Opium : A Double-edged Sword
Opium has been around for over 5,500 years. The Sumerians in the Near East used to call this plant "Hul Gil" or joy plant, apparently referring to its pharmacological properties of bringing about a chemically induced state of euphoria. Over the millenium, the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) made its way towards the East. In the 1800's India, under British colonial rule was a major producer of opium. Opium trade, during that period was not illegal. Britain, through the East India Company had the monopoly in opium trade.
In the late 1920's, Thailand was importing most of the opium in required. Back then, opium smoking was tolerated much like tobacco smoking is tolerated today. In the early 1930's, a British adviser to Thailand's Ministry of Finance developed a plan for the legal production of opium by hilltribe people in the provinces of Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The aim then was to by-pass having to purchase expensive opium from India.
It is no wonder that Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces produced a large amount of opium. At present, tourists still think that Thailand produces prodigious amounts of the stuff. Since Thailand banned opium in the year 1959, hilltribe people were given a chance to replace their crops with other high-value crops such as cut flowers and sub-tropical fruits. The current area planted to opium in Thailand is but a mere fraction of what it used to be in the past. Most of the opium and heroin that is apprehended in Thailand's northern provinces originate from across the border.
I am inclined to compare opium with nuclear energy. Both opium and nuclear energy can be used for good purposes but can also be abused and destroy life. Morphine, which comes from opium, is still needed to relieve pain experienced by trauma patients or those who are terminally ill. Without opium, going to the dentist might be more unpleasant than it already is. In other words, the quality of our lives would deteriorate quite rapidly.
It may be true that morphine and heroin abuse should be prevented. I just wonder why not enough attention is given to other forms of substance abuse. It is a well-known fact that more people die from driving while intoxicated by alcohol and lung cancer from smoking tobacco than from a heroin overdose. Is this because of the very strong alcohol and tobacco lobby? It makes you wonder whether we are we barking up the wrong tree. Shouldn't our focus, then be place on the modern-day likeness of the East-India Company that takes its form as Alcohol and Tobacco companies?
Learn more about opium from the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai and the soon to open Opium Museum that is managed by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation at the Golden Triangle.
Sources of Information:
This writer is the curator of the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai.
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