Originally, chasing the dragon was a reference to inhaling the vapors from opium. Over time, it meant to chase after the elusive first-time high one got from a drug as the body develops greater and greater tolerance levels. At that point, the chase was at the expense of the user’s for his or her health, wealth, and/or sanity. Most recently, it refers to the pursuit of something you will never achieve or own.
Idiomation first heard the term used in the movie, “From Hell” which was set in 1888 in London (Whitechapel to be exact). The main character (played by Johnny Depp) was a police detective who was chasing the dragon (in reference to his recreational drug use). The term was used a handful of times in the movie.
However, a study published on the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) website titled, “Heroin Smoking by Chasing The Dragon: Origins and History” claim that the term was from 1920s Shanghai.
In September 5, 1983 the New Strait Times (published in Kuala Lumpur) reported on drug arrests in Ipoh (Malaysia). After coordinated raids in Menglembu, Kuala Kang, and Pengkaian Pegoh regions, police arrested four dadah addicts. The four men had fled police, and upon capturing them, the police seized two straw tubes of heroin. The article was titled, “Chasing The Dragon: One Caught.”
The Spokesman-Review published on February 13, 1961 brought news from Hong Kong where it was reported that more than half of the over 18,000 people sentenced to terms of imprisonment were guilty of drug offenses. The idiom chasing the dragon was used in explaining the situation where heroin and morphine (byproducts of opium poppies) weren’t grown locally, and supplies were being smuggled into Hong Kong from abroad. The second paragraph in the story stated this:
This is just one proof of the size of the drug problem facing the authorities in this British colony where, according to a special government report, as many as one in every 12 of the population may be indulging in the habit of “chasing the dragon” — taking dope.
This wasn’t just a problem in Hong Kong. It was a global problem, and affected those in America according to the 1961 “Narcotic Officer’s Handbook” which stated:
In ‘chasing the dragon‘ the heroin and any diluting drug are placed on a folded piece of tinfoil. This is heated with a taper and the resulting fumes inhaled through a small tube of bamboo or rolled up paper. The fumes move up and down the tinfoil with the movements of the molten powder resembling the undulating tail of the mythical Chinese dragon.
In the book, “An Introduction to the Work of a Medical Examiner: From Death Scene to Autopsy Suite” by John J. Miletich and Tia Laura Lindstrom, the authors claim (as does the NCBI study mentioned earlier) that heroin smoking originated in Shanghai in the 1920s, and spread across Eastern Asia before making the leap to the U.S. in the 1930s. The moniker chasing the dragon (according to the authors) didn’t show up until the early 1950s.
This is attested to in Jay Robert Nash’s book, “Dictionary of Crime: Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement.”
But how did chasing the dragon come to be used in the movie, “From Hell?”
Pure cocaine was first used in the 1880s as an anesthetic because it constricted blood vessels during surgery which limited bleeding (safer drugs introduced after that time replaced cocaine in the operating theater).
Cocaine had been illegal in China (from whence it came) until 1858, and was legalized, hoping to curb drug addiction and bolster the economy. Within twenty-five years of legalizing cocaine, it was among the top causes of social anxiety. In 1882, opium dens in the United States (in California especially) were getting out of hand, which led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Use of the drug in China peaked at the turn of the 20th Century, and began to steadily increase in England and the United States at the same time.
So while it’s true that in 1880s, some drug addicts were chasing the dragon, the term chasing the dragon was not in use at that time — or for some time after. The term made its way into the movie because it was a term someone associated with the movie had heard used to describe the activity in which Johnny Depp’s character was involved.
Idiomation is unable to pinpoint a date for this idiom, mostly because there are so many conflicting sources laying claim to when smoking cocaine came into vogue in countries outside of China. Maybe one of our Idiomation supersleuths has the answer to the question?