World-renowned items come to North Idaho - Coeur d'Alene Press: Local News

Opium artifacts for the masses World-renowned items come to North Idaho

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Posted: Saturday, September 15, 2012 12:00 am

MOSCOW - Steven Martin's collection has found a home.

It's a world removed from southeast Asia, where most of the opium paraphernalia originated, but the way these things usually go, a permanent home can be very, very hard to find.

So Moscow - not exactly Bangkok, Thailand - in North Idaho's Palouse is as good a spot as any.

"All I wanted was that the collection stayed together," said Martin, who handed his collection of opium pipes and artifacts to the University of Idaho for study, and to ensure the 1,000 pieces he amassed beginning in 2001 remained intact.

The way it usually works, once a collector passes away, his or her collection goes every which way.

"Broken up, gone. Scattered in the wind," Martin said Friday from the university's Asian American Comparative Collection and anthropology laboratory. "I didn't want that to happen to my collection."

Yes, opium. The illegal, highly addictive drug to which Martin himself became hooked before checking himself into a Buddhist monastery for rehabilitation in 2007. For a decade the San Diego native bought pipes, bowls and devices that traced as far back as the 18th Century that Chinese - and Americans in the 1900s - used to ingest the drug.

"I've been collecting things ever since I was a kid," Martin explained on his, some might say strange, collection. "I'm just one of those people who gets obsessed with things."

He became obsessed with opium paraphernalia in a Laos hotel room in 2001. Working as a freelance journalist and travel writer around southeast Asia, he and a reporter friend were wrapping up a story about the resurgence of opium in the country thanks in part to young, curious backpackers who wanted to give the drug a try.

As souvenirs, they bought a couple of pipes at a local antique shop.

"Suddenly, it was like, wow, you know, why have I never noticed this before?" Martin said. "Right then, I just knew I had to have more of them."

And when he began researching the topic, he realized little information was out there. Hardly anything had been written about it.

"I took it as a challenge," Martin said.

Two books later, and Martin is the leading author on the topic, having penned a pair of books on the drug paraphernalia.

His second one, the recently released 'Opium Fiend' is already earning positive reviews, and coverage from large publications such as The New Yorker.

The book blends the history of the drug, with facts about paraphernalia and Martin's personal experience studying - and abusing - the drug.

"Boldly written, in-depth account of an expatriate aesthete's dalliance with opium," the online site, Kirkus Review, stated. "(Martin) captures modern-day Southeast Asia - and the surreal risks of pursuing such experiences there - in vivid, concrete terms."

Research is how Martin, 50, justified using the drug. Like studying, he thought it would help him understand more.

"I was really able to rationalize it as research," he said, before realizing he was a daily user for half a year who needed help quitting. Quitting cold-turkey can kill an addict.

But why Idaho?

Why is the southern California native and 20-plus year southeast Asia resident donating thousands of pieces he painstakingly sought out to the state's university?

Priscilla Wegars, a volunteer curator for the Asian American Comparative Collection and Laboratory of Anthropology is the main reason. It was the archeological book she edited - "Hidden Heritage," which devoted a chapter to opium paraphernalia from Chinese labor camps that had been dug up - that Martin read when he was trying to learn as much as he could.

Impressed, Martin found Wegars online, and the two connected. In 2006, they agreed to the donation collection, which history, art and sociology students will study. Relatively little is known about the drug's history, though it landed in eastern American Chinatowns and spread during the westward expansion.

"It's kind of stunning," Wegars said about receiving the gift - portions of which they unpacked Friday - and the educational opportunities that await students who want to study the artifacts and piece together gaps in its history.

Yes, it's a far way from southeast Asia, but Martin's collection has a permanent home in Moscow. How everything plays out once Idaho students take over will come later.

"Maybe we'll find out more one day," Martin said. "I feel like we've barely scratched the surface."

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1 comment:

  • petand posted at 11:24 am on Sat, Sep 15, 2012.

    petand Posts: 155

    Good thing he's not in Kootenai County. Up here they'd probably charge with him with illegal drug paraphanelia and felony controlled substance charges for possible residue.

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