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When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws

By Dan Malleck

Review By Erika Dyck

March 12, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 169-170

This is a story of contested authority. Dan Malleck has drawn from legal, medical, newspaper, policy, and pharmacy perspectives to explore the shifting conceptualizations of opium addiction and regulation in nineteenth century Canada. In some ways this book builds naturally on Malleck’s study of liquor regulation in Ontario, Try to Control Yourself (UBC Press: 2013), which examines the complicated balancing act performed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to prescribe an appropriate and permissive culture of drinking while maintaining control over disorderly or pathological drinking. In When Good Drugs Go Bad, Malleck looks at opium, opiates, and early ideas about how such substances should be controlled and regulated. In the process he offers a close study of how doctors, pharmacists, bureaucrats, and policy-makers wrestled over the control of opiates in the decades leading to the first Opium Act of 1908.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each of them exploring different actors, players, or episodes in this arena of regulation, including doctors, lawyers, policy-makers, BC-based responses to anti-Chinese sentiments, psychiatrists, and pharmacists. When Good Drugs Go Bad also offers an examination of the professionalization of medicine, psychiatry, and pharmacy. Each of these groups positioned itself to advise and control the use and distribution of opiates and struggled over who had the most appropriate expertise and training to handle this highly addictive and increasingly volatile substance. This book traces the bureaucratization of drug control in nineteenth century Canada when this range of professional groups got involved in the control and distribution of opiates, and later, in the treatment of addiction. It offers glimpses of the nineteenth century economy and the transnational circulation of opium from the level of the British Empire to the micro-markets of British Columbia’s Chinese communities, doctors’ offices, and local pharmacies.

The book’s central questions include pathological versus recreational drug use, how laws offer both protection and restriction, and whose expertise should have the upper hand in our conceptualization of addiction. The history of opium provides us with some classical questions about whether addiction represents medical disorder, criminal intent, corrupted will, or a logical reaction to painful circumstances, and ultimately shows how different actors have subscribed to competing conceptualizations to further their own professional goals.

When Good Drugs Go Bad will be of interest to scholars exploring the history of drugs and their regulation while also adding to our understanding of state formation and professionalization during the nineteenth century. Its multi-regional focus on Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia serves to nationalize these issues. Malleck also addresses and critically challenges the association in British Columbia between anti-Chinese sentiments and opium that, he argues, has distorted events by insisting that the Opium Act was a reaction to racial tensions. Instead, by broadening the regional lens, Malleck shifts the story to a contest over professional authority.

When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws
Dan Malleck
Vancouver: UBC Press 2015. 320 pp. $34.95 paper