The Opium Renaissance

The latest yuppie obsession is mystical, rare, and illegal. (Don't worry, it's organic.)

The Touraine Sauvignon Blanc would have been enough—or 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 water—a 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 opium—a 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— 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— 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— 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.

"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, "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.

"When I bought it this last time, I split it with a couple of friends," says Brian, who is smoking out Stella as she lies back on the red velvet couch. "One of them hated it. He really liked blow, and this wasn't enough RPMs for him. The other friend I gave it to lives in New York, and he said, 'When I'm in the mood to get high, I just want to get high.' But with opium, there's like an hour of start up time. So he'd smoked about half of it and I bought back the rest.

"It's not fast food," he continues. "It's almost part of the slow-food movement. And I like the communal aspect of it. I like drugs with a smooth takeoff and landing."

Brian cruises around the room, running the hot skewer along the tiny cylinder until everyone's had his fill. "God, it tastes so good," says Stella. "It's like the good-Chinese-food version of drugs. It tastes like plums and tea." Now she's sharing a Danish modern armchair with James. Steve has even mellowed out enough to decree a new house rule: For the rest of the night, cigarette smoking will be allowed inside.

"I've reached cruising altitude," Brian says to no one in particular, doing a little dance to the chill-out music as he takes his last turn. "So, does everyone feel like it got them where they needed to go?"

"That was lovely," says Stella. Then Brian puts the rest of the opium back into the pouch, like some strange magical herb, where it will await the next soiree in a special humidor. The room looks languid and satisfied.

"I could really go for some cucumber water," he says.

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