"Scientific exhibit here boys, latest improvements to the hypodermic syringe and its many uses!"
This carnival barker-style cry on page 23, in the context of Against the Day's frequent references to opium smoking, point to an interesting dynamic in the history of narcotic drug use in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In their 2004 book, Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China, published by the University of Chicago Press, authors Frank Dikotter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun trace the history of opium use in China, with particular emphasis on the way that, under the pressure of foreign anti-opium activists, the relatively benign practice of opium smoking was replaced by the far more dangerous and unhealthy injection of morphine and other synthetic drugs with hypodermic syringes. The net effect was to take away an effective medicine (opium) and replace it with much more addictive substances and a risky new drug delivery technology, with devastating consequences.
In Narcotic Culture, the authors ask why the syringe became a popular way of administering drugs in China late in the 19th century, observing that "not only was it cheap and effective, but it also encountered relatively few cultural obstacles since an existing needle lore endowed the hypodermic with positive attributes....the almost magical properties attributed to the syringe in both elite medical culture and popular drug consumption in modern China."
....from the Amazon.com description of Narcotic Culture : A History of Drugs in China:
"To this day, the perception persists that China was a civilization defeated by imperialist Britain's most desirable trade commodity, opium--a drug that turned the Chinese into cadaverous addicts in the iron grip of dependence. Britain, in an effort to reverse the damage caused by opium addiction, launched its own version of the "war on drugs," which lasted roughly sixty years, from 1880 to World War II and the beginning of Chinese communism. But, as Narcotic Culture brilliantly shows, the real scandal in Chinese history was not the expansion of the drug trade by Britain in the early nineteenth century, but rather the failure of the British to grasp the consequences of prohibition." In a stunning historical reversal, Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun tell this different story of the relationship between opium and the Chinese. They reveal that opium actually had few harmful effects on either health or longevity; in fact, it was prepared and appreciated in highly complex rituals with inbuilt constraints preventing excessive use. Opium was even used as a medicinal panacea in China before the availability of aspirin and penicillin. But as a result of the British effort to eradicate opium, the Chinese turned from the relatively benign use of that drug to heroin, morphine, cocaine, and countless other psychoactive substances. Narcotic Culture provides abundant evidence that the transition from a tolerated opium culture to a system of prohibition produced a "cure" that was far worse than the disease. Delving into a history of drugs and their abuses, Narcotic Culture is part revisionist history of imperial and twentieth-century Britain and part sobering portrait of the dangers of prohibition.