People in all indigenous cultures around the world used stimulants or narcotics – psychoactive compounds usually derived from plants. These were mostly chewed. Examples include tobacco (including Australian native Pituri), coca (common in South America), betel-nut (used across South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific), kava (in the western Pacific), opium (used in Asia and Europe since ancient times).

Opium Smoking in China
Opium Smoking in China Image: John Thomson
© Public Domain

Since the 16th century, when Native American tobacco smoking was adopted by the Europeans, the use of narcotics entered a dangerous path. Europeans took up nicotine smoking with enthusiasm and spread the habit across their expanding colonial realms. Sigmund Freud – a father of psychoanalysis - was to assert later that ‘smoking is a form of oral pleasure.’ The Portuguese and Spanish introduced it to South and Southeast Asia as well as Melanesia.

With millions of smokers it did not take long to discover that mixing opium with tobacco or indeed smoking it alone was far more potent than chewing. Use of opium accelerated in the 18th century, especially after the British went into large-scale production of opium in India and forced its trade onto China. Commercialising drugs resulted in intractable health, social and criminal problems world-wide.

A by-product of this momentous event in our region was the development of the Aboriginal smoking pipe, known commonly as the opium pipe and – of course - opium smoking by ordinary Australians as well as cultural minorities. Successful eradication of opium smoking in the early 20th century contributed to opening a floodgate for the hard, synthesised drugs such as cocaine, morphine, and numerous derivatives.