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eXile Classic / March 7, 2001

The Opium Poppy

Three men convicted of producing the class B controlled drug opium were each jailed… In each man’s case Judge McDonald took two years’ jail as the starting point for sentence.

Otago Daily Times
(April 17, 2001)

It takes radio signals more than a decade to reach this offworld colony. (Something about the speed of light.) So, having lived through the eighties at Reagan’s ground zero, I get to live through them again out here. The worst of all Reagan’s horrors, the Drug War, is just hitting its stride here, even as it’s losing steam back in Vampire Central. Back there, even bloodsucking monsters like Henry Hyde are deciding they might have been a bit excessive in mandating the death penalty for anyone caught with a quarter-gram of powder. Hyde got a cameo role in Traffic and, like any red-blooded American, changed his convictions instantly in exchange for a bit part, a moment being petted poolside by a bevy of Malibu Stacies. A repellent tableau, certainly; but if that’s all it takes, why not find a bit part for every Republican drug warrior? Have Soros fund huge fake Hollywood parties for every slavering Phalangist in DC! Rent a few blondes, a cheesy Elks Hall, deck it out with limos and fake cameras! Stage an entire fake Academy Awards ceremony at which Hyde, Jesse Helms and Ashcroft are the leading contenders for Best Actor, nominated for their role in dueling anti-DEA epics! Let them make tearful acceptance speeches that go on for hours, if only they’ll stop sending harmless nerds to a lifetime as the maytag of D Block.

But here, the nightmare has years to run. The old radio signals keep hitting us, and the zombie colonists do exactly what America circa 1985 tells them to do. So right now they’re busily destroying the lives of those who are desperately trying to find a few hours’ warmth in the poppy.

The poppy is the literal, chemical answer to that Philosophy 101 question: What is happiness? Happiness is, chemically speaking, opium—is the poppy. Not a syllogism but a resin, a sap, dark brown and smelling like milkweed.

It came here with the Chinese. While the Anglo settlers were bashing each other with whiskey bottles, the Chinese were growing the poppy behind their shacks. They were expelled, but the poppy survived. It fought for its life, a tough plant which loves marginal soil, high altitude, scanty rainfall.

It knows what things are like here. It wants to help. It’s a very beautiful plant, the original of Marty in Little Shop of Horrors, as well as the pods in Body Snatchers. The flowers are so beautiful—frail crimson or lavender panels around a yellow core, at the end of long gray-green stalks—that old gardening bastards still grow them here. And then stay up all night with shotguns, waiting for a desperate loser to try to steal them.

That’s what separates the drug war here from the real thing, back in Reagan’s California: at least people there had real drugs to risk their lives for. Here, where bleakness and raw pain are the background of every life, the authorities have managed to block any import of processed opiates. It’s like banning fire in Alaska, or pools in Arizona. And yet they’ve made it work. That’s the beauty of an offworld colony: the officials really can control who, and what, gets in.

So those who can’t find solace in rugby and booze—that is, the people with some decency in them—must become gardeners, or thieves. They become little Johnny Poppyseeds, planting the tiny lousehead seeds in the most remote gulches. Or they simply tour the place, noting every garden where the poppies grow. And when the plants are finally ripe, they drop in late at night to grab the crop and boil it up to make crude homebake morphine.

Unfortunately, most of these people are not exactly ninjas. I found that out myself a few years ago. I bought this house from some hippies who had planted the odd poppies among their feral cabbages. I had little interest in the cabbages, which seemed to serve mainly as slug cities, but the poppies drew me back for some quiet summer nocturnal gardening. I knew what you were supposed to do, thanks to hours spent drooling over old National Geographics showing Turkish women moving among head-high endorphin-bulbs, shaving the sap and collecting it on wooden trays. I knew you were supposed to slit the pods, let the sap ooze overnight, then come back and collect it. I was worried about the neighbors, though, so I only did my slitting late at night: a fat James Bond stalking through my own back yard with a paring knife, imagining infrared cop cams watching me stumble through the wet grass feeling for pods.

All that stealth was for nothing, because the National Geographic articles failed to mention that the pod-slitting method doesn’t work in a climate where it’s always windy and always raining. There was never any sap on the pods next day. It ran down the stalks. There may’ve been some remarkably relaxed grubs in the soil beneath, but I was getting nothing out of it. A more crude and effectual method was called for: I snuck out at night, cut the bulbs off and boiled them. This yielded a truly foul-tasting tea, which I drank…and then waited. That’s the worst thing about these homemade opiates: the drug itself is so modest that you can’t always tell if it’s working. When you’re using weak unfiltered versions, you really can’t tell at all. And if it’s that weak, it’s probably not worth doing.

Apparently, one needs to collect hundreds of poppy plants and boil them up to get any effect. That’s why those enterprising collectors go on long night runs, sucking up all the plants in town like magic gophers. Except that, unlike cartoon gophers, they make a lot of noise. One summer night I was awakened by an elephantine crashing in the back yard. Something was stomping around in the high grass, grazing or dancing. I assumed it was what they call a “possum”—a nasty creature not at all like the pink-footed, white-haired possum of Earth. The only way to deal with these offworld possums is to bluff them hard and fast. So I got out of bed, ready to blast the door open and stun it with a scream like sperm whales do. I didn’t bother to put on any clothes: what’s modesty to a possum? Just leaned naked against the double glass doors and slammed them open, roaring at 747-takeoff volume.

A moment of social awkwardness ensued, because it wasn’t a possum out there. It was a tall thin human in black, with the standard lowlife haircut: short on top, long Rod Stewart rat tail down the back. This human was holding a big bunch of poppies—my poppies!—and preparing to pick more.

I took all this in quickly, while pushing the door open and screaming as loud as I could. The scream, or the sight of my naked body, which must have seemed at that instant a terrifying barrel of hair, fat and noise, discomfited the ninja harvester enough that he threw up his hands, turned and ran. The poppy bouquet went straight up in the air and landed right where he’d been standing. I ran outside, grabbed the uprooted poppies, took them inside and spent the rest of the night patrolling with a butcher knife. My poppies. Nobody gets my poppies, my little desperate hope for a couple of hours of warmth on this bleak rock. Thus one desperate wretch is made to fear another, to arm against another. That’s why the drug people all have pit bulls. After that night, I wanted to rent one myself, and tether it around the poppies.

This sort of undignified, desperate behavior is one of the great pleasures of the drug war for the Imperial drones who run it. They enjoy seeing the desperate writhe. Yachts are legal; Private tropical islands, casinos, concubines, betrayals…all not just legal but admired. But those are the pleasures of the victors; the pleasures of the defeated will always be illegal. And the poppy, the plant brought by Prometheus, will always be illegal.

When they get caught and put on trial by the peasants, everyone enjoys it. There was such a trial here a week ago. Three men got caught trying to boil up some poppies to make a few hours of respite from the wretchedness of life here. It made the papers. Here’s the story, from the Otago Daily Offworld Times of April 14, 2001:

Three Jailed for making opium from poppies

“Three men convicted of producing the class B controlled drug opium were each jailed when they appeared at Dunedin District Court. Before Judge John McDonald were Aaron Gourlay (28), unemployed, Walter Philip Poutama (29), solo parent, and Martin Douglas Upton (30), employed. Gourlay and Upton received 18-month prison terms, while Poutama’s sentence was 15 months. In each man’s case Judge McDonald took two years’ jail as the starting point for sentence.”

Two years. For gathering poppies and trying to make an ersatz opiate from it. Three poor losers trying to brew up a few hours’ respite from the bleakness here—and you can’t imagine that bleakness until you’ve spent a winter or two in the wind, in the rain, the decaying Calvinism, a bleached and contemptible evil gnawing the ends of its old plot.

That’s the difference, really: in California, the heroin is real. But these poor bastards could well have spent the day brewing and baking and stewing and fricasseeing—and ended up with nothing. It takes a field of poppies to yield even a few hours of relief.

But one is not supposed to want relief. Maybe that’s the real logic of the drug war: it’s unpatriotic to want relief. Alcohol is in tune with the horror, celebrates it, wallows in it. The poppy is truly an alien plant, a Promethean import, a subtle Asian critique of rugby and coalsmoke and crosses and false-toothed, double-tongued meanness. Perhaps they’re right to suppress it. But they can’t tell you to say No. The poppy has preempted that. That’s why they hate it: it is a quiet and complete “No” unto itself.

This article was originally published in Issue #111 of The eXile, March 2001.

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