Confessions of a Modern-Day Opium Fiend

By Steven Martin 06/21/12

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.

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The author's addiction memoir. Photo via

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.

In its heyday, rumors about the narcotic’s purported hallucinogenic and aphrodisiacal qualities intrigued and scandalized Victorian-era Americans. Society was shocked when opium den raids in San Francisco, New York and just about every other large American city exposed white women from “good families” reclining in various states of undress with men of different classes, races and ethnicities. The authorities were taken aback. What kind of demonic drug caused such behavior? 

Popular writers of the day—such as Dickens, Kipling and Wilde—wrote titillating but woefully inaccurate stories about the drug’s effects. Christian missionaries, hoping to make converts by proselytizing to China’s addicted millions, added to the hysteria. Newspaper accounts about opium addiction a century ago were every bit as lurid as what we read about crack cocaine and methamphetamine today. 

So what is opium smoking really like? The opium smoker feels a mild euphoria and an overall sense of well-being. There is boundless optimism (ever wonder where the term “pipe dream” came from?) and a deeply satisfying feeling of inner peace. For me, the psychedelics never happened and the drug was a libido-killer, but feelings of childlike wonder at the beauty of the world made sex and hallucinations seem superfluous.

With continued smoking, the world beyond the glow of the opium lamp begins to seem brutal and pointless.

Yet it couldn’t last. Over the course of half a decade my three-or-four-sessions-per-year experimentation became a daily habit—perhaps as many as thirty to forty pipes a day. And with long-term use, opium does the old switcheroo: the user suddenly finds that his body no longer has the ability to experience any sort of comfort or happiness—unless he resorts to more opium.

But the cycle doesn't end there. With continued smoking, the world beyond the glow of the opium lamp begins to seem brutal and pointless. As my usage intensified—smoking opium nearly around the clock—I found it more and more difficult to engage the outside world. But opium’s real con is the ball and chain it becomes: nothing compares to the hell that is reserved for the long-term opium addict who is trying to kick. 

If the chandu I had been smoking was cheap and easy to obtain, I might still be holed up in my Bangkok apartment smoking it. But it wasn’t. So I began to feed my addiction by selling off rare pieces of paraphernalia. It became clear that if I continued smoking opium, my collection, together with the time and money that I had put into it, would go up in smoke. And besides, the expertise that I’d hoped to gain as a result of my “research” would be worthless due to the obvious conflict of interest. Who would believe what a practicing opium addict had to say about opium?

Once again, my being located in Southeast Asia helped dictate my path. A Buddhist monastery in Thailand operates a detox that was founded more than 50 years ago specifically to help opium addicts. Known as Wat Tham Krabok, the monastery still treats hundreds of addicts a year, but opium was long ago replaced by other drugs. 

I won’t get into graphic details about the cure (it involved a lot of vomiting), but suffice it to say that it worked. I am no longer addicted to opium and, as a result, I managed to keep from scattering my collection to the wind.

And here’s where the lingering pride enters the pictures: even as I allowed the drug to scuttle my life and send it spiraling downward, I never lost sight of the fact that I was doing something rare and unchronicled. As an active opium smoker, every night when I reclined on the mat there was a notebook and pen at my side. Between pipes and by the glow of the opium lamp, I scribbled down my thoughts. These notes became the foundation for a memoir, Opium Fiend, published this month.

Although opium smoking was the world’s first drug epidemic, somehow a book recounting the rise and fall of an opium smoker had never been written. I wanted to address that, but I also thought I should give a detailed history of opium smoking in Asia, Europe and North America—something that also had never been done. Just before my book was published, I completed the task of donating my entire collection of antique paraphernalia to a university.

For many of us, staying away from our addictions involves disclosing the lows that we stooped to while trying to get high. Thus, readers might expect an addiction memoir to be a minutely described train wreck—and an author’s obvious pride in his experiences would seem misplaced. I only hope that I can be forgiven these feelings of pride, even as I myself wonder whether they are counterproductive.

Freelance writer Steven Martin was born and raised in San Diego, and has spent the past three decades traveling and living in Southeast Asia. His collection of antique opium-smoking paraphernalia is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive. Steven’s memoir, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, was published by Villard, an imprint of Random House, this month.

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Freelance writer Steven Martin (1962 - 2015) was born and raised in San Diego, and spent most of his adult life traveling and living in Southeast Asia. Steven is the author of the memoir, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction.