Opium

OPIUM is a drug obtained from the juice of the immature seed pods of the oriental poppy, Papaver somniferum. There are over 20 natural alkaloids of opium, including CODEINE and MORPHINE. Morphine is the largest component and it contributes most significantly to opium's physiological effects. HEROIN (diacetylmorphine) was derived from morphine and is the most important drug synthesized from opium's natural alkaloids. As a folk medicine, opium has been used to relieve pain, reduce such drives as hunger and thirst, induce sleep, and ease anxiety and depression. Opium and some of its derivatives are highly addictive, and their use has led to abuse and serious drug problems. Drugs from opium or derived from opium are still used widely in medicine, despite the development of synthetic opioid drugs such as MEPERIDINE (Demerol). The therapeutic effects of the opioids include PAIN relief, suppression of the cough reflex, slowing of respiration, and slowing of the action of the gastrointestinal tract. Opium's constipating effect led to its initial use, in the form of paregoric, in treating diarrheas and dysenteries. The main producers and exporters of opium are located in India and Turkey. About 750 tons (680 metric tons) of opium are annually needed to meet medical uses worldwide.

Opioids have been used since ancient times, both for medicinal purposes and for pleasure. Opium was taken orally, as a pill or added to beverages, for centuries in the Middle East, India, and Asia. Addiction did not become a wide problem until the practice of opium smoking was introduced by the British from India into China in the late seventeenth century (in an effort to gain a trade opening to the ''closed'' empire of China). China attempted to deal with the problem by restricting the cultivation and importation of opium in the nineteenth century. This led to the Opium Wars (1839-1842), since the opium trade became highly profitable to the British East India Company. Britain won over China, and opium was sold to the Chinese through treaty ports until the twentieth century.

In Europe and North America in the eighteenth century, opioids became widely used as most effective and reliable analgesics (painkillers). Heroin was developed in Germany in the 1890s and used from 1898 as a cough suppresser and analgesic with the hope that it would not lead to addiction, as did morphine (from which it was derived). From the first year or two after introduction, some clinicians agreed that it did not show addictive properties. A few even suggested that it might be useful in treating people addicted to morphine. Within a few years it became clear that, like morphine, its use could lead to addiction comparable in gravity to that of morphine.

On the street, opium is seen as a dark brown chunk of gum (from the pod of the opium poppy) or in dried powdered form. It is smoked, eaten, and drunk or injected as a solution for medicinal and recreational purposes. Indian and Chinese immigrants brought the practices with them, but the number of users is not great. During the early phases of addiction, opium produces a feeling of euphoria or well-being. With time, one may become dependent through physical and emotional factors. Tolerance develops and larger and larger doses of the drug are required to produce the same effect. If denied access to the drug, an addict will experience severe withdrawal symptoms; sudden withdrawal in a heavily dependent person has occasionally been fatal.

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