39 min

The history of opium The Forum

    • Society & Culture

Made from the simple juice of the poppy, opium is arguably the oldest and most widely used drug in the world. Since prehistoric times it has been used to relieve physical pain and quieten troubled minds. It has enabled medical breakthroughs, and inspired some of the greatest Romantic poets and composers. But opium, and its later derivatives morphine and heroin, has also brought addiction and untold misery and death, destroyed families, and corrupted entire countries. Its trade has provoked wars, and is still making global headlines today, from its production in Afghanistan to the opioid crisis in the United States.

Bridget Kendall explores opium’s long and complex history with Doris Buddenberg, former head of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, and curator of a recent exhibition on opium; Zhou Xun, Reader of Modern History at the University of Essex; and Mike Jay, author and cultural historian, whose books on the history of drug use include ‘High Society’.

Image: Opium poppy flower
Credit: yamatao/Getty Images

Made from the simple juice of the poppy, opium is arguably the oldest and most widely used drug in the world. Since prehistoric times it has been used to relieve physical pain and quieten troubled minds. It has enabled medical breakthroughs, and inspired some of the greatest Romantic poets and composers. But opium, and its later derivatives morphine and heroin, has also brought addiction and untold misery and death, destroyed families, and corrupted entire countries. Its trade has provoked wars, and is still making global headlines today, from its production in Afghanistan to the opioid crisis in the United States.

Bridget Kendall explores opium’s long and complex history with Doris Buddenberg, former head of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, and curator of a recent exhibition on opium; Zhou Xun, Reader of Modern History at the University of Essex; and Mike Jay, author and cultural historian, whose books on the history of drug use include ‘High Society’.

Image: Opium poppy flower
Credit: yamatao/Getty Images

39 min

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