“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood….”
– Thomas De Quincy Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
Papaver somniferous commonly known as opium poppy has fascinated me since way before I became interested in herbalism. As a little kid my two favorite stories were Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz and I can’t help but think it started there. Who can forget the opium smoking caterpillar who spoke in circles or Dorothy falling asleep in a field of poppies minutes before reaching the Emerald City? That was before I could know that my life would become so enmeshed in the tragedies and consequences of the War on Drugs. The seductive blood red poppy seems like an appropriate symbol of that struggle. It is also symbolic of the point where herbalism and modern medicine meet. It was in 1804 that the German chemist, Friedrich Sertürner isolated what would come to be known as morphine (which is chemically processed to make heroin). Originally he called it morphium after Morpheus the Greek god of dreams due to its tendency to cause sleep. This is significant because it was the first time a plant alkaloid had ever been isolated and is arguably the most significant moment in the history of modern medicine. Health care would never be the same…for better or for worse.
But lets back up a little. Opium has been an important plant to humankind long before the invention of morphine, it was used as far back as the Neolithic era for medicinal and ritual purposes. And yet there is little evidence to support that it was used recreationally until the 15th century (in China) which is arguably around the time the idea of nation state arose (arguable because different historians have different definitions of nation state) and even then it was used very sparingly due to its cost. I really want to stress that because opium is often referred to as an “addictive substance”, but I believe that is an erroneous claim. No plant or substance is inherently addictive if that was the case we’d all be heroin addicts or alcoholics. So I just don’t buy it, if poppy is anything it is a healer and a helper of mankind or at least it had been for thousands and thousands of years. Addiction as a serious public health concern is a very recent phenomenon so blaming a plant (or plants) that have always been a part of our lives is downright idiotic. So if it isn’t the substance that is destroying lives then what is it? Dr. Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University states the following, ” The historical correlation between severe dislocation and addiction is strong. Although alcohol consumption and drunkenness on festive occasions was widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, and although a few people became “inebriates” or “drunkards”, mass alcoholism was not a problem. However, alcoholism gradually spread with the beginnings of free markets after 1500, and eventually became a raging epidemic with the dominance of the free market society after 1800″. This would also explain why native/aboriginal communities are especially prone to addiction as they experienced some of the most horrific and genocidal displacement known to man. So, to summarize if we take this view of addiction it is neither a consequence of drug use nor a disease (though its effects are certainly physiological), but a response to a world that has lost its connection to place and people. Knowing that it is easy to see why we choose to fumigate poppy fields and lock up addicts because there really is no easy solution to the problems we are facing.
Perhaps knowing that is the first step toward making changes at the very least in one’s personal life. I for one will continue to admire the opium poppy as proof that we live in a world capable of great love and I shudder to imagine what would happen if we did ever manage to eradicate it.
(P.S. For a really good read on addiction check out “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Dr. Gabor Maté)