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A history of the world’s most fascinating drug.

Did you know that only the white poppy yields opium? Did you know that harvesting opium requires great skill but that to produce heroin from morphine requires only basic chemical knowledge and simple equipment? Did you know that China is the only country ever to significantly reduce drug addiction among its population and that it was achieved by a combination of education and extermination?

Thomas Dormandy’s book informs the reader on these and many other matters large and small  – the use of the poppy sap by Stone-Age people; the way in which the British-initiated Opium Wars remain an unpunished crime against humanity; the origin of the term ‘cold turkey’;  the marketing after only a four-week trial of heroin as a non-addictive drug; the attempt by French authorities in World War I to place restrictions on the supply of morphine to army doctors until threatened with the mass desertion of the medical corps.

Remarkably, the huge amount of fascinating and sometimes technical information in the book is presented in prose that is witty, scarifying and compelling. Dormandy is a retired professor of chemical pathology, whatever that is, and he seems to have had a team of researchers, but only a superb command of language could have made the book the triumph it is.

China, India, Afghanistan, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, the United States* –  the author traces the reception and effects of the drug in all these societies. There are some surprising asides – the successful cultivation of the white poppy in Scotland and New England; the possession by female socialites in late nineteenth-century New York of exquisite morphine injection kits.

Utterly memorable is a long passage the author warns is ‘not for the squeamish’ – a description by an addict of the tortures of withdrawal. The account of the body voiding its fluids through every orifice is truly hellish.

Dormandy has written several books of medical history, including one, beguilingly entitled The White Death, on tuberculosis, which I plan to read. I anticipate it contains one of the elements that distinguished Opium – crisp brief biographies of people both well-known and obscure, to illustrate his points.

Two themes shape the book. One is the inescapable paradox that opium has caused untold misery but remains mankind’s best way of relieving pain. The other is, in the face of the long history of the drug and the huge volume of trade in it, how puny and ineffective the ‘war on drugs’ has been and will continue to be.

The book amounts to an enormously detailed briefing on the drug ‘problem’ and the author does not shy away from a recommendation. Cautiously, anticipating short-term ill effects, he advocates decriminalisation. This would release huge amounts of money tied up in failed law enforcement and imprisonment policies. Would the authorities use it for good? One can only hope.

*Australia scarcely gets a mention beyond a reference to Chinese opium dens in post gold-rush Melbourne. In a rare lapse of accuracy, Dormandy appears to think that city is in a place called Victoria State.

Thomas Dormandy Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream, Yale University Press, 2012, HB, 376 pp, $58.39

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