Heightened sense A critical view of drug laws in the UK and worldwide

2Jul/115

No joy

Poppy

A poppy. Picture credit: Gerhard Taatgen Jr

Was the opium poppy known as "joy plant" in the ancient near east?

Propaganda cuts both ways. Or if not propaganda, then misinformation.

That which comes from the prohibitionist camp is well-documented, and dared to show its stupid, smug face again last year with a bout of sensationalist reporting and overblown scaremongering over mephedrone, attributing the then-legal drug to deaths to which it was not remotely linked.

This blogger's first encounter – though he didn't know it at the time – related to prohibitionists' quite literal poster child, Leah Betts, who died aged 18 when I was 12.  She was claimed for the cause as a victim of ecstasy when the truth was that her death from water intoxication was a direct result of inaccurate information on how to use drugs safely. High or not, drinking 15 pints of water in 90 minutes would kill anyone. Except possibly Aquaman.

But there's a flipside.

Begin to research the history of drugs, about which this blogger had planned to write this week, and one will inevitably come across tales of the opium poppy in ancient mesopotamia. (The cradle of civilisation is, not entirely unironically, now buried beneath the sands of Iraq – and how one of their recent leaders could have done with chilling out a little.)

It is claimed that the word used for the flower in Sumerian literally translates as "joy plant". It's in popular science articles; it's in academic papers. Wikipedia has two references for it. It is everywhere.

It is also quite possibly untrue.

I asked some assyriologists about this, and Elizabeth Wheat at the University of Birmingham was kind enough to look into the claim in some depth.

It appears to have originated with comments by R Dougherty, a former curator of the Yale Babylonian Collections, as speculation quoted in the History of Biology. Another journal paper, by Abraham Krikorian of the State University of New York, disputes the idea that the opium poppy was known in the ancient near-east at all.

I've made a request to the British Library to see a monograph by the archaeologist Reginald Campbell Thomson, The Assyrian Herbal, which might perhaps settle this, although they seem to have misplaced it.

Given that reformers are held up to far higher standards than prohibitionists are, then references to ancient drug use as an argument that it has occurred throughout history and even before it will need to be right. Credibility depends on it.

Posted by Christopher White