Opium: A Dark Paradise


Few sights in nature are more strikingly breathtaking than gently rolling fields blanketed by lavender, scarlet, white, and green opium poppies in full bloom. One of nature’s most dramatic displays, their splashes of dazzling color are rivaled only by that of tropical fish cruising amid the coral reefs or parrot flocks gliding amid the tropical rain forest canopy.

However, the natural allure of the opium poppy in bloom masks a dark side unlike any other found in nature. Contained within the seedpod of the opium poppy is a gummy sap that bleeds from the surface when it is accidentally scratched or intentionally slit. Although the sap looks innocuous as it forms in droplets on the outer shell of the green pod, it becomes a dangerous narcotic once harvested and processed for millions of opium addicts who are dependent on its mystical yet tragic properties.

The consumption of opium, whether smoked, eaten, or injected, is marked by a euphoric rush, a warm feeling of relaxation, a sense of security and protection, and relief from hunger, tension, and physical pain. Millions of addicts around the world spend tens of billions of dollars a year to experience its tranquilizing pleasure. Worth more money per acre than any other crop in the world, literally worth more than its weight in gold, the sap finds its way to the streets of all major cities.

Opium begins its journey in its raw state as a bitter, milky-brown, sticky sap. Only the sap of the poppy Papaver somniferum produces the intoxicating sticky juice. The genus name of this colorful plant comes from the Latin word for poppy, and the species name from the Latin word meaning “causing sleep.” Its distinctive characteristic of inducing a dreamy, sleeplike trance is what differentiates it from dozens of other benign poppy species.

Flowing in the sap of the opium poppy is a narcotic that people have used and valued for five thousand years. Yet it was not until the advent of modern chemistry at the beginning of the nineteenth century that the principal ingredient, called principium somniferum, meaning “the basic ingredient inducing sleep,” was isolated and identified as containing two powerful pain relievers. Referred to by doctors as analgesics, these pain relievers are morphine and codeine.

Once the chemistry of opium was understood, pharmacologists, chemists, botanists, and physicians experimented with the drug. They proclaimed it a panacea capable of treating a variety of painful maladies such as internal bleeding, broken bones, and even, it was hoped, cancer and alcoholism. So optimistic was the scientific community that it freely prescribed syrups and elixirs laced with opium to relieve the pain of the elderly and to quiet squalling babies.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Europeans and Americans of all ages and income groups were consuming doses of opium in pharmaceuticals as well as in a variety of commercial products sold in stores. Many more people were learning how to smoke the dried sap from Chinese laborers who had arrived in America in the mid-1800s to work in California’s gold mines and to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Opium dens, hangouts where people met to smoke opium and then slump into a drowsy stupor, sprang up first in California and later in many cities across the American heartland.

As opium consumption in America increased, it became evident that something was terribly wrong. Occasional overdoses were costing users their lives, and the medical community was coming to grips with the startling discovery that opium was highly addictive. Addicts became more focused on finding and taking their drug than on their health and their families’ well-being. Opium’s ability to relieve pain and create a soothing mental state was making it one of the most widely used drugs.

Determined to battle the scourge of opium, America and other countries outlawed it at the beginning of the twentieth century. Desperately needing the drug, addicts became customers of major crime organizations that surfaced to provide an uninterrupted flow of the drug from Asian poppy fields to the streets of America at a hefty cost in terms of money, crime, and lives.

Today, as the twenty-first century moves forward, the opium problem remains. America’s appetite for opium in its various forms, one of which is heroin, seems insatiable. Political and civic leaders have organized to try to free America from opium’s grip but are divided on how best to do it. One faction has launched a war on the poppy fields in Asia, assuming that by destroying the source, America’s problem will disappear. Another faction proposes that America can stop illicit trafficking only by confronting the demand for the drug at home. And yet a third smaller group doubts the bane can be eliminated.

None of these actions has resolved the war on opium. Its steady use is a major health and social problem. Opium continues to find its way to the streets of America regardless of the billions of dollars that are annually spent trying to stamp it out.