Confessions of a Modern-Day Opium Fiend
My childhood love of collecting led in adulthood from amassing opium smoking paraphernalia—and the occasional pipe of high-quality dope—to desperate addiction to a nearly forgotten narcotic.
If pride is one of the seven deadly sins, pride in one’s former addiction must be especially damning. Yet it’s something I’ve felt since my first day at rehab. The others were addicted to crack and meth and heroin and alcohol and pills whose names I’d only seen in writing and was hearing pronounced for the first time.
“What are you here for?” they asked me.
It was the universal question. And when I answered, their response was always the same: surprise, curiosity, even admiration.
“I’m addicted to smoking opium.”
Eyes widened. Eyebrows raised. Some even smiled and nodded. A century ago the response would have been much different, as opium smoking’s relatively rapid spread from Asia to North America and Europe was unprecedented. Seen from today’s perspective, opium smoking seems quaint, tame and even romantic—but by the time I checked myself into rehab I’d learned painful truths about an antiquated vice the modern world has all but forgotten.
So why was I feeling pride? It had to do with how I got hooked in the first place. My opium addiction was preceded by another addiction, the roots of which can be traced to a boyhood hobby.
I have always been a collector. As long as I can remember I’ve found myself drawn into obsession when certain objects catch my fancy. As a child I built the typical kiddie collections: coins, stamps, seashells, stones. Along with the physical acquisition came a need to study my collectibles, to discover everything I could about them.
I decided that if there were no experts on opium paraphernalia, I would become one.
As I grew into adulthood, I never lost the thrill I got from collecting. After a four-year stint in the US Navy, I settled in my mid-twenties in Southeast Asia, supporting myself as a freelance writer, penning stories for newspapers and magazines and updating travel guides.
It was in the Southeast Asia of the 1990s that my collecting became more focused. While helping to report on a story for Time magazine about the vestiges of opium smoking in Laos, I bought an opium pipe as a souvenir. The purchase sparked what I like to call a “collector’s epiphany.” Soon I was obsessed, and I began spending my every free moment looking for antique opium-smoking paraphernalia.
My latest collectible was much more of a challenge than anything I had previously sought. Opium’s outlaw status meant that much of the paraphernalia used to smoke it was destroyed in eradication campaigns dating all the way back to the nineteenth century. Opium pipes, lamps, trays and anything else associated with the drug were piled into heaps and burned. What few pieces escaped the bonfires sometimes find their way to antique shops, where they are displayed alongside Asia’s more innocuous artifacts, such as snuff bottles and betelnut cutters. For modern-day collectors there are books available that describe every conceivable collectible, no matter how esoteric—but there were no books about opium paraphernalia. Antiques dealers seemed as clueless about the subject as I was. This only served to entice me: I decided that if there were no experts on opium paraphernalia, I would become one.
Piece by piece I began building a collection—and, as it grew, I was curious to see how these ornate pipes, miniature oil lamps and sundry tools that I acquired were once used. I’m not referring here to the primitive gear of the tribal peoples of Southeast Asia’s mountainous regions, or the bastardized version of opium smoking found in the Middle East. These are mere ghosts of the classic Chinese smoking ritual, the pipes and paraphernalia of which were crafted from the finest natural materials: precious metals, jade, uncommon hardwoods, ivory, rhinoceros horn, rare gems. Such accoutrements were commissioned by China’s imperial elite, when opium was smoked even within the walls of old Peking’s Forbidden City.
In China the vice now has vanished. But I happened to be living in the one remaining part of the world where opium smoking in the traditional Chinese manner could still be found. Some sleuthing led me to a tiny and secretive community of opium habitués who had access to chandu—high-quality opium processed specifically for smoking. And so, with my newly-made connections and a selection of antique paraphernalia, I began my slow descent into a hedonistic subculture once familiar to millions but now nearly extinct.