- Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream by Thomas Dormandy
In a traditional narrative account, Thomas Dormandy traces the history of opium from the ancients to the moderns. Divided into thirty-four chapters, most only ten or fewer pages in length, the book necessarily breezes through large swathes of history and geography, with an eye for the telling anecdote, and is strongest when dealing with medical and scientific issues and prominent literary figures. The first section of the book reviews archaeological findings, Greek and Roman texts, medical writings from Arab and European sources, and the literary work of European, especially English, romantic writers through the nineteenth century in order to trace opium’s worldwide spread. Dormandy documents the use and abuse of opium, especially by elites, and the gradual dissemination of opiates into a broader population through laudanum, patent medicines, morphine, and heroin. Dormandy also offers a brief history of palliative care and cautiously questions the criminalization of drug use.
When Dormandy ventures further afield into the political economy of drug dealing, especially in the twentieth century, the book is far weaker and does not synthesize more recent scholarship. Dormandy discusses the expansion of the opium trade, the opium wars with China, and Britain’s reliance on the opium trade to finance its empire in a well-told, though hardly new, narrative. Here Dormandy seems unaware of more nuanced assessments of opium addiction in China that argue that for many users the ritualized, communal, and ceremonial nature of opium smoking limited its addictive potential, especially when compared to the more solitary and directly addictive effects of intravenous injection of either morphine or heroin that came later.
Dormandy’s account of the heroin trade—hampered (as the book is generally) by a lack of citations—is badly flawed, presenting Mafia- and Central Intelligence Agency–dominated conspiracy theories for which there is little or no evidence. Dormandy seems to accept whole cloth the self-serving argument made by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics director Harry Anslinger that Charles (Lucky) Luciano masterminded a worldwide heroin exporting scheme from exile in Italy, when Luciano’s FBI file contains nothing but wishful thinking about his kingpin role. Luciano did serve time for trafficking, but Dormandy seems unaware that it was for trafficking in women, not drugs, as he was charged with being New York’s master pimp. Dormandy is similarly mistaken about the CIA. In Europe, the CIA used Corsican gangsters to undermine the Communist Party in Marseilles during the postwar period, and turned a blind eye to their drug dealing, but the CIA did not involve itself in trafficking. Alfred McCoy, whose work Dormandy cites, concludes about the opium trade in Southeast Asia (for which the best evidence of CIA [End Page 281] involvement exists) that the CIA did not participate in drug trafficking to finance its operations, although it did facilitate the opium trading of its tribal allies in order to preserve their loyalty during the Vietnam War. These are perhaps nuances, but Dormandy glosses over them entirely for the more inflammatory charges.
The author comes to other curious conclusions as well, arguing, for example, that Chinese coolies suffered greater exploitation and loss of life than African American slaves. The latter, Dormandy asserts, “enjoyed a measure of legal protection” (p. 154), a conclusion that most historians of the American South would find peculiar. The point is not at all essential to Dormandy’s narrative but is typical of the unsubstantiated opinions with which the book is rife. Dormandy implies that opium use was increasing at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, when David Courtwright’s authoritative account of that period argues the opposite.1 Per capita consumption was declining, and the passage of the Harrison Act (1914) was due to the changing social status of opiate users, from middle-class women addicted to opium through medical practice to working-class ethnic males addicted to heroin through its recreational use. In discussing the late twentieth century, Dormandy asserts that drug use was...