An intelligent and authoritative history of opium—a drug that has both healed and harmed since the beginning of civilization.
Poppy tears, opium, heroin, fentanyl: humankind has been in thrall to the “Milk of Paradise” for millennia. The latex of papaver somniferum is a bringer of sleep, of pleasurable lethargy, of relief from pain—and hugely addictive. A commodity without rival, it is renewable, easy to extract, transport, and refine, and subject to an insatiable global demand.
No other substance in the world is as simple to produce or as profitable. It is the basis of a gargantuan industry built upon a shady underworld, but ultimately it is an agricultural product that lives many lives before it reaches the branded blister packet, the intravenous drip, or the scorched and filthy spoon. Many of us will end our lives dependent on it.
In Milk of Paradise, acclaimed cultural historian Lucy Inglis takes readers on an epic journey from ancient Mesopotamia to modern America and Afghanistan, from Sanskrit to pop, from poppy tears to smack, from morphine to today’s synthetic opiates. It is a tale of addiction, trade, crime, sex, war, literature, medicine, and, above all, money. And, as this ambitious, wide-ranging, and compelling account vividly shows, the history of opium is our history and it speaks to us of who we are.
In this wide-ranging and at times vivid narrative, historian Inglis (Georgian London) charts several millennia of opium's history, from the drug's discovery up through the current opioid crisis. Writing in a formal but enjoyable style, Inglis recounts that the opium poppy first appears in the historical record about 5,000 years ago. It spread throughout the ancient world (Aristotle was a fan) as a sleep aid and analgesic before establishing itself in the West as a pain reliever specifically for surgery during the Renaissance. The book rushes through the drug's early history, but gains coherence and argumentative strength when British history the author's area of expertise intersects with opium's. As Inglis explains, China's famous trade routes would become critical for opium's movement; Chinese authorities determined that it was harming the population, but the two Opium Wars didn't stop Britain from illegally importing opium poppy and violently defending the drug trade through the 1800s. Westerners were self-medicating with opium-based home remedies starting in the 1700s; use only increased with the inventions of morphine and the hypodermic needle, followed by patented medicines in the 1900s, fomenting contemporary addictions that begin with prescription painkillers. The U.S.'s prohibition on opium in the 1920s led to the cartel-run black market that still supplies America's nonprescription opiates. This examination is a must-read for anyone interested in the roots of the opioid crisis. Illus.