Poppy Dreams

Bayer's "new wonder drug . . . proved to be an awe-inspiringly powerful painkiller," reports Martin Booth in Opium: A History (St. Martin's, $14.95). It also turned out to be ferociously addictive, like opium and morphine before it. (The same couldn't be said of Bayer's other famous product, aspirin.) Five to eight times as potent as its parent drug, not to mention cheaper, "heroin was an ideal illegal commodity: as a white powder, it was also easily `cut' or adulterated [and] easily concealed by traffickers. . . . illicit heroin use grew rapidly and became the primary trade drug of the criminal underworld." In the United States, heroin came along at a time when society was clamping down on drug use, making the big H both harder to get and more tantalizing.

Booth, a novelist and filmmaker, begins this panoramic overview of mankind's oldest addiction by going to the root of the problem: the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, whose seed pods produce a sticky sap containing certain alkaloids of more than passing interest. Booth offers up a detailed description of the cultivation, harvesting and processing of the drug (would-be poppy farmers take note: growers often become addicts).

"Virtually synonymous with China for hundreds of years," P. somniferum probably originated either in Egypt or in the Balkans or Black Sea area; poppy pods have been found in Neolithic Swiss villages. The poppy came to China possibly as early as the first century B.C., brought home from Africa or India by returning sailors, or perhaps in the first century A.D. by Tibetan Buddhist priests. By about the 7th century A.D., the Chinese were buying it from Arab traders while cultivating their own poppy crops in Yunnan province and elsewhere.

Booth spends a lot of time looking at opium production and trade in China and the mountainous Golden Triangle (Laos, Thailand and Burma, now Myanmar), "just south of the Chinese border . . . ideal poppy country." He covers the 19th-century Opium Wars between China and Britain, noting the drug trade's role in establishing Hong Kong (still "a major heroin port"), before moving on to contemporary global efforts to crack down on the drug and its traffickers.

One especially good chapter focuses on opiate-addicted writers and artists; the Romantics were keen on laudanum, which many took for physical complaints only to discover it also unleashed the imagination, temporarily at least. Hence Booth finds traces of opium in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." He takes a quote from Jean Cocteau, a notorious addict, as an epigraph for the book: "Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death."

As his choice of epigraph suggests, Booth is wonderfully unshrill on a subject that turns many people into shrieking dogmatists. He understands the lure of the drugs he describes, though he does allow himself a concluding moral: "To every discovery mankind has ever made, from the lighting of the first fire to the splitting of the atom, there has been a good side and a bad side. Opium is no different. . . . Heroin addiction, the legacy of opium which was probably the first medicinal substance used by man, is here to stay, taking its place alongside poverty, racism and war in the sorry catalogue of insoluble human problems."

Busted!

Far less inclined to be tolerant is Jill Jonnes, a journalist and historian whose Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance With Illegal Drugs (Johns Hopkins, $18.95) is now out in paperback. Like Booth, Jonnes is addicted to intriguing etymological and historical tidbits; "dope" comes from doop, Dutch for "sauce," an apt term for the sticky stuff prepared in opium dens. (Booth reports that the word "hip" has an opium-den association; "Its root lay in the fact that addicts gained sore hips from reclining on their sides on hard, opium den bed-boards.")

Reviewing Hep-Cats for Book World in 1996, Guy Gugliotta wrote that it "documents the history of American drug use in three `epidemics': opium and cocaine at the turn of the century; postwar heroin, marijuana and the psychedelics; and the current splurge of crack and cocaine. . . [Jonnes] finished her research as a hardliner, convinced that `law enforcement is key': Making drugs hard to obtain means that fewer people will use them. Her evidence, from the debilitating opium trade in pre-revolution China to the cheap cocaine highs in New York's turn-of-century lower depths, seems irrefutable, although she deals only fleetingly with the debate over marijuana."

Reefer Madness

Zanily on the legalization side of the debate is Offbeat Marijuana: The Life and Times of the World's Grooviest Plant, by Saul Rubin (Santa Monica, $19.95). The only real fist-in-the-air talk turns up in the foreword by Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of the NORML Foundation (a pro-legalization outfit). "Despite the U.S. government's 62-year blanket prohibition on the myriad uses of cannabis . . . cannabis remains a popular intoxicant -- second only to alcohol," Pierre writes. "The U.S. government spends approximately $10 to $12 billion of taxpayer money annually trying to enforce the failed prohibition. Since the early 1970s, the government has been nurturing a massive and pervasive `drug war-prison-industrial complex'."

Whatever. Like a stoner after a few hits, the main text of the book kicks back and lets go. There's a bowlful of pop culture here, including a discussion of druggie pulp fiction novels of the 1940s like Marijuana Girl ("She traded her body for drugs and kicks!" said the publisher's blurb). History has its share of famous potheads, including, perhaps, George Washington. He grew hemp for fiber anyway; what he did with the leaves we don't know. (Once again hip among eco-conscious fashionistas, hemp comes from the sturdy stalks of the plant; potheads smoke the leaves and buds.) And did you know, Rubin asks, that Pancho Villa's revolutionaries "may have been history's first and only stoned army? Many fighters under Villa's command were Yaqui Indians who were known to use marijuana with regularity."

Rubin does tackle weightier issues such as medical marijuana and scientific findings on pot use. "Marijuana research is challenging," he writes in a typically wry passage, "sometimes for obvious reasons: Stoned people don't always follow instructions well even in social situations, never mind a laboratory setting. . . . It's no wonder that scientists have opted to use animal subjects instead of people. Creatures who have been stoned in the name of science include dogs, mice, rats, baboons, horses, bats, pigeons and sea urchins." Maybe they were given bowls of kibble to help satisfy those marijuana-induced munchies.

Tripping Lightly

Pot pales next to the psychedelic pastimes of the '60s. The drugs may still be illegal, but talking about them isn't, as Gordon Ball demonstrates in his memoir '66 Frames (Coffee House, $15.95). Ball has made 14 independent movies and teaches English at (of all places) VMI in Lexington, Va. As a young man right out of college, he made the '60s scene in New York, where he met Warhol and Ginsberg and dropped what sounds like a whole lot of acid. Here's his description of tripping in a friend's apartment: "His extended, darting hand left a trace of bright silvered energy hanging visible in the air an instant, like a child's sparkler at night. . . . We too darted our limbs and cavorted as sea waves of energy rushed through us. We were jugglers of the universe, delighting in its infinite constituent particles." As unapologetic as it is hedonistic, this is no anti-drug screed; Ball still believes in the power of LSD to educate and expand the mind.

For another personal take on drug use, see Tom Andrews's Codeine Diary: True Confessions of a Reckless Hemophiliac (Harcourt Brace, $13). A lifelong "bleeder," Andrews lacks the requisite amount of factor VIII, the substance that causes coagulation. The constant threat of a "bleed" -- a trauma that causes internal hemorrhaging -- hasn't stopped him from racing motorbikes (he's a poet and mathematician by profession). At age 11, he landed the Guinness record for continuous clapping (14 hours, 31 minutes). When he does hurt himself -- the book opens with a fall on the ice that causes a fracture and a bleed in one leg -- Andrews relies on codeine to kill the pain, becoming a reluctant addict. Codeine Diary talks about his affliction, his addiction, and his rather unusual family life, including his relationship with his brother, whose terminal kidney disease makes Andrews the healthy kid in the family. Next to LSD flashbacks, a little codeine haze seems positively tame.

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is jenhoward@compuserve.com.