Cannabis, Coca, & Poppy:
Nature’s Addictive Plants

History

Poppy flower

The Origins of Opium

The earliest reference to opium growth and use is in 3,400 B.C. when the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia). The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil, the "joy plant." The Sumerians soon passed it on to the Assyrians, who in turn passed it on to the Egyptians. As people learned of the power of opium, demand for it increased. Many countries began to grow and process opium to expand its availability and to decrease its cost. Its cultivation spread along the Silk Road, from the Mediterranean through Asia and finally to China where it was the catalyst for the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s.

Farmer harvesting poppies

From Seed to Sale

Today, heroin’s long journey to drug addicts begins with the planting of opium poppy seeds. Opium is grown mainly by impoverished farmers on small plots in remote regions of the world. It flourishes in dry, warm climates and the vast majority of opium poppies are grown in a narrow, 4,500-mile stretch of mountains extending across central Asia from Turkey through Pakistan and Burma. Recently, opium has been grown in Latin America, notably Colombia and Mexico. The farmer takes his crop of opium to the nearest village where he will sell it to the dealer who offers him the best price.

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The Silk Road

The Silk Road is an 18th-century term for a series of interconnected routes that ran from Europe to China. These trade routes developed between the empires of Persia and Syria on the Mediterranean coast and the Indian kingdoms of the East. By the late Middle Ages the routes extended from Italy in the West to China in the East and to Scandinavia in the North. Opium was one of the products traded along the Silk Road.

Opium wars in the mid-1800s

Opium Wars

In order to fund their ever-increasing desire for Chinese produced tea, Britain, through their control of the East India Company, began smuggling Indian opium to China. This resulted in a soaring addiction rate among the Chinese and led to the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. Subsequent Chinese immigration to work on the railroads and the gold rush brought opium smoking to America.

Opium den mid-1800s

Opium Dens

Opium dens were established as sites to buy and sell opium. Dens were commonly found in China, Southeast Asia, the United States, and parts of Europe. Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the Mid-1800s to work for railroads and the Gold Rush and brought the habit of opium smoking with them. Opium dens sprang up in San Francisco's Chinatown and spread eastward to New York.

Chinese antique opium pipe set, ca. 1821

Chinese Style Opium Pipes

This antique opium pipe set, ca. 1821, highlights the exquisite details that could be afforded by rich Chinese opium smokers.

Opium smoking equipment

Opium Smoking Equipment

In addition to the traditional pipe, opium smokers could also use a lamp for heating the opium as well as various tools to manipulate the gummy substance.

Scales and the elephant-shaped gold weights

Weights and Scales

These scales and the elephant-shaped gold weights were used to accurately measure opium for sale.

Medical Use

Opium plant anatamy illustration

Opium-An Ancient Medicine

Opium was known to ancient Greek and Roman physicians as a powerful pain reliever. It was also used to induce sleep and to give relief to the bowels. Opium was even thought to protect the user from being poisoned. Its pleasurable effects were also noted. The trading and production of opium spread from the Mediterranean to China by the 15th century. Opium has many derivatives, including morphine, codeine, oxycodone, and heroin. Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé.

Morphine

Morphine

In 1803, morphine, the principal ingredient in opium, was extracted from opium resin. Morphine is ten times more powerful than processed opium, quantity for quantity. Hailed as a miracle drug, it was widely prescribed by physicians in the mid-1800s. Morphine is one of the most effective drugs known for the relief of severe pain and remains the standard against which new pain relievers are measured.

Codeine

Codeine

Codeine, another component of opium, is medically prescribed for the relief of moderate pain and cough suppression. It has less pain-killing ability than morphine and is usually taken orally. As a cough suppressant, it is found in a number of liquid preparations.

Heroin

Heroin

First synthesized from morphine in 1874, the Bayer Company of Germany introduced heroin for medical use in 1898. Physicians remained unaware of its addiction potential for years, but by 1903, heroin abuse had risen to alarming levels in the United States. All use of heroin was made illegal by federal law in 1924.

Oxycodone

Oxycodone

Oxycodone is synthesized from thebaine, a third component of opium. Like morphine, it is used for pain relief. Oxycodone is taken orally. When abused, the tablets are crushed and snorted, or dissolved in water and injected.

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Opium: A Schedule II Drug

Oxycodone is synthesized from thebaine, a third component of opium. Like morphine, it is used for pain relief. Oxycodone is taken orally. When abused, the tablets are crushed and snorted, or dissolved in water and injected.

Current Medical Use

Opium (and the majority of its derivatives, with the exception of heroin which is Schedule I), is listed as a Schedule II controlled substance because of its medical benefit but potential for abuse. However, various opium derivatives manufactured in combination with other medical substances (like Tylenol with Codeine) may be assigned to Schedule III, IV, or V under the Controlled Substances Act

Forms

Poppies as Food

Besides being used for drug manufacturing, the poppy is also the source of poppy seeds which are greatly prized as a food source. Items such as poppy seed bagels and lemon poppy seed cake are sought after for their delicious flavors.

Poppy seeds

Poppy Seeds for Cooking

Poppy seeds for use in cooking can be purchased at local markets. The majority of poppy seeds used for food come from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Although these seeds do have opium content, the amount used for cooking purposes is extremely small. Consumption of poppy seeds can produce a positive result on drug tests.

Poppy garden

Poppies for the Garden

Poppy flowers come in a variety of colors and are prized for the beauty they bring to the landscape. In several states, various species of poppies are planted along the sides of highways for erosion control, for example, the red corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas). Although the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has the highest concentration of narcotics, all poppies in the Papaver genus do contain some amount of narcotic.

Poppy seed perennial packets

Growing Poppies

Poppy seed packets can be purchased at many local shops that sell gardening supplies.