The drugs don't work

Opium: a portrait of the heavenly demon

Barbara Hodgson<em> Souvenir Press, 152pp, £16.99</em>


Nowadays, opium is a fairly rare drug in England, perhaps because the profit margins from importing heroin are so much higher. I know this because, in the early 1980s, after I had outstayed my welcome in south-east Asia and returned with a powerful physical dependence on the drug, I sought help from my doctor. After prescribing me a controlled drug (as was my wish), he informed the Home Office (as was his duty). On our next meeting, he told me he had received an amused response from the Home Office, informing him that I was the first person to have been registered with them as an opium addict since the end of the 1960s.

Perhaps because opium is perceived to belong to the past (although it still grows wild all over the country and is present in several over-the-counter medications), and because we are no longer confronted with the miserable realities of its harmful side effects, it is no longer perceived as a threat. In this way, it has become romanticised and glamorised - descriptions of it are invariably wreathed in a smoke of nostalgia and longing. It is just this sort of dangerous and one-sided view that Opium: a portrait of the heavenly demon plays on and, in turn, furthers. With its seductive cover of black and gold, its lazy, ill-informed text and endless, lavish illustrations of silk-clad maidens and wise, wizened old Chinamen lost to their dreams, this book seeks to present opium in the best possible light, as if it were a lengthy advert sponsored by some opium growers' association. What troubles me about this kind of titillating drug pornography is how it neatly sidesteps any contentious issues, fetishises opium paraphernalia, avoids mention of withdrawal and addiction, and dismisses the first opium war with China - one of the more shameful and hypocritical episodes in our colonial history - as being caused simply by "misunderstandings". As well as enhancing the drug's image by associating it with the exotic "East", it lends opium credibility by quoting from all the usual suspects: De Quincey, Cocteau, Baudelaire, Coleridge, Wilde and William Burroughs. The author makes the mistake of suggesting that these writers' works were created because of, rather than in spite of, their drug use, overlooking De Quincey's amusingly snobbish claim that "if a man whose talk is of oxen should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen".

My contempt for books such as this arises precisely because they are so effective. After a couple of hours reading it, I was on the point of overlooking my years of suffering, harm and struggle and booking a one-way ticket to the Laotian jungle, there to reside on a teak bed surrounded by jasmine flowers. It is these dreamy and languorous notions of the drug that the fashion house Yves Saint-Laurent hopes to draw on - and cash in on - by naming one of its perfumes Opium. As Mike Jay points out in his excellent Emperors of Dreams, it is hard to imagine it marketing "Heroin" quite as successfully, "with its entirely different associations of inner-city misery, addiction and low-life squalor".

The distinction between the two drugs is, in any event, bogus - they do the same job. It is only their image that separates them, an image that was entirely reversed at the end of the 19th century: opium was the one with the bad reputation, the devil that was destroying the fabric of our society and the harbinger of a sinister Chinese plot to take over the world. Heroin was new, clean, efficient and, above all, medical. One of the original claims for the drug was that it would prove an effective treatment for opium and morphine addiction.

Intelligent, witty, cogent and a bit pissed off, Emperors of Dreams is one of the best books on drugs that I have come across, and should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with drug legislation. It places their discovery and use in the context of the prevailing post-Enlightenment and Romantic thinking as well as scientific discovery, against a background of the period's social, racial and economic history. Focusing on six drugs - nitrous oxide, cocaine, ether, opium, cannabis and mescaline - Jay builds up a picture of a world in which drugs were much more freely available, but where problems associated with them were much less evident.

I am convinced, like Jay, that the American-led, neo-imperialist "war on drugs" is a dangerous and doomed folly, and that the current drug laws need gradual, if not radical, overhaul. A possible side effect is that opium will regain some ground from its more potent chemical cousin, and that others will come and join me on that Home Office list; it is getting awfully lonely.

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