Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China

By Wagner, Doug | Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China


Wagner, Doug, Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education


Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs In China

by Frank Dikotter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun (2004) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Reading newspapers, magazines or journals, you cannot help but recognize that the discipline of psychology, particularly the mental health and drug/alcohol treatment fields, is filled with skepticism about its own existing practices. Although there is no public outcry, for several years social scientists have called for proof of successful treatments whether from the use of psychoactive medications or more traditional forms of counseling/psychotherapy. Another critical approach would be to look at the societal and political practices that contribute to mental disturbances and drug/ alcohol consumption. In that tradition comes Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs In China. A caveat for anyone who wishes to draw upon the past, though, is that one must distinguish the use of history to understand the past from the attempt to reform present practices.

Either way, the past still haunts us. For instance, current efforts in America to allow marijuana use for medical purposes generate opposition from those who view such a strategy as a slippery slope that will lead to greater permissiveness of the primary illegal drugs heroin and cocaine. Images at the end of that slope point back to the view of the evil of opium that ravaged the Chinese at the end of the 19th century: an image of emaciated, intoxicated people incapacitated into helplessness. Authors Frank Dikotter, Lars Laamann and Zhou Xun, (their very names indicate their cultural background which suggests a worldly perspective) inspect that image and find it more mythical than actual. Specifically the conditions that created those emaciated people did not originate with opium, but rather with poverty and starvation. They challenge "the image of China as a victim of the opium plague by documenting that in most cases habitual opium use did not have significant harmful effects on either health or longevity." Even more, they contend that moderate smoking might have been better understood as a "remarkable panacea in the fight against a wide range of ailments before the advent of modern medications." Neither contention should be too surprising to most medical authorities, as not long after its discovery in 1803, morphine was given the initials 'G.O.M.,' signifying "God's own Medicine." Opium's contribution to the reduction of pain and its absence of harm to the body was understood by the late 19th century. In fact, the premises brought to this study reflect the current, scholarly view for understanding the complexity of drug effects. Comprehending drug use, that is the multitude drug effects, the importance of the environment where consumed and the unique effects for each user generally influenced by the attitudes about the drug has become a working premise for most scholars in drug/alcohol fields.

Opium was available throughout the world by the end of the nineteenth century. Other peoples used it as extensively as the Chinese. Adding to the mythical perception of the Chinese and opium was a lack of recognizing the social and cultural practices related not to misuse but use of opium. Presenting a wide range of evidence the authors found "that opium was used by many people in moderate quantities: the relative absence of problematic users--rather than a proliferation of 'drug fiends'--is the most striking feature of narcotic culture in late imperial China." As the authors point out, the revival in drug studies by historians and sociologists has been toward a "consumer-centered approach." No longer do social scientists begin with the premise that users necessarily become addicts, but "see them rather as complex human beings whose social consequences should be the main focus of attention if we are to understand substance-influenced behavior."

Unfortunately, policy-makers and treatment professionals have not given such works much attention. …

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