The war on drugs
A final relic from a bygone era. The last known opium den in New York was a 2nd floor apartment at #295 Broome Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge Streets, at the northeastern edge of Chinatown. It was run by a Chinese immigrant named Lau, who was 57 when the joint got raided and his ass hauled away. There were a few old pipes and lamps, 10 ounces of opium and 40 ounces of heroin. The date was June 28, 1957.
Police uncovered a secluded opium den, arrested three elderly men and seized $4,000 worth of prepared opium yesterday. Officers from the Tin Sum taskforce in Sha Tin were combing hillside hideouts used by illegal immigrants when they found smoke billowing from a makeshift tent near Mei Lam Estate. Police allegedly saw the trio, aged between 56 and 74, inhaling opium from a pipe. The men and their equipment were taken to Tin Sum police station. Tin Sum police commander, Superintendent Jawaid Khan, said it was the first time police had found an opium den, although the Customs and Excise Department smashed a similar place for addicts in Tai Po Road, near Smugglers’ Ridge, last year. ‘Sha Tin district special duty squad have been alerted because we hope they can find the source of the opium,’ he said. Police Narcotics Bureau Detective Superintendent Chris Cantley said opium smoking was ‘less and less common these days’. ‘It’s an old man’s habit. It’s dying out just as old men are dying. Twenty years ago opium was everywhere, but now there are very few,’ he said. The bureau seized 104 kilograms of raw opium and 15.6 kg of prepared opium in 1991-93. In the first 11 months of this year police seized 8.6 kg and 420 grams respectively.
Opium-eradication campaigns drove opium smoking underground, but it was still fairly common in San Francisco and other North American cities until around World War II.
In the industrialized world, the United States is the world’s biggest consumer of prescription opioids, with Italy one of the lowest because of tighter regulations on prescribing narcotics for pain relief. Most opium imported into the United States is broken down into its alkaloid constituents, and whether legal or illegal, most current drug use occurs with processed derivatives such as heroin rather than with unrefined opium.
The opium dens of New York City’s Chinatown, due to its geographical distance from China, were not as opulent as some of those to be found on the American West Coast. According to H. H. Kane, a doctor who spent years studying opium use in New York in the 1870s and 1880s, the most popular opium dens (or “opium joints” as they were known in the parlance of the day) were located on Mott and Pell Streets in Chinatown.