The country’s first war on drugs: SF vs. opium

San Francisco has always been a party town. A steady stream of wealth — whether from gold fields or Silicon Valley tech firms — has funded a freewheeling haven for imbibers.

The City has also served as a laboratory for illegal drug use, including the LSD-fueled acid tests in the 1960s and more recently the country's first experiment with medical cannabis.

And San Francisco was also the scene of the country's first war on drugs, thanks to opium.

While less visible in media than tropes of “Cowboys and Indians,” skilled labor brought in from China built the transcontinental railroad, and Chinese-owned businesses and Chinese temples were staples of tiny shantytowns and big boom cities alike from Canada to Mexico.

The Chinese also brought with them the habit of smoking opium. Viewed as distasteful back at home in China, recreational opium use was condoned to a degree in the U.S. For one, importing the narcotic was legal. An 1869 San Francisco Examiner story on the country's trade deficit with China noted that 286,000 taels of opium (a tael is about 36.7 grams) along with 22.3 million pounds of rice had been brought into the country from China that year.

And in an era when wanton drunkenness and violence were regular occurrences, opium use was often looked at by white authorities as preferable to either prostitution or whiskey — the latter of which, largely shunned by the Chinese, was condemned by several doctors and preachers as the substance most destructive to society.

Opium smoking was also not limited to the Chinese. Contemporary reports noted that white people, including white women of upper- and middle-class means, went to Chinatown to buy opium.

That was part of the problem. But opium's real undoing was a campaign of virulent racism that had its roots in an economic crisis.

In the 1860s, Chinese immigration was a hot topic in the pages of The Examiner, but not due to xenophobia. Instead, the paper questioned and criticized the “coolie” system that allowed Chinatown's powerful Six Companies (which are still active today) to import labor so cheap it was basically free; “slaves” by any other name, the newspaper opined.

China itself was granted some respect. An 1869 front-page story gave serious consideration to the theory — still controversial today — that it was the Chinese, and not Columbus, who first “discovered” North America.

That respect faded by the time the economic crisis of the 1870s hit, with workers of all races losing their jobs. Civic leaders blamed the estimated 41,000 Chinese people in California for stealing white people's jobs.

The Examiner was an eager cheerleader of this sentiment, important enough to transcend even the barrier between white and black people in the years following the Civil War.

By the 1880s, headlines warning of “The Chinese Evil” and “The Chinese Invasion” were regular front-page features, along with stories warning of the threat posed by “opium dens.”

An 1882 story, in which an Examiner reporter went “undercover” in Chinatown to expose “the Asiatic vice,” provides details on what the paper called “The Opium Curse.”

“In a basement underneath 411 Commercial Street,” the reporter stumbled upon “[t]wo white girls, neither of whom were over 17 years of age, and a pair of tough looking hoodlums as ever graced a Sunday picnic, were stretched out on wooden bunks, scarce relieved from total bareness by a strip of cheap matting. All four were well nigh intoxicated from the effect of the drug, and as the attendant Chinaman kindly explained, they were frequenters of the place.”

The newspaper agitated constantly for Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a first-of-its-kind federal ban on Chinese laborers. That law also banned the importation of raw opium.

It was The City that first tried — and failed — to snuff out drug use with law enforcement. An 1875 law passed by the Board of Supervisors made it a misdemeanor to “keep or frequent opium dens.” This was the very first anti-drug legislation in the country, according to Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML. It also didn't work. An account from the 1890s reported “at least 300” opium dens in Chinatown.

It took the 1906 earthquake and fire to rid old Chinatown of most of its opium dens, but even that disaster could not eliminate the drug or its users.

The following year, the California Board of Pharmacy outlawed nonprescription sales of opium (and cocaine). In Chinatown, board agents staged frequent raids of suspected opium dens and retailers. Discovered stashes of pipes and opium were burned on the street in massive public spectacles.

That did enough to drive what was left of opium smoking culture permanently underground. But by that time, there were other drug scourges, also associated with minority populations, and The Examiner was busy printing warnings of the threat posed by Mexican “locoweed,” or “marihuana.”

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