When Drugs Were Legal: The Anti-Opium Campaign

Go back to the 19th century and people freely used drugs, tobacco and booze, a far cry from our more restrictive days. A new book explores that stoned time and what changed.

03.08.14 5:00 AM ET

Imagine walking into a store and buying an over-the-counter-drug that can cure the mentally insane, alleviate pains, treat everything from cholera to tooth aches, and help sickly children to sleep—all for little more than the cost of a candy bar. If you happen to live in nineteenth-century England and don’t mind taking opium, you’re in luck. For those of us, however, living in the twenty-first century or opposed to dosing infants with opiates, no such wonder drug exists. And of course it never did—the medicinal benefits of opium were hyperbolized even when it was legally available to the general population. As were those of tobacco and alcohol. And yet the latter two are still very much with us today, albeit in a legal-regulatory framework, while opium has gone the way of cannabis, cocaine, and a slew of other substances that were once cheaply available, culturally acceptable, and perfectly legal.

What caused this divergence is the question taken up by Virginia Berridge in her new book, Demons: Our changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The book’s title is somewhat misleading. The “our” only truly applies if you’re British, as she focuses extensively on the UK, occasionally looking at America by way of comparison and paying very little attention to the rest of the globe. Additionally, those hoping for a book covering a variety of “drugs” should look elsewhere; while she mentions cocaine and cannabis here and there, the book is concerned first and foremost with opium and its derivatives. In the end, the big question this book deals with is: What forces led to the prohibition of opium?

Until the late-19th century, alcohol, tobacco, and opium were used across every economic and cultural demographic, were socially acceptable, and weren’t viewed in medical versus recreational terms, most being seen as both palliative and pleasure-inducing. Soon temperance movements targeting opium began to emerge, first with the Quaker-backed Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade in 1874. This and other anti-opium groups were limited in their initial effects, but they laid the groundwork for more restrictive attitudes towards the drug.

Legal restrictions on opium were pushed forward by Britain’s emerging professional class. Pharmacists argued for loose regulations on the sale of the drug, hoping to gain control of its supply without a significant loss in their consumer base. They won big with the passage the 1868 Pharmacy Act, which essentially permitted anyone to buy opium that wanted it, but only allowed it to be sold by licensed pharmacists. Though the act erected minimal barriers to accessing the drug, this was an important turning point for opium as it was, for the first time, placed under legal constraints.

Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco and Drugs

Frightening literary portrayals of opium use, like those in Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood and Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, stigmatized the drug in ways that temperance groups couldn’t, conjuring images of hedonistic East London opium dens filled with lascivious users. The fear generated by these portrayals was augmented by racial animus towards a small but growing population of Chinese immigrants who smoked the drug. Opium was usually taken orally, and the concern generated by this new mode of consumption was redoubled as changing technologies affected both its potency and delivery. Specifically, the isolation of opium alkalis—morphine being the most well-known—and the development of hypodermic dosing, though first hailed as great medical advances, were quickly seen to be destructive as they gained popularity in recreational use.

These factors all combined to establish a climate in which opiate use was viewed in an increasingly negative light leading up to the First World War. Before the war, international rules were established to try and curtail the opium trade in the east. These were revised and expanded, resulting in the 1912 Hague Opium Convention, which established international restrictions limiting opiate use to “legitimate medical purposes.” Though this was the first international drug control agreement, it wasn’t until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which incorporated the Hague Convention’s regulations, that these laws were applied in a truly global manner, binding signatories to the first real global prohibition regime. This was the final divorce of opium and its derivatives from legal substances and, most importantly, it laid the groundwork for the current system of worldwide drug control and enforcement that continues today.

Following her analysis of the years leading up to and just after WWI, the final chapters of Berridge’s book examine the post–World War II years, arguing that recent trends have pulled illicit substances back towards normalization while casting a taboo over the use of licit drugs, especially tobacco. As a result, she claims that attitudes towards both legal and illegal substances are converging, thanks in large part to new conceptions of public health that focus on education, harm reduction, and novel uses of both old and new drugs—from the rise of medical marijuana to the “medicalization of everyday life” evinced by antidepressants, ADD medications, and other prescription drugs.

It is no exaggeration to say that the way society deals with drugs is shifting more quickly than ever before. From newly birthed experiments with cannabis legalization in Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay to debates over the legality of electronic cigarettes, any work that enhances our understanding of how our laws and attitudes towards these and other substances are shaped deserves attention. But while Berridge’s history and ideas about contemporary perspectives on drugs are occasionally engaging, the book is far from unique in its arguments, and certainly not the best of its kind. (Just one alternative is David Courtwright’s Forces of Habit, from which Berridge draws considerably and which is more wide-ranging in the scope of substances, countries, and time periods covered.) Moreover, her work includes several unsubstantiated leaps in logic (for example, assuming that increased living standards would have led to more drinking had it not been for the temperance movement), factual errors (claiming Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception is about an LSD trip; he experimented with mescaline), and citation-less claims (such as her assertion that “data from the second decade of liberalization suggested that the commercialization of cannabis was associated with rising levels of use”). Berridge’s book does a good job of showing how myriad forces have impacted the history of opium in the UK, but readers hoping for an explanation of how the past is likely to shape the future of drug policy should look elsewhere.