|Drugs and Alcohol
Chicago was a wide-open town when it came to drinking, but opium smoking, introduced into the city in the 1870s by Chinese immigrants, drew an uncharacteristically punitive response. Statutes targeting opium dens, passed in the 1880s, resulted in hundreds of arrests per year in areas such as the Levee, the vice district clustered around State Street south of the Loop.
Increasingly aggressive regulation of narcotics and cocaine in the 1910s and 1920s caused habitual users to turn to more potent and efficient forms of their preferred drugs. Opium smokers switched to oral and then injectable opiates, usually morphine, while cocaine users moved from sniffing to injecting the drug, often in combination with morphine. Prohibition also accelerated changes in patterns of euphoric-substance use. Enforcement of the Volstead Act diminished the prominence of all-male saloons and unintentionally encouraged the development of more expensive speakeasies patronized by men and women. After repeal, heterosocial drinking patterns persisted. Marijuana smoking, introduced into the city in the 1920s by Mexican immigrants seeking work in the steel mills, became popular among youths seeking a cheap alternative to alcohol during Prohibition. White visitors “slumming” in the Black Belt entertainment district could also visit “teapads” or “reefer dens.”
Given the concentration of the illicit drug trade in the Black Belt, African Americans appeared relatively infrequently in narcotics arrest statistics. By the early 1930s, the average Chicago narcotics addict was a poor, native-born, white adult male over the age of 30 who injected morphine under the skin. Only a few used heroin or cocaine. By 1952, however, most addicts in Chicago injected heroin rather than morphine, and one-third were under the age of 21. A large proportion were the sons of recent migrants to the city and lived in the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Narcotics use among black Chicagoans did not become a public concern until the late 1960s.
Dai, Bingham. Opium Addiction in Chicago. 1937; 1970.
Duis, Perry. The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880–1920. 1983.
Spillane, Joseph. “The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900–1940.” Journal of Social History 32.1 (1998): 27–39.
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2005 Chicago Historical Society.
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