By Chet Yarbrough
Flowers in the Blood: The Story of Opium
By: Jeff Goldberg, Dean Latimer, William Burroughs (Introduction
Narrated by Stephen McLaughlin
Published in 1981, “Flowers in the Blood” argues for decriminalization of opiates. The idea remains controversial in 2018, and 2022. Written by Jeff Goldberg and Dean Latimer, a listener feels misdirected by historical information.
The feeling of misdirection is reinforced by a languid, seemingly opiated, performance of the narrator, Stephen McLaughlin. It is not that one is seduced by Goldberg and Latimer’s writing, but a listener feels cornered in a room of opium eaters. Goldberg and Latimer reveal how opium is extracted from a flower to offer a tranquil escape from life’s stresses, with a tantalizing peek at world clarity. Opiate extraction seems simple; the consequence of use, not.
Goldberg and Latimer argue that opiates enhance natural neurotransmitters, like endorphins, to reduce stress and depression caused by living life. This argument reminds one of a “Brave New World” where every stress in life is characterized as negative.
Goldberg and Latimer note that refinement of opium into morphine and heroin increases its addictive power. They extol the pleasure of opiates while cataloging its history of addiction. Goldberg and Latimer reflect on opium’s effect in altering cerebral states of being. Their argument seems counter intuitive.
They note its use by artists ranging from Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. They infer opiates enhance artist’s abilities. They realistically identify opiates’ medical benefit, while exposing its potential for addiction. Goldberg and Latimer suggest opiates enhance artistic sensibility, and temper sociopathic homicidal acts. They begin an argument for legalizing opiates.
Goldberg and Latimer argue that there are three options. One, continue jailing narcotic purveyors and users. Two, legalize opiates and let the free market determine use. Three, decriminalize opiates and offer treatment to those who become addicted.
Their argument is for number three; they suggest number one (the American standard) is ineffective, and number two would be a disaster in the making. Goldberg and Latimer argue that America should legalize and regulate opiates and treat those who become addicted.
America regulates alcohol and tobacco, both proven addictions. Alcohol and tobacco are regulated by the market, with education on their harmful effects and government taxation to increase prices that affects consumption. These regulations have had some success, but people still have the right to drink and smoke to excess.
The option of opiate legalization is troubling because it infers substituting inner-direction of human beings for other-direction by government. It increases the potential of a “Brave New World” where human choice is no longer individual but collective.
Goldberg and Latimer point out that punishing the addicted with prison is a mistake. Those who succumb to addiction need help; not punishment. One can readily accept that argument but opiate regulation by the government is a step too far. This may be a distinction without a difference but Alcohol and cigarettes are still a private sector choice with government intervention (principally tax increases and education) based on political input.
The loss of Seymour Hoffman in February 2014 comes to mind. Hoffman dies at the age of 46, John Belushi at 33, Kurt Cobain at 27, Billie Holiday at 44, River Phoenix at 23; all from opiate overdoses. If opiates were legalized, would these artists have been saved—who knows? They chose addiction to escape the insecurity and stress of life. Their choice is their choice. Insecurity and stress are facts in every human’s life. America’s failure is related to treatment, not government control of human choice.
America needs to continue their fight against illegal opiate manufacturers and sellers. Threat of punishment is not the key but reduction in profitability will drive illegal manufactures out of the market. With treatment programs, the government will make the objective of addicting users a waste of manufacturer’s and seller’s time. It may not eliminate illegal drug activity but it will make it less financially viable. Addiction treatment programs and substance abuse’ education are legitimate roles for state governments. Opiates should be subject to the same laws that presently govern drug research and development.
Unfortunately, “Flowers in the Blood” fails to nuance legalization of opiates. It leans more toward influencing uneducated poor, educated middle class, and idle rich to experiment with addictive drugs. Goldman and Latimer are on the right track with regulation and treatment of addiction, but their book encourages drug experimentation in a culture that needs no encouragement. Stress is a part of life and being drugged into obliviousness diminishes humanity.