Opium

opium, substance derived by collecting and drying the milky juice in the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Opium varies in color from yellow to dark brown and has a characteristic odor and a bitter taste. Its chief active principle is the alkaloid morphine, a narcotic. Other constituents are the alkaloids codeine, papaverine, and noscapine (narcotine); heroin is synthesized from morphine. Morphine, heroin, and codeine are addicting drugs; papaverine and noscapine are not. A tincture of opium is called laudanum; paregoric is a mixture of opium, alcohol, and camphor.

Effects and Addictive Nature

Opium and its various constituents exert effects upon the body ranging from analgesia, or insensitivity to pain, to narcosis, or depressed physiological activity leading to stupor. Opium users describe experiencing a feeling of calm and well-being. Opium addicts in otherwise good physical and mental health whose drug needs are met are thought to experience no debilitating physiological effects from their addiction, although there is some evidence that immune function is compromised. However, their preoccupation with the drug and its acquisition can lead to malnutrition and general poor self-care and an increased risk of disease.

Medical Uses

Opium was commonly used as an analgesic until the development of morphine. Morphine continues to be prescribed for relief of severe pain, but fears of its addictive potential have limited its use. Laudanum was used in the 1800s to promote sleep and alleviate pain; codeine suppresses coughing; paregoric stops diarrhea. Medicinal opiates were freely available in the United States and Europe in the 19th cent., and the number of addicted people surged as a result.

History

The medicinal properties of opium have been known from the earliest times, and it was used as a narcotic in Sumerian and European cultures at least as early as 4000 BC The drug was introduced into India by the Muslims and its use spread to China. Early in the 19th cent., against Chinese prohibitions, British merchants began smuggling opium into China in order to balance their purchases of tea for export to Britain, an act that set the stage for the Opium Wars. Chinese emigrants to the United States, who were employed to build the transcontinental railroad, brought the opium-smoking habit to the West Coast.

During the 19th cent. opium was grown in the United States as well as imported. Besides indiscriminate medical use, opiates were available in the United States in myriad tonics and patent medicines, and smoking in opium dens was unhindered, resulting in an epidemic of opiate addiction by the late 1800s. The generous use of morphine in treating wounded soldiers during the Civil War also produced many addicts.

Importation of opium by Chinese nationals was prohibited in 1887; in 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act required accurate labeling of patent medicines. The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 taxed and regulated the sale of narcotics and prohibited giving maintenance doses to addicts who made no effort to recover, leading to the arrest of some physicians and the closing of maintenance-treatment clinics. Since then, numerous laws attempting to regulate importation, availability, use, and treatment have been passed, and the concern with opium addiction per se has largely been replaced by concern with heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and other illegal drugs.

Large quantities of opium are still grown, some for legitimate use, on opium poppy farms in Southwest Asia (primarily Afghanistan and Pakistan), Southeast Asia (the "Golden Triangle," primarily in Myanmar), and Latin America (primarily Colombia); the vast majority of the world's opium is currently produced in Afghanistan. The opium gum may be crudely refined and smoked (e.g., "brown sugar" ) or converted to morphine and heroin. Growers usually make more for opium than for other crops, and the cultivation and refining employ hundreds of thousands of people, but the real profits go to the drug traffickers. It is estimated that the street price for heroin is 153 to 183 times that of the opium bought from the farmer. Despite laws and agreements to control its use, a worldwide illicit opium traffic persists.

See also drug addiction and drug abuse.

Bibliography

See publications of the Drugs & Crime Data Center and Clearinghouse, the Bureau of Justice Statistics Clearinghouse, and the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information; M. Booth, Opium: A History (1996); P.-A. Chouvy, Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954
William O. Walker III.
University of North Carolina Press, 1991
Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952
Timothy Brook; Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi.
University of California Press, 2000
Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America
David T. Courtwright.
Harvard University Press, 2001
The Control of Fuddle and Flash: A Sociological History of the Regulation of Alcohol and Opiates
Jan-Willem Gerritsen.
Brill, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Four "The Colonial Opium Trade"
Drugs in America: A Social History, 1800-1980
H. Wayne Morgan.
Syracuse University Press, 1982
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Habitues: The Nineteenth Century"
Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics
Curtis Marez.
University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Opium"
Opium and the Beginnings of Chinese Capitalism in Southeast Asia
Trocki, Carl A.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, June 2002
Drugs in South Asia: From the Opium Trade to the Present Day
M. Emdad-Ul Haq.
Macmillan, 2000
Drugs and Drug Policy in America: A Documentary History
Steven R. Belenko.
Greenwood Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Part I "American Drug Policy in the 19th Century"
Afghan Poppies Bloom: The War-Ravaged, Opium-Dependent Country Lives in Fear of a New Drug War
Parenti, Christian.
The Nation, Vol. 280, No. 3, January 24, 2005
The Wars of the Poppies; Leslie Marchant Sees the Opium Wars as a Philosophical Clash between Two Cultures and Two Notions of Government and Society
Marchant, Leslie.
History Today, Vol. 52, No. 5, May 2002
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