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Opium hasn't really ever gone away

With tens of thousands of Americans overdosing each year and pharmaceutical companies paying massive settlements, opioids are in today’s headlines.

But 100 years ago, opium was generating headlines in the Rogue Valley.

While opioids such as oxycodone and heroin are made by humans, opium is derived from opium poppies. Human use of opium dates back thousands of years.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, opium was fueling racial tensions between white and Chinese settlers and miners in Southern Oregon. Meanwhile, the drug was marketed as a treatment for everything from an infant’s cough to a woman’s menstrual pain, leading to widespread but hidden addiction.

Settlers from European countries favored alcohol, while Chinese settlers used opium as a social lubricant and to ease pain from manual labor, according to Chelsea Rose, a Southern Oregon University research archaeologist who has excavated local sites.

Chinese laborers used a complex system of pipes to vaporize and inhale the alkaloids in opium. It was easiest to do so while lying down.

“The optics of that made it look like the person was wasted and couldn’t sit up,” Rose said. “But this was going on during the Gold Rush, and the Chinese people were working. They weren’t just addicts laying around. We don’t see a lot of evidence of actual opium dens. There were some busts of opium dens in Medford in the early 20th century and they didn’t find much opium.”

Fears of opium dens spiked in the 1910s, when newspaper headlines proclaimed a woman had been rescued from “white slavery.”

After one Chinese man stabbed another during a robbery, Viola Miller, a white woman with a long list of aliases, emerged as a witness to the crime.

Newspapers claimed she had been kept in a small room inside a Chinese laundry on the banks of Bear Creek in Medford.

“Dark and filthy, this small chamber, about 10 feet square, gives evidence of such unspeakable horrors as to make men wonder how such things can be,” the Medford Mail Tribune reported in an article about Miller’s life in 1912.

The newspaper said, “Viola Miller was not confined to the room by the antiquated method of bars and locks. The Chinese have a more cruel and effective method of keeping their slaves within their power. They taught her the opium habit.”

Miller would always be drawn back to her masters by craving for the drug, the newspaper said.

In an attempt to break Miller free from her addiction, officials made plans to confine her in the county jail for two or three months, the newspaper said in a later article.

Miller was later sent to Portland to receive treatment for her addiction, but she escaped, and opium “again asserted its complete mastery over the girl,” the Ashland Tidings reported in 1912.

Raids on Chinese laundries and other places suspected of housing opium dens continued into the 1920s, according to newspaper accounts.

As the public fretted over opium dens, opium sold as medicine was also taking a toll.

Opium had been in use as a medicine in America since colonial days and triggered an addiction epidemic during and after the Civil War. By the 1870s, medical journals were publishing warnings about the dangers of addiction.

Middle- to upper-class white women made up the majority of people addicted to opium and morphine in the late 1800s, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Sold in bottles, the medication laudanum was laced with opium.

“A lot of women were using laudanum,” Rose said. “Doctors didn’t understand or pay attention to women’s medical problems. They had their patients take laudanum, but the dangers of addiction were not communicated. A lot of women became addicted. It was easy to use and easy to get.”

The situation mirrored the scenario that played out more recently, when pharmaceutical companies began selling long-lasting opioid pain pills in the 1990s — all while downplaying the risk of addiction.

“I think it’s interesting that a lot of people are recognizing the parallel to where we are now and where we were then,” Rose said. “Opioids can be effective, but they can be dangerous.”

With concern about opium growing in the early 1900s, a 1909 law restricted opium imports and drove prices up — pushing many users toward more potent opioids like heroin and morphine, the magazine reported.

A similar effect is playing out today, with some people turning to heroin when they can no longer access opioid pain pills. And like police who made plans to jail Miller to break her addiction a century ago, law enforcement officials in Jackson County today are pitching a massive jail expansion as a way to help addicts in lieu of better treatment options.

The federal Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 resulted in the virtual prohibition of opium.

Doctors who had been systematically prescribing opium to maintain their patients’ addictions could no longer do so. Patients sought out drugs on the streets.

“It was a time period in history when the ‘addict’ identity emerged,” said SOU assistant researcher Kelly Szott, a medical sociologist. “Opium users had to seek drugs through illicit underground channels. They flipped from being individual users to being criminals.”

Cities responded by opening narcotic clinics for the addicted, but most were shut down by the federal government in 1921, Smithsonian magazine reported.

The clinics have parallels to modern methadone clinics. Methadone can curb drug cravings, allowing people struggling with addiction to function in daily life.

More recently, other medications have emerged to curb cravings while treating opioid withdrawal. People who combine supportive counseling with medication-assisted treatment have lower relapse rates, research shows.

In the Rogue Valley, the La Clinica network of health care clinics and other clinics such as the Oasis Center in Medford are normalizing the treatment of addiction. They integrate regular health care with medication-assisted treatment provided by doctors who understand addiction.

Szott, who moved to the Rogue Valley from Indiana in 2018, said she was pleasantly surprised by the amount of effort being made locally to help those who are addicted.

Jackson County has long operated a syringe exchange program, which helps reduce the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases while people are in the grip of addiction.

Founded by a local couple who lost their son to a heroin overdose, Max’s Mission gives out free naloxone, which can quickly reverse an opioid overdose. More recently, the nonprofit has begun giving out test strips to check for fentanyl — a powerful, often-deadly synthetic opioid some dealers add to heroin, counterfeit pain pills and other drugs.

Societies will likely always struggle with substances — either natural or man-made — that stimulate the pleasure center of the brain while insidiously drawing users into addiction.

Experts say the best approach will always recognize addicts as human beings in need of help.

“When the Chinese were associated with opium, it was easy to vilify users as the ‘other.’ Now people are recognizing that opioids are more of a problem with everyday people — from high school students to suburban moms. It’s not as easy to vilify users,” Rose said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Political cartoons stoked fears about Chinese immigrants and opium dens in the late 1800s and early 1900s.