Editor’s Note: As a final word, here are a few thoughts from Diana L. Ahmad of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and a participant at the conference. Thanks to Diana for taking a moment to prepare these thoughts.
In late June, over forty scholars from four continents and eight countries gathered at Shanghai University for a conference devoted to drugs and drink in Asia. The presenters ranged from graduate students to well-published scholars in the field.
The historic efforts to control the use and spread of opium dominated the topics. The papers clearly demonstrated that opium impacted more than India, China, or the United States, but indeed, included much of Asia and Europe. In the Dutch East Indies, for example, the Dutch imperialist government went so far as to exclude the Chinese from selling opium, keeping the business and profits for themselves. The impact of opium in the Golden Triangle through the years, as well as in Afghanistan, highlighted several of the papers. The importance of nation-building in areas impacted by opium in the former colonies of the Dutch, British, and French demonstrated the significance the drug had on the politics of the region. The influence of the drug in Japan and Korea also explained the economic, social, and political impact on those nations, even showing that the Japanese considered themselves superior to the Chinese because of the Chinese opium problems.
The efforts of governments around the world to control opium’s use and sale could be heard in nearly every paper. Christian missionaries, for example, attempted to eliminate the substance from their areas of influence in Yunnan and Wenzhou, while journalists in the American West campaigned to abolish smoking-opium from their communities. A significant number of the papers dealt with the impact of opium on the economies of nations. The imperialist nations that held possessions in Asia had become, willingly or not, importers or exporters of the drug, as opium had become a world trade good in the nineteenth century. Governments over time, such as Great Britain, China, and the Dutch East Indies, all claimed to dislike opium, but few of them denied that the money was desirable for their nations’ treasuries. Some suggested opium sales allowed government taxes to be kept to a minimum, such as in Qing China. Opium, then, produced benefits for nations, not just problems.
Although the conference covered a wide range of topics, including a discussion of modern China’s approach to opium, it would have been great to see a few more papers on other features of the drug. For example, although the Golden Triangle was noted in several papers, a more thorough discussion of the importance of opium in that area during the conflicts of the twentieth century would have been a good addition. Although the PRC’s approach to opium was briefly discussed, an analysis of Chairman Mao’s opium policy would have provided an added insight to the panels on modern China. A few more papers about the social side of opium would have been good to show the impact of the drug on everyday life. The conference leaned heavily on opium for its papers, although cocaine and marijuana were represented, as well as only one paper on alcohol. A few more scholars of drink would have been great.
This well run conference provided wonderful accommodations at Shanghai University, terrific meals, and easy flowing conversation. Student assistants helped conference attendees obtain Shanghai University t-shirts, brought us snacks, tea, and water, and served as phenomenal translators. It was truly great fun to have a conference in Shanghai, made all the more exciting by the fact that the 1909 Opium Conference was held nearby. Heartfelt thanks go to the directors of the event….Joseph Spillane from the University of Florida, Yong-an Zhang of Shanghai University and the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies, and James Mills from the University of Strathclyde.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.