Opium; or, How it Became a “Dirty Drug”

By Stephen Basdeo

We live in an era in which, increasingly, governments in many western countries are realising that they are losing the so-called “War on Drugs”. Some countries have completely decriminalised certain substances, while in some states in the USA, you can buy marijuana over the counter for both medicinal and recreational use. Our attitude to illicit substances is increasingly looking not too dissimilar from that held by many people in the early nineteenth century.

Stephen Carver and Sharon Ruston discussing 19th-Century Opium use.

To find out more about historical attitudes to drug use, in particular opium, I attended Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday 30 June and sat in on a panel entitled “The Opium Eaters”, featuring two experts on the subject: Professor Sharon Ruston and Dr Stephen Carver. Ruston is Professor of Literature at Lancaster University and specialises in Romantic-era literature, and Carver is a former “recovering” academic (self-described) who has spent a lifetime researching many things Victorian and particularly the “underworld”.

Thomas De Quincey

The format of the discussion was just that: an informal chat about all things to do with nineteenth-century opium use and, importantly, its relationship to literature. During the discussion I learnt a lot from Ruston and Carver and I hope, if you’re reading this, that from the notes I took at the panel you will too!

Opium has been used by people as far back as Neolithic times, but it was a hot commodity in the nineteenth century; the British Empire fought two wars against China for the right to sell the substance in that country. And it was a popular substance with Britons as well: you could smoke it or eat it, or, you could drink laudanum, which is a mixture of strong alcohol and opium. It was an excellent form of pain relief; people took it to cure stomach upsets, toothache, back-aches, and nervous disorders. Its euphoric effects meant that it soon became a popular substance with literary and artistic types in the nineteenth century.

De Quincey’s Opium Eater book

The writer who was one of the first to chronicle his experiences as an opium “addict” (I use the word carefully here as in this period there was little awareness that one could become addicted to opium) was Thomas De Quincey, who wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). De Quincey was born in Manchester in 1785 to fairly affluent parents but was a bit of a cad: constantly in debt, went through bouts of homelessness while evading creditors—he even lived with the Wordsworths for a while—and cavorted with 15 year old prostitutes. His book, written after a lifetime of opium eating, sought to give a readers a taste of both the pleasures of opium and the pain of opium.

Laudanum might be used for a variety of complaints

De Quincey originally began eating opium to relieve toothache but he really enjoyed the “hit” that it gave him; the experience he described as “sublime”, which means beautiful, awe-inspiring, yet unnerving. It certainly made his nights on the town more enjoyable, often taking it before going out to the opera. His opium and alcohol infused nights did not always end well, however, for sometimes he was unable to find his way home. While under the influence, he was often known for starting random conversations with members of the public.

After his book was published, De Quincey came in for a lot of criticism: fans of opium were displeased as well: Dorothy Wordsworth (of all people) objected to De Quincey’s having demonized a drug which, quite frankly, everyone enjoyed.

The medical profession objected to the book’s glorification of a drug which, while not illegal, was certainly harmful and, given that these were nineteenth-century folks, certainly immoral. And the doctors at the time were fond of moralising; they had to break the stereotype of sinister crooks which had gathered around their profession since the Burke and Hare murders of the early 1800s, when a doctor in Scotland had employed the services of two murderers to acquire cadavers for his use.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When De Quincey was writing, opium could be purchased over the counter from an apothecary. It was not only the doctors who criticised the use of opium; Frederich Engels in the 1840s complained in The Condition of the Working Class in England that the working classes were being ‘enfeebled’ by ‘soothing syrups’, a by-word for opium.

It was surprising to learn from the discussion the extent to which the influence of and references to opium taking pervade nineteenth-century texts. My own favourite author, Walter Scott, was, I learnt for the first time, not averse to a dose or two of laudanum to calm his stomach. For a stomach complaint, laudanum was the worst thing Scott could have taken because it makes you constipated, and would have made the ageing Scot’s bowel complaints even worse. Apparently Scott wrote The Bride of Lammermore (1819) pretty much in an opium induced haze—having visited Abbotsford recently, I’d never have guessed that Scott’s grand old house was the site of drug taking!

Scott’s famous home Abbotsford — evidently a site of drug-taking!

When De Quincey met Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), the pair of them recognised fellow users in each other. Coleridge’s life had pretty much followed a pattern similar to De Quincey’s; a fellow creative, the former was likewise heavily in debt and moved around a lot to avoid creditors—Coleridge likely had bipolar disorder, however, and probably used opium to relieve the symptoms. One of the panellists said that often nineteenth-century writers who used opium often had wonderful ideas but sometimes failed to carry them through to completion; this is very evident in the staggering number of unfinished works Coleridge left, many of which were published as ‘fragments’ after he died.

The tide soon turned against opium; the pharmacists were often looked at by the local community as being of equal weight to medical doctors; however, it was the medical profession’s desire to make themselves respectable in the public eye that led to their campaigning for the passage of the Pharmacy Act in 1868, which ruled that, from then on, dangerous drugs like opium had to be prescribed by a medical doctor.

fatal facility.jpg
Buying drugs in the nineteenth century.

Thereafter, opium becomes something, not indulged in by artistic and literary bohemians but a thing that was taken in seedy opium dens, a borderline criminal act. There were actually very few opium dens in Britain in the nineteenth century, even if literary works like Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood (1870) and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1890) made it seem like they were on every street corner of London’s East End—a contemporary joke was that more opium dens existed in literature than in real life.

The major change in both the government’s and the public’s attitude can be seen in the passage of Dangerous Drugs Act (1928), a time when the community of opium takers was fairly small compared to numbers of people who took it in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, as the panellists pointed out, drug taking, particularly hard drugs, continued to be a part of the creative process into the 1960s, in spite of the criminalisation of most major substances. What you could buy over the counter in the 1810s would, by the 1960s, land you with a potential criminal conviction.

Carver signing copies of his book: The Nineteenth-Century Underworld (2018)


No point in legalizing weed for recreational use

By Adam Ramos

Adam Ramos delves into the recent past to see if the promised benefits from legalizing marijuana for recreational use in some parts of the United States have been realized.

Marijuana has never been a controversy in the United States until the past 20 years.  The campaign to legalize recreational marijuana is based upon the arguments that U.S states will earn more money and get rid of criminal activity like gangs, black-markets, and cartels.  When looking at the states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, however, all the great things that were said to come with legalization, never came.  Recreational marijuana should be kept illegal because it does not bring in the money it was promised; it does not take control of the production and sale of marijuana out of the hands of criminals and it comes with health risks.

At a federal level, cannabis is illegal yet many states have and are attempting to make this drug legal at the state level.  So far there have already been nine states, as well as Washington D.C., to legalize marijuana for recreational use and there are 32 states that have legalized the substance for medical use.  The process in which these states went through to legalize marijuana for recreational use, was by passing a ballot like Colorado and Oregon did.  Oregon held a ballot upon so-called Measure 91 which allowed for

Adult possession of less than one ounce of marijuana [which] was decriminalized on the first of July 2015, [then] sales of retail marijuana through existing dispensaries began in October 2015, and licensing of retail stores started in October 2016.[1]

Now, readers were not born yesterday: when someone approaches a black-market cannabis dealer, they ask for a certain amount of the substance, they pay for it, and the transaction is completed with only two parties involved.  When people purchase from a dispensary, however, there are three parties involved in the transaction: the consumer asks the dispensary for the same amount of the substance, and they pay for that in addition to the state tax that they have on marijuana.  This way dispensaries make money from selling marijuana, while the state makes their money from this by adding a tax on it.

One of recreational marijuana biggest claims for legalization, is the fact that marijuana has such a high demand and when the state has it to supply, large amounts of money will be produced, benefiting the state as a whole. Yet when we look at the states that have already legalized marijuana for recreation use, this is not the case.  J. Sullum reveals that

In Feburary 2014, a month after legal recreation pot sales began in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper projected that marijuana taxes would raise $118 million for the following fiscal year.[2]

But when the fiscal year ended, only $66 million had been earned.  That number is just scrapping by $59 million, which is only half of what the Governor predicted would be raised and only represented 0.3 percent of the state’s $23.1 million budget.

After one year, not even one percent of the state’s budget had been affected by marijuana legalization, adding little to state coffers. 

To give the benefit of the doubt, that figure was only one year of marijuana being legalized, so after a few years of operation, this should have surely changed.  The Colorado Legislative Council say otherwise, projecting 83 million in 2017-2018 which, yet again, is nowhere close to the $118 million predicted by Governor John Hickenlooper.  This minute sum of money accumulated from recreational marijuana sales was collected with heavy taxes on marijuana sales.

guzman arrest
Mexican cartel leader, Guzman, arrested – has legalizing marijuana for recreational use really taken control of the drug’s sale out of criminals’ hands?

In Colorado. when they passed the Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana, policy-makers decided that marijuana should be “taxed in a manner similar to alcohol”—that is, that taxes should be kept fairly low. But in practice Colorado is taxing marijuana much more heavily than they do alcohol, and just like Colorado, Washington also places high taxes on recreational marijuana sales with a 37 percent marijuana-specific tax, in addition to standard state and local sales taxes which makes marijuana purchased from state dispensaries almost fifty percent more expensive than it would be normally.

These high taxes do not help recreational marijuana’s campaign at all for a few reasons, and far from taking control away from criminal gangs, criminals’ control of the marijuana trade have actually increased. High taxes are causing a reverse effect by causing consumers to look elsewhere to purchase marijuana, resulting in the increase in black market and the state losing money. In Washington, the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) established quotas for marijuana production based on the assumption that state-licensed stores would initially capture 25 percent of the market,[3] but after a year of legal sales the LCB Deputy Director Randy Simmons put the stores’ share of total cannabis consumption at 10 percent, meaning that the other 90 percent was still being distributed by the untaxed black market.  With such high taxes on marijuana, consumers will not want to purchase from state dispensaries, causing the black market to always exist. This of course may make some readers think that the states where marijuana is legal should not tax the substance so highly, but any significant reduction in taxes would decrease the already modest gains from taxable sales of marijuana.

High taxes are not the only reason that the black market is still thriving.  There are other laws that have been made that, again, cause a reverse effect on legalizing recreational marijuana’s campaign.  Vermont allows for home growing of marijuana but there are certain factors that come from this resulting in small scale marijuana distribution.  An adult is permitted to have one plant growing in their house at one time and according to Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division and evidence suggests that one mature plant produces 335 grams a year but can be even more if plants are grown outside.  Even the heaviest of smokers would only need one plant to fulfill their needs as well as exceed the 28-gram limit allowed for recreational use.  In states like Alaska, Colorado and Washington D.C, adults can have up to six plants, but only three can be flowering at one time.  If all three of those plants are mature and in the correct conditions, 1005 grams of weed can be produced.[4]

If one plant can produce more than enough for one person, why can three be grown at one time and produce such an extreme amount?  This is when the question arises: what do they do will all the extra marijuana? This is where the black market is fueled to continue to exist.

All this extra marijuana will not be thrown away but will be sold.  This presents people who would have never sold marijuana with the option of now selling it illegally.  This also presents the opportunity for those people already involved in the black market to grow marijuana legally and then sell it.  This was the case in Colorado where

Local officials said that Mexican cartels were growing marijuana under the cover of legal operations.[5]

If the states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use wanted to maximize their income, why allow for individuals to grow their own to the point where they will not ever spend a penny at one of the state dispensaries? They lose customers who would be initially spending money on the state tax. By allowing for individuals to grow their own, it does nothing but fuel the black market and cause the state to lose money.

Aside from the negative effects Recreational marijuana has on the legalized states, there are also the many negative effects that marijuana has on health.  Marijuana is a substance that impairs you; your vision, way of thinking, actions, and reaction time are all things that occur when a person has taken marijuana. As a result

After retail stores opened in Colorado, emergency room visits related to marijuana shot up nearly 30% and hospitalizations related to marijuana rose 200%.[6]

These health-related incidents are all due to people having attempted to carry out dangerous or hazardous activities such as driving having taken the substance.

Also—in spite of some recreational marijuana activists’ attempts to downplay the health effects of the drug itself—marijuana does affect the brain in many different ways such as increasing the risk of developing schizophrenia, depression and other psychiatric disorders, so researchers at Harvard University and Northwestern University found when their studies revealed that some recreational marijuana smokers had abnormalities in the shape, volume, and density of certain areas of the brain”.[7]

The brain is not the only way health is affected; most people smoke marijuana along with tobacco which damages the lungs and causes respiratory problems—a perhaps unsurprising side effect of the drug’s use. While it is obvious that cigarettes affect your lungs and body in terrible ways, there is evidence to suggest that smoking one marijuana joint is as damaging to the lungs as five tobacco cigarettes.[8]

Critics might say that alcohol has health risks, that it is legal, and adults should make up their own mind about what they want to put in their bodies. To raise such an objection is merely a bit of “whataboutery”. The debate here is about marijuana; many U. S. states are attempting to make it legal without analyzing the effects on other states that have it already legalized it.


Recreational marijuana activists promised less black-market activity—the opposite has happened.  The high state taxes on marijuana caused people to turn back to the black market and allowing home growing resulted in more illegal activity, thereby reducing the amount of money the states can make.  While high promises were made about the amount the amount of revenue a state could earn from legalizing the substance for enjoyment, the amount of money actually coming in is nowhere close to what was promised. And none of the supposed benefits of legalizing cannabis for enjoyment come negate the negative health effects of its use. Medicinal marijuana is fine—but let’s at least be honest about the fact that very few benefits will come from making the substance legal for recreational purposes.

[1] S. Fiala, et al, ‘Exposure to Marijuana Marketing After Legalization of Retail Sales: Oregonians’ Experiences, 2015-2016′, American Journal Of Public Health, 108: 1 (2018), 120-127.

[2] J. Sullum, ‘Americans Love Pot Taxes’, Reason, 47: 9 (2016), 42-46.

[3] Sullum, op cit.

[4] Jonathan P. Caulkins, ‘Considering marijuana legalization carefully: insights for other jurisdictions from analysis for Vermont’, Addiction, 111: 12 (2016), 2082–89.

[5] Anon, 2018. ‘Recreational Marijuana’. [online]. Available at: marijuana.procon.org. [Accessed                  23 September 2018].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.