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Books: Put that in your pipe and smoke it

OPIUM: A HISTORY by Martin Booth, Simon and Schuster pounds 17.99
Opium casts its drowsy light into surprising corners. It has left its mark on history, on culture, on politics, on trade, on maritime technology, on language: the word "hip" comes from the sore hips of addicts lying on boards in opium dens. The sensation of the whole world being viewed through the distorting lens of one commodity, as it is in Martin Booth's discursive narrative, is by turns intoxicating and alarming, with everything dissolving into a blur of traffickers and addicts, the users and the used.

The great and the good of past centuries are outed as opium takers, if not hopeless devotees: among those who indulged were Hannibal, Wilberforce, George IV, Benjamin Franklin, Walter Scott, Poe, the goddess Demeter and more Romantic poets than you could shake a daffodil at. But rushes of addiction swept through the most unlikely places and times, such as America in the aftermath of the Civil War, during which morphine had been used as a painkiller. Closer to home, even small towns in 19th-century fenland boasted several chemists dealing principally in laudanum, and brewers added opium to their ale. As late as 1920, animals were given veterinary laudanum, some of which found its way to humans.

Opium did not become illegal in Hong Kong until 1945, and Hong Kong, in Booth's account, is one of the centres of the opium story. It was originally ceded to Britain after the Opium War in the 1840s, a war that came about when a zealous Chinese high commissioner tried to interrupt imports of Indian opium into China. Opium was one leg of a three-cornered trading route between Britain, India and China, with Britain exporting textiles to India, buying opium and shipping it to China and using those funds to buy Chinese goods, the Emperor having declared that there were no Western goods that the Celestial Kingdom needed. (There is an uneasy parallel with the trade cycle that took slaves from West Africa to the plantations in the West Indies.) In this business, speed and the ability to tack against prevailing winds was all-important, hence the development of the tea clipper - and the less-renowned but equally important opium clipper.

The other epicentre is the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. The south-east Asian end of the trade is inextricably bound up with American politics, the US at once cajoling and bullying governments to stamp out a crop on which many of their peasant farmers depend, and using opium to prop up its favoured local warlords (drugs being a more efficient and less traceable universal currency than travellers' cheques), depending on whether the Drugs War or the War on Communism temporarily enjoyed the higher priority.

The CIA ran its own cargo airline, Air America, to handle distribution for the Hmong in Laos, who were fighting the Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao. When the Laotian government reached a ceasefire with the Pathet Lao, Air America abandoned the country and its clients, who fled to Thailand. The new communist government in Laos had learned its lesson, though, stamping out domestic abuse while preserving heroin as an export crop, both for cash and as a weapon, drug exports being the poor countries' equivalent of the atomic bomb.

Opium and its derivatives, like all drugs, are object lessons in the laws of supply and demand. Booth is strong on supply, disentangling the murkiest byways of history with ease, but weak on demand. This can lead him into lop-sided tabloid prose: "It is almost as if God, feeling guilty at having made his own medicine, is offering his own relief from it," he exults, describing missionary efforts at detoxification in the Walled City of Kowloon; elsewhere, he quotes a police expert on the advantages lying with the traffickers in their struggle with the police, and then sums up in a one-sentence paragraph: "His words are just as true today."

But the story is much less simple than that, and Booth, when he is not riding his hobby-horse, knows it. Characters shift throughout the haze of his history: here a drug smuggler, there a warlord, here a champion of indigenous peoples; hopeless junkies are also towering literary figures, and dedicated secret-servicemen turn out to be smuggling heroin to pay for their minor wars.

When it comes to policy prescriptions, Booth falls more or less silent. The option of legalisation, now being seriously canvassed by the Left and the Right, he dismisses in an airy paragraph; by contrast, he devotes endless pages to an inventory of smugglers' hiding places, a list which assumes in the end the status of unintentionally comic poetry as it moves from toothpaste tubes, fountain pens, bicycle frames and fire extinguishers to the horns of cattle, the bodies of kittens and the buttocks of a Colombian woman in 1992, who had three-quarters of a kilo surgically implanted in an attempt to pad her trip to Miami.

The lack of recommendations is particularly surprising for a commodity that, in Booth's words, has "destroyed millions of lives, enslaved whole cultures and may well yet prove to be the downfall of humanity". In fact, as his book shows, there is little sense of political urgency behind efforts to curb drug use. The CIA shipped opium to fight Global Communism in the 1960s (and cocaine, allegedly, in the 1980s); Syria grows huge quantities of opium in the Bekaa valley, but the US was prepared to turn a blind eye to that in order to win Syrian support during the Gulf War. But then, oil and realpolitik are more addictive than any opiate.