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  • When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws by Dan Malleck
  • Christopher Cumo
When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws, by Dan Malleck. Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 2016. xi, 305 pp. $37.95 US (paper).

When Good Drugs Go Bad reveals Dan Malleck to be a gifted writer and scholar. The prose is lucid and the organization well-conceived. The book merits special praise for combining history, literary analysis, and regulatory [End Page 390] policies. This type of breadth is essential if academics wish to engage a wide readership. When Good Drugs Go Bad might do just that, though the reader must be wary of the detailed treatment of Canadian regulatory policy in this book. Such treatment is the mark of the specialist — the scholar who has spent years mastering the subject now under the microscope. The promotion of breadth might have been the initial goal of the text, but the specialist’s interests overwhelm that focus. Right away, therefore, one might specify the legislative treatment as the domain of the specialist and the broad context as the bait to attract the generalist. In other words, When Good Drugs Go Bad offers much to specialist and generalist alike.

The most promising section of the book concentrates on the geography and cultivation of the opium poppy. This treatment is brief, and one might have wished for more information given the centrality of plants to the lives of people throughout the world. Scholarship would benefit from more studies that treat the various roles of plants in human lifeways. One might put such studies underneath the larger umbrella of what could be called plants and people scholarship. Already there are valuable studies in this category on the potato, sugarcane, citrus trees, coffee, cacao, rubber, and tea. Such works may be highly technical, but this approach is not ironclad. Because plants have a history, they are ripe for historical treatment. Regrettably, Malleck did not devote much space to the opium poppy. When he does, he leaves at least one tantalizing question unanswered. For example, Malleck situates the cultivation of the poppy in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Turkey, noting that the plant requires a great deal of labour to grow, harvest, and transport across the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to reach Canada. Such a system should, one supposes, drive up the price of opium. Yet Malleck does not address this issue. How widely did Canadians use opium? Were it a drug of the masses one would expect low prices. High prices on the other hand should have caused the opposite effect.

Key to an understanding of the place of opium in Canada is reflection on the role of Chinese immigrants. Their experience in the United States has been well documented. When Americans turned against opium, they turned against these newcomers. Violence against the Chinese population was periodic and intense in the American West during the nineteenth century. Similar violence plagued British Columbia. The question remains, however, whether the rejection of Chinese ways and institutions led to a rejection of opium throughout Canada. This must not have been so, otherwise government would never have needed to intervene to restrict opium.

Whatever one’s viewpoint, it seems clear that Malleck chose his subject well. By his own admission, studies about opium and the formation of regulatory policies have tended to focus on the US and the United Kingdom. [End Page 391] Both have influenced Canada because the US is Canada’s biggest trading partner and the UK still controlled Canada throughout much of the nineteenth century. Yet before this book, Canada has received scant attention. When Good Drugs Go Bad redresses this imbalance by giving Canada its due.

This focus is important because it is too easy to treat Canada, like the US, in purely economic terms. In such a scenario one almost automatically couples Canada with the US, as both are worldwide exporters of staples like wheat. When Good Drugs Go Bad reminds the reader that Canada is not just a sidekick. Canada has a unique history and a unique set of circumstances that has...


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pp. 390-392
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