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OPIUM by John Halpern and David Blistein review

  • Written by  Katie Burton
  • Published in Books
OPIUM by John Halpern and David Blistein review
10 Oct
by John Halpern, MD and David Blistein • Hachette Book • £22.99 (hardback)

At the end of Opium, the authors seek to answer the question: what do we do now? How can we tackle an opioid epidemic that kills tens of thousands every year and which blights the lives of many more? In pointing to all the attempts that have repeatedly failed, from criminalisation and race-based enforcement, to the entire concept of a ‘war on drugs’, they offer other solutions designed to treat addiction as an illness, not a crime. Ultimately however, they conclude that this is a crisis which will ‘never end’.

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Nothing serves to prove this point better than the history of opium use provided by the rest of the book. So prevalent does opium appear to be in the story of humankind that it’s no wonder there is no quick fix to reducing our dependence now. Several historical figures, including Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius and Marco Polo, are revealed to have at best used opium, and at worst harboured a dangerous addiction, with countless empire-forming decisions made under its influence. So too are great movements of people, the entire Age of Exploration, the development of modern companies and the existence of capitalism put down to an insatiable need for this pain-relieving and mood-enhancing drug.

The authors tend towards the dramatic: in their potted history of the Opium Wars they claim that ‘Queen Elizabeth signed with a flourish of her quill pen a document that would lead to the creation of capitalism as we know it…’ But the drama appears justified as they recount again and again the key role of the opium trade in framing modern institutions and the devastating mistakes made along the way to control its use.

In the latter part of the book the focus jumps to the US, analysing key medical developments with deadly after-effects – such as the creation of morphine, heroin and the hypodermic needle – and eventually touching on today’s opioid crisis. It’s a compelling if somewhat terrifying read – a wake-up call as to the scale of the challenge and the endless susceptibility of humans to the poppy’s most addictive by-product.

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