There is much to be appreciated about Peter Lee’s Opium Culture, and plenty more to criticize. The book is loosely organized around the theme (never stated) of “use it, but don’t abuse it.” Lee, who “lives in retirement in Thailand” and comes down firmly on the “use it” side, purports to supply users or potential users with accurate information. It should be noted, however, that with opium, as with cannabis or any number of other “illegal” intoxicants, accuracy is a misnomer: what research has left blank folklore fills in.
Opium Culture begins with a short chapter on the history of opium use, focusing primarily on China. Opium is the oldest known medicinal plant: the Sumerians, some 5,000 years ago, appreciated its healing powers and said so on clay tablets. The Assyrians portrayed one of their gods as a bearer of opium capsules (or seed pods), which the Met, in Manhattan, mistakenly calls “pomegranates.” In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and company are lured into an opium field, where they promptly fall asleep. Thus the scientific name of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum: the sleep-inducing poppy. Lee also focuses on the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, which were incited by British capitalists forcing opium on the Chinese in an early example of the manipulated “free” market. It’s an uncomfortable truth that humans have always used plants to gain advantage over and make war upon one another, a truth that is rarely acknowledged, but the Opium Wars are an overt case that serves as a model for many other examples of the ancient art of biowarfare.
Lee then steers into the New Age nonsense that threatens to ruin Opium Culture. Because the book has no references or bibliography (there is a section for “further reading,” but it contains classics of the Western drug literature), it’s hard to judge the veracity of sections titled “The Tao of Opium” or “Alkaloids and Alchemy.” Be that as it may, there is not much depth here, so taoism and alchemy don’t end up adding anything useful to the book, though they do give it the New Age gloss that makes it attractive to a certain audience.
Much more interesting is the chapter on the pharmacology of opium. Opium’s history as medicine stretches deep into pre-history and, unlike other substances that are well known in the West, opium has never been about “kicks.” (Opium’s children, morphine, heroin, and codeine, to name a few, are another matter.) Still, this chapter too is peppered with throw away New Age-isms like this one, where Lee is writing about the cornucopia of alkaloids to be found in opium: various of these alkaloids create a “six-piece symphony of alkaloidal yin and yang that plays a harmonious alchemical tune in the smoker’s system.” It’s hard to trust a writer who is so high on his own “poetry” (or whatever that was) that he forgets to provide the content. This gets worse elsewhere, in a section of “opium poetry” by Martin Matz which suffers a profound case of what Edward Said called “orientalism.” Matz’s poetry is amateurish (or 1960-ish, if that’s any kinder), and is clearly the work of a tourist fetishizing Southeast Asia. Matz does get one thing straight, though: he calls the pipe a “friend,” and that’s the truest thing an addict can realize. The drug, its ritual, its accoutrements, are affiliative; that is, the addict falls in love, not just with the high (which in fact may disappear due to tolerance, or become an annoyance due to its side effects or because of its interference with other aspects of life), but with the act of imbibing, smoking, or injecting. When the habit is kicked, there is left only a “dull ache.” Now extend that idea to religion and we begin to understand the fatal grip metaphysics has on us.
The stick Lee keeps beating his readers with (probably needlessly, since he’s preaching to the choir) is the fact that Big Pharm has kept this miraculous plant illegal. Indeed, somebody not a member of the choir—unless it’s the choir of G.W. Bush’s favorite Baptist church—would swear that opium is dangerous, a killer substance that makes its users brutal killers. Which is nonsense, especially when compared with Big Pharm’s penchant for pushing (dope peddlers that they are) off-label uses and for inventing diseases that aren’t really illnesses. Indeed, Western medicine’s main claim to fame is that it has monopolized knowledge of illness and cure and taken it away from us, the folks who actually get sick. Think there’s no cure for the common cold? If we only hear the bellowing of Big Pharm and it’s med-school minions, that’s all we’d know. Opium smokers know different. “To protect the vested interests and lucrative medical monopolies of the pharmaceutical industry and their powerful political patrons,” we’ve been stripped of the right to medical knowledge. It may be argued that anyone has access to such knowledge, but I’d challenge that claim with a first-year textbook: you have to learn a couple of foreign languages—not just the Latin and Greek, but the acronyms and other jargon, too—as well as to think objectively - that is, as if the patient were an object. This is nowhere clearer than in the treatment of extreme pain (as with cancer): heroin, the best painkiller known to humankind, is not to be used. Like cannabis, it’s too “street,” too “folksy,” it “supports terrorism.” Never mind that heroin, when used carefully, is the only thing that will alleviate chronic pain or that cannabis (again, especially with cancer patients) is the only thing that restores appetite. (Those interested in “off-label” uses of heroin will want to read Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates.)
Of course, opium is a dangerous drug. Then again, cars are vastly more dangerous pieces of engineering, not only because they are filthy and wasteful (a bit like cigarettes, then, I suppose) but also because they’re massive and smash signposts, cats, kids and other entities to a bloody pulp. Smoke opium and you may get smashed, but you’re quite likely to feel better for the experience. Opium is addictive but, as Lee points out, so are many other things. There’s a lot of ways to deal with addiction; Lee has an entire chapter on the matter. What scares Americans about addicts is crime: the association between the addict and the thief is so deeply ingrained that we assume that it’s the drug that does the stealing; the addict is just a vehicle. In a sense, that’s true: but only because the drug is illegal. Countries that legalize addictive drugs have much lower addict-associated crime rates. The American experience with Prohibition is the classic example of how behavior changes with the legal status of an addictive substance.
Lee spends a lot of time in “To Smoke or Not to Smoke: Reviewing the Evidence” railing against the medical monopoly rather than reviewing the evidence. I think he’s on the right track here, but should have given the chapter a more accurate title. Using goldenseal, echinacea or opium is an act of resistance against the medical-knowledge monopoly. With enough informed resistance we’d have a revolution in health care, instead of a donut hole in Medicare. There’s really only two pieces of evidence to consider when contemplating opium use: it’s illegal and it’s addictive. Nothing short of, goddess forbid, bioengineering is going to change the latter. Enough acts of resistance might at least make a dent in the former.
Perhaps the most useful (if not exactly interesting reading) is the second half of Opium Culture, which is comprised of a long how-to. For those who want to know how to smoke, this book has it all. This is accompanied by a folio of color photos illustrating how to prepare opium as well as various tools of the smoker’s trade.
Opium Culture is a mixed bag or, to use a smoker’s metaphor, it’s the pure stuff mixed with a lot of dross. The dross is going to offend informed readers and may gull the naïve or inexperienced user. Although Lee and his editors could have made better choices about what to include, much of the blame for the gaps here lie with a culture that refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room: humans love to get high and will do so no matter the personal or social cost. When there is no cultural conversation about the merits of intoxicants, when most are bad while a few, contradictorily, are good, and when there is no replicable research done to either verify or repudiate the dross of folklore, this is the best we can expect.