Before prohibition and the absurd ‘war on drugs’, importing opium into Australia was routine, at least as long as you paid the correct import duty on your smack. As reported in The Argus, Friday, 3 June 1892, p6, a North Fitzroy resident of Chinese descent called Goon Sang, who worked as a vegetable hawker, was prosecuted in the Fitzroy Police Court for not paying import duty on over 200 pounds (about 100kg) of opium. He got off due to insufficient evidence. It’s not clear who got to keep the stash.

opium Fitzroy history - being a drug dealer was so much easier in the nineteenth century

In researching this story I learned that:

The gold rushes of the 1850s had attracted many Chinese diggers, with their habit of smoking opium. In 1857, when an import duty was levied on opium, it is estimated that there were 25,000 Chinese in Victoria, which had imported 21,891 kg. of opium the previous year, valued at £56,979 (Carney 1981:175). The duty, of 10s. a pound, was levied for three reasons: revenue, because everyone else did it, and because few European Australians (or Victorians) indulged (Lonie 1979:1).

Despite their contribution to the revenue, imports of non-medical opium became increasingly threatened as the tide of xenophobic, anti-Chinese sentiment rose in the 1880s and 1890s. In the 1880s there were still 12,000 Chinese in Victoria, and the annual imports of 8,000 to 9,000 kg. of opium were raising £21,000 in duty (Lonie 1979:2).

It’s remarkable how little moral panic there is in the reporting of the time. An 1876 article in The Argus reports how opium was refined in a factory on Little Collins St.

In 1905 Victoria prohibited the sale and manufacture of smoking opium and attempted to outlaw its possession. See Robert Marks, “A Freer Market for Heroin in Australia: Alternatives to Subsidizing Organized Crime. Part 1The Journal of Drug Issues, 1990; 20(1): pp. 131-176.

In 1892 the cultural habits of the Chinese were merely a convenient thing to tax for the colonial government. It’s further evidence in support of my hypothesis that xenophobia and commercial competition, not welfare, were the primary drivers of the development of the western criminalisation of recreational drug use at the start of the twentieth century.

Fitzroy history – being a drug dealer was so much easier in the nineteenth century

3 thoughts on “Fitzroy history – being a drug dealer was so much easier in the nineteenth century

  • 2 October 2009 at 10:09 am

    In fact Chinese market gardeners were more likely to get heavily fined for working, out in the open, on a Sunday !

    • 2 October 2009 at 10:19 am

      I have a post forthcoming about a Fitzroy grocer who was fined for selling milk to children on a Sunday. It’s fascinating how cultural values change over time.

  • 3 October 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Really enjoying reading about Fitzroy’s past! Thanks!


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