Chronicle Review Essay: Opium Dreams

Opium: Reality's Dark Dream, by Thomas Dormandy (2012, Yale University Press, 366 pp., $40.00 HB)

Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, by Steven Martin (2012, Villard Books, 400 pp., $26.00 HB)

Social Poison: The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821-1926, by Howard Padwa (2012, Johns Hopkins University Press, 232 pp., $55.00 HB)

Ah, blessed opium, the beloved bringer of sweet relief from pain, of the body or the soul, the deliverer of bliss and sweet surcease from suffering. From it and its derivatives come the most effective pain relievers known to man. Morphine, codeine, Percocets, Lortabs, Vicodin, Oxycontin, hydrocodone, Fentanyl and rest of the opiates and opioids (synthetic opiates) fill the medicine cabinets of those dying of cancers and other horrifyingly painful conditions and they work wonders with acute pain, from a broken limb to dental surgery, turning agony into pleasantly numb nirvana.

But, oh, cursed opium, death with a needle in its arm, and a trail of wasted junkies left like whispering wraiths in its lee. Thief not only of lives, but also of souls as those in her thrall bend before the sultry temptress enslaved before her insatiable demands.

Opium -- inspiration of writers and artists, tool of physicians, cash crop for peasant farmers, boon of the pained, bane of the moralist. Prototypical commodity of global trade, subject of wars, and funder of armies.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/opium-reality.jpg
It's safe to say we have a love-hate relationship with papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. And, as Thomas Dormandy points out in his magisterial history Opium: Reality's Dark Dream, it goes back a long way. Poppy seeds were found in the excavation of a lakeside Swiss village dated to 6000 BC, and the use of the poppy as medicine was part of Egyptian practice as early as 4500 BC. (Interestingly, concern about its deadly and addictive properties came only much later, although, in a gripe that could have come from the online comment section of any newspaper today, grumpy old man Cato the Elder complained about doped-up youth hanging around the Forum in imperial Rome.)

Dormandy takes the reader from that prehistoric Swiss village to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, carrying us along with a graceful narrative and subtle wit as he surveys colonial machinations and imperial intrigue, evolving medical knowledge, literary and artistic output associated with the poppy, and opium's own transformation from consumed resin to alcohol-based tincture (laudanum) to smoked opium (curiously thanks to Dutch and British sailors who brought their new-found tobacco smoking habits, perhaps with a pinch of poppy thrown in, and paraphernalia to the Far East, which didn't have tobacco, but did have plenty of opium to smoke), on to injectable morphine, "heroic" heroin, and now, the newer synthetic opioids.

Along the way, we check in with doctors and scientists, junkies and kings, de Quincey and Coleridge and the the tubercular Romantics. Dormand surveys some well-trodden territory, but brings to the subject refreshing insights and entrancing prose. And he is a model of moderation.

He is loathe to cheerlead for legalization, given the downsides of death and addiction, but is equally skeptical of claims that prohibition -- short of the Maoist model, which even China couldn't get away with now -- can somehow make the poppy and its derivatives go away.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/opium-fiend.jpg
"Criminalization is justified if it deters potential delinquents and protects the innocent," he writes. "Little if any evidence suggests that current legislation does either."

Dormandy's main prescription -- education, and presumably, prevention -- is unlikely to satisfy partisans on either side of the policy debate, but may, after decriminalization and adoption of a public health approach, be the best we can hope for in the foreseeable future.

Steven Martin's Opium Fiend is not a history of opium, although it contains plenty, but a fascinating memoir of his journey from nerdy teenage compulsive collector to full-blown chaser of the dragon in the back alleys and hidden byways of Southeast Asia. Martin made a career for himself writing for off-the-beaten-path travel series, such as the Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, but his obsession was collecting, and he eventually turned to collecting the paraphernalia of opium smoking.

From collecting opium pipes to seeing how they actually work is a very short leap, one that Martin was quick to take, once he managed to find some of the last real-life opium dens left in the region (and some of the characters who inhabited them). And before he realized it, he had become enslaved to the pipe.

Or had he been liberated? As his world shrank to the confines of his Bangkok apartment and the home of his fellow pipe-head and opium supplier (another American expatriate and antiquities expert whose death in US detention casts a somber shadow over the tale), he congratulated himself on his withdrawal from -- and rejection of -- what he increasingly saw as a brutal and thuggish world. "There was euphoria in what felt like the ultimate act of rebellion against modern society," he wrote. "Opium was setting me free."

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/social-poison.jpg
Except it wasn't, as his ghastly recounting of his efforts to kick the habit demonstrated. What was once liberation was now addiction. But how much of Martin's addiction was tied up with his own obsessive-compulsive personality?

Martin's memoir combines the typical obsessive descriptions of drug effects with a survey of the broader historical and cultural traditions surrounding opium, as well as the (surprisingly brief; it was largely extinguished a century ago) history of opium smoking, as well as taking the reader into the strange world of collecting Asian antiques. Opium Fiend is a worthwhile, engaging, and enlightening read, and stands not only as a valuable contribution to the literature of opiate use, but on its own literary merits.

Howard Padwa's Social Poison will attract a much more limited audience, and that's too bad. While it concentrates on the rather esoteric topic of 19th Century approaches to opiate control in Britain and France, it, too, provides interesting insights on the politics of drug control. But this has the appearance of a PhD dissertation turned into a book, and its likely readership is probably a very small number of graduate students in related subjects--who will probably only check it out from university libraries, given its $55.00 price tag.

Still, Padwa is able to disentangle various threads and offer an explanation for the divergent courses of the two countries. While Britain demonstrated an amenability to opiate maintenance and its practitioners, France has historically come down firmly on the side of criminalizing opiate users and the doctors who prescribed to them. Padwa traces the divergence to national conceptions of citizenship and the shifting nature of the drug-using populations in the two countries. His comparative study is well-constructed, and its a shame few are likely to ever even pick up the book.

Opium and its derivatives remain both bane and boon. Prescription pain pills (opiates) are driving the current drug overdose epidemic in the US. At the same time, they are bringing blessed relief to pain sufferers. Opium production is putting foods in the mouths of families in Afghanistan and Myanmar. At the same time, it is corrupting governments and buying guns to fight remote wars. Cheap heroin is creating new generations of addicts. At the same time, it is in some ways making bearable the misery in the lives of the miserable.

Now, if we can only figure out how to end opium (and opiate) prohibition without being engulfed by the downside of opiate use. As Dormandy noted, in 18th and 19th Century England, laudanum was viewed as mother's little helper; it sent baby to sleep. But sometime baby never woke up.

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holy $h!t i only read the

holy $h!t i only read the first two paragraphs so far and i feel like i just had an experience like the kind shared amongst people having intercourse.

 

"Ah, blessed opium, the beloved bringer of sweet relief from pain, of the body or the soul, the deliverer of bliss and sweet surcease from suffering." AMEN

"From it and its derivatives come the most effective pain relievers known to man. Morphine, codeine, Percocets, Lortabs, Vicodin, Oxycontin, hydrocodone, Fentanyl and rest of the opiates" AMEN HALLELUJAH

"and opioids (synthetic opiates)" BLASPHEMY

THOU SHALT NOT MESS WITH THE GOV'T SPONSORED OPIODS. THOU SHALT NOT BE COERCED, TRICKED NOR FORCED TO MESS WITH METHADONE/METHADOSE, BUPRENORPHINE IN ALL IT'S FORMS NOR NALOXONE (AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE CHURCH OF OPIUM: IF IT'S AN OD SITUATION, THEN HE ALLOWS YE TO MESS WITH NALOXONE)

"they work wonders with acute pain" AHMEN

"...into pleasantly numb nirvana." AMEN GOD BLESS MAY OPIATES BE WITH YOU AND ALSO WITH YOU. THANK YOU FATHER PHILLIP!!!!!!!!

excuse me father phillip

"From collecting opium pipes to seeing how they actually work is a very short leap, one that Martin was quick to take, once he managed to find some of the last real-life opium dens left in the region (and some of the characters who inhabited them). And before he realized it, he had become enslaved to the pipe.

Or had he been liberated?"

 

liberated. surely ye know this.

hm

father phillip i like so much of what you said.

 

but i have to disagree with the end. now listen man im not an idiot, i get how things go. i do agree with you that in the short term and probably in my life, the very pinnacle of anything may be the "health care" approach coming to the states - opiate maintenance.

but thats just my fault for being born at the wrong time.

i cannot dig whatsover at all anybody hopped up on pot legalization - the right to buy weed in stores and smoke in public or whatever it is and then they wanna confine opiate users to gov't clinics and gov't dope. look, heroin maintenance is the best thing in the world. no question about it. and even in a legalized situation there is an absolute value in heroin maintenance because even taking the prohibition mechanism out of this and turning 100$ bundles into 10$ purchases may still render some people totally incapable of having a productive life - whatever - so yeah there's a value in heroin maintenance even in a legalized world.

 

however i dont think its fair whatsoever for any proponent of marijuana legalization to be involved in the opiate end of this debate when they seek to contain us to gov't clinics and gov't dope.

 

Look at Denmark - they were sceptics of heroin maintenance and they saw the benefits and decided to give heroin maintenance a whirl. That's WONDERFUL - UNFORTUNATELY NOBODY GOES TO THE HEROIN CLINICS. It's confounded the doctors and it probably looks bad too cause the public is paying for free heroin that nobody is in a rush to get. Yeah ive been a nomadic junkie and ive been to both eastern and western europe but ive never been to Denmark and I dont know what the situation is out there HOWEVER I will always support my fellow junkies and if they aren't going there's probably a good reason for it but it's unlikely to be published in any journal or what have you unless a junkie goes to find out what the story is.

 

I dont wanna be a jerk and bash weed legalization people, seriously please lets put that aside for a moment. I just wanna understand better perhaps why there is this notion of opiates being this tremendous incapacitating thing that if legalized would spell the ruin of society? I really want to understand this better - and in the most modest way I possibly can, I want to remind that I am a long time opiate consumer, not just heroin but all of them (yes, regrettably even 'done and subs)

 

that being said, I have to wonder if it's simply a matter of lack of experience? I think if youve never done it and youre a reformist, sometimes some of the literature and dogma can get the better of us. But the fact of the matter is, not all opiate users enjoy heavy unbeatable nods - infact, some people who go into nod oblivion don't even mean to, they don't want that they want the euphoria, clear headed energy but with the way things are, the unknowable qualities etc. they make mistakes, they dont know what they're doing - whatever the situation is.

I have to wonder what its about - on opiates people can absolutely operate machinery, drive, do whatever, im not saying this should be legal or whatever im just saying this absurd notion that it's impossible to function on opiates because of sleeping it's a misconception. Sleeping is sleeping and if you get tired on weed or alchol or opiates then you cant function.

"He is loathe to cheerlead

"He is loathe to cheerlead for legalization, given the downsides of death and addiction..."

::sigh::  Sure, Dormandy makes the same old mistake of confusing correlation with causation.

"Interestingly, concern about its deadly and addictive properties came only much later..."

Gee, I wonder why that is? Could it be that the, "...trail of wasted junkies left like whispering wraiths in its lee", are a result of prohibition, rather than the effects of the opiates per se? Opiates are only the most studied class of drugs we know. We know - we know! - that opiates cause no organic damage. In other words, you can take them daily for decades without suffering any harm. Yet somehow this romantic myth of the junkie slowly destroying themselves with this "evil" drug persists.

But ok, we've come to expect this kind of ignorance from, well, almost everybody. But I would expect Stop the Drug War to question these assumptions when reviewing this type of book.

Opiate Maintenance, part heroin

Dear CJ

 

A key reason that opiaphiles do not go get heroin maintenance as many expect they would be running to do, is that often the programs are part of a research protocol that means that you will only get the drug for a period of time. This could be as long as two years, but if you are somebody who has not intention of stopping, then this is not attractive. Moreover, people must go to a specific place twice everyday to take the drug under the eye of a clinical professional often, and actually this is quite invasive and again not attractive to patients/clients of the clinic involved

 

Andria E-Mordaunt MSc (London/UK)

They could make Poppies (or

They could make Poppies (or Morphine) free and legal while increasing penalties for Cannabis. I would still rather consume Cannabis. That's my body chemistry. Either way, the authorities have no legitimate right to tell individuals what they can knowingly consume for them selves. I'd rather work with drug addicts rather than the morbidly obese- maybe we should criminalize "unhealthy" food since morbid obesity is at epidemic levels and is actually quite bad for health and productivity. 

Free the Poppy

The Random house synopsis of Steve Martin's book calls opium the "methamphetamine of its day."  Nonsense.  How can you confuse opiates with speed?  Also opium smoking is not unique to parts of Asia.  Opium smoking pipes have been found in archeological sites in Greece and the Persian Empire (now Iran, Iraq, ect).  

Why shouldn't opiates be as available as alcohol?  All the arguments against the opiates also apply to alcohol.  Actually the argument for alcohol or tobacco prohibition, from a health perspective, is much stronger than the arguments for opiate prohibition.  Opiates are remarkably non-toxic.  Unlike tobacco, opiates do not cause cancer and unlike alcohol they do not damage the liver.  Sure overdose is possible, but if we were to ban every drug that you can possibly overdose on what would we be left with?  Just cannabis and LSD.  Alcohol, caffeine and tobacco would all be banned.  So would dihydrogen monoxide.  

The "epidemic" of overdoses with pharmaceutical opioids is due to ignorance.  Most of the so-called opioid overdoses are the result of mixing opioids with other CNS depressants, especially alcohol.  Educating people about the danger of mixing opioids with benzos or alcohol would go a long way to curbing the number of overdoses.  So would making naloxone available OTC.  Instead all we hear is hysterical stories about the "epidemic" of prescription opioid "abuse." 

 

"Opium production is putting foods in the mouths of families in Afghanistan and Myanmar. At the same time, it is corrupting governments and buying guns to fight remote wars. Cheap heroin is creating new generations of addicts. At the same time, it is in some ways making bearable the misery in the lives of the miserable." 
It is corrupting governments because opiate prohibition makes heroin literally worth more than its weight in gold.  Heroin is extremely cheap to produce and since poppies grow all over the world, heroin can be produced anywhere.  Furthermore since opium is only about 10% morphine, and heroin is 2-4 times as potent (IV) as morphine, opiate prohibition encourages consumption of the more dangerous heroin over opium.  With a little bit of street smarts and some money you can buy heroin in any American city, yet opium (real opium not that "lettuce opium" garbage) is next to impossible to purchase.  Without prohibition, opiates are worth no more than any other plant-derived medicine that has long gone off patent.  Instead of $100 a gram for a heavily adulterated product, pure heroin in a free market should cost a fraction of that amount.  For comparison, pharmaceutical morphine costs no more than $20 per gram, even less when buying in bulk (Sigma pharmaceuticals sells 100 grams of morphine for $350).  In England in the 19th century, opium was cheaper than beer.  It should be quite obvious that the war on opiates cannot be won by supply reduction.  

In the 19th century opiates were sold over the counter to anyone.  Society did not crumble.  Opiates were first prohibited as part of a racist campaign to harass the Chinese.  At first it was only smoking opium that was banned, non-Asian opiate consumers took their opiates orally (then later with a syringe).  Opiate prohibition only came about due to international conventions surrounding the "Opium Wars" and on the heels of the Temperance movement which gave us alcohol prohibition.  And we all know how that turned out.  With opiates the problem is prohibition.  There was no opiate problem in the 19th century.  

Today we truly have the worst of all possible worlds.  People in pain are being under-treated or not treated at all due to the campaign by the DEA terrorizing doctors who prescribe opioids.  Meanwhile those clued into drug culture have no problem getting opiates (heroin or pills), albeit at hugely inflated and thus life-destroying prices.  Legalize and watch these problems disappear.  

"But, oh, cursed opium, death with a needle in its arm, and a trail of wasted junkies left like whispering wraiths in its lee. Thief not only of lives, but also of souls as those in her thrall bend before the sultry temptress enslaved before her insatiable demands."

Was this really necessary?  Opiates do not turn people into "wasted junkies left like whispering wraiths," if it did wouldn't all the chronic pain patients also become wraiths?  And opium not only steals lives, but souls?  Hyperbole much? I expect this sort of language from the DEA, but not at stopthedrugwar. 

4 Opiate Lover

Dear Opiate Lover

 

I doubt Phil Smith was being serious with all that silly language about

"But, oh, cursed opium, death with a needle in its arm, and a trail of wasted junkies left like whispering wraiths in its lee. Thief not only of lives, but also of souls as those in her thrall bend before the sultry temptress enslaved before her insatiable demands."

He is well aware of the insanity of prohibition and it's outcomes

 

As for comparing it to Methamphetamine; That IS Blasphemy!

Another Opiate Lover

Opium :)

Nothing wrong with opium.  Just don't take it more than once per week. :)

Books on Opium

Anyone interested in this subject should also read the 1959 classic "Naked Lunch" by William S. Burroughs.  An inveterate junkie for most of his 83 years, he had a very successful writing career despite much legal and social adversity . 

i'm sorry i'm so late to join

i'm sorry i'm so late to join this discussion. maybe no one will even read this, so i'll be very brief for now. cj, i kind of dig u. sometimes u rant too much, perhaps when u're high sometimes. i smoke a single hit of good sensimilla cannabis every evening for depression and insomnia, and it makes me want to communicate, but it also makes me ramble, like i think u're prone to. but i like your blunt honesty and unapologetic defense of opiate use. also like your informal originality. 'father phil', i like it!

i turned down the only offer i ever had to experience an opium high, partly because at the time i was very depressed and felt extra vulnerable to becoming addicted.

i expect all the previous comments above by various opiate users/defenders are true. i expect that in a similar fashion to the way cannabis is relentlessly misrepresented and demonized in the msm (mainstream media), opiates are also slandered. the problem is a culture addicted to puritanical dogmas that demonize medicinal plants and those who wish to self medicate with them. the problem is corporate greed, political corruption, dogmatic ignorance and hysterical intolerance.

thanks to all who previously commented. good to know u exist.

p.s. i do have one question for all u opiate lovers/users: what about addiction and having to use more and more over time to get the same affect. even without the problem of having to pay exorbitant black market money for your goods, doesn't this pose a potential problem?

i've used cannabis regularly, daily, very moderately for something like 14 years now. never have to increase consumption to get the therapeutic effect desired. if cannabis was like the poppy, i no doubt would be smoking a lot more by now to get the same effect i did 14 years ago, wouldn't i?

Good question Virgin

Good question Virgin Terry!

 

Uhm, yes well, every now and then I would slow down my use either because less available, or I was getting scared of losing my consciousness, or lack of money and so on. Always best to get a pure supply from a doc if possible , whichever opiate it is, synthetic or otherwise.

 

We should always remember what is going on in Switzerland when talking about heroin and prescribing: thousands of

opiaphiles are receiving a twice-daily dose, for a relatively small fee, which has led to the reduction of crime (of course!), Blood Borne Infections and over time, the same group have begun to return to work and studies, not to mention fix damage that was part of family/friendship networks. The thing that most intrigued me about the Swiss was hearing that the rate at which people got off it (eventually) was actually sooner than those prescribed other drugs, OR none at all...

 

The chase for the forbidden fruit was over? What to do but live :-)

 

Hope this makes sense

 

Andria (UK)London

"Opium Fiend" is a Must Read!

@Opiate Lover:

You judge the entire book by the publisher's synopsis on the cover? You yourself are nonsense.

I just finished a few days ago "Opium Fiend" and couldn't put it down. Easily the most fascinating memoir I've read ever. The publisher seems to have marketed the book as an "addiction memoir" but Steven Martin's tale is nothing like any of the other books to be found on that shelf.

And the ending is a revelation. It's one of those books that you can't stop thinking about after you've finished it. I even had a dream about it while reading it!

I don't know about the other books reviewed here, I didn't read them yet, but "Opium Fiend" is an instant classic.

 

 

 

'junkie' is a dirty word

'junkie' is a 'dirty' word w negative connotation. Please refrain from using it. Nobody that smokes marijuana on a daily basis (addict) would want to be called a 'junkie'.....

The Opium Wars have been

The Opium Wars have been consigned to history books in Britain, but that is not the case in China, according to Dr Zheng Yangwen, of the University of Manchester. Mary J.

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