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Opium 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.

==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.

Opium has powerful narcotic properties. Its constituents and derivatives are used as painkillers in extreme circumstances, such as in terminal stages of cancer. Therefore, a small amount of legal production is discreetly conducted under strict supervision by law enforcement. The leading legal producers of opium are France and Australia. The French company Francopia produces 20% to 25% of the world's total, with total sales of approximately 60 million (1 Euro (EUR) = 1.2085 Dollar (USD)).

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 insoluble vegetable waxes and then evaporated 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.

Although opium is used in the form of paregoric to treat diarrhea, 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 boiled 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, even for a few days, invariably leads to physical tolerance and 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 opiates. These receptors are "pseudo" receptors and do not work. When the opiates are out of the body, the brain has more receptors than before the use of the drug, but only the same amount of endogenous opiate (endorphins) to fill these receptors.

Production Today

Since being universally outlawed, the production of opium significantly decresed around the world, despite an increasing demand. Opium is still being produced today legally for medicine. Afghanistan is the number one producer of opium, accounting by itself for a majority of world production. During Taliban rule, the production of opium significantly decreased 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.

History of opium

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".

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.

In the 19th century, the smuggling of opium to China from India, particularly by the British, was the cause of the Opium Wars. It 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 "the most long continued and systematic international crime of modern times."

Opium can be smoked, sometimes in combination with tobacco, but a high temperature is required to vaporise the alkaloids, so special opium pipes with spherical porcelain 'bowls' are traditionally used. A small blob of opium is stuck near the hole in the pipe 'bowl' - it is a very gummy substance and adheres without difficulty. The smoker — reclining beside a small burner — blows through the pipe onto a piece of glowing charcoal to increase the heat it gives off. When the opium starts to vaporise, the smoker begins to inhale. Another common smoking technique is to vaporise the stuff on a piece of metal foil, heated from below with a cigarette lighter. The vapor is then inhaled through a small tube. This is called 'chasing the dragon', and is also a common way of smoking the other notorious illegal opiates - morphine and heroin.

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 a sufferer, 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.

There were no legal restrictions on the importation or use of opium in the United States until 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. 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 opiate 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 Greeks, who named it opion ("poppy juice"), from which the present name—a Latinisation—is derived. Many patent medicines of the 19th century were based around laudanum (known as "tincture of opium", a solution of opium in ethyl alcohol). 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.

See also

Opium is also known as afeem and GOM (God's Own Medicine).

  • Sir Thomas Browne
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Forbes family
  • John Keats
  • Opioid
  • Opium Wars
  • Thomas de Quincey
  • Symphonie Fantastique
  • Malwa
  • Poppy tea

External links


  • Fairbank, JK. (1978) The Cambridge History of China: volume 10 part I, Cambridge, CUP
  • Franck Daninos, L'opium légal produit en France, La Recherche, May 2005
  • Hideyuki Takano; The Shore Beyond Good and Evil: A Report from Inside Burma's Opium Kingdom (2002, Kotan, ISBN 0970171617)


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