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The Power of the Poppy

The Power of the Poppy by Kenaz Filan. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press; 2011. Paperback; 312 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59477-399-0. $18.95.

Humans have enjoyed a long history of interaction with the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae). Many books have been written on this well-known plant and its dynamic cultural effects on various civilizations.

The Power of the Poppy attempts to cover the entire history of humankind’s use of the poppy plant. Reading the back cover description, the reader is promised a review of how the opium poppy has intertwined with human civilization from its early beginnings; how poppy derivatives can provide both benefits and negative consequences; the toll opioid use has taken on various celebrity and historical personalities; and “techniques of cultivation, extraction, and safe consumption along with methods for overcoming addiction and staying ‘clean’…”—suggesting that it will reveal or provide techniques to use the plant to induce visions. Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver on many of these promises and the rest are delivered in minimal detail and with little substance. The promises on the back cover appear to be more the publisher’s promotional message than a commitment from the author.

The writer, Kenaz Filan, is the author of several how-to books on “vodou magic” and is the former editor of newWitch magazine. The authority he takes to present this work, one assumes, derives from his experiences with occult magic. Herbal author Stephen Harrod Buhner’s glowing recommendation on the back cover suggests the book may be more about a personal relationship with the plant rather than an encyclopedic presentation of scientific facts.

Starting with the introduction and continuing throughout the book, the author uses conjecture and unsubstantiated claims, mixed with documented data, and evokes strong emotions to make his points rather than relying on the support of well-referenced facts and logic. His style relies heavily on persuasive techniques used in some belief systems (i.e., magic and the occult), rather than on scientific or factual delivery of information. From the beginning, it is clear the author’s target audience is the unwary reader looking for unusual perspectives, persons alienated by science or modern society, and those who lack an extensive background in opioid chemistry and pharmacology. Such readers will likely fail to grasp that this is a book of dilettantism disguised as a scholarly work. Keeping this in mind, readers can make an informed choice about how they want to interpret the book’s content.

The Power of the Poppy is loosely organized into 4 subject areas: History, Alchemy, Acolytes, and Techniques and Conundrums. The author begins the book with a somewhat disjointed and cursory overview of the history of human opioid and poppy use. The chapters read like summaries of summaries mingled with the author’s political views and speculations on historical accounts. On a personal note, I can’t help feeling like I had read parts of the chapters in the “History” section somewhere else, a feeling echoed in the “Acolytes” section. At best, the information is not new and can be found in other books which do a better job in presenting it.

Filan continues with the “Alchemy” section where topics loosely related to opioid molecules are used as the chapter subjects. Such topics include “meth-lab”-style lay chemistry, “safe doses” (pity anyone trusting them), thoughts on the drug war, and other random trivia.

The “Acolytes” section contains accounts of various celebrities and historical figures known to have used opioids. This cast of characters includes well-known opioid users of the past (such as poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writer Thomas de Quincey, and jazz musician Charlie Parker) and adds a few more current with popular culture like grunge rocker Layne Staley and hip-hop mix-master DJ Screw. A curious “Acolyte” omission, in a book written by an occultist, is Aleister Crowley—a well-known English occultist—whose only mention is in a quote introducing the Afterword.

The final “Techniques and Conundrums” section briefly presents the author’s opinions on opioid use. This section is couched in disclaimer-like statements presumably included to avoid lawsuits from those foolish enough to start using opioids based on this book. There is no substantial information presented in this section. Information on how to grow poppies, harvest opium, and techniques of use and communing with the plant are only briefly mentioned. Readers seeking the author’s perspective on stopping opioid use and withdrawal are presented with mostly mainstream advice such as tapering down, taking herbal supplements or prescription antidepressants, and going to Narcotics Anonymous.

Overall, I found the book to be rather disappointing, and I take no pleasure in having to provide a negative review. I hoped Filan had written an outside-the-box book on poppy usage, something with a unique perspective on the plant. Unfortunately the book contains rehashed bits and pieces of old information presented in an uninteresting way, apparently trying to appeal to the “new age” market. Missing are controversial discussions, oddities, novelty, and substance. The book reads like a compilation of Wikipedia articles and comes with the same strictures and caveats with few of the graces.

This book will appeal to lay people unfamiliar with opioids or P. somniferum literature. If readers are not overly concerned with historical or factual accuracy this could be an interesting source of trivia. Readers familiar with opioids, pharmacology, and herbalism, or who are just looking for information with scholarly substance are encouraged to seek alternative sources.

—Matthew D. Metcalf, PharmD, PhD

Post-Doctoral Associate, Department of Medicinal Chemistry

University of Minnesota College of PharmacyMinneapolis, MN