[top]Introduction to Opium
The Opium Poppy
), also known as the Breadseed Poppy
), is arguably the most infamous flower in the history of mankind. Used medically and recreationally since as early as 4200 B.C., P. somniferum
has played an important role in the economic, political, and cultural life of many societies. Opium (lachryma papaveris
, or "poppy
tears" from the Latin) is the dried latex
obtained from the opium poppy, and it includes codeine, morphine as well as non-narcotic alkaloids, such as thebaine, papervine, and noscapine.
As Martin booth writes in Opium: A History
, the word 'opium' is misleading, implying that the substance is a single chemical compound whereas it is an elaborate cocktail containing sugars, proteins, ammonia, latex, gums, plant wax, fats, sulphuric and lactic acids, water, meconic acid, and a wide range of alkaloids.
[top]Ways of Administration
There are two primary ways opium can be consumed. The safer way is smoking opium, because the intensity of the effects can be carefully controlled. Opium may also be consumed orally, although this method is much less safe than smoking.
One of the most common methods of opium use involves making tea infused with its alkaloids. Ingesting opium in this manner is particularly dangerous because the composition of the alkaloids can vary widely from batch to batch. There are documented cases of death from overdose in opium tea drinkers.
Accordingly, it is important to sip the tea slowly, rather than drink it quickly. The user should consume a small amount of the tea and then wait at least half and hour to gauge its potency before consuming the rest of it. Even then, there is some risk of overdose, as the full effect of the tea may not be felt for two hours. The tea is extremely bitter due to the alkaloids, but there are methods of improving the taste. It is impossible to judge the potency of the tea based on appearance alone.
Many people make the mistake of underestimating the addictive potential of opium tea. Daily use can trigger dependence within a short amount of time, and withdrawal
symptoms are often reported to be worse than those associated with synthetic opioids due to the fact that the full spectrum of alkaloids is present in opium tea. Even when used once in every three days, the user may become dependent; thus, it is recommended that the user limit his or her consumption of opium tea to once per week at the most.
The typical dose for oral use of opium latex is between 1/3 and 1/2 of a gram, although an opiate-naïve user may wish to start with a lower dose. A dose exceeding two grams may be fatal if taken orally.
'Smoking' opium is the safest method of ingestion. Opium is not really smoked, but vaporized like base cocaine
. There are several ways of smoking. One can use a typical hash
pipe for the process described below.
The procedure is as follows:
- Lay the opium on the pipe screen in some ashes.
- Put the pipe at your mouth and heat up the opium with a flame, but don't let the flame touch the opium!
- Slowly inhale the smoke if it starts to bubble. Refined opium will melt away without leaving much residue. Raw opium will leave a hard residue. The smoke is rather sweet.
- Wait some time to evaluate the strength of the opium.
- Repeat the process at will.
The dosage of opium is the size of a match head (0.1 grams). This is the safest way of using, because one has relative control over the dosage and intensity of effects. As with any drug
, it is possible to overdose on opium.
Traditional Chinese-Style Smoking
Another method of "smoking" opium, which was once very common in certain parts of Asia, involves a specific type of opium known as chandu
. Although the practice of the traditional Chinese opium ritual eventually spread to the US and some European countries, most notably France, most Westerners are unfamiliar with chandu
is opium which has been refined to a consistency suitable for vaporization in traditional Chinese pipes. There are several consistencies, ranging from liquid to solid. In addition, different varieties of chandu
are distinguished by their morphine content.
Enjoying opium in this manner requires a specialized set of paraphernalia, often termed a "layout." At its most basic, the layout consists of a pipe (with bowl), lamp, needles, and a tray. Besides these items, the opium smoker may use a variety of devices for cleaning the pipe and bowls. A small box for collecting the "dross," or morphine-laden residue, is also useful, as are special scissors for trimming the wick of the lamp. When using liquid chandu
, the smoker must also possess a small wok which can be placed on top of the lamp. The traditional opium pipe is often made of bamboo, which is preferred by many smokers due to its ability to absorb opium residue over time; this phenomenon is known as "seasoning." However, other materials are sometimes used, such as ivory or wood, as their porous nature also allows for proper seasoning. About two-thirds of the way down the length of the pipe rests the saddle, which is generally made of metal. The bowl, which is essential to the function of the pipe, is placed on top of the saddle with a small piece of cloth used to create an air-tight seal between the saddle and the bowl. Although they are commonly referred to as "spirit lamps," lamps made for the purpose of smoking opium burn oil, not alcohol
, and many different types of oil may be used for this purpose.
In order to "smoke," or rather vaporize, the chandu
properly, the smoker must follow a specific procedure. If the smoker is using liquid chandu
, he or she must first place it in a small wok on top of the lit lamp. Once the chandu
is reduced to a treacle, the smoker must spin it with the tips of the needles over the lamp and then roll it against the surface of the bowl while holding the bowl over the lamp. After the chandu
has been rolled into a conical "pill," the smoker must plunge it into the small hole in the center of the bowl. Once the pipe has been thus prepared, the smoker must continue to hold the bowl of the pipe over the lamp while he or she sucks on the mouthpiece of the pipe and inhales the vaporized chandu
. During this stage of the ritual, the smoker must listen for the characteristic bubbling noise of the pill being vaporized.
Due to the design of the pipe, most of the morphine in the opium is deposited in the saddle and the bowl of the pipe, which results in a much less stupefying effect than that experienced when ingesting opium via other methods. The smoker who enjoys a morphine kick may add dross to his or her chandu
during the process of "chefing" it. Because dross is essentially morphine, those who enjoy opium in this manner run a higher risk of physical addiction
than those who enjoy "virgin" chandu
. It is more difficult to overdose on opium used in this manner as opposed to oral methods due to the more rapid onset of effects.
[top]Effects of Opium
produce similar effects. At low doses they make highly effective painkillers, and at medium to high doses produce euphoria
, nausea, sleepiness, “a warm fuzzy” feeling and a sense of peace. They are extremely addictive both mentally and physically and withdrawal from this class of drugs
can include suicidal thoughts, cold sweats, uncontrollable diarrhea, immobility, sleeplessness, abnormal body temperature and heartbeat, nausea, and severe depression. Opium produces dependence at a relatively slower rate than stronger opiates, such as heroin
, although it is highly addictive nonetheless. Extreme care must be taken to space out doses of opium if one wishes to avoid physical dependence, although psychological addiction may still occur.
[top]Combinations with Opium
Historically, opium was mixed with tobacco
before the Chinese perfected the method of smoking it on its own. Although it can be smoked with tobacco, it is not the most effective method, as opium should be vaporized, not burnt. Opium synergizes nicely with cannabis
, and the two can be smoked together as well.
It is not advisable to mix opium with other CNS depressants
such as alcohol or benzodiazepines
due to the dramatically increased risk of respiratory depression, overdose, and death. It is especially risky to use opium with other CNS depressants because, unlike prescription pain killers, potency varies widely and the dosage cannot be precisely controlled.
[top]Different Uses for Opium
Smoking is the safest method of consuming opium. Oral use is somewhat less safe but common. One cannot inject opium because of impurities. It is impossible to refine opium sufficiently for IV use; plant material and mold can cause infection. It is also not recommended to take opium rectally. Insufflation
of opium is not possible because plant material will clog the nasal passage before the drug can be absorbed. Opium does not function as a topical analgesic, so it does not work when applied to the skin.
[top]Pharmacology of Opium
Opium consists of the dozens of alkaloids found in the sap of P. somniferum. The principle opiate alkaloids are morphine and codeine. Only the alkaloids which work on opiate receptors are classified as opiates. Morphine and codeine are µ agonists. Opioids produce highly specific depressant and stimulant effects by acting at discrete CNS sites. For example, morphine stimulates the vagal nuclei in the medulla while depressing respiratory centers only a few millimeters away. The mechanism for neuronal stimulation is often the depression of an inhibitory interneuron.
The following is a list of the acute and chronic effect of opium on the body:
Nausea and vomiting
Skeletal muscle hypertonus
[top]The dangers of Opium
1. Respiratory Depression
The first and foremost danger of opium use is CNS (central nervous system) depression. Symptoms of CNS depression include breathing problems, heart failure, stroke, and even death. Use of other CNS depressants along with opium dramatically increases the likelihood of experiencing CNS depression. CNS depressants which are often combined with opium include alcohol, benzodiazapines, barbiturates (although most of these have been banned), and other types of "downers
." When abused, even a single large dose can cause severe respiratory depression and death. All opioids (both illicit and licit) have the potential to cause breathing to slow dangerously (and even stop) when taken in high doses.
When someone uses opium for an extended period of time, increasingly large doses of the drug will be needed in order to achieve the same effect. This is called tolerance, and it often leads to abuse.
The respiratory depression that is sometimes caused by large doses of opium can lead to hypoxia, a condition in which a decreased amount of oxygen is able to reach the brain. Hypoxia can have short and long term psychological and neurological effects, including coma and permanent brain damage. Researchers are currently studying the long-term effects of opioids on the brain to see if hypoxia in opioid
abusers can lead to brain damage and other irreversible issues.
When a person experiences withdrawal symptoms upon stopping opium use, he/she is considered dependent. Dependence can be treated with medically-assisted detox. Dependence often leads to abuse.
5. Pain Sensitivity
Long-term use of opium may actually make pain worse. This is called opioid-induced hyperalgesia. Over time, opioids may make the body more sensitive to pain, especially in the absence of the drug but sometimes even when the drug is present in the system.
When a person compulsively seeks out and uses the drug over and over even though he/she knows it is damaging his/her health and life, he/she is said to be addicted. Addiction frequently occurs as a consequnce of opium use. Addiction is related to, though not not identical to, dependence. It is possible to be addicted to opium without being physically dependent on it, although this is unlikely. Opium addicts often need to attend treatment in order to recover, and addiction can lead to many problems in a person’s life including financial, personal, family, professional, and legal issues.
Withdrawal is an inevitable consequence of dependence/addiction. When a person becomes dependent on opium and suddenly stops taking them, he/she will experience withdrawal symptoms. While opium withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening, they can be extremely uncomfortable and painful, often leading to relapse.
In many cases, long-term opium abuse can lead to depression or exacerbate pre-existing depression in the individual. A person will often become apathetic toward the other aspects of his/her life following prolonged opium use. During opium withdrawal, depression can be severe and can lead to relapse.
A person should never drive or operate heavy machinery while under the influence of opium. Opium users may also be in danger if they are not somewhere they know well or with people whom they can trust.
14. Gastrointestinal Problems
Constipation and nausea are two of the most common side effects
of opium use and abuse. Gastrointestinal problems can form as a result, often if the individual has been taking the drug for a prolonged amount of time. Opium-induced constipation can often be very painful.
15. Pregnancy Problems
Babies who are born to women who have been using or abusing opium during pregnancy can experience neonatal abstinence syndrome which is similar to adult opium withdrawal, only more dangerous. It is characterized by excessive crying, seizures, poor feeding leading to slow weight gain, sleep problems, sweating, and vomiting. Babies with this syndrome need extra care.
The primary danger inherent in opium use is addiction. Within a short time, daily use of opium can lead to physical as well as psychological dependence. Withdrawal symptoms include diarrhea, insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite, bone and muscle pain, fever, and cold and flu-like symptoms. Morphine, only one of dozens of alkaloids found in opium, is highly addictive in itself. When combined with other alkaloids such as codeine, thebaine, and papaverine, the potent cocktail of active ingredients in opium can produce withdrawal symptoms known as PAWS which have been known to last as long as six months to a year.
Because of its role as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, opium can impair sexual response and its effects can be especially problematic for male users. Constipation is another well known consequence of opium use. When combined with other depressants, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, opium use can lead to respiratory depression (RD) and death. Due to the synergistic depressant effects of alcohol and certain alkaloids, drinking laudanum (tincture of opium in alcohol) is a very dangerous method of ingestion and is not recommended.
It must be noted, though, that the effects of “smoking” opium via the traditional Chinese method are somewhat different than those of other methods of ingestion due to the design of the pipe, which concentrates morphine in the form of dross which is deposited in the bowl and saddle of the pipe. Because most of the morphine is removed from the opium, it has been known to have a much less stupefying effect when consumed in this manner. However, the ritual of consuming opium in this manner can be very psychologically addictive in itself, as was noted by Emily Hahn in The Big Smoke.
In his 2012 memoir, Opium Fiend, Steven Martin chronicles his attempt to relinquish his thirty-pipe a day habit:
“What had woken me up were...gut-wrenching pains that...propelled me toward the bathroom. Depth bombs of shit began exploding out of me. Then all hell broke loose. My arms and legs felt as though they were being pulled from their sockets. My guts bloated inside me, forcing up vomit followed by gobs of greenish bile. Even my testicles ached with nauseating pain.”
In addition to the physical symptoms of prolonged opium use, users have also been known .to experience psychological distress. Thomas De Quincey (Confessions of an Opium Eater), who consumed opium in the form of laudanum (a tincture of opium in alcohol), describes the terrifying dreams which eventually plagued him:
“I seemed every night descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever ascend.”
For many, if not most, people, the potential for addiction to opium far outweighs the potential creative and aesthetic benefits of its use. It is very dangerous to use opium in response to emotional pain, as using it for this purpose virtually guarantees addiction. Before deciding to use opium in any form, the individual must carefully assess his/her motivations for using the drug and his/her own potential for addiction. Those who have a history of addictive behavior are strongly advised not to use opium. Opium must be approached cautiously and respectfully, or not at all. As Jean Cocteau, a well-known opium smoker, noted, opium is a “decision to be taken.”
[top]Large Variation in Opiod Content - Overdose Risk
content can vary dramatically from plant to plant, pod to pod, and seed to seed. Clearly this can be very dangerous. Different batches can easily
have a variation of 3x-6x OR MORE in potency. For this reason, it is very important to exercise caution when consuming opium orally.
One way to lessen the risk of poppy tea is to drink about 1/3 and wait 35 - 60 minutes in order to get a good indication of the potency. If you notice the tea is unusually bitter or strong, then drink less. Your taste and smell will be your only indicators of how powerful the tea, and this is only for experienced users. Familiarize yourself with the aroma and flavor of these alkaloids, and you will lower your risk level accordingly. New users and less experienced users should always use the safer course. Although it is possible to learn the indicators of potency, there is no fool-proof method of determining the tea's strength before consuming it. Caution should always be used when consuming opium tea, and there will always be some risk involved.
The opium poppy is botanically classified as Papaver somniferum. The genus is named from the Greek noun for poppy, and the species from the Latin word for 'sleep inducing.' Linnaeus, the father of botany, was the first to classify it in his book Genera Plantarum in 1753.
The opium poppy comes from a large botanical family of 28 genera and over 250 individual species. Of these, only P. somniferum and P. bracteatum produce opium in any significant amount, although the latter is not used as a commercial source of the drug.
Papaver Somniferum is a flowering annual, which means it grows and dies each year and must be replanted the following year. The growth cycle of poppies is approximately 120 days. Poppies are relatively easy to grow and can grow in a variety of climates.
They prefer soil that facilitates drainage so that the roots do not get too moist and produce rot or mold. In the wild, poppies are more likely to flourish in recently dug or ploughed ground. The best growing climate is is temperate, with low humidity and not too much rainfall during early growth. Ideally, the best soil for poppies is sandy loam, although they will also grow in clay or sandy clay.
Poppy seeds require exposure to cool or cold temperatures before they will reliably sprout. As long as the winter temperatures in your area do not fall below 0ºF (-18ºC), you may plant the seeds in autumn, before the first frost. In colder climates or if convenient, plant the poppy seeds in spring, as soon as the ground thaws. Either way, your flowers will bloom in mid summer. To sow the seeds, simply sprinkle them on the surface of the plot where you wish them to grow. Water them, and wait a couple days to a couple weeks to see sprouts. Once the seeds sprout, you may want to thin them out so that each plant has around 8-10 inches of space surrounding it. Remember to weed
, Poppies do like companionship but not competition!
Do not use mulch as this can facilitate molding, and remember that they prefer lots of sunlight. Generally, poppies grow best when they receive at least six hours of sunlight a day. However, if you live in a hot climate, select a spot where the poppies will be protected during the intense heat of the afternoon. The opium poppy is a 'long day' photo-responsive plant which means that it will not produce blooms unless it has grown through a period of long days and short nights, preferably with direct sunlight at least twelve hours daily. Poppies do not like to be transplanted, so plant them where they will be grown. If growing in pots, be sure they are large enough to support the plant throughout its entire life cycle.
Water as necessary. Poppy plants may rot and die in soaked soils, so only water when the soil feels dry to a finger's depth. Typically, you only need to water the plants once every several days. Increase the amount of water per watering session in hot weather or if the poppies turn brown. Avoid watering plants during the early afternoon, especially in sunny weather. The heated water can burn the leaves, and it may evaporate before it can be absorbed.
Poppy seeds germinate quickly in warm, moist conditions, and within six weeks the plant is established by which time it resembles a young cabbage or lettuce with glaucous green leaves and a dull grey or bluish tint. By eight weeks, it reaches a height of about 60 centimeters. As the plant matures, it grows to a height of between 90 and 150 centimeters.
Poppies will begin to bloom 10 to 12 weeks from the time you plant them. Their petals will drop after about 48 to 72 hours. At the center of the flower is the seed pod, which will continue to grow for about two weeks after flowering. During this period, it's very important not to water them unless absolutely necessary. Once pods turn a bluish tint with a white film-like layer and their crowns turn upward, they are ready for harvest.
According to a 2008 UNODC report, in 2007 the opium/heroin market continued to expand on the strength of cultivation increases in Afghanistan which pushed up the area under illicit opium poppy cultivation worldwide by 17%. However, cultivation also increased in South-East Asia, where it went up after six consecutive years of decline. The area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan rose by 17% in 2007 to 193,000 ha. This was the largest area under opium poppy cultivation ever recorded in Afghanistan, surpassing the 2006 record cultivation figure. The increase itself was less pronounced than in 2006, when the increase was 33%. Similar to the year before, Afghanistan accounted for 82% of the global area under opium poppy in 2007. Over two thirds of the opium poppy cultivation was located in the southern region of the country.
After six years of decline, opium poppy cultivation in South-East Asia increased by 22%, driven by a 29% cultivation increase in Myanmar. Despite this recent increase, opium poppy cultivation in South-East Asia has decreased by 82% since 1998. While some areas in Myanmar such as the Wa region remained opium poppy free, cultivation in the East and South of the Shan State, where the majority of opium cultivation takes place, increased significantly. In Lao PDR cultivation remained at a low level. The opium poppy grown in Afghanistan has a higher yield than that of Myanmar. It is therefore mainly the cultivation increase in Afghanistan which led to the record high of opium production in 2007. Global opium production increased for a second year in a row to 8,870 mt, more than ever recorded in recent years. Global opium production has doubled since 1998 due to the shift to these higher yielding plants.
Poppy seeds are usually sowed at the end of autumn in septentrional regions (such as India). Flowering occurs between April-May.
The milky fluid that seeps from cuts in the unripe poppy seed pod has, since ancient times, been scraped off and air-dried to produce what is known as opium. The seedpod is first incised with a multi-bladed tool. This lets the opium latex ooze out. The semi-dried latex is harvested with a curved blade and then dried in the sun or under a fan. Tools used for this purpose are a razor blade, or a knife, or often in countries where opium poppy is traditionally grown, a tool made especially with multiple blades made to cut a millimeter or two into the flesh of the poppy.
This is done when the pods begin to mature, about two weeks after the flower petals have fallen from the pods and they begin to grow and double, even triple in size or more. The green starts to change to a bluish tint and the pods' crowns begin to turn upward, indicating that the pods are ready to be incised. Morphine production is at its highest early in maturation, while codeine is more prevalent the later into maturation the pod gets.
Capsules must be carefully incised: the incision must not be too deep, otherwise the latex may flow inside the capsule. Capsules may be incised repeatedly, up to half a dozen times. The white latex coagulates and oxidizes, turning brown. The brown latex is scraped the day after the incision, and dried outdoors. After days of drying, residual humidity is around 10%.
Alkaloids are organic bases of highly complex, heterocyclic structure containing nitrogen and usually oxygen and occurring mostly in the form of salts. There are dozens of alkaloids in opium. There is some disagreement on exactly how many opium contains, although three dozen have been definitively identified.
Opium alkaloids are divided into two chemical classes: isoquinolines and phenanthrenes. Isoquinolines don’t have any significant effect on the CNS and therefore are considered recreationally useless, so governments generally leave them as unregulated compounds. Phenanthrenes are considered the magic within the poppy. The most common (both in percentage weight and in extraction for use) phenanthrenes are Morphine
, and thebaine
. Accordingly, just about every government heavily regulates these alkaloids.
Many people underestimate the vastly important role that thebaine plays in semi-synthetic opioid production. Thebaine is like an odd man out – while both morphine
have sedating effects and relax the body via the CNS, thebaine
does the opposite. It is a stimulant
, but once chemically altered is responsible for many narcotic
pain killers and products to wean one off of opiate
addiction such as oxycodone
The following is a complete list of known opium alkaloids from Peter Lee's Opium Culture
Morphine may constitute anywhere from 3 to 24 percent of the alkaloid content of raw opium (the average is about 10 percent), and it was first isolated in 1803 by the German pharmacist Friedrich Serturner. Since then, it has become one of the primary analgesic drugs used in Western medicine. Morphine acts directly on the central nervous system, occupying the endorphin receptors in the brain and anesthetizing some of the channels in the spinal cord and brain stem. It also slows respiration, relaxes the bronchial system, suppresses appetite and impedes digestive functions, reduces sexual desire, decreases body temperature, and inhibits perspiration. The most unpleasant side effect
of morphine is constipation.
Codeine comprises .4 to 1 percent of opium's alkaloid content, and it is the most widely used extract of opium in modern medicine. About 85 percent of the world's legal opium production is devoted to the production of codeine. Its primary functions are to suppress coughs and decongest the bronchial passages, although it also has analgesic properties similar to, though less potent than, morphine. Moderate doses of codeine are an effective sedative, and codeine is far less constipating than morphine.
Like morphine and codeine, thebaine is a phenanthrene alkaloid. Thebaine is the least addictive narcotic alkaloid in opium. It comprises .4 to .8 percent of opium's alkaloid content, and it acts as a stimulant. While it is sometimes used as a mild analgesic, it is most useful medically as a narcotic antagonist in the treatment of opiate addiction.
[top]Opiates and Opioids: What’s the difference?
is an often-misused term. Any drug which affects the opioid receptors is often incorrectly labeled an opiate; however, the word 'opiate' refers only the to alkaloids extracted from opium and their semi-synthetic counterparts which bind to the opioid receptors. Many of the alkaloids in opium do not bind to these receptors, and are thus not classified as opiates.
To be considered an opiate, a drug must:
1. be derived from opium or poppy pods
2. bind to opiate receptors.
The terms 'semi-synthetic opiate' and 'semi-synthetic opioid' can be used interchangeably.
Natural Opiates (pure alkaloids) are morphine
Semi-synthetic opiates (or semi-synthetic opioids) are heroin (diamorphine
is a blanket term used for any drug which binds to the opioid receptors in the CNS. Opioids include all of the opiates as well as any synthesized drug that attaches itself to the CNS or gastrointestinal tract opioid receptors.
Synthetic opioids include methadone
, and loperamide
[top]Legal status of Opium
Opium, as well as all parts of the poppy besides the seeds, is classified as a schedule II substance in the US according to the Controlled Substances Act. Similarly, in Canada, only the seeds are legal to possess.
According to the DEA,
(f) Notwithstanding paragraphs (a)(1) and (a)(2) of this section,
the Administrator shall permit, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. 952(a)(1) or
(a)(2)(A), the importation of approved narcotic raw material (opium,
poppy straw and concentrate of poppy straw) having as its source:
(6) Hungary, and
(g) At least eighty (80) percent of the narcotic raw material
imported into the United States shall have as its original source
Turkey and India. Except under conditions of insufficient supplies of
narcotic raw materials, not more than twenty (20) percent of the
narcotic raw material imported into the United States annually shall
have as its source Spain, France, Poland, Hungary and Australia.
Cultivation of the opium poppy was outlawed in the US in 1942 by the passage of the Opium Poppy Control Act, which, like the Harrison Narcotics
Tax Act of 1914, was ostensibly intended as a "tax" act. Although cultivation of opium poppies is technically illegal, the law is rarely enforced, and it is complicated by the fact that they grow wild in many places and many who grow them are unaware of their narcotic nature. Opium poppies clearly can be considered illegal, yet they are not clearly defined by US sentencing guidelines, which puts the grower at the mercy of local law enforcement.
Opium cultivation and use remained legal in many southeast Asian countries long after it was banned in the West. However, many of these countries were forced to pass anti-opium laws in the 1960s and 1970s under pressure from the US government.
The use of opium can be traced back as far as prehistory. Its many forms have been a mainstay of the pharmacopeia throughout the world, and physicians have extolled its almost miraculous capacity to relieve suffering since time immemorial. According to Martin Booth, there is evidence that the poppy’s use extends back to prehistoric times; in fact, the remains of cultivated poppy seeds and pods have been found in the sites of Neolithic villages in Switzerland. The Mesopotamians, the world’s first agriculturists, cultivated the hul gil, or plant of joy, from around 3400 B.C., and by the second millennium B.C., knowledge of opium had spread throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Opium was a well-known, widely used medicine in the ancient world, and the name comes from the Greek opion. The usual method of ingestion in ancient times involved making a primitive laudanum from crushed pods mixed with wine and honey called meconion. There are references to poppies and opium in Greek and Roman mythology and the writing of Homer and Virgil, and many prominent physicians, such as Hippocrates and Galen extolled its uses. While the extent of opium’s recreational use in ancient times is uncertain, it is believed that it was eaten in ancient Rome for this purpose.
By the ninth century, opium’s uses were well-known to Arab doctors, and Avicenna noted the value of opium in treating a wide range of diseases. After the Death of Muhammad, the Arab empire rapidly expanded, and they spread knowledge of opium throughout the Near East and Asia. In Europe, the use of opium declined with the fall of the Roman empire, although Europeans eventually became familiar with it again due to contact with the Arabs during the Crusades. Venice eventually became the center of the opium trade in Europe, and by the sixteenth century, opium’s medicinal use had become established in Europe. Although opium use became relatively widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, its use was mostly confined to the upper classes due to its expense.
Although most people today associate opium with the method of smoking popularized by the Chinese, it was used orally throughout most of history. It is unknown exactly how opium was first introduced to China, but there is some evidence to suggest that it was the Arabs who first introduced it to China, not the Europeans, as many believe. Although opium was already known to the Chinese by the time of the arrival of the first Europeans, they brought a practice with them which would revolutionize its consumption- smoking. With them, Portuguese and Dutch sailors brought the practice of tobacco smoking from the Americas, spreading it to India, Indo-China, China, and Japan. Opium was commonly mixed with tobacco prior to the development of the distinctive Chinese method of smoking.
As Peter Lee explains in “Opium Culture,” the Chinese first learned to smoke opium in Taiwan, not the mainland. The practice of tobacco smoking quickly became widespread, and when an edict was issued banning it in 1614, many tobacco addicts resorted to the Taiwanese method of mixing opium with it in order to augment their supply of the illegal commodity. Although there is no record of exactly when the first pipe specifically meant for smoking opium was invented, it is thought to have come into use shortly after tobacco was banned. Although an edict against the import and sale of opium was issued in 1729, it had no effect on trade or the spread of the practice to all strata of Chinese society.
Although many believe that the British “forced” opium on the Chinese for sheer profit, the history of the British involvement in the opium trade is closely bound up with that of another commodity- tea. By the late eighteenth century, Britain had developed a huge appetite for Chinese tea, yet the Chinese showed little interest in the manufactured goods of England. When the Chinese began to demand to be paid in silver, the British treasury was rapidly drained, which led the British to devise the opium trade in exchange for tea. It did not take long for the trade to proliferate, and another edict banning the import of opium, issued in 1799, had little effect.
In 1836, the unabated proliferation of the opium trade prompted the emperor Tao Kuang to appoint Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu to enforce the edict against opium and deal with the foreign merchants residing in Canton, which was the hub of the trade. Commissioner Lin took decisive action in 1838, blockading the European trading community and forcing the traders to surrender more than twenty thousand chests of opium as well as the destruction of all of the warehouses where opium was stored and the fleet of British ships anchored offshore. This act, which was seen by the Chinese as justified, sparked the First Opium War (1839-1842) when British traders retaliated by summoning the British navy to sink the paltry Chinese armada of twenty-two war junks. The incident highlighted the technological superiority of the British and resulted in the Treaty of Nanking, which required the Chinese to repay the British for the opium they had destroyed as well as cede the island of Hong Kong to the British and open the ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningbo, and Shanghai to British trade.
Resentment against the British culminated in the Second Opium War (1856-1858) fourteen years later, and China once again suffered defeat by the superior British forces. The Treaty of Tientsin which resulted from this conflict added Kowloon to the British colonial territory in Hong Kong, opened another dozen ports to British trade, and legalized the import of opium to China. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, opium culture reached its zenith in China, and its use expanded to all levels of society.
During this period, the practice of smoking opium was introduced to the US by Chinese immigrants who built the Western railroads , which provoked fear that the “yellow peril” would corrupt whites with the practice, despite the fact that opiates were widely used and freely available without prescription. In 1875, xenophobic fears prompted the city of San Francisco to pass the country’s first anti-drug law
, and ordinance against smoking opium in public dens. Over the next twenty-five years, a variety of ordinances against opium smoking were enacted, and in 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act was passed, which banned the importation, possession, and use of opium for smoking. The law was clearly aimed at Chinese immigrants and had no effect on other forms of opiate use, such as the consumption of laudanum, which were favored by whites.
Despite the law, opium dens continued to operate, and in 1914 the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed, which prohibited non-medicinal use of opium, was passed. In China, Shanghai had become the focal point of China’s domestic opium trade as well as the center of consumption. The city, which was notorious for its decadence, was virtually free from any government control until 1927, and the Nationalist government decided on a practical policy of creating revenue by selling opium to licensed addicts. By regulating the trade, the Chinese government was able to collect millions of dollars in profits. By the end of the 1930s, it was estimated that ten percent of the Chinese population were opium addicts, and in 1950, the communist government took decisive action, banning the production, sale, and importation of opium.
Between 1949 and 1953, the population of addicts shrank dramatically, and by 1960, opium use had been virtually eradicated from China. During the process of eradication, countless priceless artifacts of opium paraphernalia were destroyed, and the once-vibrant culture which had surrounded its use vanished in China. Although opium culture had been eradicated from China, it continued to flourish in many southeast Asian countries, which received many Chinese refugees in the wake of the communist victory in China. Licensed opium dens were permitted to cater to the “Chinese habit” until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when most countries reluctantly illegalized opium dens due largely to pressure from the US. In the absence of opium, many addicts turned to heroin instead.
Opium, which was a mainstay of the pharmacopeia for thousands of years, has been replaced by morphine and prescription pain killers in developed countries. Its use continues in some less-developed nations, particular those of the Golden Triangle, where it still plays an important role in the culture and social life of the hill tribes.
Historical Data on Opium Use
In Greece, poppy cultivation and the use of opium has existed since the Minoan era, as evidenced by the discovery of the image of a goddess in Crete with engraved poppy fruit on her head. The Greeks knew the properties of opium and established the poppy as a symbol of Morpheus (Μορφέας), the god of sleep.
The Iliad (9th-8th century BC) refers to nepenthe (νηπενθές), thought to be opium, a drink that stopped crying, let humans forget their labors, and eliminated pain. The Odyssey mentions the drink pramnion (πράμνιον), which the witch Circe gave Ulysses and his companions to make them forget their homeland.
Hippocrates (466-357 BC) knew the therapeutic effects of the poppy and recommended taking the juice as a remedy for insomnia and described it as hypnotic meconium. Scribonius Largus (40 BC) described the method of production of opium from poppy capsules. Dioscorides (77 AD) distinguished between the milky juice of the capsule and extract the entire plant (which was considered less potent) and described how to prepare a syrup of poppy called diacodion. Galen (130-200 AD) and many Greek physicians after him, believed in the medicinal properties of opium and expressed great admiration for it.
During the Roman Empire, various preparations of opium were widely used, like mithridatium, which was attributed to the doctor of Nero Andromache and Philonium Diascordium.
In the Middle Ages, opium fell into oblivion in Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. However, much of the non-Christian world, especially the Arabs, continued to use it widely.
In the 9th century, Arab physicians such as Abul-ali-ibn-Sina (Αβικένας), and Persian physicians, such as Rhazes, recommended opium to treat many diseases, especially diarrhea and eye diseases. During the 10th century, opium was brought the Far East by the Arab merchants
In China, opium has been known at least since the 10th century, as evidenced by the references to the therapeutic properties and instructions for using it in Herbalist Treasury (973 AD).
Recreational use started to spread in the 16th century in India and Persia, and from there it spread to many other countries. After the colonial penetration of European countries in Asia (16th century), control of the opium trade passed into the hands of Europeans.
The renewed popularity of opium in Europe owes a lot to the "father of medicine" Philippus Aureolus Theophrastous Bombast von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (Παράκελσος,1490-1541) and the famous doctor Thomas Syndenham (1624-1689). In 1525, Paracelsus, mixing opium and alcohol, manufactured laudanum, which would become the main therapeutic tool of medicine in Europe from the 16th to the 19th century.
In 1600 the Platerus (UK) lauded opium as for a beneficial remedy. The famous Dutch doctor Sylvius de la Boe, stated that "without opium it would be impossible to heal." In ,the chemist and physician Van Helmost recommended opium to his patients with such frequency that he was awarded the title "Doctor Opiatus."
In 1648 the famous doctor Thomas Sydenham (1629-1689), evaluating the therapeutic value of opium, concluded that "between the drugs that God gave to man to eliminate his troubles, none is more universal and more effective than opium. In 1732, Thomas Dover concocted powdered opium and began to use it as a remedy for arthritis.
In 1822, Thomas de Quincey published his famous work "Confessions of an English Opium Eater." He began to use opium in 1804 during his studies at Oxford to address some health problems, and he continued its use throughout his life.
Throughout all of history, opium had widespread therapeutic and recreational use. Its therapeutic use was widespread and well-established until the US began to outlaw its use in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
[top]The latest Opium threads
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New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
 Lee, Peter. Opium Culture.
Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2006.
 Rosow, Carl. Opioid Pharmacology. http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/health-sc...29ahms7471.pdf
 UNODC - World drug report
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 Hogshire, Jim. Opium for the Masses.
Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited, 1994.
 Brecher, Edward M. The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. Chapter 6: Opium Smoking is Outlawed. http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/libr...ies/cu/cu6.htm
 A History of Opiate Laws in the United States. http://www.naabt.org/laws.cfm
Armero, Carlos and Rapaport, Ben. The Arts of an Addiction.
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Hodgson, Barbara. Opium: A Portrait of a Heavenly Demon.
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Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China.
New York: Overlook Press, 2011.
Martin, Steven. Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction.
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Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2007.
Sumner, Judith. The Natural History of Medicinal Plants.
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Westermeyer, Joseph. Poppies, Pipes, and People: Opium and Its Use in Laos.
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Wigal, Donald. Opium: The Flowers of Evil.
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Yangwen, Zhang. The Social Life of Opium in China.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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