A Rational Perspective On The Opium Poppy

Readers of this blog have encountered the remarkable Sir George Birdwood before in my previous post “A Dismal End To The War On Drugs Predicted – in 1885”.

Birdwood was not only a strong voice of reason arguing for an enlightened approach to Opium regulation, but was also an informed observer of the realities of Opium in India and China, as well as a vigorous critic of the actions of the British Government acting through its commercial surrogate the British East India Company to wage war on China for the “right” to addict the Chinese people for profit.

I am writing “The Poppy Juice Papers” in order to argue, as I am doing with regard to Coca Leaf, that access to this great natural medicine should not be denied to individuals who choose to grow their own poppies. As I describe in my book “The International Cultivators Handbook: Coca, Opium & Hashish” the Opium Poppy is just about the easiest plant in the world to grow and harvest, and offers anyone with the faintest tinge of green on their thumb a slam-dunk to producing a fine personal crop of pure, natural Opium. I would not argue for unrestricted rights to grow Opium Poppies on a commercial scale in order to produce Morphine and Heroin, any more than I am arguing that Coca Leaf ought to be freely available for commercial production of Cocaine.

Cocaine is the product of the industrial manipulation of the natural medicinal Coca Leaf, just as Morphine and Heroin are industrial manipulations of the Poppy Flower, and the insidious motivations behind these industrial products – which do have some limited health benefits – do not, in my mind, justify allowing them to be exploited by criminal syndicates on either side of the law. The Cartels and the DEA’s of the world are simply two sides of organized criminal enterprise – as is all government, to a large degree. But the natural medicines that are the gift of nature, whether the Coca Leaf or the Poppy Flower, ought to be as freely available to any person who wants and needs them, and especially who wants to grow them in their own garden for personal use, as is the right to choose a God to believe in and worship, whatever others may think of one’s choice.

That said, I am certain that readers of this blog will enjoy the fine mind and acute perceptions of Sir George Birdwood in this short essay as he dissects the myths and the realities of Opium in China. You will encounter his work in other equally interesting contexts when “The Poppy Juice Papers” is finally published.

(Please note that I have not “corrected” Sir Birdwood’s spelling, which is of course impeccable by 1800’s standards but out-of-date today.)

Opium Smoking
Sir George Birdwood
January 17, 1882

Opium smoking, which is the Chinese form of using the drug, for which the Indian Government is specially held responsible, is, to say the least in its favour, an infinitely milder indulgence. I hold it to be absolutely harmless. I do not place it simply m the same category with even tobacco smoking, for tobacco smoking may, in itself, if carried into excess, be injurious, particularly to young people under 25; but I mean that opium smoking in itself is as harmless as smoking willow bark or inhaling the smoke of a peat fire or vapour of boiling water.

Opinions, of course, differ. Medhurst (“China”) is the weightiest lay authority against it, and Marsden (“Sumatra,” pp. 278-279). In its defence. Professor O’Shaughnessy (“Bengal Dispensatory,” pp. 180-181) admits that what is recorded against it applies only to the abuse of the practice. Dr. Oxley, quoted in Crawford’s “Dictionary”(p. 313), Dr. Smith (“Lancet,” Feb. 19, 1842, quoted at sufficient length by Pereira, Dr. Eatwell (“ Pharmaceutical Journal,” 1851-52, pp. 264-265), and Dr. Impey (in his Report on Malwa opium) all protest against the indiscriminate condemnation directed by prejudiced or malicious writers against it.

I have not seen Surgeon-General Moore’s recent paper on opium in the “Indian Medical Gazette,” but I gather from a notice of it quoted from the “Calcutta Englishman” in the “Homeward Mail “ of the 14th of November last, that it supplies a most exhaustive and able vindication of the perfect morality of the revenue derived by the Indian Government from the manufacture and sale of opium to the Chinese.

He quotes from Dr. Ayres, “No China resident believes in the terrible frequency of the dull, sodden-witted, debilitated opium smoker met with in print.” and from Consul Lay: “In China the spendthrift, the men of lewd habits, the drunkard, and a large assortment of bad characters, slide into the opium-smoker; hence the drug seems to be chargeable with all the vices of the country.”

Mr. Gregory, Her Majesty’s Consul at Swatow, says Dr. Moore, never saw a single case of opium intoxication, though living for months and travelling for hundreds of miles among opium smokers.

Dr. Moore directly confirms my own statement of the Chinese having been great drinkers of alcohol before they took to smoking opium. I find, also, in a remarkable collection of folk-lore (“Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,” by Herbert A. Giles), evidence in almost every chapter of the universal drinking habits of the Chinese before the introduction of opium among them, notwithstanding that the use of alcohol is opposed to the cardinal precepts of Buddhism. What Dr. Moore says of the freedom of opium-smokers from bronchial and thoracic diseases is deserving of the deepest consideration.

I find that, on the other hand, the Chinese converts to Christianity suffer greatly from consumption. The missionaries will not allow them to smoke, and, as they also forbid their marrying while young, after the wise custom, founded on an experience of thousands of years, of their country, they fall into those depraved, filthy habits of which consumption is everywhere the inexorable witness and scourge. When spitting of blood comes on the opium pipe is its sole alleviation. The opium, as retailed to the smokers, is already diminished by various admixtures in narcotic power, and is, apparently, still more so by it’s preparation in the form of pure “smokeable extract.”

Then the pill so prepared is placed in a flame, where it is instantly set ablaze. It blazes furiously, and its vapour is at the same instant inhaled into the throat and lungs in one inspiration.

But none of the active principles of opium are volatilizable! And if any one of your readers will get Indian opium, as retailed in the bazaars, and prepare pure chandoo from it, and smoke as many pills of it as he pleases, in the above manner, he will find that they will not produce the slightest effect on him, or any one else, one way or the other, beyond causing that pleasant and peaceful warmth throughout the body which comes of sitting over a peat fire on a chilly day, or inhaling the fragrant vapour from a bowl of whisky toddy as you stir the boiling water into it, or, for that, from the simple steam issuing from a jug of boiling water.

I conclude myself that nothing passes from the deflagrating chandoo pill into the lungs but the volatile resinous constituents of opium. At least, if this be the fact, it explains the antiseptic and prophylactic action of opium-smoking in the pulmonary affections of the Chinese.

I conclude (my chemistry is of 1850-54 and quite out of date) that the rarefied resinous vapour inhaled protects the surface of the bronchial passages and lungs from the outer air, and that, when consumption has once set in, this empyreumatic vapour has the effect of checking the suppuration. This might be tested at the Brompton Hospital. Only one inspiration is taken from each pill, and the residuum is then mixed up with such drugs as Indian hemp, Tobacco, and nux vomica, and resold at a greatly reduced rate to the poorer smokers. It is really this tye-chandoo, or “refuse chandoo” that has given opium smoking so bad a name among superficial and untrained observers. But even in respect of it, considering the exhaustive incineration the pill undergoes in being smoked, I doubt whether anything but harmless smoke passes into the lungs.

It is the general debauched habits of the lower outcast populations of the cities of China which are really responsible for their cachetic appearance, and not the accidental circumstance that some of them indulge in opium smoking. As to the alleged special aphrodisiac properties of opium, I discredit them altogether. At all events, it must never be forgotten, as a factor which tends to confuse even expert observation that is not severely verified, of any such alleged effect, that throughout the East the great majority of the people are always deliberately plying themselves with aphrodisiacs or reputed aphrodisiacs. The whole system of Eastern medicine seems based on the idea of the aphrodisiac or anti-aphrodisiac properties of things. European medical men are pestered all their days in the East, from Morocco to Shanghai, by simple natives persistently supplicating them for some potent aphrodisiac of which it is believed they have the golden secret. I know a medical officer who, when serving in the Indian Navy, was followed from port to port, all up and down the Persian Gulf, by a picturesque old Arab Chief in quest of aphrodisiac pills, and nothing would content him but to have them, although they consisted only of pellets of bread crumbs rolled in magnesia.

Every medical man who has practised in the East is familiar also with the phenomenon of the sudden wasting away, in body, mind, and soul, of the healthiest and most beautiful and intellectual boys on their reaching the critical period of adolescence. At the other critical period, between 45 and 50, the best and strongest of good men also suddenly turn bad, and “go to the dogs” utterly. Opium has nothing to do with these sad catastrophes of daily occurrence; while I am convinced that some form of smoking might often prevent them.

Those, indeed, who can believe that opium is injurious to the morality of the Chinese can have little idea of what morality means in Eastern Asia – much less immorality. I need add no more. I do not seek to support any particular financial or commercial policy in India. I desire simply to instruct the consciences of my countrymen.

I have been charged with having a private purpose to serve by the argument I have taken in this controversy. The views I hold on opium I first stated as a student in a discussion before the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh. In a work I published before 1868 on the “Vegetable Products of Western India,” which went through two editions, I maintained the same views, founded on facts gathered from every region of the globe. I might, therefore, be credited with now writing on the subject from strict conviction. I hold opium smoking, in short, to be a strictly harmless indulgence, like any other smoking, and the essence of its pleasure to be, not in the opium itself so much as in the smoking it.

If something else were put in the pipe instead of opium, that something else would gradually become just as popular as opium, although it might not incidentally prove so beneficial. It was in this way that the Red Indians took to smoking willow bark in place of tobacco, which was too costly for them. It is in this wav that one is often able to substitute harmless prescriptions for harmful philters among the nympholeptic sons of Ham and Turan.

In China and the Indian Archipelago, and wherever else opium is smoked, we ought to endeavour to supply it as pure and cheap as possible. It makes milder smoking than tobacco, and is evidently beneficial in many ways; and we may rest assured that mankind, where it has once taken to it, will never give up smoking either opium, tobacco, or some other such stuff, however silly it may look. It is not really sillier than eating and drinking, or any other natural action to look at, while it is undoubtedly one of the least alloyed of the pleasures of the senses, if, indeed, it may not be said to be almost a supersensuous pleasure; for it seems, in some way past searching out, to possess the true magic which spiritualises sense.

2 thoughts on “A Rational Perspective On The Opium Poppy

  1. I read with great interts of something that seemed to this 13day Seizure Patient the very familiar tome of

    Opium Smoking
    Sir George Birdwood
    January 17, 1882

    I had read this for the first time in what Americans call grade school at 7 or 8 and researched it in Jr High School which minus Science was a school was mind sucking boredom a wood I have never used before or at least since then as a young male in the throughs of the other mind nummer puberty. No one seemd the least interested in what I did. I greaw my own cannabis from age 6 or 7 the bliss of time and so many hundreds of pounds since then that when i found my self after a seizure not recognizing myself my closest friend nor the Guardian Angels, my huge medical staff, most of hich I have known over 25 years. When I recalled where I had a very precious little of Opium oh what a life saver. One thing my over active I have seen the scans live since to find one of the languages I speak, this Portuguese from Brasil which i hope to be fluent in again when the Cannabis and the Opium hit very seperate receptors this the Pain Killing Centre that releases neurotrasmitters the one from the other they are very welcomed by this Life-long Chonic Pain Sufferer. Opium I feel as Sir Goeroge BIRCHWOOD may have had with pure Opium which may have never made it further than the Royal Court in the Forbidden City as we call it in English. My fluency in Québec French is not affected by the seizures which now number in the 20’s or 30’s in the past month and a half. Each scarring a specific area of the Brain. All of my Primary and Seocndary Health Specialists have never understood well enough the incredible aids of real Opium which is day for night different from the potent pharmacetical’s. I have had to take at the bidding of other Pain Specialists who shall remail nameless I promiss.

    Thank you IBll for the Very Valued writing you do.
    You know you have converted another Brave Thinker

    More as it comes to mind, literally.


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