"Heroin is like Wonder Bread," says Steve, who's up first. "Opium is like seven-grain."
The preferred method of consumption this evening is what Brian likes to call the Persian method— a little trick he learned from an old Iranian friend who hooked him up with his supply. About half a dozen little skewers are heating up over a gas burner on the kitchen stove, where Brian pinches a little cylinder of opium around a straightened-out paper clip. Steve holds half of a drinking straw up to his lips, takes off his glasses, and leans in. Then Brian moves the opium closer, heating it up with one of the red-hot skewers. A couple seconds later, a thin ribbon of smoke flutters out and Steve draws it into his straw, holds it, then lets it escape from his nose. He immediately looks happier.
"Now, you get three of these," says Brian with a grin, "and then we pass."
Heroin wasn't synthesized until 1874, but pure opium has been seducing humans for almost 6,000 years. Its earliest recorded use dates back to Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, where the Sumerians nicknamed it Hul Gil (the "joy plant"). Europe got addicted when explorers started trading with India and the Middle East, where most of it was grown. The British East India Company brought it to colonial China in the 1700s and eventually hooked nearly half the population. By the 1800s, the Brits themselves were consuming up to 22,000 pounds a year back home. That's when opium picked up its literary imprimatur: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, and Jean Cocteau all indulged. Chinese immigrants took it with them to the United States, and opium dens popped up in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. Tough legislation eventually extinguished opium's hold here. And now that it's linked to terrorism and the Taliban, American dealers have even less of a reason to risk adding it to their portfolios.
"We used to smoke it all the time in London, because the weed was so bad over there," says Nathan, a 27-year-old advertising executive who's relocated to Boston. "But opium was everywhere. It had this mystique of being Asian and cool and slightly mysterious—a sharing thing that everybody would enjoy sitting down and hanging out.
Tighter security in America hasn't stopped the flow of opium altogether, though. Last year law-enforcement agents arrested a man in Oroville, California, who'd allegedly turned his garage into a smoking den, with a quarter pound of the stuff stashed away in a kitchen trash bag. Smugglers have resorted to sewing it into attaché cases and even using it to starch blankets. In 2005, the FBI and the DEA, after tracing 271 kilos they'd seized in Frankfurt, Germany, busted an international opium ring run by the Iranian owner of a jewelry store in downtown Los Angeles. The guy got a four-year sentence. But as importing it becomes a riskier prospect, opium, like marijuana, has gone local. In 2003, a hiker stumbled upon two acres of lavender opium poppies growing in the Sierra National Forest northeast of Fresno—the largest plot ever found in California. A year later, an officer from the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, just outside San Jose, responded to a complaint about an opium field. When he rolled up to the scene, he spotted thousands of square feet planted with mature opium poppies just a few dozen yards from the highway—right down the road from a swatch of $2 million homes. On the website poppies.org, "somniphiles" share home-growing tips and compare preparation methods. But it's a fringe agrarian pastime that in no way approaches the mass popularity of High Times—style hydroponics. And in a modern world more suited to the quick rush of coke or heroin, the unhurried world of opium is something of a cultish anachronism—which is exactly how aficionados like it.