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Back to Xanadu, Via Seattle
by Kendall Hamilton; Melissa Rossi; T. Trent Gegan
Aug 29, 1994
Trends: Dabblers in Victorian-era drugs seek decadence, inspiration -- or an old-fashioned stupor

The Seattle loft is a memorial to the past - shelves are jammed with history books about Victorian life and scrapbooks of 19th-century calling cards. Inkwells and antique bottles of absinthe and violet water litter cabinets. Amid the fin de siecle bric-a-brac, two women sit cross-legged on the floor. One, an artist, gently snaps the stalks from a fistful of dried poppy plants. The other, a scientific researcher, taps the hollow heads into a ceramic bowl, freeing a cascade of tiny black seeds. The women are making opium tea. "It's been drunk for thousands of years," says the researcher. "and now it's back."

Or at least emerging - a trickle of Victorian chic flowing through the back alleys of the intellectual underground. In lofts and garrets in the Pacific Northwest, artistic types looking for inspiration in a glass are beginning to dust off the drugs their forefathers made famous. Opium and laudanum (a tincture of opium and saffron) are making inroads among would-be Samuel Taylor Coleridges and Elizabeth Barrett Brownings, while at absinthe gatherings artists, writers and just plain partyers are raising illicit tumblers of the potent woodworm - infused liqueur to past devotees like Rimbaud, Wilde and van Gogh. "People are romantically attracted to Victorian-era drugs," says Jim Hogshire, 36, author of "Opium for the Masses," a history and how-to guide that's been fringe-publisher Loompanics Unlimited's top seller of the summer (2000 copies). "A lot of the creators of that era credited these drugs with their inspiration, and people are now interested in checking them out firsthand."

Martin Adams, for one, is looking for some laudanum. the 24 year old Seattle musician named his band for the narcotic after reading Poe, but he's never tried it. The artistic aura surrounding the drug is perhaps their preeminent draw, but they appeal for more earthly reasons as well. "People are tired of the criminal element of dealing with dealers," says Hogshire. "This stuff is accessible, cheap and easy to make." And illegal, but then again, say some, that just keeps the scene cozy. "People are having small, intimate parties where minds open up and people talk about literature, current events, religion," says the tea making artist. "Modern-day salons centered around ritual and intimacy."

Not to mention getting high. "That tea knocked me on my ass," says a Portland Ore. writer (few people were eager to be named) who stumbled upon a field of opium poppies near his house. "I became totally relaxed and floated downstream while sitting in my kitchen." Now he's planting his own poppy patch. As for absinthe, the most popular of the retro-intoxicants, "it put me in a mind-numbing stupor," says Larry Reid, 41, who heads a Seattle PR firm and sampled the emerald liqueur in Portugal, one of the few countries where it's still legal. "I was so messed up I had to call a cab to cross the street." San Francisco poster artist Frank Kozik gets a few bottles each year from Spain. "You sit there and get spacey," he says. "The whole mystique of it is to be in a visually interesting place, to sit and drink it, and get all degenerate and poetic."