A study of opium and the effects it has had on mankind for good and ill
One minor offshoot of the 18th-century passion for enlightenment was the awarding of medals and cash prizes for those who made discoveries that would benefit the human race. There was no reason why opium, of which the pain-dulling and euphoria-inducing properties had been known for millenniums, should be exempt from this general trend. It was thus in the spirit of the times, spurred on by the promise of a gold medal and 50 guineas in cash for the first Briton to produce 20 pounds of raw opium, that in 1794 Thomas Jones planted five acres of his land near London with opium poppies. In 1800, after many setbacks, his patience was rewarded: his poppies yielded 21 pounds of raw opium, and Jones received the prize. Twenty years later, an Edinburgh surgeon named John Young had raised production to 56 pounds of opium an acre, as well as harvesting a handsome crop of new potatoes, grown between the poppy rows to protect the young stems from the harsh weather.

Between these two breakthroughs, a young German pharmacist’s assistant in Westphalia, F. W. A. Sertürner, determined to find the roots of the power of the poppy. After several years, he managed to isolate an alkaloid from raw opium, which he termed ”morphium.” For many years he experimented on himself to explore the effects of the alkaloid, which he noted spanned the range from the therapeutic and the euphoric to the ”terrible,” and greatly expanded the effects that had previously been available from opium eating and smoking, or from the tincture of opium, laudanum.

Sertürner also was awarded a cash prize and a citation, and news of his discovery was widely disseminated, and built upon by other scientists. By the time of the American Civil War, surgeons on both sides regularly dispensed it to soldiers, and one would pour doses of morphine into his gloved hands, allowing the troops to lick the drug as he rode past. Science did not pause at the morphine stage for long. In 1874 a pharmacist in London, searching for a non-addictive alternative to morphine, boiled morphine together with acetic anhydride, producing a substance with immensely powerful narcotic properties. By 1898 a pharmacist at the Bayer Laboratories in Germany noted the amazingly powerful effects of the substance as a painkiller, and Bayer accordingly marketed it under the name deemed suitable for a drug of such heroic qualities — ”heroin.” The quest for knowledge of these opium-based derivatives continues: in the 1960’s, at a laboratory in Edinburgh, a scientist stirred both his own and his colleague’s morning tea with a glass rod lying handy nearby. Within a few moments, the scientists were comatose on the floor. The rod had been used to stir an opium derivative (later named ”etorphine”) some 10,000 times stronger than morphine, and now used to tranquilize elephants and rhinoceroses.

These details are just a minute sampling of the extraordinary barrage of information that Martin Booth crams into his new study of opium and opiates. As Booth observes, opium has always drawn mixed responses: it has been praised by skilled physicians as ”God’s own medicine,” and by those using it to curb their pain as ”like having one’s soul rubbed down with silk.” Countless writers and performers have testified to its spell, perhaps none more powerfully than Lenny Bruce, who stated that his addiction was ”like kissing God.”

Yet across all four millenniums in which humans have used and recorded the effects of opium (and more recently laudanum, morphine and heroin), the terrible bondage and the hell of withdrawal have also been known and discussed. Governments have been constantly torn and divided over how to limit or control the uses of these powerful narcotics. Moralists have grieved at the human and psychic waste. Criminal groups of all types from virtually all nations have exploited the needs and weaknesses of the drug takers, sharpening their wits against the various forces marshaled to deflect or deter them. And finally, there are the rationalists, who observe the phenomenon with neither affection nor outrage. Booth quotes the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick as writing in the 70’s: ”Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You could call that not a disease but an error of judgment.”

In some ways, that detached remark could be taken as typifying Booth’s own stance in ”Opium: A History.” He rarely judges the addict, nor does he condemn the farmers who grow the opium poppies that set the entire process in motion. And though he talks of the terrible scourge of opium, morphine and heroin addiction and its costs — he offers a rough estimate of contemporary drug traffic as grossing $750 billion a year, and serving 40 to 50 million addicts worldwide — he often seems more intrigued than repelled by the ingenuity used by those who smuggle the drugs. Certainly the many examples he gives underline the incredible difficulties faced by the police and border agencies who try to shore up their domains against the relentless flow: there is a kind of terrible fascination in this endless war, in which couriers swallow condoms filled with heroin and sealed with dental floss, waterproofed consignments of drugs are sunk in the sea surrounded with packs of salt or sugar and bob to the surface when the weights dissolve, or a pet cat is carried through customs surrounded by her five dead kittens, which have been eviscerated and stuffed with drugs.

The shape of Booth’s book is sprawling, and sometimes unhelpful to the reader. He gives no notes to his sources; many of the books he does mention in his text are not included in his bibliography; and he constantly uses passive verbal forms — ”it is believed,” ”it is suggested,” ”it is rumored” — which give an aura of vagueness to many crucial points in his presentation. But he has done a lot of exploring, and startling anecdotes and personalities abound. Though it is not initially clear from the table of contents, there is a kind of organizational progression to his work. The first six chapters set the historical scene over time, explore the scientific dimensions and consider the uses and preparations of opium in different cultures, from the medicinal to the escapist and the allegedly creative. The next three chapters focus largely on China. They tell the story of the British and the Opium War, the role of opium in the growth of Hong Kong’s economy, its spread overseas through the Chinese coolie trade, the Kuomintang’s attempted monopoly of the opium trade in the 1930’s and the Japanese counteroffensive with narcotics in Manchuria and northern China on the eve of World War II.

The last seven chapters explore the international criminal distribution of opium in the recent era, concentrating on the activities of criminal syndicates in a score or more countries and regions, from Chinese triads to the French connection, from the Mafia to the Cali cartel. Booth gives especially detailed attention to the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, and the Golden Crescent linking Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to Afghanistan. But he also explores the manifold opium and heroin distribution systems in Western Europe and the United States, and in addition the curious reader will find rich information on drug production and distribution in Australia, the Balkans, Russia and Latin America.

Booth is fascinated by the extent to which the agonies of the drug world have been brought on the Western countries by their own policies: just as Britain used opium for its own international economic purposes in the 19th century, so did the United States (through the C.I.A. and other agencies) connive at or even foster drug dealing in its pursuit of allies against Communism, first in Laos and Burma before and during the Vietnam War, and then again in the Afghan insurgencies. Booth is detailed and compassionate on the spread of addiction among United States service personnel in Vietnam, and condemns the lack of adequate care available to addicts after the war was over.

It is a crowded, sad and dramatic story, often sordid, though at times not without a certain bleak humor. What on earth can be done about it all? Very little, seems to be Booth’s answer, as long as people continue to take drugs. The profits are gigantic, and the supply of growers and runners as apparently endless as that of waiting customers. Technology serves both sides equally, and the ingenuity expended on detection is matched by the ingenuity spent on evasion. Decriminalization of drug use has not worked, nor has legalization of production, nor has executing the growers and couriers. Booth raises several major questions briefly at the conclusion of his book: could alternative poppy strains be developed, or the scientific study of neurotransmitters be increased, or chemical detection modes be shifted to a higher stage? Should all civil rights and due process for dealers be waived in the attempt to close out the drug trade?

In all these cases, there are contradictory arguments. Striking at both the social factors that incline people to addiction and removing the profit motives for the dealers would seem to be the most hopeful route to follow. Yet we still do not understand what draws people to drugs in the first place, and the profits are so huge that they boggle the mind. In a startling table, drawn from the Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration report of September 1993, Booth presents the basic economic scenario: initial cost of raw opium as harvested by hand, from incised poppy pods, in the Shan territories of Myanmar, $66-$75 per kilogram (2.2 pounds); one kilo of prepared morphine base on the Thai border, $900-$1,000; one kilo of refined heroin in Bangkok, $6,000-$10,000; wholesale refined heroin cost in the United States, $90,000-$250,000 per kilo; adulterated street sale of cut heroin in the United States, if calculated by the kilo, $940,000-$1,400,000. The person or government that could change those ratios might be approaching a kind of solution. Until then, in Booth’s melancholy word, the problem seems ”insoluble.”

Jonathan Spence teaches the history of modern China at Yale

Sertürner Workshop 2020
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