The Touraine Sauvignon Blanc would have been enoughor the carved wooden platters with their arrays of tabbouleh, hummus, and fruit. But the thing that's really setting this cocktail party apart is the cucumber watera big glass pitcher of filtered ice water with a few wafer-thin slices of the vegetable bobbing around the surface.
"Nice, isn't it?" Steve asks (the names in this story have been changed). He's a 33-year-old medical student with frameless glasses, dressed in a crisp white American Apparel polo shirt. "It just gives it that little added something." Steve and his wife, Cindy, a 32-year-old journalist with long, coffee-colored hair, are hosting this gathering at their cozy two-bedroom house in Richmond, Virginia. The lights are low, and some chill-out music with a Brazilian vibe is wafting out of the Bose speakers. Cindy's talking real estate and gardening with Stella, an elegant redhead in a lacy black top who's clutching a glass of that Sauvignon Blanc. James, a dating coach, is inquiring about the art hanging above the sofa. Steve tells him it's a recent acquisition. "We love it," he says. And Brian, a local author, is talking about his pants, which look something like pink seersuckers, except the stripes go sideways.
"A guy in San Francisco makes them," he says. "They're called cordarounds. They're so comfortable!"
At around 10:30, the party takes a turn. Brian sets his wine down and produces a small silken pouch. He extracts a folded wine label, and displays the contents on a table beneath a vintage lamp: about 10 grams of tar-colored opiuma Tootsie Roll-size chunk worth about $750.
Nobody gasps. They knew it was coming. In fact, it's the reason they're here (the cucumber water was just a bonus). Tonight, this small cadre of educated, successful young suburbanites is here to chase the dragon.
"Who wants to go first?" Brian asks.
Opium is not for fiendish stoners or desperate fuck-ups (if you've ever taken a powerful painkiller—and liked it—you've got an idea of what it does). Although the drug, which is essentially sap from the unripe pods of a poppy plant, is the raw stuff of heroin, it is 40 times weaker than its chemically altered offspring. It is also at least as many times more difficult to acquire. Its boutique status is such that the Office of National Drug Control Policy doesn't even track its use. This is another record year for opium production in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer: up 34 percent over 2006—about 9,000 tons, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, roughly $4.5 billion worth. But most of that gets processed into heroin before it leaves the country. The reason is simple economics: Heroin has a bigger fan base. And since bulk is hardly an advantage in the drug-trafficking trade, refining all that rich organic mass into a concentrated white powder means good business. For people like Steve and Cindy, though—who get their vegetables delivered from a farmers' co-op and who would sooner hold up a convenience store than jab a needle in their arm—opium has become the Whole Foods heroin, an illicit gourmet treat to be consumed with the same reverence as a bottle of Barolo.
"Opium's having a moment," says Chris Prentiss, cofounder of Passages Malibu, an elite rehab facility outside of L.A. As recently as four years ago, Prentiss says, no one was checking in with an opium problem. But while it's still a fringe affliction at Passages, he estimates that 2 to 3 percent of his admissions now note the drug as a vice of choice. "We're seeing it mostly with wealthier clientele," he says. "They're a more sophisticated user. There's something classy about opium—a certain mystique. It's like the Silk Road." And for the well-dressed contingent gathered at Steve and Cindy's house in Richmond—one of whom has never even smoked marijuana—that mystique is exactly what opium has over similar drugs they've avoided not because they're dangerous, but because they're distasteful.