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Opium is the name for the latex produced within the seed pods of the
opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. The plant is believed to have evolved
from a wild strain, Papaver setigerum, which grows in coastal areas of
the Mediterranean Sea. Through centuries of cultivation and breeding for
opium, the species somniferum evolved. Today, P. somniferum is the only
species of Papaver used to produce opium. Opium contains morphine,
codeine, noscapine, papaverine, and thebaine. All but thebaine are used
clinically as analgesics to reduce pain without a loss of consciousness.
Thebaine is without analgesic effect but is of great pharmaceutical
value due to its use in the production of semisynthetic opioid morphine
analogues such as oxycodone (Percodan), dihydromorphenone (Dilaudid),
and hydrocodone (Vicodin).
The psychological effects of opium may have been known to the ancient
Sumerians (circa 4,000 B.C.) whose symbol for poppy was hul, "joy" and
gil, "plant". The plant was known in Europe at least 4,000 years ago as
evidenced by fossil remains of poppy seed cake and poppy pods found in
the Neolithic Swiss Lake Dwellings. Opium was probably consumed by the
ancient Egyptians and was known to the Greeks as well. Our word opium is
derived from the Greek. The poppy is also referred to in Homer's works
the Iliad and the Odyssey (850 B.C.). Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.)
prescribed drinking the juice of the white poppy mixed with the seed of
The opium poppy probably reached China about the fourth century A.D.
through Arab traders who advocated its use for medicinal purposes. In
Chinese literature, there are earlier references to its use. The noted
Chinese surgeon Hua To of the Three Kingdoms (220-264 A.D.) used opium
preparations and Cannabis indica for his patients to swallow before
undergoing major surgery.
The beginning of widespread opium use in China is associated with the
introduction of tobacco smoking in pipes by Dutch from Java in the 17th
century. The Chinese mixed Indian opium with the tobacco, two products
that were being traded by the Dutch. This practice was adopted
throughout the region and predictably resulted in increased opium
smoking, both with and without tobacco.
By the late-1700s the British East India Company controlled the prime
Indian poppy growing regions and dominated the Asian opium trade. By
1800, they had a monopoly on opium; controlling supply and setting
In 1805, the German pharmacist Friedrich W. Sertčrner isolated and
described the principal alkaloid and powerful active ingredient in
opium. He named it morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. We
know it today as morphine. This event was soon followed by the discovery
of other alkaloids of opium: codeine in 1832 and papaverine in 1848. By
the 1850s these pure alkaloids, rather than the earlier crude opium
preparations, were being commonly prescribed for the relief of pain,
cough, and diarrhea. This period also saw the invention and introduction
of the hypodermic syringe.
By the late eighteenth century opium was being heavily used in China as
a recreational drug. The Imperial court had banned its use and
importation but large quantities were still being smuggled into China.
In 1839 the Qing Emperor ordered his minister Lin Zexu to address the
opium problem. Lin petitioned Queen Victoria for help but was ignored.
In reaction, the emperor confiscated 20,000 barrels of opium and
detained some foreign traders. The British retaliated by attacking the
port city of Canton. Thus the First Opium War began. The Chinese were
defeated and the Treaty of Nanjing was signed in 1842. The British
required that the opium trade be allowed to continue, that the Chinese
pay a large settlement, and that the Chinese cede Hongkong to the
British Empire. The Second Opium War began and ended in 1856 over
western demands that opium markets be expanded. The Chinese were again
defeated and opium importation to China was legalized.
In the United States during the 19th century, opium preparations and
'patent medicines' containing opium extract such as paregoric
(camphorated tincture of opium) and laudanum (deodorized opium tincture)
became widely available and quite popular. In the 1860s morphine was
used extensively pre- and post-operatively as a painkiller for wounded
soldiers during the Civil War. Civil War physicians frequently dispensed
opiates. In 1866 the Secretary of War stated that during the war the
Union Army was issued 10 million opium pills, over 2,840,000 ounces of
other opiate preparations (such as laudanum or paregoric), and almost
30,000 ounces of morphine sulphate. The inevitable result was opium
addiction, called the 'army disease' or the 'soldier's disease.' These
opium and morphine addiction problems prompted a scientific search for
potent but nonaddictive painkillers. In the 1870s, chemists synthesized
a supposedly non-addictive, substitute for morphine by acetylating
morphine. In 1898 the Bayer pharmaceutical company of Germany was the
first to make available this new drug, 3,6-diacetylmorphine, in large
quantities under the trademarked brand name Heroin. 3,6-diacetylmorphine
is two to three times more potent than morphine. Most of the increase is
due to its increased lipid solubility, which provides enhanced and rapid
central nervous system penetration.
Heroin was initially used with much success as a superior cough
suppressant for patients with (then incurable) tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis patients continued to die, but without the tortuous
coughing and pain. A second use of heroin was to combat morphine ad
diction - just as morphine was originally used to combat opium
addiction. Soon after its introduction, however, Heroin was recognized
as having narcotic and addictive properties far exceeding those of
In December 1914, the United States Congress passed the Harrison
Narcotics Act which called for control of each phase of the preparation
and distribution of medicinal opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, and any
new derivative that could be shown to have similar properties. It made
illegal the possession of these controlled substances. The restrictions
in the Harrison Act were most recently redefined by the Federal
Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The Act lists as a Schedule II
Controlled Substance opium and its derivatives and all parts of theP.
somniferum plant except the seed.
The first period of large scale heroin smuggling into the United States
since its prohibition occurred during the years 1967 through 1971.
Turkish opium was processed into heroin in France and then smuggled into
In the mid-1970s Mexican brown heroin appeared. It was sold at a lower
price than European heroin and became readily available in the West and
Midwest. By the mid-1980s the U.S. heroin market was being supplied from
three regions: Mexico, Southwest Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey,
Lebanon), and Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos, Thailand). Soon thereafter,
South American heroin from Columbia appeared.
In 1997, Southeast Asia still accounts for well over half of the world's
opium production. It is estimated that the region has the capacity to
produce over 200 metric tons of heroin annually. Although much of it is
consumed in Asia, thousands of kilograms of Southeast Asian heroin enter
the United States each year.
The chemical structure of opiates is very similar to that of naturally
produced compounds called endorphinsand enkephalins. These compounds are
derived from an amino acid pituitary hormone called beta-lipotropin
which when released is cleaved to form met-enkephalin, gamma-endorphin,
and beta-endorphin. Opiate molecules, due to their similar structure,
engage many of the endorphins' nerve-receptor sites in the brain's
pleasure centers and bring about similar analgesic effects.
In the human body, a pain stimulus usually exites an immediate
protective reaction followed by the release of endorphins to relieve
discomfort and reward the mental learning process. Opiates mimic high
levels of endorphins to produce intense euphoria and a heightened state
of well-being. Regular use results in increased tolerance and the need
for greater quantities of the drug. Profound physical and psychological
dependence results from regular use and rapid cessation brings about
In addition to the pleasure/pain centers, there is also a concentration
of opiate receptors in the respiratory center of the brain. Opiates have
an inhibiting effect on these cells and in the case of an overdose,
respiration can come to a complete halt. Opiates also inhibit
sensitivity to the impulse to cough.
A third location for these receptors is in the brain's vomiting center.
Opiate use causes nausea and vomiting. Tolerance for this effect is
built up very quickly. Opiates effect the digestive system by inhibiting
intestinal peristalsis. Long before they were used as painkillers,
opiates were used to control diarrhea.