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19th century opium smoker

Opium is an addictive narcotic made from the dried, bitter, thickened latex of the seed pod a certain kinds of poppies. Used as a medicine and painkiller and for recreation, it can be smoked, eaten, drunk or made into more powerful drugs such as morphine and heroin. About 10 kilograms of opium produces one kilogram of morphine which yields one kilogram of heroin.

There are numerous species of poppies, including the corn poppy, the Oriental poppy and the California poppy (California's state flower), but only two varieties of poppies "Papaver somniferum" and "Papaver bractatum") contain extractable amounts of opium and only Papaver somniferum is used in the legal and illegal opium trade.

Believed to be native to the Mediterranean area and sometimes raised as a garden plant, "Papaver somniferum" produces lovely flowers that vary greatly in size and come in a variety of colors, including white, pink, red, and purple. "Papaver somniferum" comes in dozens of varieties, adapted to different climates and soils. The dried seed cases are sometimes used for decorations and the seeds can be used as a flavoring for cakes and bread.

The opium poppy produces a number of alkaloids. Morphine is the most prevalent, making up 10 to 16 percent of raw opium. There are lesser amounts of codeine, a narcotic alkaloid that is milder than morphine.

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Hashish, China Not so Special blog china.notspecial.org ; Cannabis History walnet.org/rosebud ; Opium Trade in China druglibrary.org

Opium History

Opium is believed to have first been used in the Mediterranean because that is where opium is thought to have originally come from. The oldest known opium cultivators were people who lived around a Swiss lake in the forth millennium B.C. Traces of opium have been excavated from archeological sites there.

The first written record of opium use comes from a 5,400-year-old Sumerian description of the cutivation of a “joy plant” in lower Mesoptamia. Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian texts refer to the medicinal uses of opium. A 9th century B.C. bas-relif from the Assyrian city of Nimrud shows King Ashymasirpal II holding a bouquet of opium capsules.

The ancient Egyptians took opium for pleasure and as a sedative. Hieroglyphics describe the cultivation of opium poppies during the reigns of Thutmose IV, Akhenaton and King Tutankhamen; the use of poppy extract to quiet crying children; and detail the opiums trade between the Egypt and Greece and Europe.

Ancient people are believed to be have taken opium, mostly in the form of tea or dissolved in other drinks. Opium-capsule-shaped ceramic jugs, dated to 1,500 B.C., have been unearthed in Cyprus. They featured stylized incisions and are believed to have held opium dissolved in wine. Surgical-quality knives used to harvest opium have been found in Cyprus.

Opium Heads East

Some scholars believe that opium was brought to China by returning sailors or Tibetan Buddhist priests from Africa or India as the early as the first century B.C. Others say that opium more likely was carried east by Arabic traders to India and then China between A.D. 400 and A.D. 900.

By the reign of Kublai Khan (1279-94) opium was widely used as a medicine. In India, it was eaten and drunk by all classes of people and taken as a household remedy for a variety of maladies. Between 1000 and 1500 the Chinese graduated from consuming poppy seeds to taking raw opium from the capsules and refining it into high quality opium. In southern China hill tribes began raising opium as a way to pay taxes to the Han Chinese.

In the Mogul Empire, war elephants and soldiers were given opium to give them courage, calm them before battles and make them feel less pain when injured. Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, drank opium with his wine and decorated the tomb of his beloved wife with poppies. Under the Moguls opium agriculture organized and the sale of opium became a state monopoly.

Until the practice of smoking tobacco was introduced to Europe and Asia from the Americas in the 16th century, opium was mostly eaten or drunk. Opium smoked in the 17th and 18th century was mostly in the form of a mixture of opium and tobacco called madak. Smoking pure opium only became popular in China after madak was banned there.

By 1700, the use of tobacco-opium mixtures (madak) had begun in the East Indies (probably Java) and had spread to Formosa, Fukien and the South China coast. In 1689, Engelberg Kaempfer inspected primitive dens where the mixture is dispensed (Amoenitates Exoticae, 1712:642-5).

Early History of Opium in China

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Opium Wars sea battle

Opium has long been used in China and the Far East to stop diarrhea and treat other medical problems. The quality of the opium produced in China was inferior to the opium brought from India by the British. By 1000, the medicinal use of opium poppy seeds is widespread. By 1100, the more potent capsule is in use, but pure opium is not extracted from the capsule. By the medicinal use of pure opium is fully established; native opium is manufactured, but recreational use is still limited. [Source: Erowid.org]

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “Opium had been consumed in China since the eighth century and several emperors had sung its praises. It began to be smoked with the introduction of tobacco in the late 16th century, turning its consumption from a medicinal to a social habit. By the 1830s, China was producing large quantities of opium domestically, though the imported drug was judged superior. The British traders argued, disingenuously no doubt, that they were merely supplying an existing demand, delivering the opium to a network of Chinese traders who distributed it across the empire. “[Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]

In the 1600s, the habit of smoking opium became popular in Formosa (now Taiwan) after Dutch sailors introduced tobacco smoking and residents of the island mixed tobacco and opium. The Formosans introduced the custom to the mainland, where tobacco was abandoned and opium was smoked alone. In 1729, reports reach Peking of the evils of opium smoking (shrivelling up the features; early deaths) in Formosa and Fukien; Emperor Yung Chen prohibits the sale of opium and the operation of smoking houses. [Source: Erowid.org]

British and the Growth of Opium use in China

In 1757, Britain annexed Bengal and the Chinese confined foreign trade to Canton where it could be restricted and controlled in the interests of revenue for the Chinese. Hong Kong merchants serve as intermediaries between the foreigners and the Chinese authorities. 1767: Opium from Bengal continues to enter China despite the edict of 1729 prohibiting smoking. It increases in frequency from 200 chests annually in 1729 to 1000 annually by 1767. However, much is for medicinal use. Tariffs are collected on the opium. [Source: Erowid.org]

The first mention of actual trading in opium at Canton was in 1779. In 1780, British traders established an opium depot at Macao. Another imperial edict prohibited consumption of opium and reiterates prohibition of its sale. In 1796, alarmed by increasing use, the emperor of China issues an edict forbiding importation of opium, as well as export of Chinese silver that is being used as a medium of exchange. Now even legitimate trade is limited to barter. Nonetheless, illegal purchase of opium with silver continues.

In 1799, a strong edict by authorities at Canton, supporting the emperor's decree of 1796, forbids opium trade at that port. A concurrent drive against native poppy growing was initiated. Opium became an illicit commodity. The 1799 edict increased traffic through Macao and other areas beyond government control enabling unprecedented growth. The British declared only their legitimate cargo, leaving opium on board to be picked up by Chinese merchants who smuggled it ashore in small, fast boats. In 1800, opium became identified with official corruption, criminals and antigovernment secret societies. An imperial edict prohibited domestic cultivation and repeated the prohibition against importing opium. China developed an anti-opium policy, at least on paper. Edicts continued to be issued reiterating prohibitions against importation, sale, and consumption of opium.

In 1804, opium trading resumed at the port of Canton. Though the 1799 edict was still in force, it had little effect and no immediate practical change in policy ensues.

Opium Wars, See 19th Century History.

Later History of Opium in China

The British aggressively marketed opium in China. The result: lots of addicts. Some smoked the drug in opium deans. Others took opium pills. Cheap pills known as "pen yen" gave rise to the expression have a "yen" for something.

The British-supplied opium was very popular in China. Rich and poor Chinese alike gathered in opium dens called divans to smoke the dreamy drug, and millions of Chinese — government officials, merchants, court servants, sedan bearers — became addicted and subdued. The opium trade significantly ate into the China's foreign trade reserves. By 1836, it transformed a huge trade surplus into huge trade deficit.

After the Opium Wars, the British aggressively marketed opium in China. The result: lots of addicts. Some smoked the drug in opium dens. Others took opium pills. Cheap pills known as pen yen gave rise to the expression have a "yen" for something.

Between 1850-1865, tens of thousands of Chinese laborers immigrated to the U.S. in a period of labor shortage, bringing the habit of opium smoking with them. Opium dens opened in San Francisco and towns where Chinese railroad workers stayed. By 1890, there were a number of "smoke houses" in the basements in back-ally buildings in New York. The customers included prostitutes, showgirls, businessmen and tourists as well as Chinamen. Opium became widely associated with dark, smoky opium dens. The custom made its way to Europe from China via the United States.

In 1878, San Francisco passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to "keep, or maintain, or visit, or in any way contribute to the support of any place, house, or room, where opium is smoked." Importation, sales and possession of opium remained legal. In 1887, the importation of opium by Chinese (but not by Americans) is forbidden.

Meanwhile in China, in 1900-1906 about 27 percent of the adult male population of China is addicted to opium. This is about 3.5 percent of the total population of the country.

Opium Smoking

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Shanghai opium smoker in the 1920s

The smoking of opium does not involve burning as is the case with cannabis or tobacco. Rather prepared opium is indirectly heated to temperatures that cause the active alkaloids, chiefly morphine, to vaporize. Opium users in much of the world have traditionally “smoked” the drug in specially-designed pipes with a long bamboo stem and a glass, porcelain or metal bowl. Users usually have taken the drug while laying on their side because the nature of the high discourages people from standing up or even sitting down. Those that try to sit up often just slump over.

To prepare the tar-like opium for consumption it is first heated and softened and rolled into a pea-size ball, enough for a single dose for one individual. Users seem take great pleasure going through the preparation process. The ball is then stuck on the bowl and heated indirectly by heating the bowl not than opium itself with a candle or lamp. Sometime users blows through the pipe to heat a piece of glowing charcoal to increases the heat. When the opium begins to vaporize the smoker inhales.

Often it takes two people to smoke opium: one person to smoke it and another person to heat the opium ball with a flame and make sure it releases the drug without being sucked into the pipe. Pipes were often designed with a rounded cross section that allowed the bowl to be rotated into the heat source and roated back into an upright position. Chasing the dragon (inhaling a drug vaporized on a piece of alumuninum foil with a straw) works with opium. In a conventional marijuana pipe opium often slides down the bowl before it fully vaporizes.

While it is being inhaled, opium gurgles, fizzes and hisses and slithers down the pipe like black mercury. Opium balls are smoked slowly and carefully lit and nurtured so they aren't sucked quickly into the pipe. The heated vapor is easily absorbed by the body. When the ball is finished, the smoker relaxes and spaces out. He usually doesn't have much to say, doesn't want to do much except lay there, and is quite happy being left alone with his happy thoughts.

Description of an Opium Addict

Describing her opium addict grandfather, a gainfully-employed mason in Singapore, Lavinia Chang told Time, "Nearly everything he earned was spent on feeding his habit. When he had money, he would smoke better-grade opium; when funds were low, he would buy the poor-grade pellets that he swallowed several times a day. With no savings, there were times in between jobs when he could not even afford the pellets. That is when withdrawal symptoms kicked in."

"It would start off like a cold, with teary eyes and a runny nose, followed by involuntary twitches in the face. His hands would start to shake, so he could not even have a drink without spilling it. At the full-blown 'cold turkey' stage, he would lock himself in his room and push the key out from under the door. We could hear his desperate groaning from within but knew there was nothing we could do to help. I don't know how long he stayed locked up; it seemed like a very long time."

There were bad memories of "him shivering under a blanket at midday, with mucous dripping from his nose and saliva drooling from his opened mouth into a perspiration-soaked pillow...When he became quiet again, my mother or one of my aunties would go in and help him out of bed...Though he seemed barely conscious, I knew he was fully aware of his suffering. Watching we suffered too. That's one of the most cruel side effects of substance abuse. It produces a host of silent victims: parents, siblings, partners, children, grandchildren and friends."

When she was 12 her grandfather told her, "I was foolish and I thought I was buying a happier life. It was an escape. Twenty cents a day helped me get through the horrible working conditions. I thought if I worked harder and longer, I would earn more for my family. But the price shot up once I became dependent. It has cost me my life. I never thought I would become addicted."


End of Opium Use by the Communists

In 1940 it was estimated that there were 40 million opium smokers in China. In 1941 Chiang Kai-shek ordered the complete suppression of the poppy and laws were passed that meted at the death penalty for anyone cultivating the poppy, manufacturing opium or offering it for sale.

The Communist took this policy a step further by executing dealers, declaring that anybody found using drugs would be put to death. and providing immediate cold turkey treatment for addicts. In Canton in 1951, 27,000 pounds of opium was publicly burned and 37 addicts were executed. In this way the Communist virtually wiped out drug use and brought the opium problem to a quick end.

Even so, while fighting the Kuomingtan, the People's Liberation Army, operating under the front of the Daguang Soap Factory, grew opium to raise money in the early 1940s apparently with Mao's approval.

In teh 1990s, the Yves Saint Laurent perfume Opium was banned because is name "humiliates Chinese dignity." The ban was imposed after shoppers complained that the perfume "created spiritual pollution for the youngest.”

In the early 2000s, hot-pot restaurants in Shanghai were accused of adding opium to their dishes in an effort to get repeat customers.

Image Sources: Normal Opium Museum and Wason Collection; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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