What drew you to antique opium paraphernalia?
Steven Martin: There was something dark about it. People collect all sorts of weird things, like old torture mechanisms, just bizarre stuff. I think this falls into the same category. It had this outlaw-chic thing about it that attracted me right away.
This reminded me of Bill White’s line, “I can’t tell you what will be the next major drug of misuse will be, but I can tell you that it’s already here and someone will develop a new way to use it.”
What are the origins of opium smoking?
Martin: The interesting thing about opium is that until the Chinese invented this system for vaporization—sometime in the 18th century—there was no pleasurable way to ingest opium. People were eating it. People were smoking it, mixed with tobacco. But eating it causes really bad side effects, the worst being constipation for weeks. And burning it destroys certain alkaloids in the opium that make the intoxication enjoyable.
Then a Chinese inventor whose name is completely lost to history came up with a system for vaporizing it. That invention opened the door for opium to become a recreational drug. Suddenly, all the bad side effects were lessened. Vaporizing opium takes out a lot of the morphine content, which is the thing that makes you feel stupefied and out of it. Good-quality opium, smoked with the proper accoutrements, is energizing. It doesn’t put you on the floor. Well, you’re lying on the floor to do the actual smoking, but that’s just because it’s the most comfortable position to hold the pipe over the lamp. That’s the only reason the old photographs of opium dens show people lying down. It wasn’t because it made them so stoned they couldn’t stand up.