Newspapers are extraordinary historical sources in their sheer number and their accessibility. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of them as research on opium in the late 1800s. During this age of cheap print, high literacy rates, and early investigative journalism, much ink was spilled on the puzzling and alluring vice of opium in all its forms.
A number of reporters ventured into the verboten interiors of opium dens in San Francisco and New York to write first-person accounts, or tried it at home or among friends. Their assessments of the experience of smoking opium varied wildly: some wrote about seeing God and paradise, while others dryly concluded the drug was good for little except falling asleep.
Some journalists’ accounts of the opium use of others are stern, Progressive-spirited exposes, while some are sensational and colorful (yellow, to be exact).
But in the newspapers, this era also belonged to humorists. One of Mark Twain’s earliest pieces of reporting described the “comfortless operation” of opium smoking, whereby an experienced smoker “puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke—and the stewing and frying of the juices would well-nigh turn the stomach of a statue.”
Dan Malleckis an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario. He is the author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-1944 (University of British Colombia Press, 2012) and co-editor, with Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, of Consuming Modernity: Gendered Behaviour and Consumerism Before the Baby Boom (UBC Press, 2014). Try to Control Yourself won the Canadian Historical Association’s Clio Prize for Best Book in Ontario History in 2013, and Malleck’s writing has appeared in news outlets including the Globe and Mail and The National Post. He earned his PhD from Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. Malleck’s most recent book isWhen Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws (UBC Press, 2015), which he discusses below.
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
This book examines the social and cultural forces that combined to encourage the creation of Canada’s drug laws. It argues that we need to get past the simplistic statement that drug laws were racist reactions to foreigners in our country, and have complex roots.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
The book is not a political history, but it looks at how various cultural, economic, professional and social forces converged in the early 1900s to make it seem necessary to create federal laws restricting opiates and other mind altering drugs. It takes long time-
line, following the threads of influence as they grew and expanded, gathering energy and cultural currency. I use the metaphor of streams converging into raging river.
The main question driving the research was “why did we decide that addiction was a problem that needed federal intervention” and “when did it become okay for the government to severely restrict sales of certain substances that were previously generally unrestricted.” I argue that Canada’s first drug laws were not laws against recreational use, but pharmacy laws that made it restricted certain substances determined to be dangerous. These laws, the results of political lobbying to deal with a social problem, made such restrictions acceptable. From that point, the definition of “danger” expanded from the potential of death, to the potential for serious damage, to the potential for dependency. The precedent for national drug regulation, then, was set in the pharmacy acts, which were a combination of professional pressure and social concern over access to poisonous substances.
I also challenge a dominant and reductionist narrative that the opium acts of the early 1900s were simply attacks on Chinese people in Canada. This argument misses the power of the idea that drugs were a problem. When William Lyon MacKenzie King argued, in his preamble to the 1908 report encouraging parliament to create the Opium Act, that opium’s “baneful influences” were “too well known to require comment” he was channeling that broader concern based upon the familiarity of most Canadians with the challenges of opium as a medicine and a habit-forming drug. He himself had experience of these baneful influences in his personal life, and most Canadians probably knew someone who had an opium habit. Most had probably consumed opium at some point. To reduce this to an attack on the Chinese is simply a distortion of the past, often for current political reasons. Moreover, the same session of parliament that passed the Opium Act also passed a Proprietary and Patent Medicines Act, dealing with another significant drug problem. This book springs from that contention that reducing the drug laws to racist reactionism doesn’t do the story justice, nor does it help us understand the complexity of our drug laws in general, and the challenges of reforming them.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
It’s the same page length as my first book even though it’s much longer, but took less time to write. Figure that out.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
One thing I was never able to do due to the sheer volume of material and time it would take was track the changes in prescribing patterns as different laws came into effect. I have a database of probably hundreds of thousands of prescriptions from pharmacy records that span various provincial and federal law changes, and I wonder if those laws, restricting access to substances like opium, affected the way doctors prescribed, or the way customers purchased (or pharmacists dispensed). I suspect it did, but without a massive team, grant, and hiccup in space/time, I won’t be able to do that.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?