Diana Ahmad: Opium Debate Is Topic of Historian's Latest Book

Historians in the News

Today’s war on drugs is not the first battle America has fought against addiction. In her new book, University of Missouri-Rolla historian Dr. Diana Ahmad examines the opium-smoking epidemic of the mid-19th century and finds that Chinese immigrants weren’t the problem, as is commonly believed.

The book, “The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws,” was published this month by the University of Nevada Press.

Ahmad, who is associate professor of history and UMR’s archivist, contends that while China faced its own epidemic of opium addiction in the 19th century, only a very small minority of Chinese immigrants in America were actually involved in the opium business.

“It was in Anglo communities that the use of opium soon spread,” Ahmad says. “This growing use was deemed a threat to the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit and to its growing importance as a world economic and military power.”

The book also examines how the spread of opium-smoking fueled racism and created demands for the removal of the Chinese from American life. Ahmad reveals the way moral crusaders linked their antiopium rhetoric to already active demands for Chinese exclusion.

“Until this time, anti-Chinese propaganda had been dominated by protests against the economic and political impact of Chinese workers and the alleged role of Chinese women as prostitutes,” Ahmad explains. “The use of the drug by Anglos added another reason for demonizing Chinese immigrants.”...

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