It is not news to suggest that the law treated drugs like opium differently in the nineteenth century compared to today. These days, opium falls within the category of psychoactive drugs, for the purposes of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. This is because it ‘produces a psychoactive effect in a person … by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system … [thereby] affect[ing] the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’ (section 2(2)).[i] There was no equivalent provision in any nineteenth-century law. The suggestion here is that the law of the time – specifically, the law in England – was incapable of regulating the use of such drugs because lawmakers did not have a conception of what “mental functioning” was; and, without such an idea, they had no basis upon which to seek to control the impact of the drugs. Expressed differently, without an understanding of the mind of the legal subject, those applying the law were limited in their capacity to understand the threats, posed by opium, to that subject’s mind.
While the law was almost completely silent on this drug, popular culture was not. In this article I will sample a number of literary works that referred to opium use in order to explore the popular understanding of opium in English culture – including texts by Thomas De Quincey, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle. Taken together, a particular trajectory of attitudes may be deduced. A key benefit of looking at these examples is evident in the assessment that ‘novelists are quick to respond to the movement of our times, they know that we are ready to analyse our inner experience with an intimacy that our forefathers would have felt to be intolerable’ ( Terman, 1919: ix). I will demonstrate that these authors, in turn, presage the changes to the regulation of drugs in the early twentieth century.