While often thought of as a Victorian drug, Opium use was still prevalent, if waning, in 1920’s Paris. Montmartre was the main location of most of the Parisian dens. While booze and cocaine were much more fashionable, opium dens supplied the drug, imported from France’s former Southeast Asian colonies, to customers looking to chase the dragon or le Brune Fée (brown fairy) as the french would say.
Opium is a drug that grew ever more dangerous as its method of use grew more refined over the ages. The sap from the opium poppy (known to the Babylonians as the joy plant) was first eaten as a pain-reliever and mood booster over six thousand years ago. This practice was wide spread. From Roman gladiators dulling fear to Alexander the Great’s armies medicating themselves, opium eating survived for thousands of years. Then, as tobacco was introduced to China in the 14th century, opium began to be added and smoked. This process evolved. Opium sap was cooked down into a paste and smoked over an open flame. The vaporized narcotics entered the system in new more potent ways, and both its effects and addictiveness increased. Today we see it in its most refined forms such as heroin and other opioids. Its ability to help and hurt have been driven to their max.
Opium has always been a mythic drug and there are many, many assumptions and exaggerations attributed to it. Let’s dispel two of its most persistent.
First, opium is often linked to and depicted as causing hallucinations. Opium is non-hallucinatory but does effect perception. High quality opium, known as chandu, causes the user to experience hyper-sensitized senses and acute focus. Poor quality opium, called dross, contains high amounts of morphine and causes the drowsy, dead to the world, effect so often shown in depictions of opium dens. Opium is also notorious for causing incredibly vivid and wild dreams, which may be the origin of the hallucination myth.
The second myth that often surrounds opium is actually a combination involving addiction and withdrawal. Namely that opium is relatively easy to become addicted to but also relatively easy to withdraw from. Nothing could be further from the truth and that is part of what makes this drug so insidious.
Unlike heroin where addiction is rapid, most opium smokers need to have a daily habit for more than a week before addiction takes place. This often lulls users into a false sense of security. Occasional smoking is very unlikely to lead to addiction but what counts as occasional? Once a month? Once per week? Per day? When the definition of occasional becomes too often, addiction can set in.
Ease of withdrawal is also often reversed when comparing heroin and opium. While heroin withdrawal is an awful, long, terrible experience, somehow, opium withdrawal is much worse.
I’ll leave the details of such a withdrawal for you to read in RADIO or for a much more in depth account, I highly recommend Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction by Steven Martin. What started out as research turned to addiction and resulted in this modern, accurate account of what the cycle of opium addiction is actually like. This book helped my research immensely and I couldn’t recommend it more.