A Strange and Mysterious Flower

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Chapter 1
A Strange and Mysterious Flower

Long ago, opium's strange and mysterious flower was enjoyed and celebrated by ancient civilizations. The plant was not perceived as having any medical, curative powers or deadly addictive properties. Instead, people believed that opium had mystical powers capable of inducing temporary happiness and a welcomed, trancelike slumber.

The earliest people to cultivate the opium poppy were the Sumerians, who occupied Mesopotamia in what is present-day Iraq. Five thousand years ago they referred to opium poppies as hul gil, meaning the "joy plant." Anthropologists believe that they probably discovered the plant's mysterious properties by observing the intoxicated behavior of cattle that had eaten the sap-filled pods. Out of curiosity, some Sumerians chewed the pods and experienced a calming bliss. Over time, the Sumerians gave away seeds and passed along claims about the plant's comforting effects to the Babylonians, who in turn passed it on to the Egyptians, who passed it on to the Greeks and Romans.

The Discovery of Drowsy Dreams

Some of the earliest references to opium's sleeplike trance come from clay tablets dating back to 2000 b.c. These tablets recommend calming fractious children with the juice of crushed poppies mixed with fly droppings; the mixture was ground into a pulp, forced through a cotton strainer, and administered orally for four days. It guaranteed peaceful, sleeping children.

One of the earliest literary references to the dulling and drowsy effects of opium can be found in the epics of Homer, a Greek writer from the ninth century b.c. In his book the Iliad, Homer mentions the use of opium by contingents of the Greek army that had gone to fight at the gates of Troy. Homer described a scene

Evidence of Ancient Opium Use

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a thriving Bronze Age drug trade that supplied opium to ancient cultures throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They have evidence that opium was used thousands of years ago not only to relieve the pain of childbirth and disease but also as a recreational drug.

Ancient ceramic pots, most of them nearly identical in shape and about five inches long, have been found in tombs and settlements throughout the Middle East dating as far back as 1400 b.c. When turned upside down, these thin-necked pots with round bases resemble opium poppy pods. The round bases have two white markings, designs nearly identical to knife cuts made on poppy pods that allow the sap to ooze and be harvested.

Similar pots have also turned up in Egypt. Based on ancient Egyptian medical writings from the second millennium b.c., researchers believe opium was used during surgery and to treat aches, pains, and other ailments. From their study of Egyptian writings, archaeologists believe the opium was eaten rather than smoked.

Israel is another place where evidence of opium has been unearthed. In an archaeologically rich area of central Israel, a tomb from the late Roman period revealed the skeleton of a fourteen-year-old girl who died in childbirth around a.d. 390. On her stomach was a fleck of a burnt, brownish black substance that analysis identified as opium. The fleck was an extremely rare find, revealing that the drug was smoked, not eaten, in some early cultures.

in which the Greek army was sitting around a campfire one evening: "The poppy which in the garden is weighted down by fruit and vernal showers, droops its heads to one side, saturated with lethal slumber."1 Later in his second book the Odyssey, Homer warned Greek soldiers traveling in foreign lands against drinking opium-laced beverages because of their powers to "induce forgetfulness of pain and any sense of evil."2

Around 460 b.c., the Greek physician Hippocrates, one of the greatest Western figures in medicine, grew curious about the attributes of opium. He believed its strange effects could be explained scientifically, while most people of his time thought its properties were magical. Although he did not know why opium had an effect on people, he recognized its unusual analgesic powers and recommended it to patients suffering intense pain.

The Romans also knew of the drowsy effects of opium. In a.d. 77, Pedanius Dioscorides served in the Roman army as a physician and traveled widely. His enduring fame rests on his only known work, a compilation called De Materia Medica (About Medical Material), describing about five hundred plants he had collected. In this work he recorded, "Poppies possess, as it were, a cooling power, therefore the leaves and head when boiled in water and drunk, bring sleep. The concoction is also drunk to remedy insomnia."3

Noting opium's power to induce wistful slumber, numb pain, and create a temporary state of bliss, the Arabs elected to introduce opium to the rest of the world. By the ninth century a.d., Arab traders sailing as far west as Spain and traveling in caravans as far north as Vienna were introducing Europe to the mysteries of this potent flower.

Opium and Europeans

Developing a vast network of contacts throughout Europe and the Middle East, Arab merchants traded in everything of value, from diamonds, ivory, silk, and coral to spices, coffee, and, most lucratively, opium. Opium was viewed as the perfect commodity for trade; it was valuable and highly compact, and when properly dried, it would not deteriorate. For the most part, opium was purchased in Europe during the Middle Ages to relieve pain and to ease the fear of warriors going into battle. It had developed a reputation as an effective drug to settle nerves and strengthen courage.

But Europe's upper crust—the only people who could regularly purchase the expensive drug—had other ideas of how to use it. For many of the elite, opium provided a pleasurable experience. In response to the soaring demand among the well heeled, opium was placed on every explorer's list of exotic merchandise to bring back home. Although Columbus's goal was to discover a route to India, he was asked to return with opium along with gold, spices, and a list of other prized items. His instructions were not unique; Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama were also asked to find opium in addition to dozens of other valued products.

As shipments of opium poured into Europe, claims about its capabilities became outrageous. Around 1520, a Swiss man by the name of Paracelsus claimed to have discovered a concoction made from opium, brandy, crushed pearls, a plant called henbane, and frog sperm that was capable of curing any disease. A contemporary named Oporinus said of Paracelsus's magical cure-all, "He boasted he could, with these pills, wake up the dead and certainly he proved this to be true for patients who appeared dead suddenly arose."4 As this recipe and others spread throughout Europe, the pleasures of opium found their way into the merchant class and even into low-income families.

The Miracle of Laudanum

In 1680 the British physician Thomas Sydenham bottled opium and called it laudanum, from the Latin word meaning "worthy of praise." He did so partly in response to the demand for a convenient way to ingest opium, particularly for people suffering acute pain. His formula for the tasty and effective concoction was two ounces of opium, one ounce of saffron, and a dash of both cinnamon and clove, all dissolved in a pint of canary wine. To promote the latest of the opium elixirs, Sydenham proclaimed, "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium."5

The popularity of laudanum swept across Europe. For some users it was a way to forget their problems, for others it relieved toothaches and stiff joints, and for an ever-growing group, it was nothing more than a soothing drink to be enjoyed among friends. The very poor also had any number of reasons to turn to laudanum for temporary emotional relief from their poverty and miserable living conditions in large, filthy industrial cities such as London.

By the mid-1700s, people of all classes would purchase a bottle on their way home to enjoy before the evening meal. Many wives expressed a preference for seeing their husbands consume a bottle of laudanum instead of a bottle of whiskey because the opium-laced drink induced a soothing sleep rather than a foul, obnoxious drunken stupor common with excessive alcohol consumption. As one wife remarked while standing over her drunken husband, "Ugh! It's shameful. Take laudanum instead, it's less disgusting."6

Poetic Praise

The people who sang the praises of opium's dreamlike state more than any other were a group of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets. Believing that opium stimulated their creativity, they wrote letters and composed poems praising its effects. Almost all of Britain's great eighteenth-century poets, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron, intertwined their poetry with allusions to opium's mind-numbing pleasures.

Coleridge authored the well-known poem "Kubla Khan." Literary critic William Beal asserts that Coleridge "wrote a poem in a dreamlike trance while under its spell; opium promotes vivid dreams and rich visual imagery as well as gentle euphoria."7 According to Beal and other literary scholars, the imagery of "Kubla Khan" reflects an opium-induced trance as evidenced in the following lines of the poem:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
… … . .
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
… … … … …
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


Across the Atlantic in New York, William Blair cheerfully described his surreal experience with opium while attending a play:

I felt a strange sensation, totally unlike any thing I had ever felt before; a gradual creeping thrill, which in a few minutes occupied every part of my body, lulling to sleep … racking pain, producing a pleasing glow from head to foot, and inducing a sensation of dreamy exhilaration…. After I had been seated a few minutes, the nature of the excitement changed, and a "waking sleep" succeeded. The actors on the stage vanished; the stage itself lost its reality; and before my entranced sight magnificent halls stretched out in endless succession with gallery above gallery, while the roof was blazing with gems, like stars whose rays alone illumined the whole building, which was tinged with strange, gigantic figures, like the wild possessors of a lost globe…. I will not attempt farther to describe the magnificent vision which a little pill of "brown gum" had conjured up from the realm of ideal being. No words that I can command would do justice to its Titanian splendour and immensity.9

Literature praising opium did more to incite the public's curiosity about opium's euphoric effects than any other form of communication. Readers by the thousands obtained opium to experience it. While the scientific community still knew very little about its dangers, a few poets stepped forward to warn about opium's dark side. One was the French writer Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, who likened opium to a treacherous woman friend: "An old and terrible friend, and, alas! like them all, full of caresses and deceptions."10

Coleridge acknowledged opium's downside In "Kubla Khan" when he admitted,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread.


Regardless of these warnings, by the mid–nineteenth century, opium use was out of control. Its dark side had emerged.

Dreams Turn to Nightmares

The sweet euphoria initially enjoyed by so many soon turned sour. Pharmacists who sold bottles of laudanum reported seeing the same people buying it with increasing frequency and hearing them say they needed larger doses each evening. As laudanum and especially its key ingredient opium came under closer scrutiny, chemists and physicians recognized that many users were increasing their daily consumption rate.

Opium use in Europe was on the rise. Increasing numbers of laudanum users turned to the pure form of opium, which was often smoked, to satisfy their cravings. An anonymous writer in 1844 commented on opium's addictive quality: "Opium smoking is a sort of incline plane, down which he who ventures to slide a little way is tolerably sure to go to the bottom."12

As more users consumed opium, they needed larger and larger doses to experience the same numbing effect. The demand became

Confessions of an English Opium Eater

In 1821 the British writer Thomas De Quincey published his experiences with opium in the book Confessions of an English Opium Eater. His writings, the first to relate experiences of opium eating and addiction, were published at a time when opium was widely used for the relief of pain and before its addictive qualities were properly understood. It is a work that blends amusement with horror as the author undergoes the marvels of opium-induced dreams and the equally terrifying nightmares.

On the immediate and unexpected pleasures of his first opium experience De Quincey wrote:

I arrived at my lodgings and lost not a moment in taking the quantity prescribed. I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking…. But I took it—and in an hour—oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea, for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny.

Later De Quincy described his addiction and then recovery:

If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man, it is no less true, that I have struggled against this fascinating enthrallment with a religious zeal, and have, at length, accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man—have untwisted, almost to its final links the accursed chain which fettered [shackled] me.

so great that farmers in Europe attempted to cultivate the opium poppy, but it was to no avail, because the climate was too damp and cold. Instead, British traders purchased all they could from Turkey and Afghanistan for legal import to Europe and for export to China, where huge profits could be made trading it for tea, silk, and spices. Opium's addictive quality had been recognized by the Chinese government and its importation forbidden. The continuing illegal export of opium to China by the British triggered a two-phase war, aptly called the Opium Wars, between 1839 and 1842. They concluded with China being forced to accept opium and endure a growing addiction rate.

European physicians became alarmed at the increasing consumption, one noting how purchasers of laudanum hurried from the pharmacy shops with bottle in hand:

Back home, if he can wait that long, he gulps down his dose and sinks into profound sleep. But when he awakens it's to a state of nervous depression. A closer look shows us his jaundiced skin and his sunken eyes. His speech is thick, his lips are cracked, he's hunched over, and his limbs are like sticks.13

To maintain their high, many users preferred smoking opium. This created a distinct odor, drawing attention to its use. To avoid attracting too much attention, opium smokers sought the secretive confines of opium dens.

Opium Dens

Some of those who succumbed to addiction sought refuge and companionship in opium dens, which were privately owned establishments where opium users congregated to socialize, smoke opium, have a bite to eat, and fall asleep in a safe environment. Sprouting first throughout Asia and then Europe, they were brought to America by the Chinese and were common in many of America's large cities by the mid–nineteenth century. While the majority of patrons were men, women were welcomed and many enjoyed the atmosphere.

In 1877 a tourist to San Francisco accepted a tour of the city's Chinatown district and described her first experience inside an opium den:

We were led into a small, close, but clean room, filled with the fumes of burning opium—resembling those of roasting ground-nuts, and not disagreeable. A table stood in the centre, and around three sides ran a double tier of shelves and bunks, covered with matting and cushioned with pillows. Nearly all of these were filled with Chinamen, many of them containing two, with a little tray between them, holding a lamp and a horn box filled with black opium paste. But although every one was smoking, it was so early in the evening that the drug had not as yet wrought its full effect, and all were wide awake, talking, laughing, and apparently enjoying themselves hugely.14

Opium dens were commonly known by slang names such as "the joint," "hop joint," "lay-down joint," and "the dragon," while those frequenting them were called "pipes," "pipe-fiends," "hop-heads," and "yenshee boys." Opium pipes, which were sold

The First Opium War

Early in the nineteenth century, British consumption of Chinese tea was adversely affecting the British economy. Britain had nothing of interest to trade to the Chinese, who were given silver bullion in return for the tea. The drain of British silver quickly placed Britain at a serious trading disadvantage. To stop the silver drain, the British sought a commodity the Chinese would accept instead of silver.

At that time, British trading companies controlled opium production over the entire Indian subcontinent. British merchant ships were already smuggling some of the opium into China. Since opium was contraband, they paid no duties. The British began trading opium for tea and employed Chinese opium buyers to bribe Chinese officials to keep the illegal arrangement quiet.

In 1820, however, the Chinese government discovered the ruse and imposed the death penalty on Chinese importers. They opposed opium for economic and health reasons because of widespread addiction. Nonetheless, British naval officers and merchants built fortified floating opium warehouses offshore, and by 1830 opium trade to China reached an annual thirty thousand watertight chests, totaling more than 4.5 million pounds.

Opium addiction became a major social problem despite the Chinese government's attempts to enforce prohibition of the drug. After repeated attempts to stop its illegal importation, the Opium War erupted. In the spring of 1839 Chinese authorities at Canton confiscated and burned the entire opium supply. In response, the British occupied positions around Canton and fired cannons on the city.

The Chinese could not match the technological superiority of the British cannons. In 1842 China surrendered and agreed to the provisions of the Treaty of Nanking, which stated that the opium trade would continue and that Hong Kong would become a British colony.

in dens along with other paraphernalia, were referred to as "gongers," "dream sticks," "bamboos," and "saxophones," while the act of smoking opium was described as "being on the hip," "kicking the gong around," and "rolling the log."

Opium dens spawned an entire culture and attracted all classes of society. Dens appealing to the upper classes were ornately decorated and provided comfortable and safe accommodations. For a price, young boys were available as servants who would pack the pipes, light them, fetch food and water, and run errands for wealthy clients. After frequenters had slept off their opium-induced stupors, they either wandered home or indulged in another round of opium.

Until this time, the medical profession had seen little reason to study scrupulously the effects of opium on the mind and body. But as addiction rates increased, a call was made to investigate opium's physiological and psychological effects.

Opium's Physiological Effects

Early studies of opium indicated it had significant physiological effects on the body. Most noticeable and of greatest concern to physicians was its depressing effect on the heart and respiration. Clinical observations detected a slower respiration and heartbeat within minutes of ingestion, a suppression of the cough reflex, and constriction of the smooth muscles of the intestinal tract, causing constipation.

Physicians recognized that part of the sleepy, blissful experiences reported by patients was the result of a lowered respiration and heart rate. Oxygen shortages associated with slow respiration were known to produce a light-headed sensation, causing a person to become disoriented, forgetful, and seemingly unaware of his or her surroundings. Coupled with a decreased heart rate, this robbed the brain of oxygen-rich blood, causing drowsiness in all cases and even death in some.

Early physicians also identified a decline of opium smokers' general health. Using opium regularly, especially smoking it, caused a loss of appetite and led to severe weight loss. Physicians noted the abnormal skin colors of long-term smokers caused by poor nutrition and a lack of oxygen, which is necessary for healthy skin and internal organs.

Physicians also learned that the method of consumption had an effect on the body. Early experimentation confirmed that people who smoked opium reacted to the drug faster and more intensely than those who consumed it orally. What physicians learned from these experiments was that the smoke of opium entered the lungs, where it was immediately absorbed through the lung membrane along with oxygen and then carried by the blood to the brain within a matter of seconds. Laudanum, on the other hand, arrived at the brain much more slowly because it first passed into the stomach and then through the intestines, where it was exchanged into the bloodstream along with food before being carried to the brain. Very early experiments in which dogs were injected with a liquid solution of opium indicated that injection created an even more intense high because the opium is more concentrated in the brain than when it is smoked or ingested.

In addition to looking at the physiological effects of opium, physicians studied the psychological changes in opium users. These generally consisted of an initial pleasurable heightening of the senses and feelings of well-being followed by a lapse into depression, causing changes in thinking and behavior.

Smoking Opium

Prior to the invention of hypodermic needles, the most potent way to consume opium was to smoke it. Smoking still occurs today throughout Asia, although injecting it is more common in Western nations.

Traditionally, opium was smoked in a pipe specifically designed for opium. The design of each pipe always included two standard features: a very small bowl at one end and a long neck through which the smoke was drawn. The bowl was small because two or three inhales of a piece of opium the size of a pea were sufficient to intoxicate the smoker. The long neck, between eighteen and thirty inches, was sufficiently long to cool the hot smoke as it was drawn from the bowl. Nearly all opium pipes were long, but they came in a variety of shapes. Many had elegant curves and were made from a variety of exotic woods and animal bone. Others were expensive works of art purchased at high prices by those who could afford the status symbol of an artistically crafted pipe.

Psychological Effects

One of the earliest Europeans to describe the psychological effects of opium was the Frenchman Jean Chardin, who visited Persia in 1720. In his book Descriptions of Persia, he explained that opium was eaten in pill form, about the size of a pea, and that Persian royalty enjoyed it as an alternative to wine. In his book, Chardin noted the bliss associated with opium as well as the unpleasant withdrawal that occurs soon after the effects of opium wear off:

It entertains their Fancies with pleasant Visions and a kind of Rapture; they grow Merry, then Swoon away with Laughing and say and do a thousand Extravagant Things. After the Operation is over, the Body grows Cold, Pensive, and Heavy, and remains in that manner, Indolent and Drowsy, until the Pill is repeated.15

Many writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries wrote about the rapturous effects that opium had on their minds. The British novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who regularly smoked opium, suggested that opium enhanced his intellectual well-being: "A pipe is the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise; and the man who smokes, thinks like a philosopher and acts like a Samaritan."16 The English poet Charles Lamb indicated in verse in 1805 his pleasures with opium: "May my last breath be drawn through a pipe, and exhaled in a jest."17

The small number of physicians who studied the effects of opium determined that more research was needed. The motive at the time was not so much a concern to stop its use as it was to determine how the mysterious drug might better serve medical science.

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