San Francisco's First Drug War

“It was stated the other day, before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, that as many as eight Chinese opium smoking houses had been fitted up in that city for the use of white men and women, and the announcement has created a good deal of discussion, and elicited from the press recommendations for the suppression of these places.

“We are inclined to doubt whether the spread of the opium habit can be checked in this way. Opium smoking is a species of intoxication, and legislation has certainly not proved effective in dealing with vices of that kind.” — Sacramento Daily Record, Nov. 20, 1875

San Francisco sometimes lives up to its own hype. The city was indeed an “innovator” well before the tech boom's addiction to buzzwords hijacked the term. It was here that the war on drugs began.

From the beginning, San Francisco served as a hub for a legitimate international drug trade. But when city fathers saw fit, San Francisco was also the first municipality in the United States to try — and fail — to put a stop to it via prohibition and police.

This is a worthwhile story to revisit today, as the city and state struggle to figure out what to do with the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry (in San Francisco, it's alternating between ignoring and hampering it, while collecting tax dollars; other places in California, like San Mateo County, have imposed blanket bans on taxpaying marijuana businesses).

And in a twist, the people today who are least likely to appreciate a cannabis dispensary in their neighborhoods — the Chinese — were the direct targets of that first front in the country's long and bitter battle with drugs.

Cannabis was here early on — newspaper ads from the 1860s offer “hasheesh” confections, ideal for the “Debilitated, Hypochrondriac sufferer… in need of an invigorator, pleasant and harmless.” But the first popular drug to appear in San Francisco, after whiskey and tobacco, was opium.

This is credited to Chinese immigrants who, in addition to providing the labor that constructed the Transcontinental Railroad, also helped to build the West. That is literal: Nearly every settlement from Mexico to Canada had at least one Chinese merchant during the late 1800s.

While it's accepted that opium smoking arrived with the first wave of Chinese immigrants, it's doubtful that the first opium smokers in America were Chinese; sailors from ships on the Canton route surely observed and picked up the habit.

It's also unclear exactly how popular the habit was. After China's loss of treasure, land, and sovereignty to Britain after the Opium Wars, the drug had fallen out of favor. Some contemporary accounts guessed about a third of the 41,000 Chinese immigrants in California used the drug — but it was also popular with whites, for whom there were eight opium establishments, “exclusively” for their use, within a few blocks of City Hall.

The drug was not unwelcome. It was one of the few painkillers available to a Civil War-era surgeon. Opium also meant trade. By 1870, San Francisco customs officials reported annual imports of 24,000 pounds of opium from China. And compared to the masses' preferred drug — then alcohol — opium was seen by many doctors and ministers as a lesser or even preferable evil.

Early opium “enforcement” amounted to consumer protection: A newspaper account reported a white man in trouble with the law for trying to sell bunk opium to a Chinese person.

The Chinese themselves were coolly accepted, too. (At the time, the San Francisco Examiner was just as likely to run a story pondering the “Mormon Question” as it was the “Chinese question.”) But that changed with an economic crisis. An extended boom in railroad building and investment, partially supported by public dollars, proved unsustainable. Banks that had invested in railroads failed. That put factory workers and tradesmen out of work — and in direct competition with Chinese labor brought here cheaply by Chinatown's controlling Six Companies via the “coolie” system.

Overnight, anti-Chinese sentiment was everywhere. Authorities began a crackdown on “Mongolian vices” of all kinds, including opium. That “young [white] men and women of respectable business avocations,” as the Examiner wrote, were susceptible to opium's effects helped whip up public furor, and led to the Board of Supervisors approving a ban on opium dens in 1875.

(It's worth noting that banning dens and not the drug itself was a transparently classist maneuver. The poor and middle-classes patronized dens; privileged people with opium habits smoked in the privacy of their expansive homes.)

As the Sacramento Union predicted, the ban was a spectacular failure.

A Chronicle account from the 1890s reported “hundreds” of opium dens in the city. It took the 1906 earthquake, when fires destroyed Chinatown along with much of the rest of the city, to eradicate the dens.

Meanwhile, a trend was born.

The state banned nonmedical sales of opium and cocaine in 1907. That ushered in the era of the drug raid. Agents from the newly formed California Board of Pharmacy, charged with enforcing the ban, burned seized pipes and opium stashes on the street in massive public spectacles. That drove the drug underground by the 1940s, when public officials had lost interest and were instead agitating about Mexican “locoweed.”

In that sense, San Francisco's opium war was a smashing success: it provided pretense for harassing the lower classes and people of color, a plan still followed today.

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