Throughout its history, Seattle has often been a hotbed for narcotic and stimulant drugs. In recent times, heroin was a popular drug in the city’s music scene and caused several notable deaths. Two decades later, fentanyl emerged as one of the top illicit drugs, triggering an entirely new crisis. But the beginnings of the city's experience with dangerous drugs goes back well over a century, when opium factories in nearby Victoria, British Columbia, produced a smokable form of the drug that fueled a network of opium dens operating in Seattle’s Chinese district. These dens, and the various narcotic-based medications that were legal to purchase at pharmacies, brought the city’s first drug epidemic. Local officials passed a number of anti-drug ordinances with varying degrees of effectiveness, but the era remains a historical reminder of the persistence and grim realities of addiction.
During the Opium Wars from 1839 to 1860, Britain assumed control of much of the world's opium trade. Wanting to capitalize on the North American market, Britain began exporting raw opium from Hong Kong to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where several opium factories operated in the city's Chinese district. The factories would process the raw opium into a more refined form, which was packed into tins for legal distribution. The tins were known as "5-taels" (a tael was a Chinese unit of measurement), equivalent to a half pound when full of opium. Some factories processed the raw opium into a brown, molasses-like paste known as "chandu," specifically for smoking; others produced pharmaceutical-grade opium for use in various medicines. By the 1870s, Victoria had established itself as the top distribution hub for opium used throughout North America.
Several towns in Washington Territory had sizable Chinese populations, predominantly men, many of whom had worked in logging camps and railroads. During the early 1880s, Chinese made up roughly 10 percent of Seattle's entire population. Originally welcomed as cheap labor, they were suddenly seen as threats in an intensely competitive job market when an economic downturn hit. There was a growing anti-Chinese backlash, which prompted the city's first drug law. Seattle Ordinance 618, passed in November 1884, prohibited the smoking and inhaling of opium – one of the first drug laws in the nation to criminalize the use of a specific substance. At the time, opium smoking was largely confined to the city's Chinese, and with Seattle awash in 5-tael tins of British Columbia's most popular export, the ordinance provided a justification to prosecute that community.
By the early 1890s, over a dozen Victoria-based opium factories were in production, with regular shipments being sent to several West Coast cities. A network of opium dens soon emerged within Seattle's Chinese neighborhood, with Washington Street serving as the main drug corridor. These opium dens were adjacent to the Tenderloin district, making them a popular addition to the saloons, brothels, and gambling parlors that already existed in that section of town.
Seattle's opium dens resembled those found in other parts of the world. Typically, a large room would be furnished with extravagant decor, replete with Asian rugs, lamps, and wall hangings. A series of bunk-style beds allowed users to recline in comfort while enjoying the somatic effects of the drug. Customers would be given an opium kit, or "outfit," which usually included a mahogany pipe, a glass lamp to provide the flame, and an ornate wooden box to store whatever quantity of opium had been purchased at the door. A firsthand account of an 1890s-era opium den in Port Townsend gives a vivid description of how such places typically operated:
"They had a bunch of bunks there, two high all the way around the room. All they had was a wooden pillow and mat laying on a hard board. They had these little stands alongside them. They'd take the opium and a long, thin-like-a-knitting needle or lady's hat pin. They'd dip it in there and roll it up into a ball. It was black and tar-like. Then, they would hold it over this peanut oil-burning lamp. They would turn the substance over and over, it would never fall off the pin. Then, when it was bubbling, they would put the wad in a pipe and take about three or four puffs on it. They'd smoke awhile, then all of a sudden they would get drowsy. They'd sleep there for hours. Many would go through the whole process again once they woke up" ("Back When: Opium ...")
In Seattle, the primary hub for some of the city's more popular opium dens was a five-story building whose main tenant was the Wa Chong Company – a Chinese import business that carried a wide array of items, including rice, tea, fireworks, and opium (which was legal to sell at the time). The building also served as a social center for the Chinese community, with several rooms available for rent. While the Wa Chong Company itself was not involved in criminal activity, many of the rental rooms in its namesake building had been converted into opium dens, and with Ordinance 618 still on the books they became the target of frequent police raids. As one article pointed out, "Almost every door in the place bears the marks of heavy instruments used in smashing them down to arrest opium smokers" ("Young Woman Fined ..."). An 1897 police raid at the building received particular attention, with one newspaper article gushing over the impressive quality of paraphernalia that had been confiscated: "Their outfits were the finest ever found ... with plenty of opium of various grades ... the pipes were especially fine ones with ivory tips" ("Chinese Opium Den Raided")
In 1899 a scandal erupted when prominent Seattle city officials were accused of accepting bribes from opium-den proprietors in exchange for protection from arrest. It was revealed that a mutual agreement had been established that local opium dens would not be raided as long as they refused to allow people from nationalities other than Chinese inside their establishments. This reflected growing racial anxieties, and the city's opium dens were increasingly being accused of luring "naive citizens" into a life of crime and depravity, though newspaper accounts at the time suggest that the den's non-Chinese habitués were, in fact, very willing participants. "A great deal of opium is being smoked south of Yesler Way," reported The Seattle Times, adding, "The number of white men who are patrons of these Chinese joints is large" ("Chinese Opium Den Raided"). Another article observed, "There are a good number of white people in this city who are confirmed opium smokers, owning their pipes and using the drug as frequently as the Chinese. In the tenderloin district, opium smoking has become quite general among the white inhabitants, and the habit is growing" ("Number Who 'Hit The Pipe' ...").
Another common legal source of narcotics and stimulants was the wide variety of tinctures, tonics, and elixirs that were available to purchase at pharmacies and apothecaries throughout Seattle. At the time, there were no laws governing the ingredients of these medicine, and the shelves of shops were often stocked full of cure-alls. An opiate tincture known as laudanum was a popular medicine, as were cocaine toothache drops, "soothing syrups" containing morphine and alcohol, and various opium-laden headache powders.
The city's bustling opium dens, combined with these legally available narcotics, brought skyrocketing rates of addiction. In response, the city's earliest drug-treatment centers began opening. Dr. Liebig's Sanatorium (later called the Washington Sanatorium), an impressively large and ornate building on Yesler Way, offered "the speedy and permanent cure of morphine, opium, cocaine and liquor habits" ("Consult Oldest Doctors"). The Keely Institute offered similar services, and Olive Ryther opened the City Mission to young female addicts. The doctors who often ran these facilities all had their own theories of addiction and tried a wide variety of treatments involving everything from regimented diets, to ice baths, electric therapy, and various snake-oil concoctions.
With the city's drug problems receiving increasingly bad press, temperance groups began petitioning political leaders to take action. The Seattle chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union was particularly vocal, and in response Seattle Ordinance 6098 – which sought to "regulate and restrain the sale and disposition of certain dangerous narcotics within the City of Seattle" – was approved on August 9, 1900. The ordinance made it a misdemeanor for "any person, druggist or otherwise, to sell or give away any opium, morphine, cocaine, hydrate of chloral or any other narcotic except to physicians, or surgeons or upon their written prescription" ("New Opium Law").
Starting in the 1880s and throughout the 1890s, the going rate for factory-produced opium purchased in Victoria was between $6 and $7 per pound, producing generous profit margins when the imported tins of opium were resold in the states. However, in 1883 the U.S. government began imposing a $6-per-pound tariff on all opium brought into the country. This suddenly made smuggling a very attractive proposition for anyone wanting to avoid the steep import taxes, and the maritime smuggling of opium from Canada into the Pacific Northwest blossomed into a huge and profitable enterprise.
Local smugglers typically relied on sloops or schooners as their ships of choice, as they were fast, quiet, and easy to maneuver. Steamships were often used for larger shipments. In most cases, smugglers would sail up to Victoria, load up their ships with processed opium, then sneak the product down to various ports throughout Puget Sound. As a general rule, smugglers were paid by the job, typically earning a dollar for every pound of opium that was successfully landed.
To combat this trade, the U.S. Revenue Marine Service (precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard) began using its fleet of cutters to patrol local waters and apprehend any suspicious vessels, while the U.S. Customs Service provided enforcement for all land-based smuggling activity. All legally imported opium was stamped to show proof that the required tariffs had been paid, so anyone caught with unstamped opium would be arrested and fined, with jail time possible depending on the severity of the offense. Confiscated opium was usually put up for auction, with the proceeds going directly into government coffers. These auctions were always popular and well-attended affairs, and if the price was right, it was often the smugglers themselves who would repurchase the opium that had been taken from them.
The area's first large-scale smuggling operation began in the 1880s aboard the SS Idaho, a wooden steamer that was part of the Pacific Coast Steamship Service, with stops in Seattle, Victoria, and Alaska. Its captain, James "Jimmy" Carroll, would secretly pick up large quantities of opium in Victoria and offload the illicit cargo at the Alaska stop, usually transferring it to other ships bound for San Francisco. If he wasn't able to offload the opium in Alaska, it would be smuggled down to Port Townsend. Typically, Revenue Service cutters were on the lookout for any ships coming directly from Victoria, so Carroll's departures from Alaska allowed him to escape detection, as he didn't fit that profile.
Carroll's operation came to an abrupt end in December 1885 when an informant tipped officials to the smuggling scheme. Customs agents boarded the Idaho when it arrived at Port Townsend and discovered 3,600 pounds of unstamped opium. Other agents then searched an Alaskan cannery that was connected to Carroll and found an additional 3,000 pounds of opium hidden inside barrels. The Idaho was seized, and Carroll was placed under arrest and later sentenced to prison.
Another smuggling operation emerged a few years later when a local sea captain, T. P. Hodgson, became the primary supplier of black-market opium for the entire West Coast. Typically, large quantities of opium would be purchased in Victoria and loaded onto Hodgson's fleet of sloops. They would then scatter throughout the San Juan Islands, hiding in coves and inlets during the day. At night the ships would sail down to various landing spots along Elliott Bay. Once in Seattle, the tins of opium would be divided into smaller parcels and distributed throughout the city's black market. Hodgson was said to have several important Chinese connections in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, and his smuggling operation grew into a very lucrative business.
In 1901 U.S. Customs officials arrested one of Hodgson's men in downtown Seattle while he was transporting 200 pounds of unstamped opium in a horse-drawn carriage. An additional 300 pounds of opium was found at the barn where his horse and wagon were kept. Hodgson was soon arrested and later sentenced to a year at McNeil Island Penitentiary. During his trial, prosecutors estimated that he had been smuggling 1,300 pounds of opium into Seattle every month.
The last big Seattle smuggling bust of that era took place in 1904, when federal agents seized 2,000 pounds of unstamped opium inside a barn on Jefferson Street. Opium was being smuggled from Victoria by small sloops and landed in Ballard, then loaded into a horse-drawn wagon and brought to the barn for storage. The ringleader, B. B. "Big" Stevens, was arrested, fined, and sentenced to one year in the county jail. When the contraband opium from this particular bust was put up for auction, it was the Wa Chong Company that made the winning bid.
The End of the Dens
By the early 1900s, due to increased police pressure, there were far fewer Chinese-owned, traditionally-run opium dens operating in Seattle. The opulence of earlier dens was being replaced with crude reproductions, and in cheap hotels and filthy rooming houses where the city's addicts would use any available space as their personal smoking quarters. In one case, a room inside a horse stable had been converted into an opium joint. These makeshift dens were opening with increasing regularity outside the boundaries of the Chinatown district, and also began spreading to nearby towns.
In the summer of 1905, the Seattle police chief declared, "We are going to clean Seattle of dope fiends" ("Police Raid Dens ..."), thus heralding an intense crackdown on this new generation of squalid opium establishments. The Phoenix Hotel was where many of the city's addicts had headquartered themselves and had "developed into a full-fledged opium den" ("Seattle's First Chinatown"). There was so much criminal activity at the Phoenix that the hotel's proprietor was arrested on charges of "conducting a disorderly house." The nearby Davenport Hotel also was notorious for hosting several opium joints.
Meanwhile, up in Canada, the 1908 Opium Act was enacted, which made it illegal to import, manufacture, or sell opium. All the opium factories in Victoria were immediately forced to close, shutting off the pipeline that had been pouring processed opium into Seattle. A year later, in 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act was enacted by the U.S Congress, banning the possession, importation, and use of opium except for medical purposes. This was the official nail in the coffin for local dens, as recreational opium smoking was now a criminal act. With factory-processed opium no longer available, pharmaceuticals such as morphine, laudanum, and heroin became the opiates of choice for the city's users. Within a few years, the last of Seattle's fabled opium joints had closed down for good.
The Cocaine King
With Victoria factories closed and laws and regulations tightening the grip on the opium trade, a new drug began climbing in popularity. Between 1895 and 1905, the supply of cocaine increased by over 700 percent due to improved processing methods. This caused prices to drop, making it much more accessible. Cocaine began appearing in a wider variety of medications and was a popular ingredient in several different soft drinks, triggering a new drug epidemic.
In Seattle, the police department used Ordinance 6098 to combat this new scourge by clamping down on the pharmacies that were selling cocaine-based medications without a valid prescription. The largest of these operations came in 1907, when the police chief, Charles Wappenstein (1853-1931), launched a citywide crackdown that targeted all unlicensed sales of a popular cocaine-based medication known as Dr. McBirney's Catarrhal Powder. As a result, several of Seattle's more unscrupulous pharmacies were shut down for good.
Cocaine was also emerging as a popular street drug. At the time, there were more than a dozen Seattle messenger services in operation. These businesses typically hired teen-age boys as couriers to deliver messages and packages by foot, bicycles, and streetcars. As cocaine increased in popularity, local dealers began using these messenger services to ferry their illicit product. Jim Casey (1888-1983) and Claude Ryan (1888-1969), the eventual founders of United Parcel Service (UPS), got their start working for a local messenger service delivering parcels throughout the city, including alcohol, cocaine and opium.
In 1907 – the same year UPS was founded – Charles "Curley" Conley, who managed the Hurry Messenger Service, was arrested for selling cocaine. Conley made arrangements with local pharmacies that allowed him to purchase large quantities of the drug without a valid prescription. He would then use his teen messengers to deliver the drug to buyers across the city. Many of his couriers were addicts themselves, and did his bidding in exchange for cocaine. Police eventually arrested Conley, as well as the local pharmacists he was in cahoots with, and all were sentenced to jail time.
The following year, 1908, a much larger cocaine racket emerged, and as before this operation disguised itself as a messenger service. The Queen City Messenger Company was owned and operated by C. J. Yates, who would later be dubbed the Cocaine King of Seattle. Yates purchased large quantities of pure cocaine from a pharmaceutical-supply company in New York, parceling it down to 25-cent packets for distribution. Customers would call into his messenger service, placing their orders by telephone, and the cocaine would then be delivered by one of his young couriers.
Yates's operation flooded the city with easy-to-obtain cocaine. At first the police were baffled about where it all was coming from, but knew that a black-market operation was behind it. As one Seattle detective declared, "It isn't through drugstores, where records of the sales are made, or by the aid of doctors that the fiends get the cocaine. The users of the powerful drug get their stuff from illicit dealers'' ("Cocaine Is Sold ..."). On July 4, 1909, police raided Yates's messenger service, as well as a pool hall he owned. It was there that police discovered several packets of cocaine powder hidden in the pockets of the pool tables. A few months later, Yates would be arrested again for selling cocaine from a downtown cigar stand, resulting in a prison term that would finally end his reign as the city's first cocaine kingpin.
The Roaring '20s
Prohibition started in Washington in 1916 and in 1920 was imposed nationwide, creating an entirely new black market in alcohol. But even during the flashy era of bootlegged booze, narcotics continued to be a significant problem. Seattle police were still on high alert for pharmacies engaged in illegal narcotic sales, but the bulk of illicit drugs were now being supplied by street dealers. With the disappearance of the area's opium dens and the crackdown on pharmaceutical narcotics, black-market morphine emerged as the opiate of choice for many users. This resulted in increased rates of addiction, which in turn led to a spike in such crimes as muggings and burglaries. A 1919 study by the Seattle Health Department revealed that in the span of two years the number of local addicts had grown by 150 percent. Desperate addicts began breaking into local pharmacies, stealing whatever inventories of medicinal narcotics they could get their hands on, and once again the papers were full of lurid, drug-related crime stories.
In September 1919, several high-level meetings were held by city officials to discuss the "alarming increase in the use of narcotics" ("Will Plan War ..."). The city's previous drug law – Seattle Ordinance 6098 – was still on the books, though officials wanted a new and updated law that not only addressed the city's current concerns, but would also send a clear message that illegal narcotics were no longer going to be tolerated. As a result, Seattle Ordinance 40149 was enacted on November 18, 1919. It was a stern measure, with little leniency for any illegal drug activity. First and foremost, it was now unlawful to be in possession of or under the influence of any narcotic drug unless legally prescribed by a licensed physician. The law also mandated that pharmacies could sell narcotic medications only to licensed dentists, physicians, or surgeons. Any building, house, or property that allowed the illegal use or sale of narcotic drugs would be declared a public nuisance and taken from the owner through civil forfeiture.
A few years later, on February 23, 1923, the Washington State Legislature enacted the first statewide drug law. The legislation was introduced by House member Adam Beeler, who represented King County's 46th District. This law – which became known as the Beeler Bill – was broad in its general aim for "the regulation, sale, disposal and use of narcotic drugs" (23 Wash. Laws, ch. 47, Sec. 1). Much of it addressed the handling of such drugs by pharmacies, making it a felony, for example, to forge or alter a prescription. The most significant part of the legislation was its definition of narcotics as "opium, morphine, cocaine, alkaloid cocaine, cocoa leaves, or alpha or beta eucaine, heroin, codeine, dionin, cannabis americana, cannabis indica, and other salts, derivatives, mixtures or preparations of any of them" (23 Wash. Laws, ch. 47, Sec. 2). Perhaps most striking was the inclusion of cannabis, as this was the first Washington law to criminalize the use of marijuana.
Violations of the Beeler Bill were punishable by up to 10 years in prison, though that severe penalty would rarely be imposed. This early anti-narcotic legislation serves as a bookend to a unique era from Seattle's illicit past. Its origins lie in those early dens amply supplied by the opium factories in British Columbia, the delivery services that acted as fronts for cocaine dealers, and the illicit pharmacies that once dotted the city's landscape. While giving a nod to the past, the Beeler Bill also served as a harbinger to the future where marijuana would soon rise in popularity and emerge as the next perceived drug threat.
Glossary of early Seattle drug slang:
- can of hop - a tin of opium
- chandu - a processed form of smokable opium
- Chinese molasses - chandu, or smokable opium
- dream dope - high quality opium from Victoria
- dream stick - a pipe used for smoking opium
- dross - fragrant black residue that builds up in an opium pipe after repeated uses
- fiend - a general term for a drug addict
- full rigger - an overdose of cocaine
- hit the pipe - the act of smoking opium
- hophead - a person addicted to smoking opium
- hop joints - opium dens
- Miss Emma - morphine
- leapers - cocaine users
- outfit - an opium kit, typically including a mahogany pipe, glass lamp and wooden opium box
- pill - a small ball of opium that users would gather on a needle to be heated over the flame of a lamp before being placed in the pipe and inhaled
- whiz bang - cocaine
- snowbird - a cocaine addict
- yen - a craving for opium
- yum yum - cocaine