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How Did So Many Writers Get Access to Opiates?

poppy field

“I owe it my perfect hours.”
–Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau was born in 1889 and became addicted to opium in London in 1904, after a 20-day bout of neuralgia. “It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless; and a duller spectacle of this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London,” he recalled in his memoir of addiction, when a bored and tired druggist dispensed him some opium gum on Oxford Street, only yards from where Thomas De Quincey first purchased his laudanum over a century before.

Cocteau, an extraordinary Parisian socialite, quickly fell into “the abyss of divine enjoyment”. He maintained his habit for 25 years, after which he decided to become sober, and in 1929, during his most wretched hours, his most remembered works were written. Louche, attractive and absurdly charismatic, Cocteau was a poster boy for addiction, and recovery. His experiences encompassed a new understanding of what it meant to be an addict, and the accompanying sense of isolation, and salvation: “Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death.”

Jean Cocteau’s experience of opium, which he ate, smoked and drank, as laudanum, encapsulates the upper-middle-class European model of addiction. He remained in control of his life and faculties, yet he yearned to be free.

During the time Cocteau was writing, the world was undergoing a shift in how opium, principally heroin, was marketed. The period between the wars was a particularly difficult time in drug legislature, and also in terms of illicit global supply routes, which had been significantly disrupted by the First World War. Still painfully aware of their commitment to the Hague Convention, European countries were realizing not only the extent of their legitimate medicinal opiate needs, both in wartime and peace, but also the scale of their internal narcotics problems. Whiffens, one of the major British opiate exporters, had its license revoked in 1923 after a smuggling scandal. La Société Roessler et Compagnie in Mulhouse, France took over as chief producer in western Europe, and in 1928 produced 35 tons of heroin, enough to satisfy the medical needs of the world population more than three times over.

French pharmaceutical companies completed meticulous export papers for 346 kilos of morphine to the United States, 440 kilos to Germany and 62 kilos to Jakarta, all of which were countries where morphine was now illegal. Yet those countries showed no evidence of morphine’s arrival, and the French firms refused to supply the names and details of the importers to the governments of the countries receiving the drugs. At the same time, Switzerland showed exports to France, which went unrecorded on import papers, and Germany and Finland supplied Estonia.

British and Dutch pharmaceutical companies in particular were finding ways to subvert their Hague Convention agreements to supply drug racketeers by importing poppy straw as raw material and processing it through an ever-widening net of company names. Also, in 1928, Estonia made a desperate plea to the League of Nations, asking that governments take over the factories producing heroin and cocaine “on an enormous scale”. Finland, outside of the League and where tuberculosis was rife, refused to give up heroin-based cough medications throughout the 1930s, such as the charmingly named Pulmo, and they continued to import vast quantities of morphine and heroin to be made into pills for a small army facing up to Stalin, which hit a peak in the Winter War of 1939-40.

Yet even as the modern commercialization of heroin spread, Cocteau’s eloquent writing on opium influenced another generation of users, where all drugs, including heroin, were part of the creative, fashionable experience. Cocteau was writing in a new era of psychoactive drugs, but as an established member of the Parisian bourgeoisie, he favored the old methods of smoking, eating or drinking opiates. He abhorred morphinists, and routinely took his opium in the morning, afternoon and evening. Yet, in the end, he knew he needed to stop, and recorded his experience as Opium: Diary of a Cure. Cocteau, writing in the late 1920s, along with the works of De Quincey, established drug addiction as a noble artistic undertaking for two generations of the 20th century.

Like De Quincey, Cocteau marks the divide between addiction as a noble, mind-altering pursuit and the realities of the street trade. Coupled with the continuing American clampdown on delivery of pharmaceutical diamorphine, the Second World War disrupted the supply of heroin to the U.S., and official addiction figures fell to the lowest levels on record. A heroin epidemic in the young poor black community of Chicago in the late 1940s indicated that international suppliers were finding a new route into the USA, selling daily hits for pocket money in order to secure a fresh market. The problems amongst the “Chicago Negro youth” between 1949 and 1953 were closely recorded, and demonstrated the failure of the police and judiciary to get to grips with the epidemic as it happened, with a lag of up to two years in terms of investigations and arrests, leading analysts to conclude that “failure to respond effectively during the early stages of disease spread may be a characteristic feature of heroin epidemics, and should be considered in the design of addiction control programs.”

In western Europe, the children born at the end of the Second World War were exposed to a host of new intoxicants in the form of psychoactives such as LSD. In the United States, marijuana had become a staple recreational narcotic in the 1950s and 60s, rapidly overtaken by barbiturates such as Quaaludes, benzo­diazepines, and heroin smoking in the 1960s and 70s.

Yet even as the modern commercialization of heroin spread, Cocteau’s eloquent writing on opium influenced another generation of users.

Jean Cocteau’s articulate experience of addiction was co-opted by the American beat poets, who used all of the drugs available to expand their minds and empty their pockets. They were preoccupied by notions of personal and sexual freedom, and the ills of what they saw as a repressive, capitalist society. The ancient story of the poor writer assumed a new nobility when coupled to an existential hunger that ate up any experience narcotics had to offer.

William Burroughs, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, was one of the defining figures of the Beat Generation. Burroughs was born in 1914 and was a committed drug user. He became a heroin addict in his late twenties after he was turned down for the navy during the Second World War, and he became a dealer in 1950s New York, writing later that “Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.” His novels Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959) are testament to the debasement heroin addiction can bring, and were banned in the United States not for their narcotic-related content but for violations of sodomy laws, namely pedophilia. Widely lauded as an artistic genius, Burroughs also shot his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head during a delirious game of William Tell. They had one son, William Jr., who died aged 33, soon after he was found in a ditch, suffering acute symptoms of liver failure owing to chronic drug and alcohol abuse.

Burroughs’ depiction of his experiences of opiate addiction is particularly powerful, and his account of using morphine will be familiar to any user. He writes that it “hits the backs of the legs first, then the back of the neck, a spreading wave of relaxation slackening the muscles away from the bones so that you seem to float without outlines, like lying in warm salt water.” Burroughs, despite his gentlemanly exterior, had, like Kerouac and Ginsberg, spent time in a mental institution by the time he was 30, although Kerouac’s drug of choice was alcohol, while Ginsberg opted for LSD and cannabis. But like Cocteau and Thomas De Quincey, Burroughs was committed to opiates.

And like De Quincey, Burroughs, unlike those around him, lived a long life and died aged 83. His legacy to a new creative generation was coupled with his staunchly traditional American upbringing and Harvard education, things that many of those who so slavishly read his works could not hope to experience.

In later editions of Naked Lunch, Burroughs wrote that the only successful cure for heroin addiction that he had come across was apomorphine, stating that it “is qualitatively different from other methods of cure. I have tried them all. Short reduction, slow reduction, cortisone, antihistamines, tranquilizers, sleeping cures, Tolserol, reserpine. None of these cures lasted beyond the first opportunity to relapse.”

Apomorphine occurs naturally in blue lotus flowers and white water lilies of the species Nymphaea. The Mayans of Central America used Nymphaea in rituals, as a hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac, as also indicated in ancient Egyptian tomb artwork. Apomorphine can also be synthesized from morphine and sulphuric acid, and was produced as early as 1845 by the German chemist A. E. Arppe. It was used originally to treat aggressive behavior in farmyard animals and by 1884 it had been used in trials for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, trials that recommenced only as late as 1951, with considerable success. It became part of the treatment programs for alcohol in London in 1931 under radical addiction doctor John Yerbury Dent, who also used it to treat drug addiction. It was later restricted as a dangerous drug in its own right, with actions too similar to morphine to be of significant use when weighed against the side effects, which can include convulsions, but are mainly associated with violent vomiting. Owing to the vomiting, many medical professionals have labelled apomorphine a form of aversion therapy, in which the patient comes to connect the vomiting with the heroin or morphine habit.

However, the average heroin addict is accustomed to vomiting and purging to the point where this is unlikely. Apomorphine is used now for veterinary purposes when dogs swallow poisons. Professor Andrew Lees of London’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and the world’s leading Parkinson’s specialist, remains convinced of apomorphine as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s, and says that it should also be trialed again for heroin addiction, “but we are up against punitive and draconian legislation. The heroic era of neuropharmacological research has now vanished.”

Lees points to Burroughs as one of the successful examples of the apomorphine cure, and Burroughs himself remained con­vinced of its efficacy, writing that before he took apomorphine at the hands of Dr. John Dent, “I had no claims to call myself a writer and my creativity was limited to filling a hypodermic. The entire body of work on which my present reputation is based was produced after the apomorphine treatment, and would never have been produced if I had not taken the cure and stayed off junk.” Apomorphine kept Burroughs clean for two creatively productive years before subsequent relapse, but his belief in apomorphine for breaking down the metabolic actions of addiction didn’t waver, and he became a sage to other artists struggling under the burden of their own habits.

In 1974, Rolling Stone magazine recorded a conversation between the British musician David Bowie and William Burroughs. Whilst it is hard to have much sympathy for Burroughs, one can only feel for him agreeing to a grim simulation of a Jamaican meal “prepared by a Jamaican in the Bowie entourage”, with Bowie dressed in “a three tone NASA jumpsuit” and whose most memorable contribution to the exchange was “I change my mind a lot. I usually don’t agree with what I say very much. I’m an awful liar.” Bowie was then in the grip of an overwhelming cocaine addiction, and 18 months later had to change his life entirely in order to recover, moving to Berlin and living in a cheap apartment above a Turkish cafe where he ate all his meals: “I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times, and it was essential to take some kind of positive action.”


From Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium. Used with the permission of the publisher, Macmillan. Copyright © 2019 by Lucy Inglis.

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