Opium Reality's Dark Dream. By Thomas Dormandy. Yale University Press. 2012. x + 366pp. $40.00/£25.00.


The contemporary drug war is only the latest manifestation of a connection between drugs and conflict that can be traced back to the crusades. Today's drug war involves a wider variety of substances, whose number increases almost daily, but opium, or nowadays its derivative, heroin, remains the key enemy, unrivalled even by coca and its derivatives. Opium has been the cause of wars; it has provided the funds for wars; it has soothed the wounds of war both physical and psychological; it has been a weapon of war; its use and abuse has been spread by wars and its link to wars has prompted unlikely alliances between state institutions, common criminals and terrorists.

The modern reader can be forgiven for assuming that the drug war is a twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon waged by upright leaders of the international community against pariah states and criminal gangs that derive obscene profits from corrupting our young people with their evil drugs. Thomas Dormandy does well to remind us that the first major drug wars were the Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60), waged by Britain against China. The British Indian opium trade was hugely profitable and pursued in the face of imperial China's desire to stem the ever-widening use of opium from corrupting its people. Opium as a medicine was celebrated. Opium, mixed with tobacco and smoked for pleasure by elites, could be tolerated, but opium-smoking by the masses was causing rural starvation and urban decadence. But imperial edicts prohibiting opium were a challenge to the British ideology of free trade. Britain wanted Chinese porcelain, silks and increasing supplies of its own latest drug, tea. If the Chinese emperors wanted silver in exchange, the Chinese people wanted opium, a want that Britain had helped to create and was determined to satisfy. Gladstone, in opposition, with the double standards we have come to recognize as part of the drug's discourse, condemned the Opium Wars as wicked in origin and calculated to bring disgrace on Britain (p. 121), but when in government he was reluctant to forego the profits of the opium trade because they funded Britain's civilizing mission, nowadays condemned as imperialism, around the world.

Opium, more often now as heroin, has also funded wars. Dormandy tells us (p. 35) that the poppy tax in the Nile valley filled the sultan's treasury to pay for the fight against the Christians. This evokes contemporary accounts of the links between the Taliban's reliance on poppy money in Afghanistan, although he fails to remind us that the Taliban may not have acquired this habit from ancient religious wars but from an ideological conflict nearer home. The US, Pakistani and perhaps even the British intelligence services, prosecuting an ideological proxy war of west versus east, were happy to collude in the Mujahideen's use of opium to fund their insurgency against the Soviets after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

Opiates have been the cause of, and have provided the resources for, wars, but they have also been weapons of war. Dormandy relates (p. 229) the shock expressed in the League of Nations when it was discovered that the Japanese had deliberately tried to spread opium addiction to weaken the Chinese after invading Manchuria in 1931. We also now know that the Vietcong saw heroin not only as a useful source of revenue but also as weapon with which to weaken the morale and the will of the GIs in Vietnam. This weapon subsequently formed a useful addition to the Mujahideen's armoury against Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.

Dormandy, as his title promises, examines much of the dark side of opium, but this is not a one-sided account. In a biography of a drug that has a life spanning from at least the sixth century bc to the present, he introduces us to all sides of its character. It is a wicked, addictive, corruptor of souls and societies. It is a cause of war and urban violence, but it is also a cure-all. Opium and its modern-day derivatives have been used to treat a wide range of conditions and common ailments from diarrhoea to teething, coughs to tuberculosis, melancholia and boredom. Its links with war have been curative and palliative as well as causal. It has eased pain on the battlefield and veterans have spread its use to those at home. Opiates can ease life into the world and are also the key to palliative medicine, which eases pain at life's end. It can give a painless death, if not a dignified one. Opium is indeed God's own medicine (p. 261).

Humans have an ambivalent relationship with drugs and perhaps none more so than with opiates. Dormandy's account of the long life of opium, and its son, morphine, and grandson, heroin, is informative and engaging. In the tradition of the best biographies he tells it warts and all. We learn a lot about opium and celebrities, such as De Quincey, Coleridge, Cocteau, Kerouac and Burrows, but less about opium and the downtrodden masses. This imbalance is probably explained more by problems of existent evidence than lack of interest or importance. It is, after all, when opium or heroin does become the opiate of the masses that it becomes a cause for concern. It is at this point that it also becomes a cause of deceit and misinformation, to justify state intervention in its use.

The story of opium is one of change as different groups discover its derivatives and properties, how it is administered, who uses it and what it is used for. But it is also a story of continuity because those who become addicted are treated as outcasts and deviants to be subjected to ‘Comstockery’ (p. 184), the nickname coined by George Bernard Shaw for Anthony Comstock, a veteran of the Civil War, who in the 1870s became a kind of ‘Opium Finder General’ seeking out and persecuting addicts and suppliers of the drug in America. Addicts have also long been prey to quackery and to those offering a whole range of well-meaning treatments and ‘cures’ for their opiate habit.

Opium Reality's Dark Dream offers 300 pages, including numerous detailed notes and an extensive bibliography, of the life of a drug that has been a both a cause-all and a cure-all. It is well written, thought provoking, informative and fascinating. Some of the ground it covers is well-trodden but it takes its own path. It provides new insights and refreshing objectivity. It is a scholarly volume that offers much to attract and interest the general reader.