On May 3rd, 1915, the Canadian officer John MacCrae was looking at the grave of his friend Alexis Helmer. Helmer was killed the day before in a devastating battle in Belgium during World War I. The dead soldiers have been buried in a mass grave on a former battlefield. The soil had been bombed but now blood-red poppies pop up everywhere. Inspired by this picturesque view, he writes down the first lines of his famous poem.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blowJohn MacCrae, 1915
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
MacCrae didn’t live long enough to see the poppy flower grow into an international symbol of remembrance. He died of meningitis in January 1918. What has survived after World War I was this famous poem.
It surely must have been a remarkable sight to see all the poppies suddenly pop up overnight. Most battlefields during World War I have been a muddy dessert. The once picturesque landscape had been destroyed by bombs. And yet there was one plant that was able to thrive under these obscure conditions: poppy.
The bombs had loosened the ground and unearthed millions of buried poppy seeds. They quickly began to germinate and soon whole battlefields and mass graves were covered by red poppies. Their red color and black heart reminded soldiers of a shot wound.
Poppy cultivation has a long tradition in Europe
Poppy is a plant that is native to Europe. The most famous and commercially grown variety is breadseed poppy which can be used to produce opium. The poppy variety MacCrae describes in his poem is the field poppy which grows wild in Western Europe.
While field poppy is a weed with no commercial value, many wars have been fought over breadseed poppy. Until World War II, it was a common sight to see fields of breadseed poppy across the German empire. After World War II, Western Germans needed permission to grow breadseed poppy whereas In the German Democratic Republic everyone was allowed to grow his own poppy without any restrictions until the reunification in 1990. In Austria and Switzerland, breadseed poppy can still be grown by anyone without any legal requirements.
There are countless traditional recipes that include poppy seeds as an ingredient. There are bread rolls topped with poppy seeds (‘Mohnbrötchen’), poppy seed cakes (‘Mohnkuchen), and steamed buns with poppy seeds (‘Dampfnudeln’/ ‘Germknödel’). I’m sure you’ve come across them on your journeys through Germany.
The virtues of poppy juice
The most valuable part of breadseed poppy is, of course, its juice which we all know under the name opium and which can be further processed to produce heroin. Opium is a powerful narcotic hence the German name for breadseed poppy ‘Schlafmohn’ which literally translates to ‘sleep poppy’.
The invention of heroin dates back to the year 1895. It was a German scientist, Heinrich Desser, who first synthesized heroin in a lab of the pharmaceutical company Bayer. He found out that if you dilute morphine with acetyls a lot of the negative side effects were removed.
Heroin was a huge commercial success and by the year 1903 addiction rates had risen to alarming rates worldwide. The US government quickly responded and banned opium in the year 1905. Of course, among the European countries and their East Asian colonies there was no interest to cut off a profitable business. The more people were addicted, the more money was flowing.
At the International Opium Commission in 1909 the US delegates were on a mission to convince the world of the evil effects of opium. The conference was a small success. The German king promised America and Great Britain to support them in their fight against opium addiction. But until World War I, not much progress was made.
By 1923, the situation in the US had worsened so that the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Division banned all legal narcotics sales in the US. What might’ve been a noble idea quickly turned into a disaster. Addicts were forced to buy their drugs on the black market now. New York’s China town became a thriving black market for opium.
After World War II, the situation worsened even farther. Germany was already forced to introduce opium laws after World War I according to the treaty of Versailles. After World War II, the US once again used its influence in Europe to restrict opium production even further.
The black market has never disappeared
What the US obviously didn’t have in mind that time was that Europe lost control of its East Asian colonies where tons of opium was produced. Addiction in East Asia was just as common as in the West and the opium farmers knew that there was a high demand for opium on the black market. The opium trade was thriving in Southeast Asia as the aftermath of World War II.
As everyone knows by now, the following French-American military mission to fight the spread of communism in East Asia was a huge disaster. In an area controlled by warlords, the US was dependent on the support of opium traders. Opium availability during the Vietnam war exploded in the US and, by 1970, 750 000 Americans were heroin addicts.
With the fall of Saigon the opium availability sharply decreased. US addicts had to find a new supplier. Now, opium production in Mexico was thriving until the US and Mexican government started spraying Agent Orange on the poppy fields.
The war on opium will never be won
Since the 1980s, the US government is on a mission to eradicate poppy fields worldwide. A mission that will never be completed. Since 2001, the beginning of the war on terrorism, Afghanistan is the world’s biggest producer of opium. Almost 90 % of the world market is dominated by this Middle Eastern country.
Nevertheless, the US has succeeded in its mission. Nowadays, we don’t even produce enough opium anymore to cover worldwide medical access as is apparent from WHO numbers.
The prohibitive focus of the UN drug conventions has severely hampered medical access to opioid analgesics around the world. In fact, intense under-treatment is reported in over 150 industrialized and developing countries, equaling 80% of the global population. In 2003 the INCB reported that six countries together accounted for 79 percent of the global consumption of morphine.
The WHO estimates that “annually, up to 10 million people suffer from lack of access to controlled medications. Nearly 1 billion of those living today will encounter this problem sooner or later.”
The prohibition regime has led to limited availability of essential medicines.Rewriting history – A response to the 2008 World Drug Report by the Transnational Institute
Ironically, the country that prides itself for its war on drugs now suffers from a serious opioid overdose crisis. In 2018, 46 802 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose. In Germany, we are just a few years behind this drastic development. Thanks to careless doctors and the greedy pharmaceutical industry.
Not only the West has been brought down by opioids
The US isn’t the only country that lost a war on poppy. The Chinese Empire had existed for 2133 years before it was brought down by this powerful plant. The Golden age of the Chinese Empire dates back to the Qianlong dynasty (1735-1796). That time, China was the world’s richest country.
But what China had always suffered from was its arrogance. In 1793, Lord Macartney, an ambassador of the British king, tried to set up economic relationships with China. King Qianlong wasn’t too impressed. Western people were seen as Barbarians that posed no threat to China. This ignorant world view by the Chinese court was soon to be punished by history.
Tea was the most important commodity of the Chinese empire. The British had to pay for it with silver. But of course, they didn’t have an unlimited supply. What the British had was an unlimited supply of was opium. They smuggled it into China where traders paid for it with silver. A profitable business.
Opium addiction spread quickly around China. Once the situation turned out of control, the Chinese court decided to react and enforce a ban on opium. The British empire reacted with canons. China suffered a humiliating defeat in the First Opium War. Hong Kong was established as a colony and the Chinese government was obliged to open its markets for the West.
The British once again defeated the Chinese in the Second Opium War which led to the legalization of opium in China. The Chinese government was helpless. It gave up all efforts to fight the opium epidemic. Instead, the focus now was to grow opium themselves so that China wouldn’t be dependent on the supply from foreign countries anymore.
The fall of the Chinese empire
The situation in China worsened over the years. Christian missionaries were shocked by what they experienced there. The Chinese opium crisis gave rise to anti-opium movements in the West. In 1906, the British government deemed the opium trade unethical and reached an anti-opium agreement with the Chinese government.
However, it was too late to save the Chinese empire. China’s imperial rule ended on 12 February 1912 as a result of the Xinhai Revolution. In the following years, Chairman Mao enforced a strict anti-opium policy which helped to recover a country of addicts.
But as with all countries in this world, China has never recovered completely. The drug problem in China reappeared in the late 1980s. The number of registered drug addicts increased from 70,000 in 1990 to one million by the end of 2002. Unofficial numbers estimate that 12 million Chinese are drug addicts nowadays. Besides opioids, some “new” kinds of drugs including amphetamines and ketamine have penetrated the country through various channels since 1997.
The opium dens have been replaced by ketamine dens. But not just that, China also floods Western markets with new synthetic drugs. What the British once did to them they now do to the West. History has once again proven to be repetitive.
Why we don’t learn from history
One of the things bizarre in the German school system is the belief that teaching about history prevents wars and disasters from happening. I disagree. Conflicts will always be there and they will always escalate at some point. We can use history to predict the future but it is not a useful tool to teach people how to behave.
The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.Edward R. Murrow
The West has seen the deep fall of the Chinese Empire. In fact, you can’t deny that it was a very favorable event from a Western perspective. But did this event have any consequences on our behavior?
No. Nowadays, the West claims moral and cultural superiority. We have taken on the arrogant views the Chinese Empire once had about us. Of course, we also still have a large market for illegal drugs. But not just that.
The pharmaceutical industry makes it very convenient for just about anyone to consume opioids without being stigmatized as a junky. Most citizens might never search for a dealer on the street. But if their doctor prescribes them fentanyl they will consume it without a doubt.
So is this all the fault of poppy? An evil plant that poisoned the world? I doubt it. It’s an innocent flower. It hasn’t been designed in a lab as a bioweapon. It’s part of our ecosystem just like any other plant. But the story of poppy teaches us some valuable lessons. I’m sure if these opium wars and the current opioid crisis would’ve happened during the time the bible was written they would’ve been included as a fable.
I’ve never been strictly religious. But I have been baptized and confirmed and received religious education throughout my childhood. One thing I admire about the bible is the accuracy of the stories included. The bible’s description of human nature and behavior is on point. It could’ve been published yesterday.
Human nature has never changed over the course of history. The only thing we can do is be aware of our flaws and keep enjoying our poppy bread rolls for breakfast.