125th Anniversary of the First U.S. Anti-Drug Law:
San Francisco's Opium Den Ordinance (Nov. 15, 1875)

NOVEMBER, 2000: This month marks the 125th anniversary of a dubious first: the nation's first anti-drug law.** On November 15, 1875, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to keep or frequent opium dens, the opening shot in a war that is still raging on.

The ordinance was aimed specifically at Chinese smoking opium, not at the medicinal opium regularly consumed by whites. The Chinese had brought smoking opium with them in the earliest days of the gold rush. The habit caused little offense at first, until anti-Chinese sentiment swept the state in the mid-1870s.

The city fathers were particularly incensed to find "that there are within three blocks of the City Hall eight opium smoking establishments, kept by Chinese, for the exclusive use of white men and women; that these places are patronized not only by the vicious and depraved, but are nightly resorted to by young men and women of respectable parentage; (and) that unless this most dangerous species of dissipation can be stopped in its inception, there is great danger that it will become one of the prevalent vices of the city."

Other towns with Chinese communities quickly followed suit: Virginia City, Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland. In 1881, the legislature enacted a statewide ban of its own. In defense of the measure, State Sen. Grove Johnson (father of the reform governor, Hiram Johnson) re-assured lawmakers that it was as much anti-Chinese legislation as anything else they had passed.

Despite widespread antipathy to the dens, the scope of the laws was surprisingly modest. Only public sales, not private use, were restricted. In the Victorian era, it was widely assumed that the law could not prevent folks from using drugs in private. " To prohibit vice is not ordinarily considered within the police power of the state," asserted the state Supreme Court in an 1887 opium case (In re Sic), "The object of the police power is to protect rights from the assaults of others, not to banish sin from the world or make men moral."

The effect of the law was not to eliminate the dens, but rather force them underground. A group of Chinese smoking together might easily evade the law so long as whites were not present (in which case, of course, the gathering would presumably be non-private). The dens continued as a vice industry and source of graft for the rest of the century. There were said to be 3 - 4,000 white and 10 - 15,000 Chinese habitués in the city in the mid-1880s. A list of known dens was published in the San Francisco Municipal Register. They even became a featured attraction on Chinatown tours, where sinister-looking Orientals were hired to stage fake scenes of turpitude for the titillation of tourists.

It wasn't long before the city fathers began to harbor second thoughts. Clearly it was futile to prohibit the traffic entirely. San Francisco was the major port of entry for smoking opium throughout the U.S. The Supervisors therefore decided to enact a license fee on wholesale opium dealers , while leaving the retail trade illegal. The fee was collected for a single year and fell into desuetude.

The situation finally changed with the rise of the modern prohibition movement after the turn of the century. Led by the state Board of Pharmacy, California enacted a sweeping anti-narcotics law that outlawed all non-prescription sales of opium and cocaine in 1907. Invoking the modern tactics of drug enforcement, the Board began dispatching agents and informants around the state to bust unsuspecting offenders. In 1912, the Board staged a gigantic opium paraphernalia bonfire in the heart of Chinatown. This broke the back of the smoking opium culture. Henceforth, addicts would turn to morphine and later heroin, which were harder to detect.

Seen in retrospect, the opium den era was remarkably benign. Opium smokers were notably more peaceable than drunks. The dens accounted for just a few misdemeanor arrests per week. Offenders typically paid a fine; only a handful went to jail. There were no complaints of dealers in the streets, and drug-related violence was unknown. Drug possession was perfectly legal.

The situation deteriorated as modern prohibition took hold. Drug crime became an institution. Attitudes against addicts hardened. Although the Board had originally intended sending addicts to hospitals for treatment, these plans fell by the wayside. Criminal penalties escalated until mere possession became a felony. The dismal legacy remains with us today. As of June, 2000, California had a record 45,437 drug felons in prison, 20,116 of them for simple possession.

Looking back, it's hard to escape the conclusion that 20th-century drug laws have failed. The harder we fought to outlaw drugs, the worse the problem became. This election, Californians approved Prop. 36, mandating treatment instead of imprisonment for drug users, while Mendocino voters approved Measure G, to allow adult personal use of marijuana. Fortunately, there's no need to resurrect the opium dens; cannabis cafés would be better. But after 125 years, it's time to chart a new course.

- Dale Gieringer, November 2000

** FOOTNOTE: Before joining the U.S., the kingdom of Hawaii enacted various laws against Chinese opium smoking as early as 1856.