Opium is the dried latex that is extracted from seedpods of Papaver somniferum or the opium poppy plant. The history of opium use dates back to the Neolithic Age and this is why opium is regarded as the oldest known drug.
Opium poppy was cultivated back in 3,400 B.C. in lower Mesopotamia, which is the earliest reference to the growth and use of opium. It was referred to as Hul Gil or the "Joy Plant" by the Sumerians. Opium was then passed on to the Assyrians and on to the Egyptians. To increase the availability of opium and to decrease its cost, many countries began growing and processing it. Opium cultivation spread through Asia along the Silk Road and then to China, where in the mid-1800s, it became the catalyst for the Opium Wars.
The long journey of heroin to drug addicts of today started when opium poppy seeds were first planted. Mainly, impoverished farmers grow opium on small plots in some of the world's remote regions. Opium thrives in warm, dry climates. Most of the opium is grown across the mountainous stretch that extends from Turkey through Burma. Recently, farmers in Latin America, especially Colombia and Mexico have also started growing opium poppy.
The British had a great desire for Chinese produced tea, and they started smuggling opium from India to China to fund their desire. As a result, the rate of opium addiction soared among the Chinese, and in the mid-1800s, this led to the Opium Wars. Although it is believed that the Chinese had always smoked opium, but for the first 1000 years, they would actually drink it. Opium was brought to American by Chinese immigrants.
It was back in 1842 that Britain won the Opium War. However, the Chinese government had never really complied with the surrender treaty's ambiguous terms. In 1856, this caused hostilities to resume once again over an incident that was very similar to the one that had been the catalyst for the first Opium War. Finally in 1860, the Chinese government admitted defeat.
To buy and sell opium, specific sites known as opium dens were built. Commonly, opium dens were found in China, parts of Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Chinese immigrants brought the habit of opium smoking to the United States when they came to work for the Gold Rush and railroads in the mid 1800s. Opium dens spread to New York after springing up in Chinatown in San Francisco.
Ancient and Roman physicians considered opium a power pain reliever. It was also used for bowel relief and to induce sleep. It was also believed that opium could protect an user from poisoning. Even the pleasurable effects of opium were noted. Codeine, heroin, morphine and oxycodone are among the many medical derivatives of opium.
Morphine was first extracted from opium in 1803. Morphine is ten times more potent than processed opium. In the mid-1800s, physicians prescribed it as a miracle drug. Morphine is still considered one of the most effective drugs for severe pain relief.
Codeine is also a component of opium that is medically prescribed for cough suppression and moderate pain relief. It is taken orally and its pain-killing ability is less than morphine. It is also found in liquid preparations.
It was in 1874, when heroin was first synthesized from morphine. Then in 1898, it was introduced for medical use by the German Bayer Company. By 1903, the rate of heroin addiction in the United States had risen to alarming levels. In 1924, federal law made all use of heroin illegal.
Thebaine is a component of opium from which oxycodone is synthesized. It is taken orally for pain relief. Opium or oxycodone addicts usually crush and snort tablets, or dissolve them in water and inject it.
As the 20th century started, laws were created in a majority of countries, banning the use of opium. There were numerous reasons why opium was banned in the United States, mainly rising levels of addiction. However, at the federal level, opium use was also banned because the government wanted to gain access to China's lucrative markets.On the surface it might seem like opium is profoundly invisible but the drug users continue to abuse its many derivatives. In fact, opium is still available in areas close to where opium poppy is grown.