Opinion

Tom Dillard: Arkansas has long habit of getting hooked on drugs like opium, cocaine

Drug addiction has been a major problem in Arkansas and America since our beginning. Our ancestors drank huge amounts of alcohol. Nicotine was a drug of choice for the great majority of Arkansans and their countrymen. Practically everyone smoked or chewed tobacco, though many women preferred to dip snuff.

What we now consider hard drugs were surprisingly available too, even well before the Civil War.

The first advertisement I could locate for opium appeared in the Arkansas Gazette on April 3, 1827, when Arkansas was still a territory. Montgomery & Cotton, commission merchants in Little Rock, offered both gum opium and calomel, an opium-laced medicine sold widely in Arkansas for decades.

Opium was probably first grown in ancient Sumer, being one of the "spices" traveling the great Silk Road from Asia to Europe. Muslims used opium in lieu of alcohol, which was prohibited by the Koran, and their traders sold opium throughout the Middle East and in China.

Opium was sold openly in Arkansas throughout the 19th century and was prescribed by doctors everywhere. It was a miracle drug in that it relieved pain and lowered anxiety. Many people first consumed opium as the major ingredient in laudanum, a concoction developed in 1680 by a prominent English doctor. In addition to opium, laudanum contained sherry, saffron, nutmeg and sometimes much more. It was also called "tincture of opium."

Arkansans welcomed the sale of opium; newspapers in the 1830s promoted it as a potential crop for Arkansas farmers seeking relief from the ups and downs of the cotton economy. The Gazette in March 1830 reprinted an article from a Virginia newspaper boasting that opium grown in that state surpassed that of Turkey. The article also included instructions for growing opium poppies.

The same newspaper also reported that the national Columbian Institute was offering free seeds to "gardeners who will cultivate it."

Folklorist Vance Randolph visited a cabin in the Ozarks where an elderly woman kept her opium ball on the fireplace mantle, using it regularly to relieve her arthritis.

Morphine, an opium derivative, was widely used throughout the country. Merck chemical company began marketing morphine in 1827. Its use grew after the development of the hypodermic syringe in the 1850s. Drugstores throughout Arkansas advertised the availability of morphine, such as the Williams pharmacy in Dardanelle, which offered morphine as well as gum opium.

In 1892 the Gazette reported on the arrest of a woman "in a beastly state of intoxication" who had been found on the streets nearly nude. "The woman is a victim of the morphine habit," the reporter wrote, adding that morphine is a "poisonous drug."

Drug addiction grew after cocaine was synthesized in 1855. It was derived from the leaves of the coca plant, a native of the mountains of South America. It quickly won accolades from the medical establishment as a new miracle drug. Inventor Thomas Edison and actress Sarah Bernhardt were vocal fans of cocaine. Sigmund Freud promoted the drug, but his impact was minor compared to that of John Pemberton, who in 1886 included it in his formula for Coca-Cola.

Cocaine found a ready market in Arkansas. The results could be tragic. Physicians, who often self-treated with opiates and cocaine, sometimes became addicts. Dr. N.G. Hardister, a 63-year-old doctor living in Hoxie, killed himself in 1910 after "using drugs to such an excess that he was 'out of his head.'"

Perhaps the most prominent cocaine addict in Arkansas was Will Garland, son of the renowned governor, U.S. senator, and attorney general of the United States Augustus H. Garland. Just before Christmas in 1907, while staying at the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, Garland used a cocaine overdose to kill himself.

After unsuccessfully trying to obtain cocaine on the streets, Garland convinced the hotel doctor to give him a prescription for five doses, which he had no trouble legally filling though it was late at night. He retreated to his room, took all five doses at once, and died the next morning after a night of raving and thrashing about.

Marijuana, in the form of hashish, was first mentioned in an Arkansas newspaper in 1849, though it was not widely used in Arkansas until after World War II. (Marijuana will be the subject of a future column.)

Historians agree that most drug users during the 1800s were Southern women: white, middle-aged and middle-class women, to be more specific. Physicians were not reluctant to prescribe opium or morphine for a host of "female problems," including morning sickness and painful menstruation. It was also viewed by women as more socially acceptable than alcohol. In 1919 the Supreme Court ruled that doctors could not maintain addicted patients.

The Civil War had an impact on drug consumption as opiates were used to treat wounded and sick soldiers for diarrhea, dysentery and malaria, the most common "camp diseases." The U.S. Army Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Philadelphia administered 40,000 morphine injections in a single year. Some 10 million opium pills were issued to the Union Army during the war, and this was on top of some nearly 3 million ounces of other opium products such as laudanum and paregoric.

The Confederate army was not nearly so well stocked with powerful drugs. However, opium was certainly used. One Confederate surgeon remembered late in his life that "in one pocket of my trousers I had a ball of blue mass (made with mercury), in another [pocket] a ball of opium."

The Harrison Act of 1914 was enacted to regulate and tax opiates and cocaine products. Not surprisingly, the federal law was followed by the passage of anti-drug laws in Arkansas. Little Rock passed an ordinance criminalizing certain drug use even before the passage of the Harrison Act, although enforcement of the law was apparently uneven.

Federal and state laws did have an impact on drug consumption, especially in limiting the over-prescription of drugs by physicians. But the use of drugs was forced underground. In January 1917, Bond Drug Co. in Little Rock was burgled, and only hard drugs were taken.

The following year, two married women in Little Rock were arrested and charged with possessing 640 bottles of cocaine and morphine -- valued at $15,000 -- for illegal resale. These prosecutions were the opening salvo in a fight against drugs which continues to this day.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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