What to do about opium: fruits of the poppy challenged city fathers

According to the record, 56,542 pounds — that’s 28 tons — of opium were legally imported into B.C. in 1884 alone.

According to the record, 56,542 pounds — that’s 28 tons — of opium were legally imported into B.C. in 1884 alone.

We might think of drug abuse as being a modern phenomenon. In reality, it’s been around for a long, long time. Not much more than 100 years ago, opium dens not only existed in most B.C. cities, but they were legal — so long as they paid for their business licence — as was the use of opium.

This fact came under the scrutiny of Nanaimo city council in May1881 when the city fathers were revising licensing fees for various businesses. His Worship Mayor Mark Bate and Councillors Planta, Brinn, McNeil and Miller voted unanimously that retail liquor licences be set at $100 for six months, wholesale liquor licences at $25 for six months, and special liquor licences (the equivalent of today’s beer licence) at $10 for 48 hours. Six-month licences would cost billiard parlours, bowling alleys and skittle and rifle galleries $5.

So far so good. Consensus was lost, however, when they came to the matter of licensing dancing houses, the suggested $100 for six months failing approval “for the reason that it would legalize vice”. It got even stickier when they came to licensing opium traders.

Coun. J.P. Planta (whose day-job was as a magistrate) objected to the proposed $50 for six months, not on moral or legal grounds, but because experience had shown him that it was too hard to collect. He thought $25 might be more realistic. He said it was common knowledge that three opium houses operated in the city “but it was very difficult to catch them, and if brought into court would come prepared with a medical certificate from a so-called Chinese physician”. Rather than fight it, he proposed a less onerous $25 licence.

Coun. Miller, in seconding Planta’s motion, broadened it to include opium smokers — $5 for six months. Only Mayor Bate addressed the moral issue: he didn’t think it “right to legalize the sale of such a pernicious drug as opium”. This prompted Planta to state, obviously from his courtroom experience, that smoking opium was a habit; “while it [is] sometimes used as a medical remedy, it was more generally used as an intoxicating stimulant”. As such, he thought it should be taxed like any other stimulant.

Mayor Bate argued that a modest licence fee of $25 would attract other opium dealers to Nanaimo; why not limit the licence to registered medical practitioners only? He was overruled in the following vote which saw the $25 licence fee approved.

A week later, when council met again with Councillors Curry and Hirst also present to reconsider the licensing schedule, McNeil said that “owing to the dull times,” the liquor licence ought to be reduced. They were unanimous this time that dance houses (those dens of iniquity) be approved upon payment of $200 for six months. The final vote on opium trading saw the licence fee further reduced to $5! Even restaurants selling beer and porter with meals had to pay more.

According to the record, 56,542 pounds — that’s 28 tons — of opium were legally imported into B.C. in 1884 alone. In Victoria, opium dealers paid $500 for a business licence, making Nanaimo’s $25 fee for six months, or $50 per annum, indeed a bargain. Hence Bate’s concern that Nanaimo would attract dealers from afar was valid.

In May ‘84 the City of Victoria temporarily banned the sale of opium. Its concerns, like those of Nanaimo city council, were not based on moral, medical or legal grounds; unlike Nanaimo, however, it was part of a racially motivated crackdown on Chinese immigrants.

It remained for a young member of parliament and future prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to lead the charge against what he felt to be “a matter of serious significance”. On July 13, 1908, the House of Commons passed a law prohibiting the importation, manufacture and sale of opium for other than medicinal purposes.