In the wake of the South African war, the indenture and transport of over 63,000 Chinese men to gold mines in the Transvaal sparked a rush to supply smoking opium to a literally captive market. Embroiled in a growing political economy of mass intoxication, state lawmakers shifted official policy from prohibition to provision. Their innovation of an industrial drug maintenance bureaucracy, developed on behalf of mining capital in alliance with organized pharmacy and medicine, ran counter to local trends of policy reform and represents a unique episode for broader histories of modern narcotics regulation. This article considers the significance of this case and chronicles the contradictory interests and ideologies that informed political scrambles over legitimate opium uses, users, and profiteers. It shows how the state maintained its provision policy, for as long as it proved expedient, against varied and mounting public pressures – local and international – for renewed drug suppression. The argument here is that the state managed an epidemic of addiction on the Rand as an extraordinary problem of demography. It achieved this both through redefining smoking opium from intoxicant to mine medicine and through the legal construction of a ‘special biochemical zone’, which corresponded with the exceptional status and spatial segregation of a despised alien labour force.
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