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What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part I: Miriam Kingsberg Kadia

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. First up is Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (2014). Her piece critiques the sloppy and often simply false way “knowledge” about drugs is presented from “authoritative” sources, particularly the D.E.A. museum in Washington, D.C. Contact the author at

What Historians Wish the DEA Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Museum in Pentagon City, Washington, D.C. depicts the history of the narcotics market and U.S. government efforts to counteract it. The exhibition currently on display was created under the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009) yet reflects the view of the new Trump administration: that mind-altering substances are (and have always been) a “foreign” problem and threat to an imagined ideal of “Americanness.”

The opening placard reads:

During the 18th century, the Chinese began smoking first a mixture of tobacco and opium, and then pure opium. The British, who had a huge trade imbalance with China, were delighted to finally find a highly popular commodity. But when the Chinese emperor realized that opium was incapacitating the upper sectors of society, he outlawed further trade. This sparked the Opium Wars of 1840 and 1860. Britain won both and forced China to make opium legal. Addiction became widespread in the Celestial Kingdom and sparked resentment among the Chinese. This began the modern pleasure drug culture.

Ignoring opium’s long history in the West, this paragraph traces the origins of the drug to China. Overlooking the social role of opium as well as local attempts to suppress it, the museum represents the Qing empire as a passive victim of British aggression (a historiographical convention long since abandoned by Asianists). The museum also presents two problematic constructs—“addiction” and the “modern pleasure drug culture”—without reflection. The relatively frequent incidence of “addiction” in common parlance often blinds us to the fact that it is a poorly and variably defined term too laden with normative baggage to be useful in historical analysis. Meanwhile, the concept of a modern pleasure drug culture rests on an implicit binary between “acceptable” medical use and “illegitimate” recreational use. As scholars have pointed out, this divide emerges not from any objective “facts,” but rather from power and ideology. And what, exactly, is “modern” about the use of intoxicants?

Incidentally, the museum provides incorrect dates for the Opium Wars, which took place from 1839-1842 and 1856-1860.

The material quoted above serves as background for a discussion of the transmission of opium to the United States, straightforwardly articulated in terms of the “yellow peril” hypothesis (that is, the longstanding idea that China and the Chinese are a racial threat to (white) American institutions, values, and society):

When Chinese immigrants came to California in the 1850s to work in gold mines and then the railroads, they brought opium smoking with them. It would be another twenty years before the “sporting” classes—gamblers, prostitutes, actors—began to join them. As more and more Americans patronized opium dens and became addicted, communities responded with alarm and concern, especially when women and young people were among the curious. Cities and then states began passing anti-drug laws. Opium use spread steadily east, until by the 1890s, opium dens were commonplace in American life.

As historians such as Virginia Berridge and David Courtwright have shown, opium use was well entrenched in Europe and the United States long before large-scale Chinese migration beyond Asia. In fact, the laudanum and “soothing syrups” that were widely consumed at all levels of Western society were far more intoxicating than the opium commonly smoked in China. It might also be noted that the volume of opium exported from the U.S. to China dwarfed opposite flows, as American traffickers came to replace their British counterparts in the trade following the Second Opium War. (The Astor, Forbes, and Delano family fortunes, for example, may all be traced to the sale of narcotics to China.)

Under these circumstances, the association of opium with the Chinese in the U.S. mindset rested not on the actual prevalence of drug use among Chinese in or beyond China. Rather, for antebellum white nativists, opium constituted a visible marker of Otherness and a means of transferring the stigma of drugs to an entire group of people. Implicitly endorsing this mentality, the museum presents several period images of “dens” (a problematic term suggesting underground vice) peopled with recumbent individuals with Asian features, clad in traditional attire and holding long pipes.

Following this presentation on the origins of U.S. narcotic culture, the remainder of the DEA museum continues to depict illegal substances as a foreign issue. America’s so-called “drug problem” is attributed to external sources including the “French Connection,” the Vietnam War, Columbian cartels, Mexican border couriers, and the Taliban. To protect the domestic population from these menaces, the DEA is said to have worked “tirelessly and heroically.” Under a xenophobic, conservative presidency, the dangers of this narrative of drugs as an alien threat to national “morality” can hardly be overstated.

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