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Social Poison

The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821–1926

Howard Padwa

Publication Year: 2012

This comparative history examines the divergent paths Britain and France took in managing opiate abuse during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though the governments of both nations viewed rising levels of opiate use as a problem, Britain and France took opposite courses of action in addressing the issue. The British sanctioned maintenance treatment for addiction, while the French authorities did not hesitate to take legal action against addicts and the doctors who prescribed drugs to them. Howard Padwa draws on primary documents to examine the factors that led to these disparate approaches. He finds that shifts in the composition of drug-using populations of the two countries and a marked divergence in British and French conceptions of citizenship influenced national policies. Beyond shared concerns about public health and morality, Britain and France understood the threat opiate abuse posed to their respective communities differently. Padwa traces the evolution of thinking on the matter in both countries, explaining why Britain took a less adversarial approach to domestic opiate abuse despite the productivity-sapping powers of this social poison, and why the relatively libertine French chose to attack opiate abuse. In the process, Padwa reveals the confluence of changes in medical knowledge, culture, politics, and drug-user demographics throughout the period, a convergence of forces that at once highlighted the issue and transformed it from one of individual health into a societal concern. An insightful look at the development of drug discourses in the nineteenth century and drug policy in the twentieth century, Social Poison will appeal to scholars and students in public health and the history of medicine.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

It would be impossible to acknowledge all of the individuals and organizations whose support has helped bring this book to fruition, but a few deserve special mention. First, I thank Richard Romero, the high school teacher who changed the way I viewed the world and its past and inspired me to pursue the study of history. ...

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Introduction: A Tale of Two Drug Policies

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pp. 1-13

For an otherwise law-abiding morphine addict struggling to overcome addiction in the late 1920s, Britain was a more welcoming place than France. Although narcotics were subject to similar controls in both countries, the British government was willing to permit maintenance treatment in intractable cases of morphine and heroin addiction...

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1 Imagining the Meditative Nation: Constructing the Opium Experience

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pp. 14-49

In the nineteenth century, Britons and Frenchmen became increasingly aware of the powers, both enjoyable and excruciating, of psychoactive substances and began to explore them in greater detail. While more focused on alcohol, the substance most prominent in their societies, poets, medical researchers, and commentators also began to discuss the nature of opium...

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2 Anti-narcotic Nationalism: The Feared Consequences of Recreational Opiate Use

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pp. 50-85

Opiate use was seen as a distinctive practice by the end of the nineteenth century, on two fronts—one spiritual, the other medical. Understandings of the psychoactive effects of opiates led many within both the medical and literary communities to consider the drugs agents of isolation that cut users off from the outside world, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. ...

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3 The Era of National Narcotics Control: The Drug Wars Begin

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pp. 86-138

Although a global system of narcotics control would not come into effect until the 1920s, many nations—including Britain and France—instituted new domestic regulations to limit the consumption and use of opiates in the first two decades of the twentieth century. International forces and universal concerns about public health were at play, but nations also had their own reasons for instituting tighter controls over narcotics...

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4 Control and Its Discontents: The Plight of Addicts under Opiate Control

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pp. 139-174

Curing opiate addiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as physicians learned from their experience treating addicted patients, was not an easy proposition; it required a huge investment of time and resources and tremendous amounts of patience. After some fifty years trying to perfect a process for weaning addicts off opiates, most experts agreed...

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Epilogue: Changes and Continuities

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pp. 175-183

Since World War II, vestiges of British and French approaches toward narcotics control and addiction treatment dating from the 1910s and 1920s have remained intact, but attitudes have also evolved to meet the changing realities of each nation’s drug problems. Two major developments led to shifts in drug policies: the dramatic increase of drug use among the young...


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pp. 185-224


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pp. 225-232

E-ISBN-13: 9781421404660
E-ISBN-10: 1421404664
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421404202
Print-ISBN-10: 1421404206

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 794700760
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Social Poison

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Subject Headings

  • Drug control -- Great Britain -- History -- 20th century.
  • Drug control -- France -- History -- 19th century.
  • Opioid abuse -- France -- History -- 20th century.
  • Drug control -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Drug control -- France -- History -- 20th century.
  • Opioid abuse -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Opioid abuse -- France -- History -- 19th century.
  • Opioid abuse -- Great Britain -- History -- 20th century.
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