Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s drug problem harkens to 1800s opium epidemic

Jim Harmon

“Some very ugly stories are afloat … that opium is being smoked in Missoula by people who ought to know better – a great deal better, in fact,” reported the Weekly Missoulianin 1893.

Opium was as commonplace in the Garden City back then as oxycodone, heroin or fentanyl are today.

When a “Chinaman … charged with running an opium joint” sat in the Missoula jail in 1893, he had so many visitors, “all anxious to supply him with opium,” that local authorities decided to take a look around Missoula.”

What they found – “the sights they saw, the smells they smelled … and the new methods of ingress and egress into all sorts of places” – “would fill a good-sized volume with fairly interesting reading,” one reporter concluded. Too bad he didn’t write that volume.

In the summer of 1895, the Weekly Missoulian, fed up with the situation, played the race card (reflecting the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act).

“Drive them out,” read the headline of the July 9theditorial. “The Chinese are of choice an uneducated, ill-bred class. Their principal associates are the opium pipe and the gambling table. Their existence in our midst is degrading to the youth and a temptation to the weak-minded.”

A month later, the newspaper sent a reporter undercover to further expose the drug problem. He described finding “hop fiends in Missoula, who resort almost nightly to some of the various hop joints to indulge in their fearful craving for this deadly drug.

“Men and women, white and yellow, resort to these places to smoke this terrible narcotic, to quiet their shaking nerves, which have become saturated with opium, and when the effects begin to die out they immediately hunt up a ‘hop’ joint, as these places are called, to take the ‘long draw,’ as they call the act of smoking opium.

“It is next to impossible for the police to catch any of this class of people for the Chinaman, with celestial cunning, has his place underground or in the second story of a building and it would be an absolute impossibility for the police to raid one of these places without an alarm being sounded and all damaging evidence removed before the police could locate them.”

Despite the prevalence of opium, arrests were actually few because smoking “hop” in your own house was not against the law.

Even when there was an arrest (as in the case above), the suspect would be “released from custody, there not being sufficient evidence to hold him.”

Finally, in 1899, Missoula’s City Council attempted to legislate away the city’s evils with its famous “Ordinance No. 96,” aimed at “good order and morals.”

Section 4 of the ordinance dealt with opium, making the drug’s possession or use a misdemeanor.

Other sections dealt with loitering, public drunkenness, carrying concealed weapons, loud noises, cock fights, cruelty to animals and more.

Meantime, others attempted to deal with addiction issues in an institutional or medical setting.

A national franchise called the “Ensor Institute” opened locations from Dallas to Missoula, offering “the cure of liquor, morphine, cocaine and tobacco habits.”

They guaranteed success: “A cure in every case, to the entire satisfaction of the patient, or it costs him nothing. Remember, no cure, no pay.”

Missoula physician H. H. Hanson was the franchise’s local “Medical Director,” offering the “cure” at his office in the First National Bank building downtown. His 1895 newspaper ad assured patients “no injury from the effect … being a purely vegetable remedy.”

The ad claimed “over 10,000 have taken the treatment with the desired results.” There was, however, no explanation of what vegetables, or in what combination, were used in the “cure.”

Over time, with declining mining and railroad jobs, forced “registration” under the Geary Act and continued prejudice, Missoula’s Chinese population (then largely gardeners, cooks and laundrymen) moved on, as did the opium dens.

But the drug problem has not gone away – only the menu has changed.

“People take drugs because they want to change something about their lives,” reports the Foundation for a Drug Free World. Young people, they say, just want to “fit in, escape or relax, or to rebel (and) think drugs are a solution. But eventually, the drugs become the problem.”

The search for a real solution – so elusive – continues today.

im Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

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