Opium den 1920’s New York.
The idea of an opium den operating somewhat openly in towns and cities around the world is seen as scary by many people nowadays, as the war on drugs put the fear of violent junkies in our minds.
But by the mid-19th century opium dens had become a quite common, and somewhat normalized, part of city life- that nobody ever wanted to talk about.
So opium dens operated freely, albeit discreetly, and they let anyone with the coin of the realm lie back and ride the dragon in the safety of their pillow-laden pad:
From the 1850s on, the opium den spread across the world as a seedy place of refuge for commoner and lord. In Europe opium was viewed as a potentially liberating and creative touchstone. In America, it was seen as an evil and degenerate drug that led to vice, squalor, poverty, madness and death.
However, it should be noted that when the use of opium and the opium den was most prevalent or most virulent—depending on your view—that both America and Europe were at the peak of an industrial, social and cultural revolution. Opium did not appear to make people slackers. Even a fictional hero like Sherlock Holmes indulged in the occasional pipe—all in the line of duty, of course.
Photographer Brassaï kicking back in a Parisian opium den circa 1931
Opium should have been considered the ultimate gateway drug to the Reefer Madness crowd rather than pot, because ordinary folks who came for the opium high often gave up the rest of their lives to the needle when morphine and heroin took over:
By the 1900s, the opium den was no longer quite so ubiquitous. There were dens still to be found in most cosmopolitan cities like New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris, but opium was now mainly a fashionable prop for the bohemian, artistic, and literary class to indulge. Those who wanted a real kick sought opium in other forms—first as morphine then as heroin.
In a rather horrific twist of fate, morphine was originally considered to be the cure for opium addiction. In the late nineteenth century, morphine pills were introduced to China to help cure opium addicts. These pills were called “Jesus opium” as they were given out by missionaries. This “cure” was also sold in America right up until the 1906 U.S. Pure Food and Drug Addict which meant drug content had to be specified and banned the sale of products with false claims.