Plans to open a new bar in Portland and name it Opium drew an immediate and forceful backlash Tuesday from critics who noted the toll that Maine’s deepening opioid addiction crisis is having on the state and its residents.

A post on Opium’s Facebook page attempted to assure followers of the owners’ intent.

“It’s a metaphor for relaxing and having a happy time. Not in any way do we promote drug use or drug addiction.”

That didn’t stop the bar from using drug references to market its product.

The bar will “look more like a Shanghai opium den of the ’20s – dark, very sexy and somewhat secretive,” co-owner Raymond Brunyanszki wrote in a Facebook post.

Opium’s posts drew swift condemnation on social media, and from a treatment advocate, a public policy professor and a group promoting cultural ties between the United States and China.


Nathaniel Adams posted a link to the Portland Press Herald’s special report on heroin addiction in Maine with his comment:

“Why are you exploiting and celebrating the addictive powers of opium while deadly overdoses are occurring daily all around you? Is it ignorance? Cynicism? A weird concept of cool? This is a horrible idea,” Kevin McCarthy wrote on Opium’s Facebook page.

Last year, 376 Mainers died of overdoses, driven almost entirely by opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl. Heroin is derived from the opium poppy.

The crisis has become more acute in Maine than in most other states, with the death toll rising 27 percent from 2013 to 2014, the third-highest in the country.

“So your glamorizing the use of opioids in Portland … did your marketing team let you know how crass that is?” wrote Facebook commenter Sarah Gormady.

Martin Connelly, president of the Chinese American Friendship Association of Maine board, said naming a bar Opium is “inappropriate and disturbing.”


“Opium ushered in a very dark period in Chinese history and brought mass suffering to the people of China for well over two centuries. CAFAM is alarmed to hear that anyone would consider opium to have positive connotations or to romanticize its role in Chinese society.

“With our current opioid crisis here in Maine, it is a horrible idea to celebrate this drug by naming a bar after it. Would you name a bar Heroin or Cocaine?” Connelly said in an email.

Opium posted a message on its Facebook page Tuesday afternoon that indicated the owners knew that the bar’s name would generate a public discussion.

“Not in any way do we promote drug use or drug addiction. We are happy however that the article (on the Press Herald website) results in a conversation to stop illegal drug addictions, something we always anticipated.”

Brunyanszki denied a request for an interview at the business Tuesday evening, referring all questions to a public relations firm in New York City.

He said he was late for a business meeting and did not have time to talk, but before Brunyanszki left the lobby of the Danforth Inn he was asked if he would consider changing the name of the bar, given the state’s opioid epidemic and the backlash on social media.


“We’re not going to change the name, no,” Brunyanszki said as he departed.

A short while later, Julienne Engelstad, a public relations specialist based in New York City, released a statement on Brunyanszki’s behalf.

“Opium at The Danforth Inn does not advocate or embrace drug usage, but rather is an ode to a period in time when social, artistic and cultural dynamism exploded in Shanghai during the Roaring Twenties – an era when the city was on the brink of change with the introduction of secret yet decadent and luxurious speakeasies, where rare teas, liquor and champagne reigned. Opium is derived from the poppy flower and symbolizes a magic, beauty and mystery that is a playful expression of the new bar and lounge we have created,” Brunyanszki said in the statement Engelstad emailed to the Press Herald.

Brunyanszki said that high-end cocktail bars and lounges named Opium have opened around the world, in cities like London, New York City and Barcelona.

“Opium has also been used by several luxury fashion brands, most notably Yves Saint Laurent, who introduced their Opium perfume in the late 1970s. We’re pleased to bring this experience to the Portland community, underscoring our philosophy of responsible and moderate consumption of alcohol not just at Opium, but in all of our restaurants and bars,” Brunyanszki said in his statement.

Professor Joseph McDonnell, the director the Confucius Institute that promotes Chinese language and culture at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, said that Americans made a “fortune” on opium sales to the Chinese, and the effect it had on the Chinese was “terrible, creating the same kinds of problems that we are struggling with now.”


McDonnell, who is a professor of Public Policy and Management at the Muskie School of Public Service, has lived in China and has extensive experience in Chinese business practice and Chinese culture.

Though McDonnell said he is not an expert on drug use, he is familiar with the period in Chinese-American history that promoted the sale and use of opium.

“Many Americans made a lot of money selling opium to the Chinese. It was a terrible time in American history and the effect it had on the Chinese people,” McDonnell said. “I think that given the drug problem in Portland and our state, this is not an appropriate business model for an establishment in Portland to be following.”

Steve Cotreau serves as program manager for the Portland Recovery Community Center, a peer recovery center that hosts meetings and social events for individuals in recovery. Cotreau was unaware that a new bar named Opium would be opening in Portland.

“This person is either taking advantage of the situation or is trying to use the opioid crisis for their own financial gain,” Cotreau said. “It’s glorifying drug use. Why?”

Cotreau said he was at a loss to explain why someone would name a bar Opium.


“It’s minimalizing the suffering of the addiction community, not to mention the lives lost and the impact it has had on families,” he said. “It’s at the very least uncaring and the reasons for doing that, I would have no idea.”

According to its owners, the Opium bar is being renovated and will reopen June 14. A soft opening is planned May 25.

Opium, which will be branded separately from the inn, will have more seating, a food menu featuring smaller plates and an expanded cocktail menu. One cocktail that’s being tested, called “Sheik,” is a Middle Eastern-inspired cocktail for two served in a hookah.

Tempo Dulu and its bar are still in full operation during the transition, Brunyanszki said.

Opium and Tempo Dulu are housed in the three-story brick building at 163 Danforth St.

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