Opium Information

What Is Opium?

Opium is the crudest form and also the least potent of the Opiates. Opium is the milky latex fluid contained in the unripened seed pod of the opium poppy. As the fluid is exposed to air, it hardens and turns black in color. This dried form is typically smoked, but can also be eaten. Opium is grown mainly in Myanmar (Burma) and Afghanistan.

Today opium is sold on the street as a powder or dark brown solid and is smoked, eaten, or injected.

Opium is highly addictive. Tolerance (the need for higher and higher doses to maintain the same effect) and physical and psychological dependence develop quickly. Withdrawal from opium causes nausea, tearing, yawning, chills, and sweating.

As long ago as 100 AD, opium had been used as a folk medicine, taken with a beverage or swallowed as a solid. Only toward the middle of the 17th century, when opium smoking was introduced into China, did any serious addiction problems arise. In the 18th-century opium addiction was so serious there that the Chinese made many attempts to prohibit opium cultivation and opium trade with Western countries. At the same time, opium made its way to Europe and North America, where addiction grew out of its prevalent use as a painkiller.

Opium History

Excavations of the remains of Neolithic settlements in Switzerland (the Cortaillod culture, 3200-2600 B.C.), have shown that Papaver (Poppy) was already being cultivated then; perhaps for the food value in the seeds (45% oil), which we know as poppy seeds. The slightly narcotic property of this plant was undoubtedly already known then.

The milky fluid extracted from the plant’s ovary is highly narcotic after drying. This is then opium. The writings of Theophrastus (3rd century B.C.) are the first known written source mentioning opium. The word opium derives from the Greek word for the juice of a plant, after all, opium is prepared from the juice of Papaver somniferum.

The Arabic doctors were well aware of the beneficial effects of opium and Arabic traders introduced it to the Far East. In Europe, it was reintroduced by Paracelsus and in 1680 the English physician Thomas Sydenham wrote:

‘Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.’

Opium Smoking

In the eighteenth-century opium smoking was popular in the Far East and the opium trade was a very important source of income for the colonial rulers the English, the Dutch, with even the Spanish getting their share in the Philippines. Although opium was readily available in Europe at that time, its use was not problematic.

Opium contains a considerable number of different substances, and in the nineteenth century, these were isolated. In 1806 Friedrich Serturner was the first to extract one of these substances in its pure form. He called morphine after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep. Codeine (Robiquet, 1832) and papaverine (Merck, 1848) followed. These pure substances supplanted the use of raw opium for medical purposes. Like opium, they were frequently used as painkillers and against diarrhea. The invention of the hypodermic in the mid-nineteenth century leads to the widespread use of morphine intravenously as a painkiller.

In the United States, opiate use rose greatly in the last century, partly because of the opium-smoking Chinese immigrants, and partly because many of those wounded in the Civil War were given it intravenously. In addition, many ‘patent medicines’ contained opium extract: laudanum, paregoric, etc. It was partly due to this that morphine also became fashionable as a ‘remedy’ for opium addiction; for if the doctor gave an opium addict morphine, he was no longer interested in opium so he was cured. This was also the case in Europe and although its use was at that time much more widespread than is now regarded as acceptable for medical purposes, it led to few problems.

Prohibition of Opium

At the end of the last century, the United States started to try to curb the non-medical use of opium, especially in China, and later tried to prohibit it. American interest here was twofold: they wanted an economically strong China as a market for their own products, and the moral element played a major role. As a result of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines became American and the new rulers were confronted with a widespread problem. The American bishop of the Philippines, Charles Henry Brent, carried on a moral crusade in the US against the opium trade and opium addiction and found widespread support. And not only because he was riding on the waves of Prohibition, for as we have already seen, unlike the European countries, the US also had a domestic opium problem.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse

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