Curing the Opium ‘Addict’: Hazards of Prohibition

“China was turned into a nation of opium addicts by the pernicious forces of imperialist trade.”To this day the perception persists that China enabled opium addiction, only to be saved by Western prohibition power and Christianity. This ideology was fueled by prejudice, as many historians brushed aside or completely ignored the complex culture of opium consumption and the ages of confirmed medicinal benefits. All things considered, as Narcotics Culture by Frank Dikotter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun brilliantly shows, the real scandal in Asian history was not the expansion and commercialization of the drug trade by imperial forces, but rather the failure of the British to face the unforeseen consequences of opium suppression and prohibition.

Although it was true, that by mid-twentieth century China was in the iron grip of dependence, it was almost equally widespread throughout all social classes, especially among the most elite. The turn of the twentieth century ushered in a political redefinition of opium consumption, which triggered and maintained the fallacy that opium addicts were degenerate criminals, and should be treated as such.

As can be seen, in all manners of prohibition, including missionary asylums, detoxification centers and replacement cures, the suppression attempts only managed to vigorously shift drug consumption to another substance, developing more dangerous drugs in the process.

The drug trade damaged societies not merely because it destroyed individual lives, but also, and perhaps more importing it had the power to undercut any political economy, most notably with the Qing authorities throughout the nineteenth century.

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Prohibition sprang from many factors, most importantly, China’s prolonged political corruption and increased destabilization, in combination with the Western “Necrophobic discourse”. This consequently created an unprecedented danger surrounding the global drug consumption. The effect of early 20th century drug prohibition directly affected the twenty-first-century drug consumption, and continues to be a critical issue in debates over drug policy. Prohibition in China allowed for new trends of consumption of dangerous narcotics

These authors narrate a different story of the relationship between opium and Chinese. These three men challenge the view of opium as the utmost symbol of national debate, forced upon defenseless chinese by imperialist powers, this maxim perpetuated by Chinese and Western historians alike. Narcotic Culture emphasizes the complex culture of opium consumption. Uniquely, in Chinese society, opium was used for a distinct reasons by a variety of consumers; opium smoking, like tea drinking, was a biological behavior and a social norm for dynasties. Regardless, the merits of the drug were disregarded in the rise of anti-opium discourse from the West. In that case, many Western powers paid no attention to the relatively harmless effects of opium on either health or longevity; in fact, the ancient culture of opium in highly complex rituals were inbuilt with constraints preventing excess use.

In Narcotics Culture, the book provides plentiful evidence that the transition from a tolerated substance recognized for medicinal use to a system of prohibition, produced a cure far worse than the disease. The cure for opium legally introduced semi-synthetic opiates to already opiate dependant individuals through detoxification treatments and remedies. The initiation of prohibition was lead by Christian and Catholic missionaries who came to China with their own motives. Opium had exhausted the strength of the chinese in many ways, including in their military and foreigners were willing to take advantage of those weaknesses. Equality important, the Chinese government considered opium to be their obstacle to progress in the modern world, and formulated and implemented a series of policies and legislation in this regard. Behind the rise of prohibition was the unlikely alliance of missionaries and Chinese officials. Although their political outlooks were seas apart, both regarded the moral reformation of ‘the sick man of Asia’ as the ultimate mission to accomplish by any means necessary, even at the cost of human life.

As the West launched fierce global war on drugs, empathetic missionaries flooded China and SouthWest Asia, their sights set to ‘return China to the lord.’ Coupled with Nationalist Chinese elites who saw opium addiction as infectious disease poisoning the core of Chinese culture. In less than a century, China’s drug use quickly turned from relatively harmless activity of smoking opium to injecting and ingesting of semi-synthetic opiates; heroin, morphine, cocaine which were far more concentrated and addictive than the former. In the interim time, opium treatment centers and missionary asylums proved to be more lethal than opium. With that in mind, toxic substances such as arsenic were injected as part of opium replacement therapies, killing patients in plenty of cases.

These treatment centers were to offer moral support and a ‘degree of confinement essential to endure the struggle necessary to give up the use of the enticing drug’ In reality, detailed reports of treatment hospitals in Canton show that some patients were cured within a few weeks, but others preferred to escape from the ‘torture which followed the withdrawal of the drug’ and the ‘fearful ordeal’ of the strict hospital routine. As a treatment method, hospitals would administer small amounts of morphine and atropine to reduce the pain of withdrawal. In hindsight we can see how this would have adverse effects. These addicts ‘cured’ their opium addiction by their dependance being transferred to these new applications of opiates.

Opium treatment hospitals continued to operate after 1911, but detoxification shifted to fall under military jurisdiction in the Republic of China period. Detoxification was primarily carried out in police detention centers and health clinics/prisons.

These otherwise law-abiding ‘addicts’ were confined to overcrowded cells and died in massive numbers from disease, while those deemed beyond any hope of recovery were simply executed. During the 1930’s the National Opium Suppression Commision was a major player in the persecution of addicts. They announced any person with a narcotic habit could face up to seven years in prison, second time offenders could face execution. What’s more is opium smokers who relapsed after treatment ‘would be shot without further ceremony’

By the same token, prohibition generated a profitable production of miracle cures, opium substitutes which missionaries took advantage of. The spread of opium substitutes promised as ‘miracle cures’, were mainly encouraged by foreign medical experts. At first, pills became favored, LEADING the shift away from opium smoking towards opiate ingestion of semi-synthetics. To put it another way consumers rather than suppliers generally determined the shape intoxication took. Bringing about new semi-synthetics like morphine and cocaine only served to exacerbate the problem of addiction. In the wake of prohibition campaigns, in conjunction with the start of the Second World War (1937), detoxification cures and missionary asylums spread throughout China, promoted by pressure from domestic and foreign pressures. Narcotic culture explains “in search for a universal cure against pain, hunger, and cold, they opted for sedatives like opium, morphine and heroin rather than stimulants, or hallucinogens”.

To begin with, the first person to propose a remedy to eliminate opiate cravings was Lin Zexu. His proposal was a mixture of anti-acid pills and a restorative tonic, which consisted of a mixture of opium dross and a variety of herbs. As uncovered by many historians, large amounts of opium dross were mixed into the opium cures. Most opium cures contained liberal quantities of opium. For instance, at the Williams’ Hospital in Pangzhuang, Shandong, anti-opium pills contained 23% opium powder Opium replacement therapies showed prohibition could produced an outcome far worse than the disease. Next, foreign medical experts suggested ‘very strong coffee’ as an ANTIDOTE to opium cravings. Prior to the 1890’s the coffee craze had uninterested China. Imports of caffeine increased until the 1920’s, by which time caffeine had become a standard ingredient in opium replacement medicines.

Although caffeine did not succeed in becoming a realistic alternative to opium, it was a key ingredient in narcotic pills. However, morphine was far more successful as a remedy, and missionaries were A MAJOR FACTOR in its spread While the demand for these remedies appear to point to an existing demand for detoxification treatment, most consumers may have been more interested in buying legal cheaper remedies still containing opium, than getting clean or seeking help.

By the end of the twentieth century China still emerged as world’s leading producer for narcotics as well as tobacco. In effect, it’s clear the government restrictions on opium and the international war on drugs may have been shaping narcotic culture in China rather than eradicating it. By that same token, Harold Traver asserts what is often overlooked in the history of prohibition on drugs: not only did opium prohibition encouraged the rapid switch to heroin, but that governments may be more successful when it comes to actively promoting drugs than in striving against prohibiting them. As Narcotics Culture professes “the core of the opium myth is the image of China as a passive victim of the international market, but as this book sets out to demonstrate, consumers in all social categories actively shaped narcotic culture ” Narcotics culture is a supporter of a revision, modification of understanding history of imperial and twentieth-century, a sobering portrait of the dangers of prohibition. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between.

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Curing the Opium ‘Addict’: Hazards of Prohibition. (2022, Apr 26). Retrieved from

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