God's Own Medicine"
Sir William Osler

   Opium was also well known in Chinese antiquity. One 10th century poem celebrates how the opium poppy can be made into a drink "fit for Buddha". Ancient peoples either ate parts of the flower or converted them into liquids to drink. But by the 7th century, the Turkish and Islamic cultures of western Asia had discovered that the most powerful medicinal effects could be obtained by igniting and smoking the poppy's congealed juices; and the habit spread. The widespread use of opium in China dates to tobacco-smoking in pipes introduced by the Dutch from Java via the island of Formosa in the 17th century. Whereas Indians ordinarily ate opium, the Chinese smoked it. The Chinese mixed Indian opium with tobacco, two products traded by the Dutch. Pipe-smoking was adopted throughout the region. Predictably enough, this resulted in increased opium-smoking, both with and without tobacco. Old encrusted opium-pipes were still valuable because they contained a residue of charcoal and raw opium known as "dross". Dross could be recycled with tobacco plus various adulterants and sold to the poor. Styles of opium pipe reflected the relative wealth or poverty of their owners. Pipes ranged from bejewelled, elaborately ornamented works of art to simple constructions of clay or bamboo.

         By the late-1700s, the British East India Company controlled the prime Indian poppy-growing areas on the Ganges plain between Patna and Benares. The company dominated the Asian opium trade; but they did not create it. "Take your opium" was a standard greeting in some Indian cities even before the Europeans arrived. By 1800, however, the British East India Company had a virtual monopoly, controlling supply and setting prices. Dealers, merchants and users alike lovingly assessed the quality and potency of their merchandise with the ardour of a wine connoisseur. According to The Chinese Repository, discerning purchasers of the raw product looked for opium of...

"...moderately firm texture, capable of receiving an impression from the finger; of a dark yellow color when held in the light, but nearly black in the mass, with a strong smell, and free from grittiness..."

        Opium was already heavily used in China as a recreational drug. The Imperial Chinese court had banned its use and importation, but large quantities were still being smuggled into the country. In 1839, the Qing Emperor, Tao Kwang, ordered his minister Lin Tse-hsü to take action. Lin petitioned Queen Victoria for help; but he was ignored. In reaction, the Emperor instructed the confiscation of 20,000 barrels of opium and detained some foreign traders. The British retaliated by attacking the port-city of Canton.

Early victims of the War On Drugs. A battle-scene from the First Chinese Opium War (1839-42)  

        Thus began the First Opium War, launched by the biggest, richest  and perhaps most aggressive drug cartel the world has ever known, the British Empire. The Chinese were defeated. They were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The British required that the opium trade be allowed to continue; that the Chinese pay a large settlement and open five new ports to foreign trade; and that China cede Hong Kong to Britain.

        Peace didn't last. The Second Opium War began and ended in 1856 over western demands that opium markets be expanded. The Chinese were again defeated. In 1858, by the Treaty of Tientsin, opium importation to China was formally legalised. God-fearing British traders claimed that the hard-working Chinese were entitled to "a harmless luxury"; the opium trade in less respectable hands would be taken over by "desperadoes, pirates and marauders". Soon opium poured into China in unprecedented quantities. By the end of the nineteenth century, it has been estimated that over a quarter of the adult male Chinese population were addicted.

        In 1893, a Royal Commission on Opium was established to investigate the use of opium in the British Indian Empire. Many Protestants had begun to demonise opium; and Britain's Liberal Party hoped to see the drug banned for non-medical use. The Commission held seventy days of public hearings and called hundreds of witnesses. Its final Report ran to seven volumes totalling some 2500 pages. The Commission concluded that the use of opium in India was not a cause of "extensive moral or physical degradation." Opium was no worse than alcohol. The medical and non-medical use of opium were impossible to distinguish in practice. An effective ban would be infeasible. The Report was welcomed by an editorial published in the British medical journal The Lancet in April 1895. The Report's findings "dealt a crushing blow to the anti-opium faddists". Prohibitionist claims were "...either ridiculously exaggerated or even altogether unfounded."

        In North America, the initial history of Papaver somniferum was somewhat more peaceful than in Asia. During the first few centuries of European settlement, opium poppies were widely cultivated. Early settlers dissolved the resin in whisky to relieve coughs, aches and pains.

        The plant had further uses. Papaver somniferum produces lots of small black seeds. Poppy-seeds are an ingredient of typical bird-seed and a common garnish on rolls. Poppy-seeds can also be ground into flour; used in salad-dressings; added to sauces as flavouring or thickening-agents; and the oil can be expressed and used in cooking. Poppy-heads are infused to make a traditional sedative drink.

        Many distinguished early Americans grew Papaver somniferum. Rightly or wrongly, they would today be treated as felons. Thomas Jefferson cultivated opium poppies at his garden in Monticello. The seeds from its plants, including the poppies, were sold at the gift-shop of Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants until 1991 - when a drug-bust at the nearby University of Virginia panicked the Board of Directors into ripping up the plants and burning the seeds. The cultivation of Papaver somniferum is banned in the USA under the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. Amateur horticulturists, however, continue to value the beautiful red, yellow and white flowers as an adornment to their gardens.

        Until the nineteenth century, the only opioids used medicinally or recreationally took the form of crude opium. Opium is a complex chemical cocktail containing sugars, proteins, fats, water, meconic acid, plant wax, latex, gums, ammonia, sulphuric and lactic acids, and numerous alkaloids, most notably morphine (10%-15%), codeine (1%-3%), noscapine (4%-8%), papaverine (1%-3%), and thebaine (1%-2%). All of the latter, apart from thebaine, are used medicinally as analgesics. The opioid analgesics are of inestimable value because they reduce or abolish pain without causing a loss of consciousness. They also relieve coughs, spasms, fevers and diarrhea.

        Even thebaine, though without analgesic effect, is of immense pharmaceutical worth. This is because it can be used to produce semi-synthetic opioid morphine analogues such as oxycodone (Percodan), dihydromorphenone (Dilaudid), hydrocodone (Vicodin) and etorphine (Immobilon). Classes of morphine analogue include the diphenylpropylamines (e.g. methadone), the 4-phenylpiperidines (e.g. meperidine), the morphinans (e.g. levorphanol) and 6,7-benzomorphans (e.g. metazocine). Although seemingly structurally diverse, all these compounds either possess a piperidine ring or contain the critical part of its ring structure. Etorphine, for instance, is a very potent analogue of morphine. On one occasion a team of researchers, working in the 1960s under Professor Bentley of Macfarlan Smith and Co, drank mid-morning tea that had been stirred with a contaminated rod. They were soon laid out. The scientists had unwittingly drunk a drug later developed as etorphine. Etorphine is over 1000 times more powerful than morphine; it is used in dart-guns as Immobilon to subdue elephants and rhinos. Fortunately the scientists recovered.

        Morphine was first isolated from opium in 1805 by a German pharmacist, Wilhelm Sertürner (1783-1841). Sertürner described it as the Principium Somniferum. He named it morphium - after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Today morphine is isolated from opium in substantially larger quantities - over 1000 tons per year - although most commercial opium is converted into codeine by methylation. On the illicit market, opium gum is filtered into morphine base and then synthesized into heroin.

New York Opium Den

        Doctors had long hunted for effective ways to administer drugs without ingesting them. Taken orally, opium is liable to cause unpleasant gastric side-effects. The development of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-nineteenth century allowed the injection of pure morphine. Both in Europe and America, members of high society and middle-class professionals alike would jack up daily; poor folk couldn't afford to inject drugs. Morphinism became rampant in the USA after its extensive use by injured soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. In late nineteenth-century America, opiates were cheap, legal and abundant. In the judgement of one historian, America became "a dope fiend's paradise". Moreover it was believed that injecting morphine wasn't addictive. Quitting habitual opium use can cause malaise, flu-like symptoms, and depression; morphine seemed an excellent cure. In China, for instance, early twentieth century missionaries handed out anti-opium remedies in such profusion that the pills became known as "Jesus Opium"; their active ingredient was morphine.

         Soldiers, missionaries and patent-medicine salesmen were not alone in eulogising its properties. A leading American medical textbook (1868) revealed that opiates...

"...cause a feeling of delicious ease and comfort,
with an elevation of the whole moral and
intellectual nature...There is not the same
uncontrollable excitement as from alcohol, but an
exaltation of our better mental qualities, a warmer
glow of benevolence, a disposition to do great
things, but nobly and beneficently, a higher
devotional spirit, and withal a stronger self-reliance,
and consciousness of power. Nor is this
consciousness altogether mistaken. For the
intellectual and imaginative faculties are raised to
the highest point compatible with individual
capacity...Opium seems to make the individual,
for a time, a better and greater man...."

        Early optimism about morphine's non-addictive nature proved sadly misplaced. Women in particular came to be seen as especially vulnerable to opiate dependence. The most likely candidate for addiction, according to American doctor R Batholow, was...

"...a delicate female, having light blue eyes and flaxen hair, [who] possesses, according to my observations, the maximum susceptibility..."

Racist stereotypes, rampant xenophobia and lurid images of white slave-traders abounded too. In the 1850s and 1860s, tens of thousands of Chinese had emigrated to the USA to help build the western railroads and work the California mines. Opium-smoking was an integral part of Chinese culture; and its effects offered a merciful relief from dirty and backbreaking work. But the medical tide was turning. Dr Hamilton Wright, newly appointed US opium commissioner, blamed "the Chinese vice" for corrupting the nation's youth....

"One of the most unfortunate phases of the habit of smoking opium in this country [was] the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabiting with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities..."

Meanwhile Dr John Witherspoon, later President of the American Medical Association, exhorted the medical community to...

"...save our people from the clutches of this hydra-headed monster which stalks abroad through the civilized world, wrecking lives and happy homes, filling our jails and lunatic asylums, and taking from these unfortunates, the precious promise of eternal life..."

        So the search began for a powerful non-addictive alternative to opium and morphine. In 1874, English pharmacist C.R. Alder Wright (1844-1894) had boiled morphine and acetic acid to produce diacetylmorphine, C17H17NO (C2H3O2)2. Diacetylmorphine was synthesized and marketed commercially by the German pharmaceutical giant, Bayer. In 1898, Bayer launched the best-selling drug-brand of all time, Heroin.

Reference: (1) "God's Own Medicine"   Sir John Osler
                            Opium: The Natural Way To Feel Good?

Compiled & Edited By: D. Shrira  Updated:  8 Feb 2007