Rock bottom for Steven Martin’s opium addiction was realizing it was the drug or his collection of pipes.
In order to make sure his collection lives on, even after he dies, Martin donated his collection to the University of Idaho — with the condition that it stays intact.
Opium was once one of the most prevalent drugs in the world. In the middle of the 19th century, China was ravaged by wars with the British over the drug. Most major cities in America had at least one opium den, and oftentimes had many more.
Anti-opium movements in America and Asia in the first half of the 1900s slowly stamped out the drug. The communists abolished opium smoking in China, and by the end of the Vietnam War, the drug’s hold on Asia was almost entirely gone.
In the dying light of the 20th century, Martin was a travel writer in Asia. He wrote for a few magazines and travel guides throughout the region.
On one trip, Martin was helping a friend report about the vestiges of opium smoking in Laos, which he said was one of the last holdouts of opium smoking in the world.
“I should say in the Chinese manner. That’s important,” Martin said.
They found an opium den in a small village north of Vientiane. Apparently, the village was a popular spot for backpackers traveling through Southeast Asia.
“You could party there very cheaply,” Martin said.
These backpackers created the demand for opium.
On their way back from the village, Martin took his friend to an antique store where they sold opium antiques.
“I had what I like to call a collector’s epiphany,” Martin said.
From his boyhood in San Diego, Martin collected a variety of items — seashells, stamps, coins and so forth.
“Everywhere I’ve ever lived, I’ve always collected something,” he said.
He said it’s a form of entertainment, similar to the way other people go to movies or watch sports.
Collecting opium paraphernalia turned out to be more difficult than Martin said.
“Most of it was destroyed during eradication campaigns,” Martin said.
He scoured Asia, looking for pipes, bowls, lamps and other devices used to smoke opium.
“It’s not a matter of really bringing it back, but I do think the knowledge of what something was or how it was used … is important,” Martin said.
Priscilla Wegars, research associate and volunteer curator of the Asian American Comparative Collection in the sociology department, said the knowledge is important for American history as well.
She said many Western archaeological sites hold opium devices.
“We need to know what they were for,” Wegars said.
In order to find out what these devices were used for, Martin visited opium dens in Laos three or four times a year.
“I started experimenting with the drug,” he said.
He said he justified experimentation by saying he was doing research. Eventually, he became addicted to the drug.
“It took years for that to happen. Opium smoking can be like that,” Martin said. “Once the drug puts its hooks in you, it’s very difficult to stop.”
Very little had been written about the actual use of opium paraphernalia. Martin said French writers liked to take the drug, but described it lovingly. Christian missionaries in Asia, on the other hand, wrote about the evils of the drug.
“I found it difficult to take either of them seriously,” Martin said.
He said it is also difficult to even smoke the drug. In the 19th century — the height of opium’s power — most smokers didn’t know how to prepare the pipes.
Opium dens would have attendants do it for them, and wealthy users often employed their own servants to help them with the drug.
Martin’s experimentation with the drug came to a head in 2007.
“I knew I had to stop or else I’d sell off my collection,” he said.
The low demand for opium, and the high demand for other opiates, made the habit expensive.
He checked himself into a Buddhist monastery that specializes in drug rehabilitation.
He said the withdrawals of opium are horrifying. It starts off like a bad cold and gets more severe, with vomiting, diarrhea, fever and cramps.
“You literally feel like you are dying,” Martin said. “If books can be believed, it was common for people to die.”
After detox, Martin said he started looking to donate his collection because the knowledge of opium paraphernalia would die with the collection.
“I wanted to find an institution that was as passionate about it as I am,” Martin said.
He found UI, and Wegars, and started the process of donating the antiques.
Because they are considered drug paraphernalia, Idaho’s attorney general had to sign off on the donation. With a promise that the items would be kept in a safe, the attorney general gave the OK.
Martin said the precaution isn’t necessary.
“If they could get the stuff, they wouldn’t know how to use them,” Martin said.
The agreement with UI was signed in 2006, and he started sending items in 2007. The bulk of them arrived in April of this year.
Martin said UI would have about 1,000 items when the sending is done.
Right now, Wegars is working on cataloguing the items. Martin spent a few weeks on campus helping, especially with the small items.
He said most of the items are incredibly artistic. Opium heightens the senses, particularly vision and touch, so colors and textures were particularly important in paraphernalia design.
The collection is held in the Asian American Comparative Collection in the Industrial Technology Education building, and can be viewed by appointment.
Kasen Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org