History of Opium

Opium - Drug Abuse and Addiction

Opium is derived from the juice of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Fossilised poppy seeds have been found dating back as far as 30,000 years but the first known written reference appears in a Sumarian text going back to 4,000BC, referring to it as Hul Gil ­ the "joy plant."

Since then it has had a turbulent ride through ancient civilisations, trade and opium wars, medicine and addiction.

Images of poppy are quite common in pictures from ancient civilisations such as the Roman and Egyptians. The Greek and Roman gods of sleep, Hypnos and Somnos are always depicted wearing or carrying poppies.

The Egyptians used it as a remedy for pain and a relaxant and it soon became common in street markets in both Rome and Egypt . An opium trade grew and profitable routes were opened across the Mediterranean . By the eighth century AD its popularity had spread to Asia . The Chinese in particular treated opium as a social drug while the Arabs became experts in trade.

Opium History Continued...

Opium lost popularity in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries thanks to the god fearing Inquisitions which regarded its relaxant effect as a tool of the devil! However in the 16th century it enjoyed a comeback when the Portuguese discovered that smoking opium produced an instant effect.

Several years later Laudanum was introduced by physician Bombastus von Hohenheim, by extracting opium into brandy. The cure to all ails was introduced. Mothers used it to calm their crying children; doctors used it from anything to reliveing pain to supressing coughs.

But war was brewing. Opium was the main trade between Britain and China since 1600s The East India Company had enjoyed unchallenged access to trade in the Far East despite protestations from the Chinese. When the Chinese confiscated 20,000 crates of opium from British warehouses in Canton war broke out.

The Chinese lost and were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 when they agreed to pay the British a large settlement to allow the trade to continue while opening five new ports to foreign trade and giving Hong Kong to Britain.

The opium trade continued with both the Americans and the French shipping the drug. But in 1856 Britain and China fought the second opium war over western demands to increase trade. The Chinese were again defeated and signed the treaty of Tientsin . Trade in the drug almost doubled over the following 20 years.

Opiate abuse increased in the mid 1800s, with the Chinese opening opium dens in both Europe and America . Following the American Civil War in 1866, when soldiers were given morphine - a derivative of opium discovered in 1805 and almost 10 times as potent - intravenously for their injuries, thousands of new addicts were created.

Soon governments around the world were desperate to halt non-medical use of opium. And an alternative was found ­ or so it seemed at the time. Heinrich Dreser, who worked for pharmaceutical company Bayer, began to manufacture heroin, and a "non addictive" alternative to morphine. It was soon being prescribed for hay fever, whooping cough and chest infections.

The rest, as they say is history. Opium derivatives morphine and codeine are still widely used medically and under controlled conditions, for pain relief. But is its notorious offspring heroin that now hits the headlines.


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