Has the opium myth gone up in smoke?

Preston Peet ptpeet at nyc.rr.com
Mon Dec 8 08:11:17 EST 2003


http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/commentary/story/0,4386,224173,00.html

Has the opium myth gone up in smoke?

DEEP K. DATTA-RAY
FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
LONDON - British Home Secretary David Blunkett has reclassified cannabis to
the lowest grade on the scale of controlled substances. The British
government - and others including Canada and several US states - are
re-evaluating their narcophobic views which took root a century and a half
ago in China and led to the Opium Wars.
Governments are realising that not all drugs are an unmitigated evil and a
difference is being drawn between synthetic hard drugs that threaten society
and purified natural substances with medicinal values and a place in Asia's
traditional cultures.
The war that Western imperialism forced on the decaying Qing empire, and
which identified China as the original victim - Patient Zero - of a global
drug plague, actually coincided with the conviction among both the Chinese
and British governments that drugs were bad and required suppressing.
Understandably, the opium trade has been called 'the most long-continued and
systematic international crime of modern times' perpetrated by the West on a
vulnerable Asian nation. But what exactly was the effect of this supposedly
pernicious substance?
Opium's impact on health has been dramatised. Medical evidence points to
only one effect - mild constipation. In Britain, frequent users did not
suffer any detrimental effects. On the contrary, they enjoyed good health
into their eighties.
South Asians took opium pills without any serious social or physical damage.
In contrast, imported European spirits faced strong opposition from India's
Hindus and Muslims. Contrary to folklore, few opium users in China or
elsewhere lost control of themselves.
In the late 1930s, when prices soared in Canton, most users halved their
consumption to make ends meet. Obviously, spiralling addiction was not the
inevitable result of smoking.
China's elite in the tumultuous 1800s regarded opium as the new status
symbol - like fine calligraphy in traditional society. Connoisseurship was a
carefully cultivated gentleman's art and 'Patna opium' the exotic
indulgence. Smoking paraphernalia became collectors' items, much like
Europeans collected Wedgwood tea sets. Expensive pipes fashioned out of
precious blackwood or jade and inlaid with ornate silver decoration became
social markers.
Rock-bottom prices in the late 19th century nationalised an elite pastime
without any of the sinister effects that haunt the lay imagination. A
British consul in Hainan reported that 'although nearly everyone uses it,
one never meets the opium skeleton vividly depicted in philanthropic works,
rather the reverse - a hardy peasantry, healthy and energetic'.
Seeking the dismal opium den of lore, Somerset Maugham found clean and tidy
places, as a League of Nations report in 1930 noted, where the only
customers were an elderly rubicund gentleman reading a newspaper, two
friends chatting over a pipe, and a family with a child!
snip-




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