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Just the facts

Physical Information

Name: Opium

Use: pain-reliever

Source: opium poppy

Recommended daily intake: none (not essential)

Absorption: inhalation, ingestion

Sensitive individuals: everyone

Regulatory facts: Article 23 of the United Nations' [Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs) requires opium-producing countries to create a governmental agency to oversee production, collection, and distribution of crop

General facts: widely used narcotic drug

Recommendations: avoid

Chemical Structure


Opium is a narcotic analgesic drug derived from the opium poppy. Opium derivitives, such as Morphine, were used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years but relatively recently, other opiate derivitives, such as Heroin, have been widely used as a narcotic.

Pharmacology and Metabolism

The opium poppy contains 24 different alkaloids originating from two seperate groups: phenanthrones (including Morphine and Codeine and benzylsoquinolines. Morphine is the most prevelent alkaloid making up 10%-16% of the total.

Opiates bind to and activate the u-opiod receptors in the central nervous system, stomach, and intestines. The mechanisms result, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the derivative, in changes in the nervous system receptors in the brain. The brain creates new "psuedo" receptors for the that bind to the drug but not to the natural endorphins. This creates an additional euphoric state above and beyond the natural capability because more endorphins were introduced from the drug. These receptors cannot be filled by natural endorphins. When the opiatas are out of the body, the brain has less natural receptors and more "pseudo"-receptors which can leave the person feeling worse than before taking the drug, thus resulting in dependence at times.


It has been used for centuries as a pain-releiver and, because of those properties, some opiates have developed large followings of addicts.

Medicinal Usage

Opium has amazing narcotic properties and has been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. It was a popular pain-reliever for the ancient Macedonaians who named the drug. A popular cure-all in the 19th century was the opiate derivative laudenum, which was a solution of opium in Ethyl Alcohol. The substance developed a large following of addicts because of its properties and its price. Addicts could fulfill their needs for only five cents a day.

Some opiates of renown are Morphine, Codeine, and demerol. All three are still employed as pain killers as are less potent opiates such as acetaminophan.

A "tincture" of opium (10% opium and 90% Ethyl Alcohol much similar to laudenum is sometimes prescribed for severe diarrhea. A small dose taken 30 minutes prior to a meal, slows the intestinal tract going the intestines more time to absorb the nutrients in the stool.

Health Effects

The physical effects of opiates are lightheadedness, dizziness, sedation, nausea, and vomiting.

Opiates also can reduce the activity of the intestinal muscles causing constipation.


Opium is highly regulated. Article 23 of the United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs requires all opium producing nations to create a government agency to oversee production and distribution of the opium.


The history of opium use is literally as old as human society. The first opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia in 3400. The plant, called Hul Gil or "joy plant" by the earliest of human settlers, was later known to have been grown and traded throughout the Mediterranean states by the Egyptians. Archaeological digs have unearthed opium as far back as three thousand years ago on the island of Cyprus.

The name opium was given to the plant by Alexander the Great. The drug was widely used later by the Greeks and Romans. Marcus Aurelius, famed intellectual and emperor of Rome, used it to sleep and as an escape from the difficulty and horrors of military campaigns.

Central Asia and Asia proper have the most intricate history with the opium poppy. Not only are the majority of opium poppies harvested from here, (Afganistan currently produces 92% of the world supply) but the far-east was first recognized as a legitimate trading partner with the east because of their demand for opium and Europe's demand for tea.

Unique circumstances gave birth to this relationship. Tobacco was introduced into Europe and after Christopher Columbus returned from the new world with the plant. Tobacco use spread rapidly east becoming very popular in the middle east and later China. However, after Tobacco had become a drug of choice, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty forbade it. The Chinese then turned to smoking opium as a substitute for the newly banned Tobacco. When an additional imperial edict attempted to ban opium, the authorities discovered that little could be done to the opium centered culture of China.

At this time in Europe, tea was becoming increasingly popular. It was replacing ale at breakfast for workers and tea houses began to gain popularity. The insatiable demand could be met from trade with China, the birthplace of the beverage. Because the British refused to pay for the tea in silver because they were afraid of the silver drain's effect on their economy, they began to grow and trade opium. The British East India Company, even though opium was illegal in both Britain and China, gained a monopoly on the production, began growing opium in India and, after a series of resales and bribes, it ended up in the hands of Chinese brokers. Much of China became addicted to opium which had disastrous consequences for the country. When the government attempted to squash the trade, British traders fired back in what is known as the Opium Wars and conquered Hong Kong.

Opiates were used extensively in the 18th and 19th century by artists and writers in an attempt to gain a dreamlike state. English author and intellectual Thomas de Quincey was the first to write from the viewpoint of an addict. (See his writings here. Numerous medicines were made from the opiate derivative laudanum in the 19th century.

The first regulation in America was Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 which forbade its importation and later the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 which regulated and taxed the sale of opium. Now opium production is strictly monitored throughout the world because of its narcotic properties. Article 23 of the United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs requires opium-producing countries create a government agency to oversee production, collection, and distribution of licit drug output.

Additional Resources


  • Le Coutuer, Penny and jay Burreson. Napolean's Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed History. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2003.

PBS Frontline timeline

Le Couteur, Jay Burreson. Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed the World. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003.

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