Opium for the Masses

“Into the bowl in which their wine was mixed, she slipped a drug that had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories. No one who swallowed this dissolved in their wine could shed a single tear that day, even for the death of his mother or father, or if they put his brother or his own son to the sword and he were there to see it done…” – Homer, The Odyssey


One hundred and sixty years ago, a group of Chinese soldiers boarded a British imperial ship named The Arrow, arrested the crew and dropped the flag in act that, in an already volatile region, was tantamount to a declaration of war. Within weeks, war most certainly did rage.


It was the second of two conflicts which would become known as the Opium Wars. Britain, the aggressor, looked to secure its eastern trading routes as China’s evermore strident regulations threatened the Europeans’ profitable opium trade. It ended in a humiliating defeat for the Far East nation, forced to not only legalise opium, but to cede Hong Kong to the Brits.


Arab traders first brought opium to East Asia, during the fifth century, and it proved popular — as it had done throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East for millennia prior. The opium poppy was originally cultivated in Mesopotamia — where it was known as the ‘joy plant’ — around 3,400 BC, later embraced by the Egyptian and Greek civilisations. Hippocrates, father of modern medicine, acknowledged opium’s benefits, though famously dismissed it’s widely lauded “magical” qualities at the time. Galen, renowned Greek physician of the Roman Empire, stated opium could cure chronic headaches, epilepsy and even deafness, also noting its legendary pain relieving properties (for which it is still used legally in the form of drugs such as morphine). Over one thousand years later, Europeans remained in thrall to its charms, with some even believing it to be a divine gift. “Among the remedies which it has pleased God to give to man to relieve his sufferings,” said 17th century physician Sir Thomas Sydenham, the ‘English Hippocrates’, “none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.”


Thomas de Quincy’s 1822 tome, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, was the first time a printed publication addressed its addictive qualities. Charles Dickens was said to have dabbled with the drug, and likely John Keats, too. During Victorian times, opium — as well as cocaine and arsenic — could be purchased by just about anyone, from just about any chemist. “If you had been in a major British post in the 18th or 19th Century, you would have seen opium arriving alongside ordinary cargo,” writes Tom de Castella for the BBC. At the beginning of the 19th century, the public of Norfolk were warned to mind their pints as beer was sometimes laced with opium to combat malaria. Even the aristocracy weren’t immune. “Queen Victoria’s coterie ordered opium form the royal apothecary… Prime Minister William Gladstone is said to have taken opium in tea or coffee before making important speeches.”


Opium dens soon sprang up around the British capital and beyond, as reflected by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.”


Abroad, the UK — along with fellow European empires – made the most of profitable opium, ensuring it’s wide-ranging availability to bolster their coffers. In 1840, a year after the outbreak of the first Opium War, 24,000 pounds of it were shipped to the US. Twelve years later, the British arrived in Burma (now Myanmar), bringing with them huge amounts of the Indian-grown narcotic, and production soon spread throughout Southeast Asia to Laos and Thailand, forming what would later become known as the Golden Triangle. Today, Myanmar remains the second largest opium producing nation on Earth, after Afghanistan.


Opium use was becoming such a concern that in 1878 Britain passed a law in its eastern empire which limited the sale of opium to only registered Chinese and Indian users, while implementing a total ban of smoking it in Burma. By the early 20th century, across the globe, the use of non-prescription opium — along with derivatives like heroin and morphine — was fast becoming outlawed. In 1912, the International Opium Convention was signed in the Hague by European leading powers, along with Russia, Thailand and China. As noted by the United Nations: “The 1912 Convention was far from perfect, but it contained elements of a comprehensive drug control treaty… It also inspired national drug control legislation, such as the 1913 Harrison Act in the United States, the foundation of the U.S. drug law in the 20th century.”


Much of that control legislation has failed, as reported again by the UN, over a hundred years later: “Opium poppy cultivation has stabilized at high levels in Myanmar and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, but the region’s demand for heroin remains at unacceptably high levels and transnational organized crime groups are making huge profits.” And while organised criminal gangs are reaping the financial rewards, “poppy-growing villages have found that money generated from poppy cultivation is essential for villagers threatened with food insecurity and poverty”.


“We do it to survive,” a villager from Mualpi, Myanmar, tells the BBC. “The income you get from growing maize of vegetables is very low, and can’t compare with opium.” The UN’s Human Development Report ranks Myanmar 150 out of 187 countries, making it one of Asia’s poorest nations. Further compounding their problems is that with opium so readily available, addiction rates in these struggling communities are skyrocketing.


“The world might say if there was no poppy there would be no war in Afghanistan,” tribal elder Abdul Bari Tokhi recently told AFP, “but for us if there no poppy there would be no work and no food on the table.”


The UN reported 2014 to be a record year for Taliban-controlled opium production in Afghanistan, with cultivation up possibly by as much as 17%, despite the efforts of much western military might. Earlier this year, in a piece published by Salon, Alfred W. McCoy asked just how could the world’s only superpower have fought for a decade-and-a-half, deploying 100,000 troops, losing 2,200, while spending more than trillion dollars, still not manage to bring peace to one of the globe’s poorest nations? The American failure, he argues, lies in the “greatest policy paradox of the century”. A paradox that is as poignant as it is poetic. For that massive, American military juggernaut “has been stopped dead in its steel tracks by a pink flower, the opium poppy”.



Highs and Lows


There are dozens of varieties of poppies, but only one can be used for opium production: papaver somniferum, or the ‘opium poppy’.


Afghanistan’s production of opium far outweighs global demand, which has led to a surplus and a drastic drop in prices in recent years.


Babies of heroin-addicted mothers can be born with a physical addiction to the drug.


The edible poppy seeds used for cooking and sprinkled on rolls are from the opium poppy. The seeds are forbidden in Singapore.


The poppy seeds do also contain opium alkaloids meaning even if you’ve ingested them innocently, you could still potentially fail a drugs test.

Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces