When the members of the Royal Commission to Investigate Chinese and Japanese Immigration came to Vancouver in 1901, they got an eyeful.
“There are whole rooms of Chinese lying stretched out on beds with the opium apparatus laid out before them — all unmindful that their attitudes and surrounding conditions are being taken note of to assist in keeping the remainder of their countrymen entirely out of Canada,” reported the Vancouver World newspaper.
The so-called “Oriental commission” had hired a photographer and engaged a detective to guide them to the heart of the opiate trade, “the dope dives in the rear of No. 6 Dupont Street.”
The fringes of Chinatown have always been the center of Canada’s opiate trade. Ever more potent and easily smuggled versions emerged through the decades, culminating in the scourge of synthetic opiates — fentanyl and carfentanil — thousands of times more powerful and many times more deadly than opium.
Opium in a smokable form was still widely used in China at the turn of the 20th century and where Chinese workers went, the opium trade soon followed. Opium was sold openly by Vancouver entrepreneur Yip Sang and Victoria had at least 13 opium factories in 1888.
Local manufacturers would take raw dried opium gum — harvested from opium poppies — and cook it in water to remove sand, leaves and twigs, and then reduce it until it turned to a smokable putty that is slightly stronger than raw opium.
The World breathlessly reported from photos obtained that day in the alley behind what is now East Pender Street, near Carrall, where opium was rolled into tiny balls of tar and smoked through long pipes heated over candles. An experienced user required several “hits” of opium before nodding off. While addictive, this form of the drug was not usually fatal.
“The photographs show Chinamen in all stages of coma and semi-consciousness,” the story reads, before reassuring readers. “Police say that the number of whites who smoke opium is extremely small and that, to all practical purposes, the habit is not growing among whites.”
Excerpt: Vancouver World reporter visits a Chinatown opium den in 1901
Racial overtones to anti-drug campaign
Nonetheless by 1903, amid rising anti-Chinese sentiment, the federal government used the report of the commission to justify raising the Chinese immigration head tax from $50 to $500, roughly the price of a modest home.
Such was the beginning of a racialized campaign against both drugs and Chinese immigration that remains unresolved more than 100 years later.
In 1908, the then-deputy labor minister and future prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, came to Vancouver to investigate a race riot in which members of the Asiatic Exclusion League smashed up Asian-owned businesses and beat residents of Chinatown and Japantown, said Vancouver historian Lani Russwurm, author of Vancouver Was Awesome.
While assessing the damage, King also noted a thriving opium trade in Chinatown, one with an increasingly Caucasian clientele.
“The Chinese with whom I conversed on the subject assured me that almost as much opium was sold to white people as to Chinese, and that the habit of opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls,” King wrote in the Report on the Need for the Suppression of the Opium Traffic in Canada.
Opium was a source of revenue for governments of the day. A federal duty imposed on importers fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars between 1874 and 1899 in B.C. ports, and cities charged hundreds of dollars to purveyors in the form of business licenses.
Crackdown drives scene underground
But based on King’s concerns and under considerable pressure from the United States, Canada passed the Opiate Act, outlawing importation and possession of opium in 1908, and this nation’s war on drugs was officially underway, said Russwurm.
Opium manufacturing and the dens frequented by both the local Chinese users and white bohemians went underground. Most enforcement targeted Asians, who were fined, jailed and often deported, especially during the opiate scares of the 1920s when police routinely raided opium dens.
Between 1923 and 1932, more than 700 Chinese men were deported for drug-related violations, according to the book Jailed for Possession, by Catherine Carstairs.
Spurred by occasional headlines about “dope fiends” and police reports of young white girls lured into drug dens, legislation aimed at stamping out the illicit trade in opium continued to pile up. The Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, passed in 1929, ratcheting up penalties for trafficking to seven years in prison from one year.
“It was a cat and mouse game with the police, who were raiding these places periodically,” said Russwurm. Trap doors leading to shared basements would allow white opium den clients a means of escape from adjacent buildings.
Under constant pressure from the police, opium users began to inject their hit, as the technique created no smoke or aroma and used smaller equipment, which could be easily hidden. In the 1920s and 1930s, white users tended to be young criminals, “racetrack hands, and circus and show people” who smoked opium or sniffed heroin, according to Carstairs’ research.
Fix for addictiveness fails
Derivatives of opium — codeine, morphine and heroin — had been useful, legal drugs for more than a century. Ironically, scientists trying to find a less-addictive form of morphine produced heroin, which turned out to be twice as strong and attracted an enthusiastic recreational audience by the end of the 19th century.
In the 1920s, a “half-grain deck” (1/32nd of a gram) of heroin from a Chinatown drug den cost about 25 cents, about the same price as a bottle of beer, Carstairs notes.
Because heroin was so potent, it could be smuggled in smaller amounts and distributed much more easily than opium, which made it an attractive product for traffickers, said Mark Haden, a professor at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of B.C.
By the mid-1930s, heroin was one of the most common drugs in circulation and white users were increasingly taking the drug intravenously, especially as prices rose due to scarcity brought about by vigorous law enforcement.
Addicts who were unable to buy heroin often turned to “doctor-shopping,” scamming physicians by faking symptoms in order to obtain codeine or morphine, which would take the edge off their withdrawal symptoms, Carstairs wrote. Addicts could buy large amounts of paregoric, an alcohol solution containing a quarter grain of morphine per ounce, which was not regulated but had to be boiled down to a reduction to be useful.
Pharmacies peddled codeine
Some pharmacists at the time recognized desperate addicts as a business opportunity and brought in huge amounts of opiates — particularly codeine — for sale over the counter. The Vancouver News Herald reported that a single pharmacy was bringing in 200 ounces of codeine a month, which was injected by customers, Carstairs wrote.
Doctors soon began to note that heavy codeine use was leading to addiction in much the same way as heroin and morphine and by 1935, B.C. restricted the sale of codeine to prescription only, creating yet another criminal enterprise for dealers who quickly added the drug to their roster of products.
The outbreak of the Second World War put opiate addicts into a state of crisis, as opiate drugs were required in great quantities for the war wounded. The street price of a hit — whether heroin, morphine or codeine — shot up and crime along with it.
Robberies and thefts of opiates rose steadily through the early 1940s, along with crimes committed by addicts raising money to buy drugs.
In the post-war period, right through to the mid-’60s, Vancouver was ground zero for Canada’s intravenous drug scene, made up mainly of petty criminals, troubled youths and, for the first time, a large number of women. By 1961, nearly four in 10 drug users were women and — unlike the United States where blacks and hispanics were most likely to be drug users — the scene in Vancouver was almost entirely white.
At first, the most common product was morphine, stolen by organized gangs from doctors and pharmacies for the purpose of reselling, at least until tighter controls interfered with supply. Low-grade “Mexican Brown” heroin entered the marketplace to fill that gap, imported by American crime families, noted the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare.
Powerful heroin hits the scene
But before the ’40s were over, highly refined white heroin had appeared and it was coming from overseas to satisfy a hungry market in Vancouver, home to half of the country’s drug users.
“The habit of injecting smoking opium had all but disappeared by 1946 and West Coast users responded with enthusiasm to the white heroin that replaced Mexican Brown,” Carstairs wrote. “After 1948, heroin was virtually the only opiate available on the illicit market.”
Beatniks — and later hippies — began to dabble in heroin during the ’50s, influenced by their connections with American musicians and counter-culture figures such as William S. Burroughs, a lifelong opiate addict who wrote extensively about his experiences. Burroughs’ semi-autobiographical novel Junkie, depicting his life as a Greenwich Village pusher and later an addict in exile, was published in various forms throughout the 1960s and ’70s, promoted by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
“One of Burroughs’ inspirations for Junkie was a guy named Jack Black, an opium fiend and safe cracker, who … had some adventures in Vancouver’s Chinatown and wrote about them in his book You Can’t Win,” said Russwurm.
Heroin use remained a constant undercurrent in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside during the ’70s and ’80s, even as alcohol was the neighborhood’s real drug of choice.
But a flood of a new and even more potent “China White” heroin into the city reignited public outrage in the early ’90s. A spate of 331 overdose deaths in 1993 spurred B.C. coroner Vince Cain to call for the decriminalization of heroin and that addicts be prescribed the drug to legally maintain their habit.
It would be nearly 15 years before the Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness (SALOME) began in Vancouver, just about the time a new threat emerged.
A new scourge emerges
In medical use since it was first synthesized in 1959, fentanyl first made headlines here in 2012 when it was revealed that medical professionals, especially anesthetists, were becoming addicted. Not long after, fentanyl was detected in the blood of overdose victims, many of them experienced long-term heroin users.
Up to 80 times as powerful as heroin, fentanyl reduces the risk for traffickers.
Shipments have been intercepted coming from China and substantial quantities seized from crime groups from Prince Rupert to Victoria to Maple Ridge.
“Drug smugglers want small packages,” said Haden. “It’s far easier to move something the size of your fist, such as fentanyl, than something the size of a suitcase. Concentration is always the objective of the illegal market.”
Fentanyl is also used by criminal gangs to produce fake oxycodone tablets. Oxy began to circulate in the street trade to meet demand from otherwise straight citizens who became addicted after taking the pills for pain management, but whose prescriptions had run out.
Unprecedented death toll
The carnage wrought by fentanyl has been without precedent.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, overdose deaths in B.C. have more than quadrupled since the introduction of fentanyl to the street-drug scene, rising from about 200 a year between 2007 and 2010 to 922 deaths in 2016.
Police report that heroin seized in drug busts is routinely cut with fentanyl and in recent months the presence of carfentanil, a tranquillizer used to sedate elephants, has been implicated in hundreds of overdose deaths, especially in former Soviet republics.
While it has been detected in only a handful of drug samples in Vancouver, police and advocates for drug users worry the drug could trigger a new wave of overdose deaths if it begins to show up in larger amounts.
Carfentanil — a synthetic opioid created by Janssen Pharmaceutica in 1974 — is reportedly 10,000 times as powerful as morphine and almost impossible to accurately dose without professional lab equipment.
Haden likened the process to mixing a single grain of sugar evenly into an entire pie.
“In such tiny amounts it’s really hard to get the dosage right, and that’s why the concentration is all over the map and people are overdosing,” he said.
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