The Opium Epidemic in 19th Century San Fransisco
The first shipment of Chinese opium fifty-two boxes in all arrived in San Francisco in 1861 aboard the clipper Ocean Pearl. By 1864, “the Year of Opium” in San Francisco, huge shipments were arriving regularly.
Despite occasional crackdowns, the opium trade was never seriously menaced by law enforcement. Chinatown itself was hardly ever visited by police, and the opium dens were almost completely ignored. An English journalist wrote in the 1880’s: “Occasionally, when the police are short of funds, they make a descent on some of the dens but, as a rule, the proprietors are left unmolested.”
In the late 1880’s the San Francisco Call estimated that there were about 300 opium dens in the city, most of them in Chinatown, serving the roughly 3,000 hardcore “hopheads” or “opium fiends,” along with the countless others who indulged less immoderately. The opium dens bore red signs above their doors reading PIPES AND LAMPS ALWAYS CONVENIENT in Chinese calligraphy.
The opium dens were finally wiped out in the earthquake and fire of 1906; most were never rebuilt, and the few that lingered were put out of business by the nationwide drug crackdown a decade later.