Magazine article The Spectator

'Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium', by Lucy Inglis - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium', by Lucy Inglis - Review

Article excerpt

America has for years been struggling with a shortage of the drugs it uses to execute people, yet it was only in August, in Nebraska, that the first judicial killing using opioids was performed. Aside from moral questions about the death penalty itself, the resistance for so long to this obvious solution denotes a particularly sadistic puritanism, as though it's an unacceptable risk that even the last moments of a condemned man should be at all pleasant.

Opium and its derivatives and synthetic imitators constitute a miracle class of drug: nothing else is as good for pain relief, as Lucy Inglis's bright and anecdote-packed history shows. Modern British and American soldiers, wounded on the battlefield, are given fentanyl lollipops, so that if they lose consciousness the lollipops drop out of their mouths and they avoid overdose. And the use of opium to treat the wounded in war goes back as long as human cultivation of the opium poppy, which dates from Neolithic times.

The book is a long sprint, indeed, through the last 3,000 years or so of wars, medicine, and the drug trades, legal and illegal, from China to Afghanistan and South America. This vast scope means that sometimes the reader may not be able to see the poppy for the trees. Engrossed in some detail about the American Civil War, one realises that one hasn't heard anything about opium for many pages. Occasionally, we race along merrily: 'On land, as at sea, the 16th century was a time of extraordinary change and innovation,' the author writes, which can hardly be gainsaid. But the book's enjoyment comes from its colourful characters: the mystical doctor Paracelsus, who invented laudanum in the 16th century, or the 18th-century American doctor and politician Benjamin Rush, who wrote that small beer results in 'serenity', but brandy encourages 'fighting and horse racing', while gin begins in 'perjury' and ends in 'burglary and death'. (Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, grew opium poppies on his plantation.)

By the late 19th century, opiates were successfully commercialised in products such as Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup, a morphine concoction recommended for putting children to sleep; and Inglis traces the line from here, through prohibition, to the rise of the heroin trade under the Triads and Mafia, and up to the present 'opioid crisis' in America, the over-prescribing of addictive painkillers. …

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