From opium antiques collector to addict


Steven Martin (not the comedian) is the author of Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction. Interestingly, Martin started as a collector of antique opium accoutrements. Then he really immersed himself in his hobby and ended up an addict, refilling his pipe thirty times a day. Above is his smoking gear, photographed in 2007. Now clean, Martin visited the offices of Collectors Weekly:


At first, of course, there were these opium dens in Laos that I could get to quite easily. Vientiane was an overnight train ride from Bangkok, where I was living. I would take tools up to the opium dens and see if the old smokers there knew what they were. Often they did, although they hadn’t seen some of the pieces in years and years. They would show me how a piece was used. For example, a lot of different tools are used as rolling surfaces, as they call them. When you’re preparing opium for a pipe, you form it into a little pellet of opium on the end of the what’s called an opium needle, which is just a skewer, basically, because you can’t work the stuff with your fingers; it’s too hot. There are lots of different tools for rolling the opium pill, as they call it, into the correct shape before inserting it onto the pipe bowl.

That’s why I started hanging out in these opium dens, to learn what I had. Then I started experimenting with the drug.

"How Collecting Opium Antiques Turned Me Into an Opium Addict" (Collectors Weekly)

Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction (Amazon)



  1. And thus Mr. Martin joins the likes of Jean Cocteau, Thomas de Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Baudelaire.

    It’s enough to make me think about trying the stuff. 

  2. That is..somewhat hilarious.  sounds like an interesting book, i hope there’s plenty of detail about the history and tools of the culture and a minimum of whining about chasing the dragon.

  3. Damn, that’s rough, but must be an interesting read. Opiate addiction in all its forms (from swallowing Vicodin to bootin’ junk) is always brutal, and after 5 years or so it still helps to hear/read others’ stories of success and how they continue to cope. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. “…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.”

    This was something I wasn’t aware of.

  5. A Vanity Fair article on the search for the last opium den:

    1. I tore out the pages of that issue and have them somewhere in my collection of ephemera: great story…

      Sometimes I imagine that if my life turns to utter shit or I’m diagnosed with some incurable illness, I might just traipse back to the Golden Triangle and spend my last days immersed in a fauxpium dreamscape.

      But lately I have been fairly healthy and prosperous so maybe I’ll just read a book about it.

      1. Isn’t it great?  So many untold stories within the story.  My favorite passage:  

        “I am not going to rhapsodize here about opium. But I will say this: it is the perfect drug. There is nothing else like it. In this age of pharmaceutical-pill pushing, it delivers all that drugs such as Prozac promise. Forget about the medieval-like bugaboo of serotonin, the atrocities of Freud, the iatrogenic “disorders” that compose the Malleus Maleficarum by which today’s shrinks and psychopharmacologists con their vulnerable marks. All the pills and all the whoredom of psychotherapy in the world are nothing compared with the ancient Coptic words of the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” It is as simple and unsolvable as that. Forget about the interplay of opium and serotonin. Its interplay with the wisdom of the Gospel of Thomas is the thing. Its vapors are of that thing within.”

  6. “Opium!  A Heathen Curse on Christendom!”

    —From Alan Moore

    Hehe just joking…
    Really awesome article and book, though.

    I’m more angry there’s so much global control you can’t do things like that.  There needs to be places that what is “Forbidden” in the so-called “Civilized” parts of the world can be practiced elsewhere.

    1. More like a British curse on the Chinese, I’d have said… Obviously you and Alan Moore are being sarcastic, but it doesn’t seem to be backed up by your second comment, which seems either NIMBY / idealistic or vaguely imperialistic in the worst sense of the word. Maybe I’m just reading it wrong.

      Incidentally, I was reading a letter from the Chinese Commissioner in Canton to Queen Victoria that seemed remarkably straightforward and heartfelt, given what was at stake at the time.

  7. Emily Hahn’s No Hurry To Get Home has seductively descriptive chapters on becoming an opium smoker during the Boxer Rebellion….can see how coulda gotten sucked in (pun intended?)

  8. Until not too very long ago, you could buy boxes of dried poppy pods on eBay. For floral arrangements. And I have heard that—if you knew what you were doing—you could brew a tea of sufficient potency and chemistry to spend an entire afternoon prone having a rather indecently good neurochemical time of it. Then the Federal Government decided that floral arrangements were bad for you. And now you can’t do that anymore.

  9. As an eighteen year old (in 1976), I probably disposed of 8 or 10 grams of opium by burning them in a pipe.  I could see how slippery the slope was, because it was a very pleasant experience.  The lack of ready availability and not willpower prevented me from following in the author’s footsteps.  I’d like to think that I could manage my addiction, but I will never know.  I know that stronger people than me were not up to the task.  Did I mention that it was a very pleasant experience?

    1. Yeah.. opm is the shiz. I only hit it once but the addictive nature of it seems peculiar to me.. I really liked it.. I love getting loose.. I could source and afford some at a moments notice if need be, but I’ve not had urges to get on it since.

      If there’s ever an opportunity to partake I would highly recommend it, but learn from the experience of others and understand that it’s a slippery slope if you fall.

  10. “Karl, who had at one time been addicted to heroin when he was living in New York City, wanted to do the story, but he didn’t want to get anywhere near the opium, obviously…he asked me to smoke the drug so he could observe and write the details into his story.”

    Christ, what an asshole.

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