5/15/09 - opium

In today's excerpt - opium, a powerful illegal narcotic in its own right, and also the source for morphine and heroin. Opium harvesting is difficult to mechanize and requires an abundance of inexpensive labor, making it an ideal crop for the least developed countries of the world. Opium was a mainstay of late nineteenth-century home medicine cabinets in America:

"Opium poppies are relatively easy to grow, which has always made controlling their supply difficult. ... In the ancient world, poppy growing occurred first in Egypt, and then spread into Persia (Iran), India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, the so-called 'Golden Crescent.' The poppy followed Arab traders into Asia, and the 'Golden Triangle' of Burma (Myanmar), Laos, and Thailand became a major source for the global market in the mid-twentieth century. China began growing poppies in the nineteenth century to serve its population of opium smokers, while Mexico and Latin America began to export opiates in the twentieth century to supply the U.S. market. European countries—including Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, the Balkan states, and even Britain—all produced opium poppies at one time or another. ...

"Poppy cultivation requires a small investment in technology and capital, which makes it an appealing crop in poor areas. Opium poppies are hardy and need plentiful sun, not too much rainfall, and modestly rich soil, but little irrigation and few pesticides or fertilizers. Poppies spread naturally into the furrows left by the cultivation of staple crops, and thus allow farmers to use their fields intensively. While cultivation is not difficult, harvesting is a laborious process that is difficult to mechanize and requires an abundance of inexpensive labor, which is usually readily available in less developed regions of the world. ...

"Although opium has important medical uses, its conversion into a commodity of mass consumption in the nineteenth century dominates its modern history. European traders introduced tobacco, the tobacco pipe, and opium into China, and the practice of smoking a mix of tobacco and opium developed as a malaria preventative in China's coastal regions. ... The population of opium smokers exploded in the mid-nineteenth century after Britain defeated China in the opium wars and forced it to legalize the opium trade. By 1900, China consumed 95 percent of the world's opium crop, and over sixteen million Chinese smoked regularly. The practice of smoking opium followed the Chinese throughout the world, including to the United States ... and by the end of the nineteenth century, it had become popular among prostitutes, criminals, entertainers, and other habitues of the 'sporting life.' ...

"In the nineteenth century, the oral ingestion of opium was central both to medical practice and to commercial and home remedies for common ailments, and this led to more abuse than smoking opium did. Laudanum—as well as widely available patent medicines, syrups, and tonics—contained opium as the principal ingredient, and opium was one of the few effective forms of pain control. Physicians used opium pills to relieve a wide variety of symptoms, such as diarrhea and coughs, and women frequently resorted to opium-based medications to ease menstrual cramps. ... With the notable exception of Civil War veterans and Chinese and underworld opium smokers, the typical American opium user was a middle-aged white woman of middle-class background who had become habituated to opium through self-medication."


Eric C. Schneider


Smack: Heroin and the American City


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania Press


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment