restricted access Social Poison: The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821–1926 (review)
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Reviewed by
Howard Padwa. Social Poison: The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821–1926. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. x + 232 pp. $55.00 (978-1-4214-0420-2).

Although opium has been used across the globe for thousands of years, the control and regulation of opiate drugs is a much more recent phenomenon. Attempts to regulate “narcotics,” including drugs such as the opiates and cocaine, began at the international level in the early twentieth century. At the same time, many countries, including the United States, Britain, and France, also began to introduce their own domestic legislation on drugs. National drug policies were all aimed at the same target—to limit the use of drugs like the opiates to legitimate medical purposes and also to eliminate recreational drug use—yet they differed quite considerably. In Britain, doctors were allowed to prescribe opiates to individuals addicted to these if the patient could not be successfully withdrawn from the drug. In France, opiate drugs could not be administered to addicts; they could be used only to treat other conditions. This “tale of two drug policies” (p. 1) has rarely been told. Thanks to the work of Virginia Berridge and others, the history [End Page 474] of drug control in Britain is quite well known, yet surprisingly little has been written about Continental European drug policies in the past.

In Social Poison Howard Padwa goes some way to rectifying this imbalance, comparing the response offered to opiate drugs in Britain and France during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He suggests that diverging drug policies can be explained by two factors: the demographics of addiction and sociopolitical differences in the threat that the use of opiates was thought to pose to the nation. As far as one can tell from rather patchy data, British addicts and their French counterparts differed in number, age, and class. In the United Kingdom, addiction appeared to be on the decline by the 1920s, and addicts were often middle-aged and middle-class and had begun using drugs as part of medical treatment, usually for pain relief. In contrast, French drug users were more numerous and tended to be younger, from a more varied socioeconomic background, and had often started using drugs recreationally. Many French opiate addicts were soldiers, exposed to opium smoking in the colonies of Indochina. Drug use among the armed forces also fed in to deeper fears about the danger opium posed to the nation. Padwa argues that French national identity was constructed around a sense of collective participation and citizenship, which opium, with its connotations of individuality and retreat from the real world, undermined. The British, he suggests, were more concerned with the damage opium could do to economic productivity, and once it was established that opiate addicts could continue to work, the threat to Britain’s national security was negated.

Differences in what Padwa neatly terms “anti-narcotic nationalism” (p. 8) certainly played a role in shaping the two countries drug policies. Assessing the relative significance of these is, of course, rather more difficult. The demographics of drug use and the danger that this was thought to pose would seem to be highly interrelated: if opiate use had been common in the British army, it is likely that a more restrictive approach to narcotics would have been introduced in the United Kingdom. Indeed, it was drug taking (admittedly it was cocaine and not opium that was being used) among troops on leave in Britain during World War I that helped bring about an amendment to the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916, restricting the use of opiates and cocaine in the country for the first time. Padwa barely mentions this incident, presumably because it does not fit his overarching argument, but the areas of convergence between British and French experiences with drugs are as interesting as the contrasts.

Such an omission, does not, however, detract from an engaging and well-written book. Drawing on literature and archival material from both sides of the English Channel, Social Poison offers a comparative perspective that has often been missing from the existing historiography of illicit drugs...


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