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Date: Oct. 1, 2016
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Drug overview; Topic overview
Length: 5,622 words

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Official Names: Opium; laudanum (tincture with alcohol); paregoric (tincture with camphor); Dover's powder.
Street Names: Ah-pen-yen, Aunti, Aunti Emma, big O, black, black pill, black stuff, black hash (mixture with hashish), black Russian, block, Buddha (mixture with marijuana), chandoo/chandu, Chinese molasses, Chinese tobacco, dopium, Dover's deck, dream gun, dream stick, dreams, easing powder, fi-do-nie, gee, God's medicine, gondola, goric, great tobacco, gum, guma, hop/hops, joy plant, midnight oil, O, O.P., ope, pen yan, pin gon, pin yen, pox, skee, toxy, toys, when-shee, ze, zero
Drug Classification: Schedule II, opiate

What Kind of Drug Is It?

Opium is the sticky white sap that flows from ripening seed pods of the Papaver somniferum plant. The plant's Latin name means "poppy" (Papaver) "that induces sleep" (somniferum). The word opium comes from the Greek word for sap. For more than 6,000 years, humans have cultivated opium poppies and have used opium to relieve pain and to induce euphoria, a heightened sense of happiness and well-being. Opium poppy plants are sometimes grown legally to supply painkilling, cough suppressing, and anti-diarrheal medicines to people all over the world. Illegally, the plants are grown to produce cooked opium, morphine, and heroin--highly addictive substances that are abused for their mind-altering effects.

All of the heroin, morphine, codeine, and thebaine used in the world begins as opium. Raw opium, removed from the plant, is first refined by cooking. It is then chemically altered in various ways to produce the other products. In its crudest form, opium is smoked or eaten by people to get high. In fact, farmers who grow it illegally sometimes become high just by collecting the sap. More commonly, though, raw opium is passed through a series of chemical processes that isolate its morphine. The morphine is the plant's most psychoactive, or mind-altering, ingredient. Then the morphine is further refined into heroin. (Entries for codeine, heroin, and morphine are available in this encyclopedia.)

Morphine, codeine, and heroin are relatively recent alterations of basic opium. For much of its long history, opium was the primary drug of use and abuse. Its use has been recorded in many cultures in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Its power and strength were such that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was instructed to bring back opium as he set off on his first voyage to the New World. When Europeans came to the Americas, they brought poppy seeds with them and began growing opium in the Western Hemisphere. More than 150 years ago, the drug caused a major war between Great Britain and China. In the early twenty-first century, the United States--and the United Nations--spent many millions of dollars trying to destroy illicit, or illegal, poppy fields.


Archaeologists have found evidence of opium poppy cultivation dating back more than 6,000 years. As early as 4,000 bce, the plant was grown in the Fertile Crescent, an area then known as Mesopotamia. The region is now the countries of Iran and Iraq. Poppy seeds and seed pods have been found in Stone Age deposits in Switzerland. The ancient Sumerians called the plant hul gil, or "joy plant." A document that survives from the Egyptian city of Thebes, written in 1552 bce, lists more than 700 medicinal uses for opium.

It is likely that opium has always been grown for its mind-altering properties, but it is important to note that the plant provides food as well. The small black poppy seeds on the top of bagels and cakes come from the plant, and poppy seed oil is also used in cooking. In his book Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse, Paul M. Gahlinger noted that eating poppy seeds can result in positive drug tests for morphine in the urine. However, the seeds do not contain enough opium to produce a high, no matter how many one consumes.

Known and Used Worldwide

At some point deep in human history, farmers learned to cut the ripening poppy pods. This allows the sap to flow out and harden into a dark-colored gum. That gum is raw opium.

Opium use was widespread in ancient Greece and Rome. In his 800 bce poem The Odyssey, Homer described a medicine called nepenthe that could erase pain as well as the sorrow of grief. These ancient peoples credited certain gods with showing humankind the wonders of opium. The Greek god Morpheus, god of dreams, is often depicted in statues sleeping among poppy flowers.

Ancient cultures also knew of the drug's dangers. The Romans used opium as a poison, recognizing that an overdose could cause a victim to stop breathing. Legend says that the famous General Hannibal (247 bce-c. 183 bce) used opium to commit suicide.

When trade routes were established between the Middle East and Asia in the fifth century ce, opium made its way into the Far East. The cultures there began to grow it for its painkilling effects, and the plant thrived in many areas of Western Asia. Europeans knew opium from the cultural influences of the Greeks and Romans. Christopher Columbus was instructed to find new sources of the plant when he set sail in 1492. A more widespread use of the drug in Europe dates from 1524, when Swiss doctor Paracelsus (1493-1541) mixed opium with alcohol and named the resulting product laudanum, Latin for "to be praised." One of opium's drawbacks as a medicine was its bitter, unpleasant taste. Mixing the drug with wine, spices, and sweeteners made its taste more tolerable, which meant more people started using it. It remained in the mainstream until the twentieth century.

Opium Pipes and Patent Medicines

Columbus did not discover opium in the Americas. However, he did learn about tobacco and the pipes used to smoke it from the native peoples he met. He returned to Europe with both the pipes and the tobacco. Within 100 years, Europeans had taken to both. It is likely that opium had been smoked in the Eastern Hemisphere prior to the introduction of the Native American-style pipe.

However, the long stem typical of American pipes made smoking opium a more pleasant experience by dulling the harshness of the smoke. Users of smoked opium quickly learned that this method of taking the drug heightened the euphoria--and hastened dependence

Opium addiction developed in various ways on different continents. In Europe and America, people ate opium or became dependent on patent medicines that mixed opium with alcohol, sugary syrups, or camphor (known as paregoric today). Patent medicines, including tonics and elixirs, contained "secret" ingredients and promised to cure various diseases. They were also called "cure all" medicines, but most failed to deliver the promised cure.

A Different Type of Drug War

In the Far East, particularly China, the smoking of refined opium became a public health problem as early as 1746. By the 1830s, crime had become widespread in the nation as its men, in particular, sought out the drug. Families starved when their providers became addicted. In response, the Chinese government banned the use and importation of opium.

This ban angered the British, who believed they already had a trade imbalance with China. The Chinese exported much tea to Great Britain and America, so the British wanted China to buy their opium in return. When China refused to allow opium imports, the British declared war and sailed their military fleet to Canton, arriving in June of 1840.

Thus began the first of two "Opium Wars," known in Great Britain as "The War for Free Trade." The conflicts occurred from 1839 through 1842 and again from 1856 to 1860. When the wars ended, the combination of peasant rebellion and British military might had brought China to its knees.

Gahlinger estimates that by 1900, one-fourth of the Chinese population--and half of all its adult males--were addicted to smoked opium. Those who did not fall victim to the drug became bitter toward Western capitalism and its emphasis on private ownership, free trade, and competition. The Chinese believed the West had encouraged the opium epidemic. Their bitterness played no small role in China's move toward communism in the twentieth century. In the communist system of government, the means of production are owned by the state.

Opium Dens

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese laborers came to the United States to help build railroads in the Western states. Some of these immigrants brought their opium habits with them. Opium "dens" began to spring up around the country, especially in the big cities. Opium dens were usually darkly lit establishments where people went to use the drug. Many dens were set up in the Chinatown section of major cities, but were visited by people of various ethnicities. By the 1890s, the practice of smoking opium in dens had spread, especially among younger American men.

Refinements in the pipe led to the practice of reclining on boards or sofas on one hip while smoking or experiencing the effects of the drug. This practice gave birth to the phrase "on the hip," meaning someone with an opium habit. The phrase was shortened in the twentieth century to "hip," and the term is still used in 2005 to describe someone who is adventurous and perhaps a bit too willing to break the rules. The word "hippie" also has its origin from the way opium was smoked in dens. This derivation is questionable however, since the American Heritage Dictionary suggests that the word usage is derived from an African term meaning "opening ones eyes", while Meriam-Webster simply states that the word is derived from "hep".

Addiction on the Rise in the 1800s and 1900s

As the twentieth century dawned in the United States, civic leaders came to realize that the country had its own drug problem. By one estimate, New York City had more than 300 opium dens. Others pointed to the overuse of then-legal medicines that contained variations of opium--either heroin, codeine, or morphine. It was actually possible to buy a "soothing syrup" for fussy infants that contained opiates. Children also became addicted to the medicines and sometimes died of an overdose.

The Western world was not ignorant of the dangers posed by opium. As early as 1821, British writer Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) described the horrors of addiction and withdrawal in his book Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The isolation of morphine from its parent substance led to widespread addiction in the soldiers who returned from the American Civil War (1861-1865). Many soldiers were given morphine to ease injuries they received in battle. Later, the introduction of heroin as an over-the-counter remedy in 1898 made a bad situation worse. People addicted to opium and morphine were encouraged to take heroin as a "cure"--and found themselves more deeply addicted than ever. By 1900, reformers such as Dr. Hamilton Wright were calling for an international agreement on regulation of the narcotics trade.

The first in a series of international conventions on the then-legal trade of opium occurred February 1, 1909, in Shanghai, China. The thirteen countries that attended the International Opium Commission could not agree on how best to regulate the growth, sale, and distribution of opium and its by-products. A second conference, held on January 23, 1912, in The Hague in the Netherlands, was only slightly more successful. Participating countries signed an agreement requiring each country to "try to" control the trade of narcotics, including opium and cocaine. (An entry for cocaine is available in this encyclopedia.)

The United States Takes Further Action

Within its own borders, the United States had already taken steps to stop opium smoking. The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 made the importation of opium illegal, except for legal pharmaceutical use. Five years later, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 put an end to over-the-counter patent ("cure-all") medicines containing opiates and made it more difficult to obtain substances such as heroin and morphine from doctors. These two laws, combined with an atmosphere of discrimination against Asian Americans, effectively curbed the use of smoked opium in dens.

In 1970 the U.S. Controlled Substances Act named opium a Schedule II drug. This means that it has some valid medical uses but also has the potential for misuse and addiction. In Europe and the United States, the vast majority of opium appeared on the street in its alternate forms--morphine, codeine, or heroin. These other opium-based products are all still abused in America today, while pure opium abuse only occurs in some minority populations of Southeast Asian origin. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) recorded more than 82,000 emergency room visits due to drug abuse in 2000--only 167 of these were for opium or opium combined with other drugs. There was no mention of opium-related emergency department visits in the DAWN 2003 interim report, which featured the latest information available as of August 2005. Opium use has largely been replaced by heroin use in the United States. When opium is abused, it is usually mixed with other drugs.

What Is It Made Of?

Opium contains as many as fifty substances called alkaloids--naturally occurring chemicals with mind-altering characteristics. The main derivatives of opium are morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Morphine and codeine are used as painkillers, cough suppressants, and, in some cases, as cures for diarrhea. Thebaine is added to synthetic (laboratory-made) painkillers called opioids

Opium comes from a flowering plant that must be started from seed each growing season. It takes about 120 days for the plant to grow, flower, and produce the seeds needed for next year's crop. When it flowers, the opium poppy plant is beautiful. It is like the field of poppies in the film The Wizard of Oz that puts Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion to sleep. Opium poppy flowers range from white to pink to deeper shades of red and purple. The plant does best in soil that contains some sand and loam, and it can thrive in highland meadows as well as warm, dry climates.

The plant flowers after ninety days and stands between three- and five-feet tall. When the flower petals fall off the pods, farmers begin the opium harvest. Where the plant is grown legally, machines are used to grind up whole fields into poppy straw. It is from this straw that legal morphine, codeine, and thebaine are produced. More than 1,000 tons of morphine are produced legally from opium every year, from poppies grown on government-regulated farms in India, Turkey, and the Australian province of Tasmania.

Illegal Farming

In the illegal poppy fields, opium is collected by hand. Farmers use special knives to slice the pods that still remain on the plant. If done carefully, the slicing forces the pods to leak a white fluid for several days. Overnight, the fluid thickens and turns into a dark-colored paste. In the morning the farmer passes through the field and collects the paste from each pod. A few of the largest pods are left to ripen without being sliced. From these the farmers will collect the seeds for the next year's harvest.

Illegal hand-collected opium yields about seven to thirteen pounds per acre of poppies. Once the fluid has been harvested from the plant, it is allowed to dry in the sun until it becomes a thick, dark-brown, sticky gum. This is raw opium. Even at this stage people have smoked or eaten it to get high. Usually, however, the raw opium is boiled with water and strained through cloth to remove plant debris and further concentrate the psychoactive substances. This "cooked" opium will not spoil, even if kept for years.

The vast majority of illegal opium is then converted into morphine, which is then turned into heroin. These processes occur in mobile laboratories in the countries in which the poppies are grown. These countries include Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, and Lebanon. In these nations, political corruption and police bribes allow farmers and chemists to work with little regard for the law.

Illegal poppy farming can be bad for the environment. Farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to clear fields of native wild plants in order to grow the crop. They may fertilize poppies with human waste, chicken droppings, or other fertilizers that leave toxins in the soil. The techniques used to refine opium into morphine and heroin also produce toxic chemical waste that is dumped into waterways or left in empty fields. Law enforcement efforts to curb poppy production have included the spraying of fields with plant-killers, including Agent Orange, a poisonous substance linked to human illness.

How Is It Taken?

When pure opium is used as a drug, it is usually smoked, sometimes in combination with tobacco. It is also eaten. More often, opium is collected and refined into morphine and heroin, because these drugs act on the brain more quickly, and they are easier to inject than opium. Doctors occasionally prescribe paregoric, a liquid combination of opium and camphor, for stomach upset, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome. Paregoric is a liquid that is taken by mouth.

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

The medical reasons for taking opium--for pain relief, cough suppression, and diarrhea--are better addressed by more modern medications such as morphine, codeine, and synthetic painkillers. Except for paregoric, which is rarely used, doctors do not prescribe pure opium.

Usage Trends

Although opium is not used as readily in its pure form anymore, its production has not decreased. The fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001 enabled farmers in that rugged country to begin cultivating poppy plants again. Under the Taliban, opium production was strictly controlled; some farmers were severely punished for not following the Taliban's rules. The Taliban were forced from power when U.S. and coalition forces invaded Afghanistan after terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Terrorists had been allowed to train in Afghanistan.

Once the Taliban fell, opium crops began to thrive again. Increased poppy production throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia in an area known as the Golden Triangle has led to lower prices, higher quality, and larger quantities of heroin in Russia, Europe, and the United States. More farmers also began growing opium poppies in Mexico, Central America, and South America as well, sensing that the market for heroin is rising while the market for cocaine is declining.

Opium use occurs mostly where it is grown, although the farmers that produce it are not eager consumers of their cash crop. Some sources say that up to a quarter of raw opium is used by the people who grow it, their neighbors, and those who process it into morphine and heroin. Other sources say that opium farmers are less likely to abuse the drug than people involved in the purification of opium into morphine and heroin. Sometimes the drug is still used for its medicinal qualities, especially the control of diarrhea and chronic, or long-lasting, pain.

Effects on the Body

The power of opium's effects depends on how it is delivered into the body. It works fast when smoked, because the opiate chemicals pass into the lungs, where they are quickly absorbed by blood vessels and sent to the brain. Opium's effects occur more slowly when it is eaten or mixed in a liquid, because then the drug has to pass through the stomach and upper intestines, and into the liver before moving on to the brain. The process of digestion weakens the drug as it passes through the various organs before being absorbed by the bloodstream.

An opium high is very similar to a heroin high. The user experiences a rush of pleasure, followed by an extended period of relaxation, freedom from anxiety, and the relief of physical pain. Breathing slows and the pupils of the eyes become like pinpoints. In the brain, opium binds to the receptors that search for pleasure-enhancing endorphins and painkilling enkephalins. Because opium floods these receptors, it produces a higher state of pleasure than the body can produce on its own. Opium also inhibits muscle movement in the bowels, leading to constipation, or the inability to have a bowel movement. It works on the part of the brain that controls coughing and--especially when smoked--can dry out the mouth and the mucous membranes in the nose. The effects of a dose of opium last about four hours.

A Hard Cycle to Break

Continued use of opium produces two effects: 1) tolerance, or the need for greater and greater doses of a substance to achieve the same original effect; and 2) dependence, a physical and psychological craving for the drug. When people take higher doses, or take opium more often, they run the risk of overdosing. An overdose can kill because people just stop breathing and quickly die of asphyxiation. (It was this effect that led the ancient Romans to use opium as a poison.) Dependence occurs when the user begins to experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug's effects wear off. These symptoms occur because, in the presence of opium, the brain stops making its own pleasure-enhancing compounds. So, the rest of the body adjusts to the presence of the drug as well.

When the user quits taking opium, the body rebounds with a set of withdrawal symptoms that mimic a bout of the flu. The symptoms include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing or yawning, muscle pains and involuntary motion, anxiety and agitation, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, and cold sweats. Some people experience goosebumps, which is where the term "quitting cold turkey" came into being. These unpleasant symptoms can last from three to five days.

If quitting opiates was as easy as overcoming a bout of the flu, addiction would not be a problem. However, most opium users also suffer an extended period of dysphoria (diss-FOR-ee-yuh), a long-lasting period of anxiety, depression, and lessened enjoyment of life. It is dysphoria that usually leads the opium user back to the drug for relief--and the whole cycle of abuse starts again. Addiction to opium can turn good citizens into criminals as they search for ways to obtain the drug. In the regions of the world where illegal opium is grown, farmers who wish to make an honest living are often bullied into growing poppies by corrupt officials, or forced to grow them out of economic need. Even if they do not use the drug themselves, they are trapped by the environment of crime that opiate addiction creates.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

Opium causes slowed breathing and difficulties with motor coordination. During a high, the user might not move at all, or move more slowly. For this reason, opium should never be used with any other legal or illegal drug that causes sedation. A combination of opium and alcohol can lead to fatal breathing problems. Opium should not be used with tranquilizers, antidepressants, sleeping pills, or anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines. Opium should not be used when taking certain prescriptions that affect liver function, including medicines for tuberculosis, such as Rifampin, and medicines for seizures and epilepsy, including Dilantin. Some antibiotics can increase the level of opium in the bloodstream.

Illegal opium combinations include the "Buddha," a mixture of marijuana and opium or heroin, and "black Russian" or "black hash," a mixture of opium and hashish. These mixtures can create high levels of disorientation and paranoia, or a feeling of heightened discomfort. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, most emergency room visits related to opiate abuse are overdoses or problems stemming from combining use of an opiate with another substance, such as marijuana, alcohol, or cocaine. Combining drugs of any sort with opium is very dangerous. An overdose of opium can be treated with naloxone (Narcan), a drug that quickly rids the body of any opiates. For the habitual opium user, a dose of Narcan will provoke the entire spectrum of withdrawal symptoms--but it can also save someone who has stopped breathing.

Treatment for Habitual Users

Opiate addiction is very hard to treat, and often an abuser will fail to stay clean several times before finding the motivation to stay free of the drug. Symptoms of withdrawal can be kept in check with drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, administered by a licensed doctor or clinic. The recovering addict should also work with therapists to address underlying psychological issues that might have led to the drug use originally. Self-help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous provide a sympathetic peer group, telephone hotlines, and the support of other recovering users. Most important, the opium user may need to stay away from the people, places, and situations that contributed to the drug abuse in order to avoid temptation.

Raw or cooked opium is rare in the United States. However, the growing supply of heroin and the illegal use of opiate painkillers ensure that drug rehabilitation programs will need to continue to address the health issues associated with the opium poppy.


Opium production is a problem that wrecks lives in many parts of the world. Farmers in Southeast Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are forced--by economic need or by powerful drug lords--to grow great quantities of illegal poppies. These poppies supply the opium that becomes the heroin that hooks recreational drug users in Europe, Russia, the United States, and just about everywhere else. It is rare to find an American opium user, but in 2003 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) observed that 119,000 teenagers between the ages of twelve and eighteen reported using heroin at least once. Since heroin is just opium that has been chemically altered to work more quickly and more powerfully, it is safe to say that all the consequences of heroin abuse can be traced to opium abuse.

The consequences of trying to support a drug habit include criminal behavior such as theft, armed robbery, drug dealing, and prostitution. They also include health issues such as the possibility of contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that leads to AIDS, or hepatitis viruses from shared needles; malnutrition from a lack of appetite; and loss of quality of life. Addictive opiates tear families apart and deprive people of jobs, college loans, driver's licenses, and social status. Users face criminal records, lengthy detoxification programs, and long-lasting cravings for the drug they are trying to kick.

How does opium affect world politics? In December of 2004, Mark Steven Kirk, a Republican congressman from Illinois, returned from Afghanistan to report that notorious terrorist Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network, has used cash earned from opium production to pay for his personal bodyguards, weapons, and secret hiding places. Al Qaeda has paid Pakistani drug lords to help keep bin Laden hidden from U.S. forces. Afghan drug dealers have also worked with bin Laden to provide shelter on their side of the border. According to Kirk, the purchase of a packet of heroin in the United States helps America's worst enemies avoid arrest and prosecution half a world away.

The Law

Opium is a Schedule II controlled substance. Its only legal use is in a few rarely used prescription drugs, such as paregoric. Any other possession or sale of opium carries strict penalties that vary from state to state but almost always include heavy fines, permanent criminal records, mandatory detoxification, drug testing, and loss of privileges such as driver's licenses. Second offenses almost always result in lengthy jail sentences. Third offenses can earn someone a lifetime behind bars.

To the dismay of some gardeners, it is also illegal to grow opium poppies in the United States, even in small numbers. A single poppy plant can yield up to 80 milligrams of raw opium. (Other species of poppy remain available to the backyard gardener.) In July of 2004, UPI NewsTrack reported that three people were arrested and prosecuted in Pella, Iowa, for growing 22,000 poppy plants among rows of vegetables on a farm. The people were charged with manufacturing a controlled substance, even though the poppies had not yet ripened.

Elsewhere in the world, agents from the United Nations, various European countries, and the United States work with government officials in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other poppy-producing regions, to kill poppy plants. Poppy reduction programs require the cooperation of governments where the illegal activity takes place. They also must offer some financial alternative to the farmers who earn money from the opium harvest. Many difficult issues must be faced if the notorious opium poppy--the source of so many beneficial medicines--is to be restricted to legal production.

Key Terms

planted and tended with the intention of harvesting
pronounced thee-BAIN; one of the active alkaloids in opium, used to create synthetic painkillers
a physical need for a drug in order to ward off withdrawal symptoms
drugs derived from the opium poppy or synthetically produced to mimic the effects of the opium poppy; opiates tend to decrease restlessness, bring on sleep, and relieve pain
painkillers that may become habit-forming; in a broader sense, any illegally purchased drugs
nitrogen-containing substances found in plants
substances created in a laboratory to mimic the effects of naturally occurring opiates such as heroin and morphine
Golden Triangle
the highlands of Southeast Asia, including parts of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, where opium poppies are grown illegally
a group of naturally occurring substances in the body that relieve pain and promote a sense of well-being
pronounced en-KEFF-uh-linz; naturally occurring brain chemicals that produce drowsiness and dull pain
drowsiness or lowered levels of activity brought on by a drug
often abbreviated as detox; a difficult process by which substance abusers stop taking those substances and rid their bodies of the toxins that accumulated during the time they consumed such substances

A Word about Opioids

Semisynthetic and synthetic narcotics are produced that have opiate-like effects. These narcotics are collectively known as opioids. They include methadone, the designer drug fentanyl, and a number of commonly prescribed medicines such as Darvon, Demerol, Dilaudid, Orlaam, OxyContin, Percodan, Talwin, and Vicodin. Darvocet is an opioid that also contains acetaminophen.

Substances Produced from Opium

Raw opium can be separated into three natural substances: morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Morphine undergoes further chemical treatment to produce heroin. Codeine is the world's most widely used medicine. Thebaine is one of the ingredients in oxycodone, a painkiller better known as OxyContin.

Afghanistan and Opium Production

The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan imposed severe penalties on anyone caught growing illegal opium poppies. Since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has skyrocketed. According to a 2005 article in the Christian Science Monitor, Afghanistan produces almost 90 percent of the world's illegal opium. Most of it is refined into heroin and sent to Europe, Russia, and the United States.

The result? Heroin is cheaper, higher in purity, and easier to obtain than ever before.

The United States and the United Nations are working with the Afghan government to reduce illegal drug trafficking in Afghanistan. International aid workers report that corruption based on poppy production is so widespread that police officers and local officials are often paid more to overlook poppy fields than they can make in legal salaries. Lawmakers who try to curb poppy production run the risk of assassination.

According to its most recent report on opium production in Afghanistan (2014), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted that the amount of opium grown in that country has continued to grow over the past few years. In 2014, 224,000 hectares of land were devoted to opium production in Afghanistan, an increase of seven percent over the previous year and an increase of just over 200 percent over the total for 2002 (74,000 hectares).

Opium Chronology

  • 4000 bce Opium poppies are cultivated in the Fertile Crescent (now Iran and Iraq) by the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia.
  • 1552 bce An ancient Egyptian papyrus text from the city of Thebes lists 700 medical uses for opium.
  • 183 bce Carthaginian General Hannibal uses a fatal dose of opium to commit suicide.
  • 600-900 ce Arabic traders introduce opium to China.
  • 1524 Swiss doctor Paracelsus mixes opium with alcohol and names the product laudanum.
  • 1821 Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) publishes Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
  • 1839-1842/1856-1860 Great Britain and China engage in the "Opium Wars" when China tries to forbid opium imports.
  • 1896 More than 300 opium "dens" operate in New York City. Users recline "on the hip" as they smoke the drug through long-stemmed pipes.
  • 1909 The first International Opium Commission is held in Shanghai, China on February 1.
  • 1909 The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act is passed.
  • 1914 The Harrison Narcotics Act is enacted in the United States.
  • 1942 The Opium Poppy Control Act makes it illegal to grow opium poppies in the United States, even as garden flowers.
  • 1970 The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act names opium a Schedule II controlled substance, recognizing its uses in pain relief as well as its potential for addiction and abuse.
  • 2006 The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that poppy cultivation dropped by 21 percent in Afghanistan due to government efforts to eradicate poppy fields and to convince farmers to grow other crops. However, UNODOC chief Antonio Maria Costa warned that poverty and continued insecurity in Afghanistan could reverse that decline.
  • 2009UNODOC announces that Thailand and Laos are almost free of illegal poppy cultivation. Credit is given to programs to find alternative cash crops for farmers. The United States announced that this would be the future approach to reducing opium production in Afghanistan.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2646400042