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Opium Wars

May 7, 2017

Opium den, Chinatown, San Francisco, CA (c. 1885),Source Library of Congress/Prints and Photographs Division (Digital ID cubcic.brk3062) (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

“O my poor head!  I makes my [opium] pipes of old penny ink-bottles, ye see, deary – this is one – and I fits-in a mouthpiece, this way, and I takes my mixter out of this thimble with this little horn spoon; and so I fills, deary. Ah, my poor nerves!”

– Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Opium dens were present in many areas of the world in the 19th Century, including the West Coast.  These dens – some opulently decorated, others seedy – supplied opium and opium paraphernalia, allowing patrons to recline while inhaling the drug’s vapors.

Patrons could remain in a drug-induced stupor at an opium den as long as their funds lasted.

San Francisco in 1875 enacted the nation’s first anti-drug law, banning opium dens.  Heroin addiction is such a widespread problem today that some are proposing a return to this dark option.

A Cautionary Tale

The Chinese experience with opium should serve as a cautionary tale.

For 1000 years, the drug (derived from the poppy plant) was taken orally, in small amounts, for pain and tension.  Then smoking the drug (and opium dens) gained popularity.  Consumption and addiction rapidly soared [1].   This greatly impacted China’s productivity, draining resources.

Prohibitions against the sale and smoking of opium proved ineffective.  The practice was not eradicated until the Communists came to power in 1949.

The High Cost of Heroin

Like opium, heroin is derived from the poppy plant.  Some addicts begin experimenting with the drug in their teens.  Others may start after their prescription painkillers (for example, oxycontin) become too expensive or their prescriptions run out.  But there is a high price to pay.

The street or online cost of heroin varies, depending on its purity and availability.  The average price for a single dose (0.1 g) is roughly $15 – $20 [2A].  At those prices, a heroin habit can run $150 – $200 per day or $1,050 – $1,400 per week.

Heroin causes immediate and lasting brain damage.  Exposure to the drug changes brain circuitry involving motivation, memory, and the ability to inhibit behavior.

Users develop a tolerance, requiring more and more of the drug.  There is a constant danger of overdose, and fatality from unknown contaminants in the drug.

Medical care ranges in price based on the insured status of users [2B][3]:

  • Ambulance $1,000 – $3,000 uninsured ($200 – $260 insured)
  • Emergency Room $740 – $3400 uninsured ($150 – $320 insured)
  • Doctor’s Visit $38 – $396 uninsured ($32 insured)
  • Hospital Stay $10,000 uninsured ($2,000 – $5,000 insured)
  • Heroin Abuse Facilities $1,000 – $3,000 uninsured (0 – $1,000 insured)

Addiction lowers the desire and capacity to find and keep employment.  The cost to employers and taxpayers from medical treatment and lost productivity are estimated at $590 billion annually [4].

Drug use frequently leads to crime to support a habit, and crime while high on drugs.  Incarceration decreases individual income and productivity, while increasing societal expense.

  • The federal penalty for possession of heroin is 1 year in prison and $5,000 for a first offense; 2 years in prison and $10,000 for a second offense.
  • State penalties run as high as 7 years in prison and $50,000.
  • The federal penalty for manufacture, sale, or distribution of heroin is 15 years in prison and $25,000 for a first offense; up to 30 years in prison and $50,000 for a second offense.
  • State penalties run as high as life imprisonment and $100,000.

Child custody disputes are likely to arise where there are charges of neglect or abandonment.   Fines, in that connection, can range from $3,000 – $40,000.  These figures do not take into account the cost of legal representation (whether borne by the individual or the taxpayer).

Nor do they take into account the damage done to the children of addicts.

Medically Supervised Injection Centers (MSIC)

An argument is gaining traction for medically supervised injection facilities (MSIC), in effect, modern opium dens.  These are, also, known as supervised (or safe) injection sites (SIS), or drug consumption facilities (DCF).

MSIC proceed from the premise that addiction is not a moral failing or the result of a lack of self-control.  It is rather “a brain disease associated with relapses” with environment, genetics, and behavior all playing a role [5A].

Advocates of MSIC characterize their approach as “harm reduction”, specifically, “help[ing addicted] … clients live as healthy a life as possible given their circumstances and the life choices they have made [5B].”   MSIC should not, however, be confused with drug rehabilitation centers.

Advocates of MSIC admit that some medical professionals might feel uncomfortable facilitating addiction.  Nevertheless, they insist their approach is ethical.

To be clear, MSIC would in no way reduce the costs associated with heroin addiction – individual or societal.  Nor would they assure an improved recovery rate.  In fact, the possibility exists that the number of addicts might actually increase.

Addicts would, however, be spared the “shooting galleries” that can now be found in derelict buildings.  Their average life expectancy could improve.

Scripture and Illegal Drugs

While the Bible does not mention illegal drugs, it does advise against intoxication:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things”
(Prov. 23: 29-33).

See, also, 1 Cor. 5: 11; Eph. 5: 19; and 1 Peter 4: 3.

Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6: 19-20).  Though sin (and drugs) may seem enticing, their impact is always harmful (Heb. 11: 25).

God wants us to take our pain to Him, whatever it may be.  Loss, rejection, loneliness, abandonment, abuse, illness.  Even addiction.

[1]  The amount of opium imported annually to China in 1729 was about 200 chests.  By the 1850s, that had increased to about 50,000 chests.   See Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Opium  trade”, 4/17/15,

[2A][2B], “How Much Does Heroin Cost?”, 2017,

[3]  Though the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has been much vilified, it provides coverage for drug abuse treatment.  See,, “Does Obamacare Cover Drug and Alcohol Treatment?”,

[4]  Addiction Treatment Magazine, “Top 5 most costly addictions”, 4/6/12,

[5A][5B]  National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Harm Reduction:  Compassionate Care of Persons with Addictions” by Robin Bartlett PhD, RN, Laura Brown BSN, RN, Mona Shattell PhD, RN, Thelma Wright BS, Lynne Lewallen PhD, RN, ANEF, November/December 2013,

READERS CAN FIND MY VIEWS ON ABUSE AND ABUSE-RELATED ISSUES AT ANNA WALDHERR A Voice Reclaimed, Surviving Child Abuse  http://www.avoicereclaimed

  1. Heroin is such a widespread issue in my state, that they are considering “safe houses” as you mentioned in your writing.. they already have methadone clinics, were you trade one drug for the other.. Heroin addiction decreased when we were burning the poppy fields of Afghanistan.. now our soldiers are told to guard them.. so much for the war on drugs..
    Thanks for the great article..
    God Bless

    • You are always a great encouragement to me, Mary. Yes, addiction is a pernicious problem. Though there are undoubtedly physical causes for the problem (and multiple contributing factors), I think it has spiritual roots. Many people struggle w/ overwhelming emptiness and longstanding emotional pain. As Christians, we know that God is the answer. But platitudes alone are not enough. God bless you and your good work. ❤

  2. This is such an important post Anna, thank you!

  3. Such a shame that one would trade the verve, the heart of one’s life with stupor of this sort.

    • What begins as a thrill or an escape from pain, becomes the controlling force in life. I hope you are well, Diana. ❤

  4. Heartbreaking for us to see the ruinous effects of drugs on people’s lives.
    How much more must it break their Creator’s heart 😦 💜 Jackie@KWH

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