Opinion: Heroin’s history provides lessons for today

In the late 1800s, a flood of Chinese workers entered the United States to help with the construction of railroads, working longer, more dangerous and lower-paying jobs than white workers. But when the railroads were completed, white Americans grew afraid that the Chinese immigrants — who needed other jobs — would push them out of employment. This resulted in a backlash of anti-Chinese racism, which culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that banned Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S.

Around the same time, Britain wanted to trade with China, but China didn’t want to buy much of anything Britain had to sell. So when Britain realized that Chinese customers were willing to purchase opium, they began importing it from their colonies in India and exporting it to China. The U.S., who also wanted what China had to offer, started importing opium from other countries and exporting it to China as well.

While Americans profited from opium addiction in China, they also used it to fuel racist stereotypes against Chinese workers. Tabloids and political cartoons depicted Chinese immigrants as opium addicts who lured white women into opium dens. The government responded by banning the smoking of opium in 1875. Other preparations derived from opium, such as morphine and laudanum, remained legal — and were more commonly used by upper-class whites.

When heroin was first developed in 1895, it was marketed as a non-addictive alternative to morphine. As we know now, this is not the case. As hospitals began to fill up with heroin-addicted patients, Americans began to recognize that heroin addiction was a serious problem. Heroin was subsequently banned in 1924.

Some people kept using heroin anyway. Because selling heroin could no longer take place in legal markets, it became the province of organized crime syndicates, who began marketing it to black Americans. In the 1920s, a thriving community of black intellectuals sprang up in Harlem, New York. Some of them experimented with heroin, which further increased the false perception that heroin addiction was predominantly associated with black people.

The 1960s were a time of great social upheaval, where movements against war and for racial and gender equality shaped American politics. A conservative backlash ensued, and conservative politicians were happy to use countercultural youths’ openness toward drug use against them.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” admitted John Ehrlichman, an adviser to former president Richard Nixon, in an interview for Harper’s Magazine. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Today, heroin use has risen sharply among white people. While stereotypes about addiction, poverty, and Appalachia still taint public perception of the epidemic, it has been received with relative sympathy. And sympathy for addicts is undoubtedly helpful. But it needs to be accompanied by an understanding of how our punitive drug laws came about, and a willingness to extend similar standards to similar situations. Today, Latin Americans face many of the same stereotypes that Chinese workers in 1875 dealt with. As we work toward the repeal of laws put in place for unjust reasons, we should also be alert for sensationalism and stereotypes in our current political discourse.