Caroline Jean Acker Revised by Sheigla Murphy

OPIUM The milky juice derived from the unripe seed capsules of the poppy plant Papaver som-niferum is called opium. This material, which dries to a brownish gum contains a large number of alkaloid compounds. These ALKALOIDS can be categorized into two major groups—the ben-zylisoquinolines and the phenanthrenes. The phen-anthrene group includes the OPIOIDS, the most important of which is MORPHINE, which constitutes approximately 10 percent of opium. CODEINE is present in far smaller quantities, at 0.5 percent, and thebaine is only 0.2 percent. Both morphine and codeine can be extracted from opium and each crystallized to yield pure compounds. Virtually all morphine is derived from opium, since to synthesize it is complex and expensive. Although morphine and codeine have been used extensively in the clinical treatment of PAIN, thebaine is equally important—it is the starting material for the synthesis of many semi-synthetic opioid analgesics (painkillers). Of these, the most widely used include oxymorphone, oxycodone, and naloxone. Thebaine, itself, has no opioidlike effects.

Opium has a long history of use and abuse. It was initially used for the treatment of diarrhea and then for the relief of pain. Today, opium still has a number of medicinal uses, primarily as tincture of opium, a concentrated alcoholic extract of opium. Although this is occasionally used for extreme diarrhea, most physicians prescribe paregoric, a camphorated opium-tincture preparation containing approximately 0.4 milligrams per milliliter of morphine in 45 percent alcohol. The concentration of morphine in paregoric is far smaller than in opium tincture, so doses are adjusted accordingly. Doses that effectively treat diarrhea typically do not cause

Figure 1

Opium Poppy and Pod

Figure 1

Opium Poppy and Pod euphoria or analgesia—however, excessive doses can be abused and can lead to dependence.

History. The plant grows wild in the Middle East—especially in the Turkish plateau region— and has been known and used since antiquity. Opium was introduced into India by Arab traders of the thirteenth century. By the seventeenth century, along with the spread of TOBACCO use, the Chinese had devised a method of smoking opium— using small sticky balls of opium gum in opium pipes. It is said that by 1900, about 25 percent of the Chinese smoked opium, although it was banned by the emperor. This high level of use was the result of the British East India Company's practice, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, of shipping opium to China from their conquered lands around Bengal (1750)—one of the major opium-producing areas of the subcontinent. Export of opium to China helped balance the company's trade deficit, caused by tea purchases. After 1780, opium was produced as a monopoly by the company.

China was at that time basically closed to all kinds of outside trade, except for certain port cities, where special concessions were granted by the emperor. Indian opium was auctioned to British traders in Calcutta, who carried it to Southeast Asia and China, often by way of shippers and smugglers off the South China coast and the islands there, including Hong Kong. British concern for the security of their opium trade led to the colonization of Malaysia and Singapore and, eventually, to the Opium War of 1840-1843, with China, where the emperor's troops were outmaneuvered. The series of treaties that ended that conflict ''opened'' China to trade with the West and to European political and economic domination.

Suppression of the trade began with the concerns of Protestant missionaries and physicians in China—which outweighed the concerns of the emperor for keeping his people producing for him, not enslaved by opium dreams. International bodies were formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to restrict the opium trade, but the British refused to move toward any kind of regulation until 1905. The international conferences and conventions of 1909, 1915, and 1930 led to the restriction and prohibition of traffic in opium and opium derivatives —morphine, codeine, and heroin.

In the United States, opium abuse is not anywhere near the problem of HEROIN abuse, as of the early 1990s. Opium smoking and opium eating are the two major forms of abuse. Some immigrants to the United States have brought these customs with them, but on a small scale. When smoked, opium is prepared by heating it over a flame until a small ball of roasted opium gum is formed. The ball is then pushed into a pipe, where it is held over either a flame or a coal and smoked. Opium eating is widely practiced in India and in other countries where the opium poppy is cultivated—Turkey, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and so on. It is used as a household remedy for pain and other ailments, much as it has been for hundreds of years. Approximately 50 percent of opium eaters in India, for example, use it for medicinal purposes, taken as a pill or as a solution.

While the legitimate opium trade had slowed by the 1930s, illegal production continued in several places. In Southeast Asia, colonial governments drew revenues from opium monopolies until 1942, when the invading Japanese suppressed it during World War II. With the victory of the Communists in China in 1949-50, steps were taken to eradicate the growing of opium and its use. By 1960, opium production was confined to a few isolated areas of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. During the VIETNAM War, various tribal peoples were encouraged to grow opium by a number of politically motivated groups, resulting in the establishment of the GOLDEN Triangle as one of the major centers of illegal opium production.

(SEE ALSO: Asia, Drug Use in; Shanghai Opium Conference)


Embree, A. T. (Ed.). (1988). Encyclopedia of Asian history. New York: Scribners.

Fay, Peter W. (1976). Opium war, 1840-1842. New York: Norton.

Jaffe, J. H., & MARTIN, W. R. (1990). Opioid analgesics and antagonists. In A. G. Gilman et al. (Eds.). Goodman and Gilman's the pharmacological basis of therapeutics, 8th ed. New York: Pergamon.

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