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A History of Opium

Opium is a drug that has a long history and has affected people in locations around the world. Its derivatives have been used for recreational and medicinal purposes and include morphine and heroin. The drug comes from a plant called Papaver somniferum, which is known as the opium poppy. Opium is actually a latex extract that comes from the seed pods of the plant. People who abuse opium are at high risk of addiction and other potentially dangerous side effects.

History of Opium

Opium in Ancient Times

Opium can be traced back to ancient times, as far back as 3400 B.C. At that time, the poppy was cultivated in Mesopotamia and was called the “joy plant” by Sumerians, as it created a sense of euphoria. From Mesopotamia, knowledge of the plant spread from one culture to the next, eventually making its way to the Egyptians. Egypt became known for its poppy fields and traded opium through three reigns, including that of King Tutankhamen. Up until 460 B.C., opium was believed to have magical properties and was used for medicinal and ritual purposes; however, that belief was shunned by Hippocrates. Although he did not acknowledge any magical side effects, he did note its use as a styptic when treating female diseases, internal diseases, and certain epidemics. He also acknowledged it as a narcotic; by that time, opium was used already heavily used as such. It was seen as dangerous by some, such as Pliny the Elder, who warned others of the risk. His warnings were unheeded, and those who used it as a medicine regularly, such as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, soon formed addictions. The spread of opium continued when Alexander the Great introduced it to India in 33 B.C., and Arab traders introduced it to China in 400 A.D.

Opium in China

Opium became a serious issue in China during the 1800s, so much so that it became a catalyst for war. Addiction to opium was running rampant in China, and for that reason, the government wanted to put an end to it. To do that, the importation of opium was prohibited; however, this caused problems with Britain, which had been trading opium for silk, tea, or even porcelain. The British were unwilling to discontinue trading their opium and therefore continued via smuggling. Eventually, in 1839, this would lead to the first Opium War, which was eventually won by the English. There was yet a second Opium War between England and China; however, this time, the French were a part of the equation. This war ended with success for England and opium becoming legal again. As a result, there were excessively more crops being planted and consequently more people becoming addicted. Eventually, the India-China trade was dismantled by Britain in 1910.

Laudanum, Morphine, Codeine, and Heroin

In the 1500s, laudanum was created. This was a narcotic that was highly potent and addictive. It was derived from opium and as a result contained codeine and morphine. Historically, it was used as medicine and often did not require a prescription until the 20th century. Around 1803 to 1804, morphine was discovered and isolated from opium. Morphine was widely seen as a cure for many things, even addiction to opium. In 1832, codeine was discovered by a French chemist named Pierre Robiquet. Another drug related to opium was heroin, which was first synthesized in 1874 by researcher C.R. Wright. The term “heroin,” however, was coined by the Bayer Company, which would introduce the drug as a morphine substitute in 1898.

Opium in the United States

Papaver somniferum came to North America with European settlers. They cultivated and used opium primarily for aches and coughing, often by dissolving it in whiskey. In 1874, smoking opium was prohibited in San Francisco, with the exception of Chinatown and the opium dens there. A tax was imposed on opium and on morphine by the U.S. Congress in 1890. In 1905, the drug was banned in the U.S. by Congress; nine years later, opium was outlawed by the first federal drug prohibition. As a result, Chinatown in New York developed a black market in 1925. The U.S. inadvertently increased the illegal sale of heroin in the United States during the 1950s by funding drug warlords and supplying transportation, arms, and ammunition for opium production. The U.S., along with France, did this to help curb the spread of Communism in Asia.