When you hear the word “drugs”, what comes to mind it usually things like “war on drugs”, “trafficking”, or maybe the movie “traffic” but you don’t think so much of 19th century Britain. Sure, there were the famous “Opium Wars” but they happened in China.
But if you are a bit more familiar with British literature, you remember that S.T. Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan after smoking too much opium, and that not only was Sherlock Holmes addicted to drugs but so was Conan Doyle. Then there is this best-seller called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in 1821.
Opium was a costly staple from the Orient and was confined to the elite of the British society until its price fell at the end of the 18th century. Then, opium eating (it was eaten before it was smoken) became a very commonplace practice in early 19th century British society. It was mostly used to suppress the painful symptoms of the many diseases that doctors did not know how to cure.
The medical profession was not concerned about the addictive quality of the drug and most physicians were unaware of the whole concept of drug addiction. In fact, alcoholism was considered the most serious public health problem and some doctors actually substituted alcohol with opium. A more cynical interpretation is that alcohol resulted in more social disorders whereas opium-eating was far less of a threat to law and order.
Everything changed in the mid-19th century but the reason for the changes is not known by many people (the following comes from Max Dupperay's courses) :
What changed everything is the death of a prominent figure of British high Society, the Earl of Mar, when his life insurance Company refused to pay on this policy on the ground that he had never mentioned being a regular opium eater.
In 1856, De Quincey, the writer of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater described in detail how he was turned down by no less than 14 different life insurance companies on the sole ground of his being an opium-eater.
They had all come to the conclusion that insuring an opium eater was too great a risk to take. Even though they had no statistical evidence to back up their position, the had noticed that people who started taking opium or laudanum usually did so because they had some sort of health problem, and this of course increased the likelihood of a premature death.
As a result, life insurance companies would agree to ensure alcoholics (who were less likely to have started as a result of a medical condition) but not opium eaters.
By the 1850s, opium, especially if used for non-medical purposes, was no longer as morally acceptable as it had been a generation before.
Opium eating was increasingly considered a disease of a similar nature, both medically and morally, to that of drinking. Of course many Victorians continued to indulge in the pleasures of opium but the practice became more dishonorable and thus more discreet, especially among the middle classes.