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Opium, or opïum is a narcotic analgesic drug which is obtained from the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L. or the synonym paeoniflorum).
Depiction of opium smokers in an "opium den" in the East End of London, 1874.
Depiction of opium smokers in an "opium den" in the East End of London, 1874.


Harvesting opium

To harvest opium, the skin of the ripening pods is scored by a sharp blade. The slashes exude a white, milky latex, which dries to a sticky brown resin that is scraped off the pods as raw opium.

Harvesting opium.
Harvesting opium.

Opium has powerful narcotic properties. Its constituents and derivatives are used as painkillers. Therefore, legal opium production is allowed under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and other international drug treaties, subject to strict supervision by the law enforcement agencies of individual countries. The leading legal producer of opium is India, which is also the only place on earth where opium is still legally harvested by the traditional method of incising the pods. Other important national cultivators of opium poppies for the pharmaceutical industry are Tasmania [1] in Australia, and France. Several other countries cultivate the poppy to satisfy the demand of their domestic pharmaceutical companies, but not for export. However, it is not strictly true to say that these nations produce opium. They cultivate Papaver somniferum, but the alkaloids are collected via the Gregory process, whereby the entire poppy, excluding roots and leaves, is mashed and stewed in dilute acid solutions. The alkaloids are then recovered via Acid/Base extraction and purified. This process was developed in the UK during World War II, when wartime shortages of many essential drugs encouraged innovation in pharmaceutical processing. The French company Francopia produces 20% to 25% of the world's total requirement for legal opioids, with total sales of approximately €60 million. The UN treaty requires that every country submit annual reports to the International Narcotics Control Board, stating that year's actual consumption of many classes of controlled drugs as well as opioids, and projecting required quantities for the next year. This is to allow trends in consumption to be monitored, and production quotas allotted. The market for export of controlled drugs is fixed by regulation, in part due to the discovery in the 1930's that huge amounts of opioids had been diverted from the legal pharmaceutical market to the black market via a complex web of front companies and forged declarations. The main participants at that time were Swiss pharmaceutical producers and brokers, and the military regime in pre-World War 2 Japan, who claimed to be consuming thousands of tonnes of opium, morphine and heroin. The products were in fact transported to China, where opium was directly used as part of the Japanese policy of annexation of Manchuria, and other aggression against China.

A recent proposal from the European Senlis Council hopes to solve the problems caused by the massive quantity of opium produced illegally in Afghanistan, most of which is converted to heroin, and smuggled for sale in Europe and the USA. This proposal is to licence Afghan farmers to produce opium for the world pharmaceutical market, and thereby solve another problem, that of chronic underuse of potent analgesics where required within developing nations. In the industrialised world the USA is the world's biggest consumer of prescription opioids, with Italy one of the lowest. The Italian medical profession seems to have recently accepted that opioids have applications apart from pain relief in terminal cancer. Recorded Italian consumption has increased considerably of late.

To this end Senlis arranged a conference in Kabul, to discuss the idea, but it remains to be seen if this will happen; internal security and corruption issues within Afghanistan make it unlikely that they soon will be able to meet the stringent UN requirements for legal production of opioids for export. If the record of CIA interference with attempts to "buy and burn" illicit Burmese opium harvests in the past is considered (McCoy, 1991), Afghanistan's opium may be a major part of current War on Drugs policies for some time.

Opium preparation

Raw opium must be processed and refined (called "cooking") before it is suitable for smoking. The raw opium is first dissolved in water and simmered over a low heat. The brown solution is then filtered to remove the vegetable matter, soil, insect material, and other contaminants along with the polysacharrides, lipids and waxes that are components of the poppy pod. The filtrate is then evaporated slowly over a low heat. The result is a smokable form of opium with a considerably higher morphine content percentage-wise than the raw latex. This is then pressed into bricks and either transported to heroin laboratories or used as is.

The smoking of opium does not involve the pyrolysis of the material as might be imagined. Rather the prepared opium is indirectly heated to temperatures at which the active alkaloids, chiefly morphine, are vaporized. In the past smokers would lie down with specially designed pipes which had long stems and a metallic receptacle. A small amount of opium up to the size of a pea would be placed in the receptacle and the material heated indirectly by means of a candle or lamp. The smoker would lie on his or her side and inhale the vaporized morphine as needed. The pipe was commonly designed in a rounded cross section, so as to enable the metallic receptacle to be rotated into the heat source and then rest back upright as required. The pea sized material could be sufficient for up to an hour of intermittent use.

Opium is more traditionally used in the form of paregoric to treat diarrhea. It was also used in the form of laudanum, an alcoholic tincture which was commonly used as a pain medication. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is famously known to have composed his incomplete poem Kubla Khan while intoxicated with laudanum.

Most opium imported into the United States is broken down into its alkaloid constituents. These alkaloids are divided into two distinct chemical classes, phenanthrenes and isoquinolines. The principal phenanthrenes are morphine, codeine, and thebaine, while the isoquinolines have no significant central nervous system effects and are not regulated under the Controlled Substances Act. Opium is also processed into heroin, and most current drug use occurs with processed derivatives rather than with raw opium.

Seed capsules

The seed capsules also contain morphine, codeine, and other alkaloids. These pods can be steeped in water to produce a bitter tea that induces a long-lasting intoxication.

Chemical properties and physiological effects

Opium resin contains two groups of alkaloids: phenanthrenes (including morphine and codeine) and benzylisoquinolines (including papaverine). Morphine is by far the most prevalent and important alkaloid in opium, consisting of 10%-16% of the total. It binds to and activates μ-opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, stomach and intestine. Regular use leads to physical tolerance and possibly dependence. Various degrees of psychological addiction can occur, though this is relatively rare when opioids are used for treatment of pain, rather than for euphoric effects. These mechanisms result from changes in nervous system receptors in response to the drug. In response to the drug, the brain creates new receptors for opioids. These receptors are "pseudo" receptors and do not work. When the opioids are out of the body, the brain has the same amount of endogenous opioid (endorphins) to fill these receptors, but less of the functional receptors and more non-functional ones. Abstaining from the drug for a time allows the brain to replace the pseudo receptors with functioning ones (a gradual process).

Production today

Since being largely outlawed, the production of opium has significantly decreased around the world, despite an increasing demand. Opium is still being produced today legally for medicine. Afghanistan is currently the number one producer of the drug. During Taliban rule, the production of opium significantly decreased to 74 metric tons per year, but after the toppling of the Taliban by the Northern Alliance with foreign support in 2001, production has increased again. Opium exports make up a very large portion of Afghanistan's GDP, alongside natural gas and agriculture. According to DEA statistics, Afghanistan's production of oven-dried opium increased to 1,278 metric tons in 2002 shortly after the U.S. led invasion. Recent DEA statistics say that production more than doubled by 2003, and nearly doubled again during 2004. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime predicted a 6,100 tonne harvest of opium in year 2006 alone, and considers Afghanistan accountable for 92% [2] of the world's opium supply. In late 2004, the CIA estimated that 206,000 hectares were under poppy cultivation and that the new crop would generate 7 billion dollars worth of heroin. "There is no other country in the world that has 206,000 hectares under cultivation of any drug," said King Charles.

Besides Afghanistan, smaller quantities of opium are produced in Pakistan, the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia (particularly Myanmar), Colombia and Mexico. Opium is typically not transported and sold raw. Instead, specialized chemical factories are used to convert it into heroin - a much more potent and compact form of the drug. [3] [4]

History of opium

Ancient usage

Opium crop from the Malwa region of India
Opium crop from the Malwa region of India

The image of the poppy capsule was an attribute of deities, long before opium was extracted from its milky latex. At the Metropolitan Museum's Assyrian relief gallery, a winged deity in a bas-relief from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, dedicated in 879 BC, bears a bouquet of poppy capsules on long stems, described by the museum as "pomegranates".

Modern usage

Until the practice of smoking was introduced to Europe and Asia after tobacco smoking in the Americas was observed and copied, opium was mostly either eaten or drunk. An early form of opium smoking involved the consumption of madak, a blend of tobacco and opium that became common in Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 19th century, in part because of a ban on madak in China, smoking of pure opium became more common. By this time, opium use had become widespread across much of the world, although consumption patterns and routes of administration varied.

Beginning with territorial conquest in India (in 1757), the British East India Company pursued a monopoly on opium production and export in India. This was met with varying degrees of success, but had a serious impact on the peasant cultivators (ryots) who were often coerced or offered cash advances on their crops to encourage cultivation. This was something that was not done for any other crops, save for indigo. The product was sold by the chest in auctions in Calcutta and then smuggled into China. The East India Company used the profit to purchase teas which was in high demand in Britain.

Due to the growing British demand for Chinese tea, and the Chinese refusal to accept payment other than silver bullion, the British sought to substitute another commodity for which China was not self sufficient to alleviate the silver drain, which was beginning to cause a burden on the British economy. Opium was sucessfully used by the British traders to replace silver in exchange for Chinese tea for a period of decades. Many Chinese became addicted to opium, wreaking havoc among much of China's population. In response, the Imperial Qin dynasty halted the import of opium, demanding silver be traded instead. This response led to the Opium Wars, the British not willing to replace the cheap opium with costly silver. The first opium war led to Britain seizing Hong Kong and to what the Chinese term the "century of shame". This illegal trade became one of the world's most valuable single commodity trades and was described by the eminent Harvard University historian John K. Fairbank as a heroin. Many large American fortunes were built in the opium trade, including those of John Jacob Astor (partially and briefly), John Kerry (from his Forbes grandfather), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (from his Delano grandfather). Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is one of the first literary accounts of opium addiction written from the point of view of an addict, in the early 1820s. Later, Opium smoking became associated with immigrant Chinese communities around the world, with "opium dens" becoming notorious fixtures of many Chinatowns.

Modern prohibition

There were no legal restrictions on the importation or use of opium in the United States until a San Francisco, California ordinance which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens in 1875. The Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 prohibited its importation. Other important legislation included the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. Before this time, medicines often contained opium without any warning label. U.S president William Henry Harrison was treated with opium in 1841. Countless miracle cures contained opium, which of course was the reason many of these were so successful, since people started taking these cures because they made them feel good. Opium was even touted as an alcoholism cure, evidently to the wives of alcoholics. This would be because an opium addict, capable of supporting his habit on about 5 cents a day, would likely be a more suitable companion for a wife—being placid and calm, mostly—than an alcoholic husband. Today, there are numerous national and international laws governing the production and distribution of narcotic substances. In particular, Article 23 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs requires opium-producing nations to designate a government agency to take physical possession of licit opium crops as soon as possible after harvest and conduct all wholesaling and exporting through that agency. Opium's pharmaceutical use is strictly controlled worldwide and non-pharmaceutical uses are generally prohibited.

Opium poppies are popular and attractive garden plants, whose flowers vary greatly in colour, size and form. A modest amount of domestic cultivation in private gardens is not usually subject to legal controls. The dried seed cases are often used for decorations, and the small seeds themselves—which contain negligible amounts of any opioid alkaloids—are a common and flavoursome topping for breads and cakes.

Medicinal uses

Opium has been a major item of trade for centuries, and has long been used as a painkiller and sedative. It was well known to the Ancient Macedonians, who named it opium (opi = drunken, um = mind). Many patent medicines of the 19th century were based around laudanum (known as "tincture of opium", a solution of opium in ethyl alcohol). As a result of this substance being branded a miracle cure for many common illnesses (ranging from colds to alcoholism), the substance developed a very large number of addicts at the time. Fortunately for these addicts, they did not lose their jobs or much of their respectability as a result of this, and an opium addiction was considered more similar to a gambling or alcohol addiction. Also, since a man could remain an opium addict on 5 cents a day, it did not cause undue financial strain, and therefore no damage to the person was caused that one living under an 'addict' lifestyle in the modern sense would risk suffering. Tincture of opium is prescribed in modern times, among other reasons, for ongoing, severe diarrhea caused, for example, by the creation of an ileostomy. A 10% tincture of opium solution (10% opium, 90% ethyl alcohol) taken 30 minutes prior to meals will significantly slow intestinal motility, giving the intestines greater time to absorb fluid in the stool.


There is a rich and longstanding literature by and about opium users. Perhaps the most famous work of this kind is Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a work which details both the pleasures and the dangers of the drug. Other works from nineteenth century Britain include "The Lotos-Eaters" by Alfred Lord Tennyson and (some would argue) Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, which depicts thinly-veiled experiences of addiction and withdrawal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" is also widely considered to be a poem of the opium experience. In the twentieth century Aldous Huxley wrote about the experience of opium. In 1957 the physician Douglas Hubble wrote an article called "Opium Addiction and English Literature" that chronicles the use of opium by prominent English writers, and its influence on their works [5]. The sleep-inducing properties of opium are presented in the book and subsequent movie, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. At one point in the story, Dorothy and her friends are drawn by the wicked witch into a field of poppies, in which they fall asleep.

See also


Home | Up | Mu-opioid agonists | Natural opium alkaloids | Semisynthetic opioids | Synthetic opioids - Anileridine | Dextropropoxyphene | Endorphins | Fentanyl | Hydrocodone | Laudanum | Methadone | Narcotic | Opium | Pethidine | Tramadol

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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