Benjamin Siegel, a professor of history at Boston University, visited Yale on Friday to discuss the sociopolitical and agricultural origins of the opioid crisis, focusing on  Indian poppy markets.

Each year, Yale’s agrarian studies program organizes weekly colloquiums around a central theme and invites specialists to visit and host a discussion with faculty and graduate students. In Friday’s talk, Siegel spoke on his paper “Markets of Pain: Poppy Politics and the Global Origins of the American Opioid Crisis.”

“This was a rare session that brought together world trade, third-world agriculture and the US medical opioid crisis,” said James Scott, co-director of the Yale MacMillan Center’s Program in Agrarian Studies. “The opioid crisis is an especially important agrarian question because opium affects its growers as much as its consumers.”

Siegel’s research fills the gap in the field of opioid history by discussing the supply side of the opioid market — the existing literature focuses on the demand side. As an underground economy, the opium market is often sensationalized in journalistic accounts, according to Siegel.

“Pain is in the background of this project,” Siegel noted. “In order to understand the opioid crisis, we need to ask who deserves access to pain relief? Who has authority on pain? Who gets to decide what sort of pain deserves medical attention?”

Siegel’s work focused specifically on India, which Siegel noted is the only country in the world that exports raw opium. He examined India’s role in the crisis by studying the geopolitical factors and economic incentives that put the Indian poppy plant at the root of America’s opioid crisis.

Siegel explained how a combination of Indian postcolonial economic policy, America’s foreign relations and gered-driven pharmaceutical companies created repercussions felt by both India and the United States in the form of the rural Punjab drug crisis in India and the opioid crisis in America.

Friday’s discussion then shifted to how opium production has become an increasingly less agrarian topic following the introduction of synthetic opioids, which have become increasingly popular in the United States over the past few years.

Siegel noted that opium has a singular effect on the brain. Natural and synthetic opium, though chemically different, both work by activating certain neurological receptors. Thus synthetic opium, he explained, can easily replace natural opium.

Nonetheless, Siegel emphasized the importance of rooting the opioid crisis in larger agrarian questions. Different parts of the poppy plant — including the capsules in the head of the plant, the seeds and the oil — can be used for myriad purposes, he explained.

“Siegel’s work goes beyond journalistic accounts by connecting the modern American opioid crisis to longer global histories of poppy production,” said attendee Sophia Abbas GRD ’22. “One can’t simply put all the blame on pharmaceuticals — the opioid crisis can be traced back to a very long and convoluted history of labor and nation-building.”

The next colloquium, to be held on Nov. 2, will host historian Lori Flores in a discussion about Latino labor struggles in Maine.

Ishana Aggarwal | ishana.aggarwal@yale.edu .