The Beginnings Of Widespread Opium Use In The US

(From): “Opium & The Opium Appetite” by Alonzo Calkins, 1870

Ed. Note: This short chapter begins Dr. Calkins’ in-depth discussion of Opium use in the US in the 1800’s. Please keep in mind that when he wrote in 1870 a lot of what we see today was still in its infancy. For example, the Cocaine addiction epidemic of the 1880’s and 90’s was barely underway, and while Opium was beginning to become well-entrenched,  Morphine and Heroin addiction were just getting started. The US was still largely a frontier nation in 1870 but, as Dr. Calkins notes, Opium use was becoming common even in the remote wide open spaces of the American West. And, as you can see from one of the graphics in this post, some of today’s Pig Pharma companies were hard at work addicting people even 150 years ago.

Chapter III: The Opium Record For The United States

“Nee vates Helenus, quum multa horrenda canebat, Hos mihi praedixit luctus, non dira Celseno” – Virgil.

“If the trumpet utter an indistinct sound, who shall equip himself for the campaign?” – St. Paul.

The Height Of Fashionable Recreation

For the Western hemisphere as well as for the Far East, India is the great storehouse, our own supplies being procured mediately, and through English marts. Disturbances in trade incident to the Rebellion did not materially embarrass the commerce in opium. For the present duties are, on opium, $2.50 per pound, $2.50 the ounce on morphine, and on smoking opium and the extract 100 percent ad valorem; and, as for prices, they have been doubled twice over. In 1869 opium went up for awhile to $17.50 the pound, and morphine to $11.50 per ounce.

But we have not wound up the log-reel yet. Excessive cost has given a powerful impetus to stealthy contrivances in evasion of law. In the opinion of Mr. D. C. Robbins (a prominent importing druggist of New York), expressed after careful inquiry and consultation, there should be added to the customs returns, at the lowest, 25,000 pounds. The number of China Coolies resident on the Pacific frontier (1867) is rated by Cronise, upon a semi-official estimate, at 60,000 – almost all adult males. For several years there have been made for this class express importations of the smoking-opium. The amount for 1867 was 50,550 pounds, representing in equivalency 92,250 pounds of solid opium. The cost of such importation was in 1860 (the first year) $280,000; in 1867, $374,000. An addition to the custom-house entries of ten percent, to be credited to smuggling, would be a good deal within the mark unquestionably; for every month about there is a fresh immigration of Coolies into San Francisco, who invent all sorts of ingenious contrivances to get within the gate of their El Dorado, without challenge from scrutinizing tide-waiters.

In the summer of 1869 there was discovered, among the personnel of a newly-arrived shipload, an amount liable to confiscation which at auction brought $15,000. Another seizure, made about a year after, netted two-thirds as much. Such are but specimens of what are liable to be repeated, on every monthly arrival. The dutiable amount, with the ten percent added, makes a daily ration of 24 grains, equal to 1/2 of a drachm of crude opium for every pigtail of their number, the year round.

Opium eating, viewed as a national habit, may be reckoned to have taken its departure from 1840. At this time opium was still on the free-list, and prices ranged low, but for all, the importation was very moderate, simply sufficing for outside legitimate call. Estimated upon such basis, the equivalent for 1867 is 53,000 pounds, leaving an overplus of 93,000 pounds, an excess of 75 percent upon that number altogether unaccounted for.

Another exhibit

Upon a comparison of opinions entertained by eighteen prominent apothecaries of New York City, as ascertained through individual and independent inquiry, half of the opium sold by retailers would cover all the prescriptions of physicians proper; and 5 percent besides, excepted from the entire as an extra allowance for the various nostrums afloat, would be liberal and abundant, as is thought. In this connection it should be distinctly understood, that while the therapeutic value of opium, after a more discriminating experience, has suffered no abatement in the estimation of the Profession, the totality of prescriptions, nevertheless, is proportionately less than as was twenty years ago. Upon this last basis the excess is 146,000 (less the ten percent.

Take now the population for 1867, 37,000,000, upon which abate 10% in consideration of frontiersmen and immigrants, for Bourbon mountain-dew (not the elixirs with other fastidious luxuries) it is the choice of the pioneer tracks of the ruder civilizations — and of the remainder, reckon ye as constituting the number past the 25th year (for at an earlier age instances of the habit commenced are rare), the final number is 9,250,000 persons among whom this 78,400 pounds is to be distributed for the purposes of stimulation.

Such statistics, fully presented, bear no equivocal interpretation. But there are, besides, independent and collateral evidences here and there cropping out, which evince the fact that the opium mania, far from being restricted within the purlieus of our cities and rural centres, is fast pervading the country populations. Scarcely a village or a hamlet is to be excepted as unrepresented by its two classes of inebriates, the devotees to alcoholics and the more miserable slaves to opium. Turn whichever way, you will come upon the druggists by twos or tens with their lists (provided they do not set face against applicants); and as for the doctors, they could tell ugly tales, but that silence – “expressive silence” it may be – is written on their foreheads.

Dr. Barnes of Ohio has expressed the opinion, that for his section more deaths are traceable to opium as their remote cause than, to the alcoholic crudities so freely in use. Dr. Palmer of Ontario has among his notes of practice the names of above a hundred patients, without counting such as came to his knowledge by simple hearsay, invalids from such enslavement.

Thus addresses the writer, a physician and druggist of a New England city, Dr. S. S.:

“In this town I began business twenty years since. The population, then at 10,000, has increased only inconsiderably, but my sales have advanced from 50 pounds of opium the first year to 300 pounds now; and of laudanum four times upon what was formerly required. About 50 regular purchasers come to my shop, and as many more, perhaps, are divided among the other three apothecaries in the place. Small country dealers also have their quotas of dependents.”

Such is no solitary record.

In the Portland Press, 1868, a correspondent sounds the alarm-note in these words: “Very few of our people are aware how many habitual consumers of opium among us a careful scrutiny would disclose. In the little village of Auburn (of the neighborhood) at least fifty such (as counted up by a resident apothecary) regularly purchase their supplies hereabouts; and the country grocers, too, not a few of them, find occasion for keeping themselves supplied with a stock.”

Corroborative accounts come in from New Jersey and Indiana, from Boston at one extreme and from St. Louis at another, and from the impoverished South as well. In the Mississippi Valley particularly the use of stimuli of every name is fearfully on the increase (Pitcher, Comstock).

Our asylums for inebriates have their representatives also, though the numbers here are no proper index of the real proportions, for but a minimum portion of the patients of this class are disposed to undergo any regular disciplinary treatment whatever. From a report of Binghamton for 1864, it appears that out of 7,245 applicants that year, 520 of them, or 14 percent had been prostrated either by opium alone, or by this and liquor conjoined. Indeed, among the older settlements, it might be difficult to find a section of territory with a radius of five miles only that could not make a show of victims.

Such announcements, no figments of conjecture or barren conclusion, are rather monitory reflexes of pregnant truths. They cannot be wisely overlooked as being mere coincidences; do they not rather hold among themselves the more determinate and permanent relationship of cause and sequence? – a question every way worthy a most scrutinizing elimination.

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