Source: William Hogarth – Beer Street and Gin Lane

During the Enlightenment period, Opium use was popular in Britain. It was prescribed for several illnesses including colds, anxiety, and stomach pains. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was not associated with criminality or misconduct (Davenport-Hines, 2012). As the century progressed its recreational use grew amongst wealthy youths, who saw it as a rite of passage. Chinese opium dens and brothels were popular locations to acquire morphine or opium leading the drugs to acquire a sexual reputation. Even after the British government introduced the Pharmacy Act of 1868, those with money had no issue acquiring Opium (Davenport-Hines, 2012). In 1906, the House of Commons resolved the Indo-Chinese opium trade telling the Bannerman government to bring it to a close (Davenport-Hines, 2012, p. 129). The Indian government reluctantly agreed to reduce cultivation, and a Chinese edict was passed to aid the reduction in opium cultivation but this proved to be futile (Davenport-Hines, 2012).

When the use of the drug trickled down to the working class, the image associated with opium use began to change. Opium houses in the USA, Europe, and Australia were represented as haunts of prostitution where Chinese men seduced middle-class white girls, and white prostitutes went to turn tricks (Davenport-Hines, 2012, p. 112) Class distinctions were sustained in judgements about addicts. One English physician condemned poor addicts but excused those ‘among the middle classes of society, who result to the use of opium, under the pressure of severe mental distress’ (Davenport-Hines, 2012, p. 70).

The use of opiates by the working class coincided with the growth of the prohibition movement led by America. First journalists published exaggerated stories to sell newspapers, followed by the destruction of opium houses, and farms in the Philippines invasion. Few US states in 1900 confined the availability of opiates and cocaine to prescription, but by 1912 every state except Delaware had laws controlling them. Around 1900, in the USA, morphine had apparently supplanted opium-smoking as the most prevalent illicit drug habit. But after 1910 heroin came to the fore. The rise of heroin addiction in the USA is attributable to legislative measures directed against illicit or recreational drug use (Davenport-Hines, 2012, p. 134). The USA then when on to attempt lobbying other governments to end global drug consumption. Representatives from Austria, Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, Siam and the USA attended the Shanghai conference to discuss Far Eastern opiate consumption, and support Chinese measures to suppress opium smoking. This was the first diplomatic recognition of the need for international cooperation to prevent drug trafficking (Davenport-Hines, 2012, p.  131). The conference laid the way for the International Opium Convention of The Hague, 1912. Since Afghanistan was not mentioned in the Shanghai convention it can be assumed that opium cultivation was modest (UNODC, 2009b).  The Hague International Opium Convention created the first international drug treaty, implemented in 1915 it was then incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. By 1949, 67 countries had signed and ratified The Hague treaty (UNODC, 2009a).

In the UK, Heroin did not initially lead to widespread addiction because doctors had become cautious in regards to prescribing opiates. Even when heroin was prescribed, it was prescribed in a pill form (rather than injected) which did not leave the patient as susceptible to developing an addiction (Davenport-Hines, 2012). 1950’s Britain saw an increase in the number of heroin users, many were jazz musicians or visitors to Jazz bars. These newer, younger addicts increasingly gravitated to the West End of London where a small number of general practitioners were becoming known as ‘junky doctors’ because of their willingness to prescribe (Yates, 2002, p. 115). The media was increasingly reporting on the heroin epidemic, and its spread from the rich to the ‘wayward youth’. Law changes such as the Dangerous Drugs Act 1967, and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 led to no changes for heroin because a black market had already been established (Yates, 2002). The number of heroin users continued to grow throughout the 1970’s when the Punk movement switched from sniffing solvents to using heroin (Savage, 1992). With the emergence of HIV/AIDs in the mid-1980’s injecting drug users were called on to abstain from use as so not to spread the disease. By the 1990s, heroin use had increased to levels perhaps 10 or 20 times greater than during the 1970’s leading to the rise being dubbed an epidemic. Throughout the 90’s the number of heroin addicts in the UK continued to rise (Home Office, 2014).

Imported heroin has historically been historically available in Europe in two forms, the more common of these is brown heroin (its chemical based form), originating mainly from Afghanistan. Far less common is white heroin (salt for), which historically came from South-East Asian, but now may also be produced in Afghanistan- or in neighbouring countries. 14 new synthetic opioids have been reported since 2005 (EMCDDA, 2015, p. 24). In Europe, there are 1.3 million problem opioid users, opiates were also the principal drug in 41% of all drug treatment requests in the European Union (EMCDDA, 2015, p. 15).

By Shaneka Knight

Instagram: Shaneka Knight



Davenport-Hines, R. (2012). The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs. Retrieved from:

European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction. (2015). European Drug Report. Retrieved from [Accessed 07/02/2017].

Home Office. (2014). The heroin epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s and its effect on crime trends -then and now. Retrieved from: [Accessed 06/02/2017].

Savage, J. (1992). England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, punk rock and beyond. St Martin’s Press: New York.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2009a). The 1912 Hague International Opium Convention. Retrieved from: [Accessed: 06/02/2017].

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2009b). This day in history: The Shanghai Opium Commission, 1909. Retrieved from: [Accessed 06/02/2017].

Yates, R. (2002). A Brief History of British Drug Policy, 1950-2001. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, 9(2), 113-124. Doi: 10.1080/09687630110118478.


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