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Opium: A History by Martin Booth

Opium: A History

by Martin Booth

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I found myself alternately crazy bored and truly engaged with Booth’s narrative. Essentially he tries to cover everything regarding this subject and does an admirable job – stuffing 4.54 kilograms of crap into a five pound bag, so to speak. Whereas I was less engrossed with the quite detailed technical descriptions of opium harvesting and processing early on, budding criminal scientist types no doubt want more. Overall, the author weaves together a story encompassing addicted 18th century Brits, 20th century international smuggling operations, money laundering mechanisms, inevitable CIA involvement, 19th century international smuggling operations, global scientific, medical, and legal developments, gangsters, coolies, militias, and Hollywood actresses – seemingly the whole gamut. If I ever really did, I certainly no longer desire any more information about opiates! Anecdotes that I’ll remember for at least a few weeks include the falseness of TV detectives licking product at a bust (purer stuff might addict them instantly), Elvis’s ironic contribution to Nixon’s war on drugs declaration in 1971, and how an Englishman can write just like a US author except when it comes to mentioning “goals” (for incarceration).

Aside from my typically superficial observations, Booth offers a considerate thesis – based on a very sophisticated historical account – about the multifarious issues revolving around the role of opium growth in developing territories, the resultant drug problems in developed nations, and the various criminal (and often governmental) machinations that connect these contemporary poles. ( )
  mjgrogan | Jun 14, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312206674, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:11 -0400)

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The book traces the drug's astounding impact on world culture--from its religious use by prehistoric peoples to its influence on the imaginations of the Romantic writers.

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