In 2017 over 60,000 Americans died as the result of opioid overdoses, more than died annually in this country during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, more than die every year from breast cancer, and more Americans than died in the entire Vietnam War. But even though the overdose crisis ravaging our nation seems impossible to ignore, few understand how it came to be.
Opium: How an Ancient Flower Shaped and Poisoned Our World tells the extraordinary and at times harrowing story of how we arrived at today's crisis, a story that begins at the dawn of human civilization with enterprising poppy farmers in Mesopotamia, explores the breakthroughs of too-often forgotten experimental chemists in the Arab world who first refined poppy juice into opium, of colonial powers who spirited opium around the world in the interest of building out empires, of psychiatrists like Freud who ushered opium into modern medicine, and finally the story of the pharmaceutical conglomerates we know today that used opium and its more potent cousin, heroin, as a model for a wave of pills that laid the groundwork for today's overdose epidemic.
Throughout, the book demonstrates how opium has served as a currency that helped develop the global economy. Wielded as a tool with which all kinds of brokers of power – empires like the British Commonwealth setting off China's Opium Wars, titans of modern medicine, and American drug companies, to name a few – could profit and expand, no matter the human cost, opium has proved both a frequent impetus for and obstacle to improving modern life. In its final chapter, Opium takes us inside the cutting edge of the opiate epidemic, showing how the nation's top doctors are confronting the crisis head on, in part using the lessons of opium's complex history.
John H. Halpern, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice, previously served as medical director of the Boston Center for Addiction Treatment, the largest substance-use disorder hospital in New England. He completed his residency and a fellowship in addiction research at Harvard Medical School programs. He spent over 20 years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and during his professorship served as the director of his own research laboratory at McLean Hospital, supported by private grants and National Institute on Drug Abuse funding.
David Blistein is a former writer for the PBS documentary Cancer, which was adapted from Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. He co-wrote Grover Cleveland Again! with legendary documentarian Ken Burns.
– NPR, Best Books of the Year
– Scientific American, Editors' Pick
– Nature, Picks of the Week
– Lit Hub, Books of the Week
"Opium is the most important, provocative, and challenging book I've read in a long time [...] Makes timely and startling connections among painkillers, politics, finance, and society in clear, non-technical prose that kept me alternately riveted and amazed. We may not be able to get this drug out of our system, but Opium will help everyone gain a better understanding of and more control over its uses and abuses."
– Laurence Bergreen, New York Times bestselling author of Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu and Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
"Authoritative, engaging, and accessible, this call for action offers solutions – insurance and criminal justice reforms, alternative treatments, and eradication of punishment – and avenues to greater overall understanding."
"Opium has been entwined with society for millennia. Here, psychiatrist John Halpern and writer David Blistein trace its path from Mesopotamia through ancient Egypt, Greece and Persia, finally reaching Britain and the United States [...] It is time [for us] to treat addiction as a curable illness – and learn the lessons of history."
– Nature, Science Picks of the Week
"A fascinating account from a psychiatrist who is also an expert in addiction medicine."
– Lit Hub
"An engrossing and highly readable account of our tangled relationship with a flower."
– Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
"Detailed and highly readable [...] [Opium] demonstrates convincingly that the best way to address today's epidemic is to acknowledge addiction as the brain disease that it is [...] The recommendations in this book should be seriously considered by anyone concerned with today's opioid epidemic."
– Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, member of the President's Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis
"Dramatic [...] 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."
"Halpern and Blistein expertly weave together the many strands of opium's history, from the poppy growers of Neolithic times to the politics of today's opiate epidemic. By learning the whole story and discovering the many erroneous beliefs and misguided policies that have occurred along the way – the reader emerges with a far clearer picture of the problem and what perhaps we can do about it now."
– Harrison G. Pope Jr., MD, professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
"Halpern and Blistein take us on an astonishing journey through time and space, revealing how racism and ethnic prejudice have distorted popular views of opium for centuries and how those who were at one time said to be paragons of American virtue – from Harry Anslinger to Joseph McCarthy to the Sackler family – have played their part in creating the opiate epidemic. With Opium, we can more fully understand how and why the 'war on drugs' keeps failing. A fascinating read with practical advice on how to get out of the mess we're in."
– Julie Holland, MD, NewYork Times bestselling author of Weekends at Bellevue and Moody Bitches
"Highly informed and wonderfully entertaining."
– Ethan A. Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance
"In this landmark project, John Halpern, MD, and David Blistein have for the first time combined a comprehensive history of opium with a clear-eyed look at today's opioid crisis. By unpacking the complex story of how this powerful drug has woven its way through human history and cultures, they give readers profound insight into what drives contemporary use of opium and its derivatives as well as realistic, effective, and compassionate recommendations for helping those who suffer from the disease of addiction."
– Dr Andrew Weil (MD)
"In this lively, irreverent history we learn what Aristotle and William Burroughs, Helen of Troy and Billie Holiday, El Chapo and Thomas Jefferson had in common. They all either used or prescribed, cultivated or profited from opium. The authors chronicle the quackery the drug has inspired, the colonial wars it caused, and the official follies that led to today's opioid crisis – and they outline a fresh and sensible approach to ending it."
– Geoffrey C. Ward, New York Times bestselling author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt
"Thank God (or whatever higher power you desire) that Halpern and Blistein have done the historical work to demystify the use of opioids. Their research now allows us to focus on the issues that really matter, like keeping users safe and ensuring that patients have access to these effective medications."
– Carl L. Hart, PhD, professor of Psychology, Columbia University and author of High Price
"Wealthy patrons of the arts making fortunes off opioids? Blaming immigrants for a domestic drug crisis? Race-based enforcement? [...] It was as true in the 19th and 20th centuries as it is today. Opium insists that we take an unstinting look at the relationship between people and opioids and dares us to make the hard decisions necessary to deal with the crisis. This book is what history is supposed to be."
– Ken Burns, filmmaker
"Weave[s] together a history of the flower's medicinal uses, the origins of the opium trade and drug wars, and the modern opioid crisis [...] peppered with colorful anecdotes."
– Scientific American, Editors' Pick
"This book takes the reader on a deep journey through the history of opium and how it has shaped medicine, culture, trade, and politics [...] Halpern and Blistein give readers hope that new policies and treatments to alleviate addiction could make a real difference, if politicians and healthcare institutions are willing to set aside failed strategies that, unfortunately, remain in place."
– Torsten Passie, MD, Goethe-University's Institute for History and Ethics in Medicine