium undoubtedly did so out of habit. Indeed, temperance activists who would rather forfiet their lives than drink a nip of whiskey, but who were addicted to opium, were the butt of many jokes. 'I believe the teetotalers have too little pleasure in this world, whatever they may hope for in the next,' said Godfrey Carter, a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly well known for his opposition to the temperance movement, in 1898, "and when I think what little joy they have here at present is derived, to a great extent, from the use of morphine, chlorodyne, painkiller, and a variety of other preparations of opium, why should we prevent them from going to their chemists and getting these things?"

(page 19)

As the "Bulletin", whose masthead proudly proclaimed 'Australia for the White Man', stated in 1889:

"The badness of the Chinaman, socially and morally, is the outcome of his low wages ... If Chinamen will tomorrow refuse to work for less wages, man for man, than Britons, and will refuse to work longer hours, the head and front of the objections to their presence will disappear."

For the "Bulletin", the Chinese were 'jaundice-coloured apostles of unlimited competition'.

The proponents of a 'White Australia', however, slid with ease from arguments of economic protectionism to visceral racism. The Chinese were painted as living squalidly and in filth, their habits depraved and their lives degraded. The absence of Chinese women was seen as a threat to the honor and chastity of innocent European women and girls (and prostitution certainly flourished in the Chinatowns of large communities). That the Chinese men worked on Sundays was portrayed as an indication of the infiltration of paganism and devil-worshipping into god-fearing Australian society. In the slandering of the Chinese, almost anything went, as this extract from a tract written by someone who went by the ironic pseudonym 'Humanity' shows:

"The Chinese amidst their evil surroundings, and their filthy and sinful abodes of sin and swinish devilry [will be] entered into by the servants of the Most High God! May the wayside scattering of the seed of holiness and truth take root in the hotbed of all unholy and unclean vices! ... It would never be believed that our Saxon and Norman girls could have sunk so low in crime as to consort with such a herd of Gorilla Devils..."

(page 23-24)

Opium was seen as a pollutant, moral as well as physical; it was tainted by the environment of its consumption and by its connections with the Chinese themselves. The potency of these separate aesthetic revulsions-against dirtiness, the Chinese, and the smell of opium-was compounded by their mutual association, as can be seen from the description of an opium den contained in the 'Bulletin's" 1886 feature on 'The Chinese in Australia':

"Down from the fan-tan den are stairs leading to lower and dirtier abodes: rooms darker than and more greasy than anything on the ground floor: rooms where the legions of aggressive stinks peculiar to Chinamen seems to linger ... Yet the rooms are not naturally repulsive, nor would they be so when occupied by other tenants; but the Chinaman has defiled their walls with his filthy touch; he has vitiated what was once a reasonably pure atmosphere with his presence, and he has polluted the premises with his disgusting habits; and so it is that nought save suggestions of evil, incentives of disgust and associations of vice, now seems to move in the fetid atmosphere ... The very air of the alley is impregnated with the heavy odour of the drug."

From being seen as a dirty habit in dirty people, opium smoking came to be seen as an immoral habit in hated people. It was a small step readily taken: from a symbol of depravity, opium became a cause of it; from a sign of evil, it became an active agent of it.

(page 32)

Sub-title: 'They all go to the Chinaman': Aboriginal Opium Laws and the Chinese In fact, the first laws specifically to prohibit opium did not seem to deal with the Chinese use of it at all. The Queensland "Sale and Use of Poison Act 1891" penalised "any person who supplies, or permits to be supplied, any opium to any aboriginal native of Australia or half-caste of that race ... except for medicinal purposes ..."

(page 36)

A man named Corbett, 'speaking for all other farmers', complained that 'they could not get the blacks to work when they wanted them, while the Chinese', who farmed half of the surrounding land, could always get them, a fact which he accounted for by saying that the Celestial paid their Aboriginal employees in opium'. The solution seemed simple. As the local carpenter argued, 'the blacks should be taken from the Chinese and compelled to work for any European who might require their services'. Opium was, as ever, a scapegoat. The local White farmers, wanting cheap Black labour, could not understand why they would rather work for the Chinese. The use of opium was fastened upon as the only possible explanation for such a perverse choice.

The more likely truth was that the Chinese treated the Aboriginal with a modicum of respect. Roth reported the local police as saying that is the White population ceased starving and mistreating its Black employees, it could get as many workers as it wanted. But even the crudest kind of decency appears to have been beyond some of the locals. A man named Putt expressed his grievance with incredulity:

"I have shot thirteen or fourteen niggers in this District and this is all the Government has done for me:-I can't get a _____ nigger when I want one. They all go to the Chinaman."

(page 204-205)

Senator Peter Baume, amongst others, has spoken with more and more conviction as the years have passed. In one of his last parliamentary speeches on the subject, before retiring to take up an appointment as Professor of Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales, he said: "Our strategies seek to prevent the production of certain designated illegal substances, and fail to do so; they seek to prevent the importation of substances, and fail to do so; they seek to prevent the distribution of substances, and fail to do so; they seek to prevent the sale and use of substances, and fail to do so."

(page 207)

One thing is apparent. 'Drugs' is a subject which people approach with many erroneous preconceptions, and a little knowledge can change people's opinions profoundly. Both Peter Baume and Peter Cleeland, chairmen of influential parliamentary committees on the subject, have stressed to me how much their thinking began to change when they first started to read and to listen.

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