December 10, 2019

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Under the influence

History of opium and derivatives a detailed, wide-reaching account

Carlos Jasso / The Associated Press files</p><p>Opium originated near the Black Sea, and has been continually cultivated and exchanged in a number of cultures for some 5,000 years.</p>

Carlos Jasso / The Associated Press files

Opium originated near the Black Sea, and has been continually cultivated and exchanged in a number of cultures for some 5,000 years.

Due to soaring rates of oxycodone addiction and fentanyl overdoses, in recent years a spotlight has been shone on opiates. These are less a novel phenomena than the new expression of a familiar friend and foe.

Milk of Paradise is the ambitious and wide-ranging story of opium, in its many guises, by cultural historian and novelist Lucy Inglis. The book’s three sections sketch broad histories of opium, morphine and heroin; in doing so, they paint a fascinating picture of a plant able to redefine political, economic and cultural lines.

Opium originated near the Black Sea and has been continually cultivated and exchanged for some 5,000 years. It is the botanical source for morphine and provides a chemical blueprint for fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Harvested from the seed pods of the papaver somniferum poppy, opium serves a wide variety of medicinal, economic and ritual purposes.

Beginning with the poppy’s earliest history, Inglis moves to the rise of the East India Company and the circuitous political history of Hong Kong, both intimately tied to the poppy. Seemingly insatiable British thirst for Chinese tea created new markets for narcotics, but also their attendant health and criminal issues. Though the dangers of overdose were well-known, opium was rarely understood as addictive in the modern sense.

In contrast to opium’s long legacy, morphine’s manufacture began in 1821. Key in patent medicines, morphine and codeine supplanted raw opium. Dosages of morphine were not only amenable to standardization, but were marketed, contra opium, as free from side effects. Morphine quickly became indispensable in surgical quarters, especially in theatres of war. Indeed, casualty rates dropped precipitously due in part to better pain management.

For all its medicinal benefits, the poppy has always commanded a significant recreational following. Opiates were used, in various forms, to soothe teething infants, alleviate the drudgery of manual work and to pass time when employed far from home. Artists turned to it for both inspiration and escape.

Heroin was discovered, and then ignored, at least twice in the 19th century. With morphine, but especially heroin, there came a growing recognition of the dangers of addiction.

In this final, jumbled section, the very breadth Inglis chases finally becomes overtly problematic. Whereas the previous sections maintain cohesion, the transitions in the last third — from HIV, to Hong Kong, to women and heroin — are more haphazard. Many familiar themes (such as addiction, crime and finance) remain familiar, but clear resolution evades the author.

What makes Inglis’s book admirable is both the incredible diversity of resources she deftly employs and the way she highlights the myriad roles opium has placed in world history. She tackles the development of the hypodermic needle, wartime surgery, immigration, colonization and Afghani agriculture with enough detail to assist, but not so much as to distract or bore.

Inglis weaves disparate topics into a captivating story spanning thousands of years of human experience. This enormous breadth does occasionally cause difficulties, as characters appear and disappear without sufficient explanation.

Important questions — such as opium’s disappearance from particular cultures, and the role of opiates in palliative care — remain under-explored. The prose is functional, if occasionally clunky and wooden. Readers should expect to find sentences that require a few attempts to resolve into clarity.

Issues aside, Milk of Paradise offers a tour of a topic that typically occupies only a peripheral position in popular discourse. While not shying from highlighting the atrocities of national and economic interests committed in the pursuit of narco-commerce, Inglis maintains a scholarly ambivalence towards the poppy. The plant, both boon and bane, brings misery and relief, wealth and poverty. As she notes, our collective futures remain inextricably tied to this amazing plant.

Jarett Myskiw is a teacher in Winnipeg.

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