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.
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.
"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."
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.