The lady bought her supplies of recreational opium over the counter at her regular grocery store in Victoria, British Columbia, a purchase that writer-historian Barbara Hodgson described in a 1999 study entitled Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon, was legal.
Kwong On Lung & Co, purveyors of“sugar, rice, tea, opium, groceries & provisions” was licensed to manufacture and sell opium and regular customer Mrs. Tai Chung was old enough to buy her dream drug along with mundane supplies like “salted turnips, salted bamboo shoot, some charcoal and a hundred dollars worth of pork.”
Whether Mrs. Chung was buying her opium for personal use, or to maintain the needs of a modestly operated opium den in her cellar or a backroom windowless flat remains unconfirmed, but she was buying opium at a fairly expensive clip and private areas for the smoking of the drug were many and for a few years extremely popular.
On February 13, 1885, her “balance due” with Kwong On Lung was $2,489.08. On the 19th she added another $100 for opium, on the 20th another $50, and on March 11th, she added a further $200 to her private poppy juice fund but made a payment of $500 on her “balance due.” She was still $2,702.25 in bottom-line red and, although neither she nor Kwong On Lung knew it, the opium den was just starting to lose its rating as a popular technicolour dream palace.
It would have gone from dream to nightmare much earlier but for the massive introduction of Chinese labour to build Canadian Pacific’s Trans Canada railway. The opium culture thousands of those workers brought with them delayed the decay. In 1884 there were six opium factories in Victoria. Three years later 13 factories were producing 90,000 pounds of opium at $15 a pound with a “bonus” spin-off production of laudanum. Keeping the workers on the job wasn’t easy. Opium the dream-maker helped.
In the “new world,” opium was waning as a voice guaranteeing “happiness eternal.” That it brought peace and wonderful dreams there could be no doubt – but not forever. In fact, not for very long at all. Canada acknowledged the end of opium’s false promise in July 1908 when it joined the USA and banned open sales of opium in North America
Great Britain had a more difficult time banishing the promise of drugged happiness when many of the brightest artists, poets, and novelists of the UK openly embraced, praised, and used opium themselves and in their works had some of their leading characters excusably – even admirably – addicted.
A few that come quickly to mind are Thomas de Quincey, Byron, Shelley, Barrett-Browning, Coleridge, Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who even had his redoubtable Sherlock Holmes sneaking a nip of laudanum – a by-product of opium – from time to time to improve his brain power.
Dickens gets right into the nasty stuff when he opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in an opium den but promotes principal character, Tom Jasper, as a man of integrity and benevolence – and opium addict.
Oscar Wilde, well known for his decadent lifestyle, does seem to condemn it in his Picture of Dorian Gray, but never enough for him to attempt to change it.
And so, here we are in beautiful British Columbia in 2019 with thousands celebrating in our capital city of Victoria the opening of three – more to follow in a matter of days – sparkling new government-licenced stores selling a drug guaranteed to ease pain and bring happy dreams and comfort to all. We don’t have any abundance of official pot dens yet, but can they be far behind government promoted sales?
They tell me marijuana is “safe” and not addictive like opium. And I’m not expert enough to challenge them. But I do know this: the problems I have before I go to sleep tonight will still be there when I wake up tomorrow, however many buds I smoke.