The High Life

Drug wars and BC traffickers? Welcome to Victorian Seattle.

By Eric Scigliano January 4, 2009 Published in the March 2008 issue of Seattle Met

WAY BACK IN THE 1990s, Seattle gained a rep as a junkie mecca. A string of grunge luminaries OD’d on heroin, the Kurt and Courtney saga played across the gossip pages, and, at the opposite end of the glamour spectrum, crack and smack peddlers crowded the sidewalks of the downtown “Blade.” All this seemed a shocking change from the days when snus, fisherman’s coffee, and “Green Death” Rainier Ale were still the biggest thrills of all. But it was actually old news; this city earned a similar notoriety more than a century ago, just as America was rallying for an antidrug crusade.

The War on Drugs 1900-style was different from today’s war in one big way. Today’s hard drugs could be bought at pharmacies; the drug-busters’ main target was a much weaker narcotic, smokable opium. Then as now, racism colored the antidrug agenda: Chinese-operated opium joints were decried as shady dens luring naive citizens into crime and depravity.

Starting in 1883, the federal government imposed steep, escalating tariffs on opium. These, like later prohibition laws, proved a boon for traffickers. Customs agents were soon chasing frantically after smugglers who ferried opium from Victoria for transshipment to San Francisco. In 1895 they tried to flush out an alleged big-time smuggler on Vashon Island; he proved to be an innocent farmer trying to turn in opium tins that had washed up on the beach. In 1901 they announced they’d seized 585 pounds of opium and the last sloop in a “fleet” of smuggling boats, all painted inconspicuous Navy gray. They even caught the ringleader, one T. P. Hodgson, hiding in a Queen Anne safe house.

But two years later, the joints were jumping again. “Seattle, according to the police, is in a fair way of becoming a second San Francisco in the number of its opium joints,” warned the Post-Intelligencer, which owned the demon dope story. “At least 20” clustered around Chinatown and the south side, “some of them not more than a block from the police station.” Opium “fiends” driven out of San Francisco and Portland were flocking here; Seattle had over 1,000 white fiends, and even more Chinese smokers.

In 1904 agents seized 2,100 pounds of opium—“the most important haul of contraband goods ever made in this country”—from smugglers who’d shipped many more loads to California in trunks, safes, and a piano whose sounding board had been replaced with opium. Even then drug forfeitures were a lucrative official business: All this swag, plus the steam electric launch used to smuggle the stuff from Victoria, was sold to “give Uncle Sam a nice nest egg.”

In 1909 Congress switched from tariffs to an outright ban on opium imports. Seattle’s fiends were already switching to stronger, more easily concealed highs: morphine, cocaine, even heroin, the “hero drug” touted as a cure for other addictions. A new state law forbade selling cocaine, and the proprietor of two messenger services was promptly busted for delivering 25-cent packets of “yum-yum” to Seattle’s “leapers,” as cokeheads were supposedly called.

The turn-of-the-century newspapers also offered an occasional account, at once lurid and sympathetic, of the sorry lives of local addicts. The Seattle Mail and Herald profiled “Cocaine Jennie” Marshall, “a healthy red-cheeked country girl” till she got hooked. Cocaine Jennie sneered at goody-goodies who asked why she didn’t just quit stealing and shooting up: “They couldn’t quit no more than me if they once got started.” In 1899 the P-I interviewed Dr. W. B. Cox, a physician reduced to “the worst hypo-fiend in Seattle” by too many trips to the medicine cabinet. Cox claimed that he knew a dozen lawyers and scores of doctors among the town’s 600 morphine addicts. Some functioned well, and one physician maintained upscale addicts on measured doses; businessmen trooped to his office for thrice-daily morphine shots. What addicts needed to quit, Cox argued, was safe treatment facilities, not more punishment. A Seattle police detective named Meredith concurred: Cops like him could never stop the drug trade, he conceded, but treatment “could do a world of good.”

Today, drug-policy reformers and dis-illusioned drug warriors espouse the same principles: Reduce harm rather than try to eradicate drugs, and treat addiction as a medical rather than a criminal problem. One hundred and nine years later, we’re still struggling to put those principles into practice.

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