The Power of the Poppy: Harnessing Nature's Most Dangerous Plant Ally, by Kenaz Filan (2011, Park Street Press, 312 pp, $18.95 PB)
The opium poppy certainly deserves our respect. It can bring miraculous surcease from suffering through the pain-relieving alkaloids within, but those same alkaloids can also bring addiction, oblivion, and death. Our "most dangerous plant ally" can be both kindness and curse, boon and bane. Only by respecting Poppy, writes Filan, can we learn how best to manage our relationship with her.
The Power of the Poppy is part historical treatment, part cultural essay, part pharmacopeia, part practical guide. As such, positions on plant consciousness notwithstanding, it's a fascinating and illuminating treatment of the poppy and its derivatives. Filan traces the history of man's relationship with poppy from 6,000-year-old archeological digs in Europe, through early uses in the Roman empire and the Islamic world, and on to the current era of the war on drugs.
While Filan addresses the war on drugs and finds it stupid, this is not mainly a book about drug policy, and he dismisses the issue in short order. "Our war on drugs has been a one-sided rout," he writes in the introduction. "We keep saying 'no' to drugs, but they refuse to listen."
In his few pages devoted to the past century of opium prohibition, he reiterates the futility of trying to stamp out poppy even as its cultivation spreads. "Poppy is happy to fulfill our needs as long as we propagate her species," he writes. "To her, our 'war' is like locust invasions and droughts -- an annoyance, but hardly something that will endanger the continued existence of her children."
From there, Filan turns to the chemistry and pharmacology of opium and its derivatives and synthetics. He traces the isolation of morphine, codeine, heroin, thebaine (from which is derived hydromorphone [Dilaudid], oxymorphone [Opana], hydrocodone [Vicodin], and oxycodone [Oxycontin]), kompot (East European homebrew heroin), methadone, and fentanyl. Along the way, Filan touches on such topics as the lack of pain-relieving poppy products in the developing world, the development of Oxycontin and the rapid spread of "hillbilly heroin," and controversies over needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and methadone maintenance therapies.
In nearly every case of the development of a new opiate or opioid drug, researchers were hoping to find a substance that maintains poppy's analgesic qualities while eliminating or at least reducing its addictive ones. No such luck. "Despite the best efforts of our chemical minds," Filan writes, "Poppy still demands her bargain…Even as we go to war with Poppy, we are forced to do business with her."
In his next section, demonstrates the bargain poppy extracts as he profiles 11 famous users, including Confessions of an Opium Eater author Thomas de Quincy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Burroughs, Lou Reed (whose Velvet Underground-era Heroin and Waiting for My Man put the 1960s New York junkie experience to music), and DJ Screw, whom I must confess I never heard of until reading The Power of the Poppy. Mr. Screw, whose real name, it turns out, was Robert Earl Davis, was a Houston DJ who rose to hip-hop fame after smoking Mexican weed and accidentally hitting the pitch button as he mixed tapes. The ensuing distorted vocals and slowed down beats became known as "screwed down" and Davis picked up the moniker DJ Screw.
Among the favorite topics of Screw and his crew was "purple drank," a concoction of soda pop, codeine cough syrup, and Jolly Ranchers candy, that created a warm, relaxed high. Screwed down music was the perfect accompaniment for a drank-fueled evening. While DJ Screw died young, in part because of his fondness for drank, he was also an overweight, fried-food loving smoker. While drank may have helped make DJ Screw, as always, poppy exacted her part of the bargain.
In the final segment of the book, Filan gets practical. He describes how to grow your own (from papaver somniferum seeds widely available at gardening stores) and how to extract the raw opium. He describes poppy tea brewing recipes, as well as how to use poppy in pill, tablet, or capsule form; as well as eating smoking, snorting, and shooting it. And he doesn't stint on explaining the dangerous path one is on when one embraces the poppy. Although I don't recall Filan ever using the words harm reduction, he is all about it as he cautions about overdose, dependency, and addiction.
The Power of the Poppy elucidates the many ways the histories of man and poppy are intertwined, and it's full of interesting tidbits along the way. Who knew that the use of "dope" to mean drugs came from Dutch sailors mixing opium and tobacco off China in the 17th Century? They called the mixture "doep," like a greasy stew they ate. Or that calling seedy establishments "dives" derived from scandalized descriptions of California opium dens, with the patrons reclining on divans? Or that the scientific name for snorting is "insufflation"?
If you have an interest in opium and its role in human affairs, The Power of the Poppy will be both entertaining and enlightening. And -- who knows? -- maybe you'll start treating that plant and its derivatives with the respect they deserve.