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Monique Keiran: Victoria was once the opium capital

Four former mayors of Vancouver, three former attorneys general and municipal councils — all have gone on record supporting the decriminalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana in British Columbia.

Four former mayors of Vancouver, three former attorneys general and municipal councils — all have gone on record supporting the decriminalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana in British Columbia. And federal Liberal party Leader Justin Trudeau has pushed debate one step further, stating the drug should be legalized.

And thanks to all these letters and statements, residents of Greater Victoria get to watch history repeating itself. We have front-row seats in this latest development in our region’s long historical association with officially sanctioned production and trade in drugs.

For almost 50 years, beginning in the 1860s, Victoria reigned as the opium capital of the New World. Fifteen refineries operated between Herald and Johnson streets in the late 1880s, and employed dozens of workers. In one year alone, they refined about 41,000 kilograms of opium. Nowhere near the magnitude of output of B.C. bud today, but significant for the time.

Other parallels exist. The reasons put forth by today’s proponents of legalized pot are increased control of production, distribution and sales, and billions of dollars in increased tax revenues. Conservative think-tank the Fraser Institute estimates these to be worth as much as $7 billion annually.

Federal and local governments of yesteryear recognized and capitalized on the same opportunities. According to Dominion of Canada Trade and Navigation records, in 1891, the Canadian government collected more than $146,000 in duties (about $3.6 million today) on raw opium imported into B.C. from Asia.

Added to that pot of gold were fees from special licences imposed on sellers of smoking opium. According to David Lai, retired cultural geographer and professor emeritus with the University of Victoria, in 1865, these licences were priced at $100 each (about $1,400 today); by 1894, they cost $500.

On top of all that, the opium was taxed at point of sale.

Another parallel with the pot story: Special control and licensing attentions targeted only smoking — that is, “recreational” — opium. Opium intended for use in patent medicines was exempt. Although morphine, an opium derivative, is a medically important drug today, in the 19th century, snake-oil purveyors and respected physicians alike mixed opium into just about any drinkable liquid and proclaimed the results a panacea for everything from sniffles to cancer.

Laudanum, for instance, also known as tincture of opium, was readily available from pharmacists, and was a popular cough suppressant and painkiller. Opium, in the guise of ipecac syrup, even features in a particularly fraught scene in Anne of Green Gables. Yes, Canada’s red-headed heroine got a baby high on opium!

Exactly how well Canada’s government profited from Victoria’s opium industry between 1860 and 1908 is unknown, as much of the smoking opium produced here was smuggled into the U.S. after production.

Which brings us to another aspect of the story that surely applies today. After a 1908 report exposed the extent to which opium imported by and taxed in Canada was destined for “re-export” to the U.S., the government of the day quickly distanced itself from the industry and outlawed manufacture of smoking opium.

It was, of course, one thing to support and benefit for decades from the production and sale of drugs to one’s own people; it was quite another to officially acknowledge it was enabling smuggling into the U.S. — which had its own American-owned and -operated opium factories down the coast.

Thus began Canada’s century-long and largely unsuccessful war on drugs. And, folks, it all began right here.

A final parallel: Just as it did Wilfrid Laurier’s government on the issue of opium 105 years ago, we can count on our American neighbours’ reaction to the proposed legalization of marijuana influencing how our government handles that issue today. Canada’s trade dependence on the U.S. renders us vulnerable and easy for our neighbour to manipulate.

I’m certain that, in Canada, Washington, D.C., will have a great deal to say — perhaps, even the final say — on the legalization of pot.