Smoking Opium Exclusion Act
When did American drug Prohibition start? Most would place the starting date at the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act in1914, but a better choice would be the passage of the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909.
The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act was the first federal statute to prohibit the importation or sale of any specific drug and was the only one until the Volstead Act prohibited alcohol in 1919. This Act prohibited opium in the form prepared for inhalation through smoking although importation and sale of other opium preparations and derivatives, including morphine and heroin, was still allowed.
Like most statutes, the Exclusion Act arose from a mixed heritage. It came from Manifest Destiny and American Imperialism, from growing international trade, from Xenophobia, and from the Puritanism of the growing Prohibition movement.
By the end of the Civil War the United States reached from coast to coast and then rapidly filled in the intervening empty spaces. The urge to expand – known as “Manifest Destiny” -- began looking overseas. The Kingdom of Hawai’i was annexed, and the Spanish-American War added Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands, As American control expanded, so did American commerce; and both soon collided with the British Empire. The focus of this conflict was China, up until that time, firmly under Britain’s thumb.
Administering the Philippines presented a new problem. Spanish rule had allowed licensed opium shops to sell to Chinese immigrants, and the new U. S. authorities had to decide whether to continue the operation of those shops. The governor’s advisor charged with deciding this question was an Episcopalian bishop who was a leader in the Prohibitionist movement. Part of his investigation was to look at opium use in Hong Kong. He called for a conference to look into the opium issue worldwide to meet in Hong Kong in 1907. Representatives from many of the leading nations attended.
The timing and subject of the conference were timely and auspicious. China was undergoing a civil war (known as the Boxer Rebellion) that had unseated the emperor and had seriously weakened British power in China. The remaining British influence was largely based on its militarily-maintained control of the Chinese opium trade (at least twenty-five per cent of Chinese men were estimated to be habitual smokers). If that monopoly could be broken, entry by the U. S. and others into Chinese trade would be opened. The conference called for a formal convention of all major powers to control the opium trade to meet in 1911. All of the 1907 parties agreed to participate.
America had to figure out how to take advantage of this opportunity to move to the front internationally. All the facts pointed to the need for some effort of internal opium control to show leadership on the issue. Constitutional interpretation at that time allowed for little scope of action on the criminal or medical fronts. The situation in California provided a way to act.
Californians had hated and feared their Chinese immigrants at least since the Gold Rush of 1849. One of the major focuses of this xenophobia was the opium den, frequently the social center of the Chinese enclaves in Californian towns. One wide-spread fear was that the opium dens served as lures to draw innocent white girls into lives of depravity.
In the early years of the twentieth century, smoking opium had leaked from the Chinatowns to the liberated youth (of both sexes) who had fled the stifling aura of small towns and rural countrysides for the economic and social freedom of the great cities. Opium and cocaine, dancehalls and theaters were part of the new society that built away from the censoring eye of families and neighbors.
Smoking opium, all of which entered across the national border, was something within the federal power to control; and that control would position the U. S. as a leader in the fight to limit the opium trade, embarrass the British, help the Californians against the Chinese invaders, and throw a sop to the Prohibitionists. The Act was passed, forbidding the import of opium prepared for smoking. Ironically, while mild smoking opium (about seven per cent morphine) was banned, the stronger medicinal opium (around ten percent) was still freely imported and sold, as were the full-strength opiates, morphine and heroin.
Enforcement of the act began almost immediately. A smuggler moving smoking opium from Mexico into El Paso was arrested and sentenced to federal prison in 1910. This incident opened a dreary history in Mexican-American relations. The smuggling moved from opium in 1910 to booze in the 1920s, to heroin during WWII when shipping from overseas was stopped, to marijuana starting in the 1970s, and then adding cocaine and methamphetamine – and continuing today.
Unintended consequences also followed the act. The price of opium soared almost at once, and availability became problematic. Users soon found that they could simply step into the drugstore and legally buy heroin for much less than opium cost. As a result, when the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act made morphine harder to obtain, the street trade was ready to supply heroin to the users. As the older medical opium and morphine habitués dwindled away, the urban heroin users became the most visible narcotic users; and they provided the image of the addict that developed in the 1920s and is still dominant today.
Next year marks the centenary of the Harrison Act. But before we gather to mourn its longevity, we should remind ourselves that drug Prohibition actually started five years earlier – with the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909.