Innocent Addicts, Dope Fiends and Nefarious Traffickers: Illegal Drug Use in 1920s English Canada

By Carstairs, Catherine | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Innocent Addicts, Dope Fiends and Nefarious Traffickers: Illegal Drug Use in 1920s English Canada


Carstairs, Catherine, Journal of Canadian Studies


Canada's first widespread moral panic about drug use occurred in the 1920s. This paper argues that a new language of drug use was constructed to create this panic and shows how the "narratives of narcoticism" were influenced by gender, race and class. It concludes that these imaginary tales had a significant impact on drug legislation and on the lives of drug users.

La premiere panique morale d'envergure concernant la consommation de drogues date des armies 1920. Cet article soutient que le nouveau langage de l'utilisation de drogues fut elabore afin de generer cette panique. Cette etude montre aussi la fa,con dont les "recits de narcoticisme" etaient influences par le genre sexue, la race et la classe. L'essai conclut que ces recits imaginaires ont eu une incidence importante sur la legislation des drogues et sur la vie des usagers de drogues.

In 1929 the Canadian Home Journal, one of Canada's best-selling magazines, published the following scenario. In a public dance hall, a girl is seen sitting out a dance, and a slightly older woman saunters over to ask why she is not dancing. The girl explains that her head aches a bit. "Too bad to sit out" the woman sympathises and suggests that she takes some of her headache tablets. The girl gratefully accepts and takes the pills, which look just like aspirin. They make her feel better immediately. The next night the same woman offers her more and suggests that she might want to purchase some. In no time at all, the maiden has become a helpless victim of "drug addiction disease." She sinks into the treacherous underworld, where prostitution, venereal disease and miscegenation are her likely fate.' Drug use was one of the most widely discussed social issues of the 1920s. Canada's major periodicals fed the country's first drug panic by running numerous articles that featured young women who naively stepped into the trap of the drug traffickers. This paper explores how the Canadian media created an imaginary world of drug use in the 1920s, populated by "dope fiends," "innocent addicts" and "nefarious traffickers." These popular narratives were effective because they successfully encapsulated the social anxieties and tensions of the day. Journalists and reformers linked drug use to every social evil including prostitution, venereal disease, miscegenation, eugenic decline, poor mothering and deficient manhood. The 1920s were characterised by racial prejudice, firm ideas about appropriate social roles for men and women and class divisions. Media stories about drugs and drug users reflected these social prejudices and practices and reinforced them in new ways.

Churches, community service groups, women's organisations and labour unions repeated these narratives of drug use and enlisted each other in the campaign to eradicate the "drug evil." In Vancouver, thousands of people attended public meetings and signed petitions asking for stricter drug laws. The Social Service Organisation of Canada, the National Council of Women of Canada and the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada all called for stronger measures against the drug traffic. Parliamentarians readily passed new laws against drug use, often with little debate.2 Popular narratives of drug use therefore had an important impact on how Canadians understood drug use, and on the way police officers, lawyers, judges and doctors treated drug users.3

Politicians, journalists and reformers conceived of drug use as a profoundly moral issue and drew on traditions of nineteenth-century melodrama to create their exciting tales. The three major characters of the drug narratives of the 1920s were creatively bricolaged from the imageries of older panics about white slavery, venereal disease and vice-ridden Orientals. Traffickers were the villains. They were destroyers of youth and innocence, the most evil characters one could imagine. They were usually said to be Asian. The "innocent addict" powerfully represented the danger of the drug traffic. …

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