Opium Smoking on the Comstock

Chinese gold rush miners and railroad workers brought the practice of opium smoking to America's West Coast by the mid-nineteenth century. Among the Chinese on the Comstock, opium smoking was a common indulgence. Like many hallucinatory drugs, it provided a diversion from isolation, loneliness, dangerous working conditions, and the rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Soon, opium dens provided leisure and entertainment for members of the underworld which included gamblers, prostitutes, and miscellaneous criminals who worried little about associating with the Chinese or experimenting with their "vices." Offering a refuge from the harsh realities of mining life, opium smoking within a communal environment became part of an alternative commercial zone that included gambling establishments, brothels, and dance halls often located in Virginia City's Chinatown or among the faro parlors and bars located on C and D Streets.

Opium smoking occurred openly without restrictions. Not until middle class women and children were reported frequenting the dens as noted in the Virginia Evening Chronicle dated July 9, 1877, did authorities move to abolish the practice. In one article entitled, "In the Cradle of Hell," Comstock citizens were shocked by the lurid description of young girls entering opium dens and "forced" into a life of depravity.

No longer confined to the Chinese and "sporting characters," opium smoking spread to "respectable" members of society, and therefore, moral panic became a public controversy. The perception that Chinese opium dens endangered the racial purity of the community became the rhetoric of reform. In 1876, enflamed public indignation resulted in the passage of one of the first anti-opium laws in the country by Virginia City's board of aldermen. The laws abolished opium dens and fined those who continued to smoke the drug. In 1877, the Nevada legislature followed Virginia City's anti-opium legislation and passed laws making it a crime to possess opium and restricting its use to medical use or by prescription only.

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