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Opium: A History Hardcover – July, 1998

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With personages from Khun Sa to Coleridge to Kurt Cobain populating its far-ranging pages, Opium: A History provides a comprehensive look at the drug as it's been used, abused, fought over, and profited from throughout the millennia. In all likelihood, one of the first medicinal drugs known to mankind, opium and its derivatives have eased and caused suffering in almost equal measure, a fact that the evenhanded Booth takes pains to point out. In fact, he quotes rock musician Frank Zappa with approbation: "A drug is neither moral nor immoral--it's a chemical compound. The compound itself is not a menace to society until a human being treats it as if consumption bestowed a temporary license to act like an asshole." Booth's book traces opium's history from the first evidence of poppy cultivation (possibly as early as 4,000 B.C.) to the drug wars of today, exploring its uses in different cultures, its roles in British and Chinese political affairs, its use by artists and musicians, and its horrifying ramifications for addicts.

Booth writes with admirable attention to detail, if very little élan. Plowing through some of his sentences is a little like chewing on a mouthful of sawdust: "There are several reasons suggested for the popularity of the hypodermic but the primary one is the lowering standard of heroin purity caused by the success of legislation on production and by the selling methods employed by Italians who took over distribution from Jewish gangs, leading to an increase in price and higher levels of adulteration." It's enough to drive a reader to drugs. Nonetheless, the power of his narrative can't be entirely erased by the unwieldiness of his prose. The book is filled with striking images and surprising facts--for instance, opium-addicted Victorian children, fed "soothing syrups" by minders to keep them quiet. Undernourished, yellow-skinned, in the words of one contemporary observer, they "shrank up into little old men or wizened like a little monkey." In the end, Booth finds few answers to the problems posed by the opium trade--a scourge he says has "destroyed millions of lives, enslaved whole cultures and invidiously corrupted human society to its very core." In writing this exhaustively researched history, however, Booth brings us that much closer to understanding--and thereby conquering--the most tenacious of human addictions. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

Opium was a common drug among the ancient Greeks (who extolled the "healing dreams" it brought on), a convenient poison for the Romans, a narcotic in medieval England and a popular painkiller and sedative in 19th-century Europe and America. Veteran British author Booth takes us from P. somniferum to "black gold," compellingly documenting the influential role of the opiate trade throughout history. British colonizers, for example, used both legal and illicit opium production as a chief source of revenue in India, while for Dutch, British and Portuguese traders opium was a means to pacify and carve up China. The CIA's alleged drug-dealing exploitsAto finance covert operations and to bribe local leadersAare also amply documented here. Although Booth delves into the opiate-taking habits of Graham Greene, Wilde, Cocteau, Dickens, Poe and Coleridge, he doesn't romanticize drug use. While the facts can be rather dry, his comprehensive, nation-by-nation survey of international narcotics traffickingAwhich he views as a global societal disorderAmay deter potential initiates. This history of the mechanics of the heroin trade industry brings us right to the present, where the market for the drug, Booth argues, is tied up with legitimate global trade.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 380 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st U.S. ed edition (July 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312186436
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312186432
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #554,996 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Hubcap on December 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Washington Post reviewer above got it right. Opium: A History is bursting with curious facts about a curious drug, but never ties it all together into a coherent theme. Or even several coherent themes. The writing isn't particularly good, either - call it workmanlike. That's surprising, as the author was nominated for a Booker Prize for his fiction. But just read the dreadfully dull opening paragraphs, a lackluster description of the opium poppy that sounds like it was lifted from a Petersen's Field Guide. The rest of the book doesn't get much better. The author is also fond of action-packed but meaningless phrases like, "Then in 1864 in China, things really began to happen." Yes, I'm sure. Things probably happened in 1863 and 1865 as well... A more serious flaw is the lack of footnotes or endnotes. The book claims to be a "History", but refuses to provide sources. So while it's full of interesting facts, I have no idea which facts are actually true. This is a pretty serious issue when, among other things, the author links the downing of the Pan Am flight off Lockerbie with CIA drug connections. The editors should have been ashamed to let that assertion go by unsourced. In the end I'd call Opium: A History a curiosity. If you want a general overview about this most sinister of drugs - you know who you are - you'll like the book.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By E. A. Lovitt HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on November 4, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Sleep and his brother Death figure prominently in Martin Booth's "Opium - A History." His subject is a two-headed god---bringing surcease from pain, but also addicting and killing its too-faithful followers.
Booth writes a truly fascinating and detailed history of opium's influence on the world's history, economies, and cultures. According to the author, opium has been used by man since prehistoric times. It was already under cultivation in Mesopotamia by 3400 B.C. He describes the wars that have been fought to control the opium trade, and nowadays the multi-billion dollar heroin industry. Nor does he neglect the social implications of an addicted population:
"For many addicts, heroin is favoured because, whilst allowing them to maintain full consciousness, they can withdraw into a secure, cocoon-like state of physical and emotional painlessness. Heroin is seen as an escape to tranquility, a liberation from anxiety and stress: for the poor, it is a way out of the drudgery of life, just as laudanum was for their forebears two centuries ago."
If much of your recent reading has been driven by current events, this book will open your eyes to the cultivation and processing of `papaver somniferum' throughout the `Golden Crescent' - a geographical area from Turkey to Tibet that includes the mountains of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Here is what the author has to say about growing poppies in the Mahaban Mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border:
"It is perfect poppy country with suitable soil, steep and well-drained hillsides, long hours of sunshine and the right amount of rainfall. There being no other forms of income apart from agriculture, it follows that the opium poppy provides an ideal cash crop."
According to the U.S.
Read more ›
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Ritter on August 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
.... It is this blessing-and-curse quality of the opiates that is the foundation of Martin Booth's sweeping work, "Opium". After 350 pages of truly engrossing history, he sums up with a few words: "�few doctors would be hard-hearted enough to practise medicine without it. Millions have been enslaved by it: yet it has also destroyed millions of lives, enslaved whole cultures, and invidiously corrupted human society to its very core."
To those who would legalize the stuff and be done with it, I recommend the chapter on Britain in the Industrial Revolution. Mothers fed their babies "soothing syrups" purchased legally at the local apothecary. Such syrups contained laudanum or morphine in order to quiet the crying of babies and help them sleep. These things the syrups did, but they also addicted the children, so that by the age of three or four they resembled "little old men or (were) wizened like a little monkey".
Those who favor the get-tough methods currently in vogue in the US would do well to read of the ups and downs of the international traffic over the last two centuries. The odds of defeating a business as lucrative as heroin seem to be very slim indeed. The emperor of China couldn't do it, and neither have any of the US administrations. In fact, China seems to be one of the hotbeds of the trade, and US consumption is high. Booth doesn't make any recommendations, for it's not a public policy book, as is Jill Jonnes' equally excellent history, which recommends stigmatization of drug use and conducting a war against the trade. "Opium" rather shows where we've been (we being just about every society on the globe) and the current state of things. As for the future, Booth doesn't hazard a guess or push a solution. He doesn't have to. His illumination of the long and tortured history of humans and the poppy is enough to suggest a middle course, neither drug war nor drug festival.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 13, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Martin Booth, a British novelist and documentary film writer, has written a readable monograph on the social history and politics of world opium use. The first 6 chapters deal with the early medicinal use of opium and the 19th century discoveries of morphine and heroin; they progress through the use of opium for pleasure and artistic inspiration to end in addiction and degradation. Mr. Booth implies that many prominent artists, writers and rulers were "addicts" though he often presents little evidence to validate these claims. The remaining 10 chapters of the book deal with the lucrative opiate trade from its earliest beginnings through the present day, and its role in narcoterrorism, narcotourism and Realpolitik. The author clearly chooses to emphasize the nefarious, rather than the beneficial characteristics of opium and its alkaloids. He did not include any maps, figures, or footnotes that would heighten the interest level of 353 pages of text. If you are looking for information on the medical and biological aspects of opiates, this book will be of little use. Mr. Booth devotes little or no attention to the great advances made in our understanding of opiate pharmacology during the twentieth century: the synthesis of opiate antagonists, the discoveries of multiple opioid binding sites and endogenous opioid peptides in the body, or the recent cloning of opioid receptors. The neurobiological underpinnings of opioid addiction and the evolution of antiaddiction treatments based on this scientific foundation are also given little consideration. Nevertheless, "Opium: A History" is a concise source of information on the socioeconomics and politics of the opium trade that has occurred over the past two centuries. END
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