Opium, morphine and heroin and synthetic drugs with similar effects and chemistry are known as opiates or “opiods” and are regarded as analgesics (painkillers). One of the biggest problems with opiates is that they can be addictive. Efforts to produce non-addictive analgesics based on opium have only lead to more addictive drugs.

Opiates are alkaloids. They work by binding to opiod receptors in the human body found mainly in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. There are at least four major classes of opium receptors in the body. The effects that opiates have depends on which receptors they bind to.

The are four broad classes of opiods: 1) endogenous opiod peptides produced by the body; 2) opium alkaloids such as morphine and codeine that are produced by the opium plant; 3) semi-synthetic opiods such as heroin and oxycodene; and 4) fully synthetic opiods such as pethidine and thethadone that have structures unrelated to opium alkaloids..

Websites and Resources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) justice.gov/dea/concern ; Vaults of Erowid erowid.org ; United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) unodc.org ; Wikipedia article on illegal drug trade Wikipedia ; Frank’s A-to-Z on Drugs talktofrank.com ; Streetdrugs.org streetdrugs.org ; Council of Foreign Relations Forgotten Drug War article cfr.org/drugs/forgotten-drug-war ; Illegal Drugs, country by country listing, CIA cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Books: Buzzed by Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D. Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D. of the Duke University Medical Center (Norton, 2003); Consuming Habits: Drugs in Anthropology and History by Goodman, Sharratt and Lovejoy; Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times and Places by Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter (Cambridge University Press).

Book: Opium, a History by Martin Booth (1998, St. Martin's Press); Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson (Chronicle)

Opium and the Opium Poppy

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raw opium seized in Afghanistan
Opium is an addictive narcotic made from the dried, bitter, thickened latex of the seed pod a certain kinds of poppies. Used as a medicine and painkiller and for recreation, it can be smoked, eaten, drunk or made into the more powerful drugs such as morphine and heroin. About 10 kilograms of opium produces one kilogram of morphine which yields one kilograms of heroin.

Opium, heroin and morphine all derived from the opium poppy. There are numerous species of poppies, including the corn poppy, the Oriental poppy and the California poppy (California's state flower), but only two varieties of poppies (Papaver somniferum and Papaver bractatum ) contain extractable amounts of opium and only Papaver somniferum is used in the legal and illegal opium trade.

Believed to be native to the Mediterranean area and sometimes raised as a garden plant, Papaver somniferum produces lovely flowers that vary greatly in size and some in a variety of colors, including with white, pink, red, and purple. It comes in dozens of varieties, adapted to different climates and soils. The dried seed cases are sometimes used for decoration and the seeds can be used as a flavoring for cakes and bread.

The opium poppy produces a number of alkaloids. Morphine is the most prevalent, making up 10 to 16 percent of raw opium. There are lesser amounts of codeine, a narcotic alkaloid that is milder than morphine.

Morphine and Heroin

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Morphine is a natural alkaloid derived from opium seed pod. It and codeine occur naturally in opium and are the active ingredients in opium that get a person high. Available in a powder and in liquid form, it is named after the Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, who was sometimes dedicated with a handful of opium poppies.

Morphine is still regarded as the best means for treating violent pain and is still widely used to treat the pain from things like kidney stones, acute pancreatitis and severe injuries. Ambulances carry it to treat burn victims, relax people pinned in crashed vehicles so they can be more easily removed, and provide immediate relief for people with congestive heart failure by dilating blood vessels and preventing fluid from backing in the lungs.

Heroin is a derivative of morphine. Known by a host of nicknames including smack, junk and H, it is usually sold in the form of a white, beige or chocolate brown powder. When taken orally it rapidly break down into morphine in the body, but when injected, and to a lesser extent, when smoked, it produces an overwhelming rush, or surge of pleasure.

Heroin is one of the most addictive substances known to man. It is significantly more potent than morphine and enters the brain from the blood more easily. Heroin comes in various grades. Pure heroin hydrochloride is a white powder. It is prized for purity and is sometimes referred to China White. Lower grades are brown in color as a result of various impurities and is called brown sugar. The lowest quality heroin is black tar, often from Mexico. Heroin sold the streets is usually cut with things like talc, baking powder, or quinine. The amount of heroin varies from 10 percent to 70 percent.

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black tar heroin
Black tar is a cheap, potent form of heroin made in Mexico that has become popular in many areas of the United States thanks to an army of dealers from the town of Xalisco on the Mexican Pacific coast state of Nayarit, Mexico.

Other Opiates

Codeine is a weak opiate usually sold in pills and syrup and used to sooth coughs and relieve moderate pain after minor operations and tooth extractions. It is a key ingredient in hundreds of millions of prescriptions dispensed worldwide every year. For many years Tylenol with codeine was the best selling drug in the United States. Some people get high from drinking entire bottles of cough syrup with codeine.

In the 1960s, Scottish scientists developed etorphine, an opium-derivative 10,000 times stronger than opium and now used to tranquilize rhinoceroses and elephants. The power of the drug was discovered when British scientists accidently used a glass rod used in synthesizing etorphine to stir their afternoon tea and fell unconscious on the floor.

Synthetic opiates include hydromorphone (Dilaudid), oxycodone (Percodan, OxyContin), meperidine (Demerol), diphenoxulate (Lomotil), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and fentannyl (Sublimaze). Dilaudids are very powerful and often used by junkies. OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller, is becoming increasingly abused. It is synthesized from a nonanalgesic in opium.

Opium Poppy Straw and Seeds

Poppy straw is a term used to describe hard opium capsules dried on the stem. Often collected by women in aprons, poppy straw yields no opium. Instead it is crushed and dissolved in stainless-steel tanks and processed with of acids, centrifuges, filters and ovens at a high-tech factory, yielding white poppy-straw concentrate (PSC), which can be made into codeine and morphine.

Poppy seeds, which for all intents and purposes contain no opium, are shaken from dried opium capsules and placed on bagels and other foods, pressed into oil used for cooking and paint thinner for artist paints (it dries quicker and yellows less than linseed oil), and processed into high-protein livestock feed.

Each capsule yields 800 to 2,000 seeds. Some poppies produces white seeds, which are very popular in Scandinavia. Blue seeds bring high prices on the international spice market.


Opium is believed to have first been used in the Mediterranean because that is where opium originally came from.. The oldest known opium cultivators were people who lived around a Swiss lake in the forth millennium B.C. Traces of opium have been excavated from archeological sites there.

The first written record of opium use comes from a 5,400-year-old Sumerian description of the cultivation of a “joy plant” in lower Mesopotamia. Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian texts refer to the medicinal uses of opium. A 9th century B.C. bas-relic from the Assyrian city of Nimrud shows King Ashymasirpal II holding a bouquet of opium capsules.

The ancient Egyptians took opium for pleasure and as a sedative. Hieroglyphics describe the cultivation of opium poppies during the reigns of Thutmose IV, Akhenaton and King Tutankhamen; the use of poppy extract to quiet crying children; and detail the opium trade between the Egyptian and Greece and Europe.

Ancient people are believed to be have taken opium, mostly in the form of tea or dissolved in other drinks. Opium-capsule-shaped ceramic jugs, dated to 1,500 B.C., have been unearthed in Cyprus. They featured stylized incisions and are believed to have held opium dissolved in wine. Surgical-quality knives were used to harvest opium have also been found in Cyprus.

Ivory pipes, over 3,200 years old, were found in a Cyprus temple. They may have been used for smoking opium. Opium smoking pipes dated to 1000 B.C. to 300 B.C. have been recovered from archeological sites in Asia, Europe and Egypt.

Opium in the Greco-Roman Era

In Greco-Roman times, opium was used in religious rituals, as an ingredient in magic potions and as a painkiller, sedative and sleeping medicine. The potion "to quiet all pain and strife and bring forgetfulness to every ill" taken by Helen of Troy in Homer's Odyssey is believed to have contained opium. Some scholars have suggested that the "vinegar mingled with gall" offered to Christ on the cross contained opium because the Hebrew word for gall ( rôsh ) means opium.

Poppies were pictured on Greek coins, pottery and jewelry, and on Roman statues and tombs (where poppies symbolized a release from a lifetime of pain). The Greek scholar Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) wrote about the use of opium poppy juice and mentioned opium in connection with myths of Ceres and Demeter. Alexander the Great introduced the drug to India and Persia.

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Manufacture of opium in India

The founding fathers of medicine, Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides, all wrote about opium. Marcus Aurelius took opium to sleep and deal with the stress of prolonged military campaigns. The Romans reportedly used toxic does of opium to poison their enemies.

Opium Heads East

Some scholars believe that opium was brought to China by returning sailors or Tibetan Buddhist priests from Africa or India as the early as the first century B.C. Others say that opium more likely were carried east by Arabic traders to India and then China between A.D. 400 and A.D. 900.

By reign of Kublai Khan (1279-94) opium was widely used as a medicine. In India, it was eaten and drunk by all classes of people and taken as a household remedy for a variety of maladies. Between the 1000 and 1500 the Chinese graduated from consuming poppy seeds to taking raw opium from the capsules to refining high quality opium. In southern China hill tribes began raising opium as a way to pay taxes to the Han Chinese.

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opium in Old Calcutta Chinatown

In the Mogul Empire, war elephants and soldiers were given opium to give them courage, calm them before battles and make them feel less pain when injured. Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, drank opium with his wine and decorated the tomb of his beloved wife with poppies. Under the Moguls opium agriculture organized and the sale of opium became a state monopoly.

Until the practice of smoking tobacco was introduced to Europe and Asia from the Americas in the 16th century, opium was mostly eaten or drunk. Opium smoked in the 17th and 18th century was mostly in the form of a mixture of opium and tobacco called madak. Smoking pure opium only became popular in China after madak was banned there.

By 1700, the use of tobacco-opium mixtures (madak) had begun in the East Indies (probably Java) and had spread to Formosa, Fukien and the South China coast. In 1689, Engelberg Kaempfer inspected primitive dens where the mixture is dispensed (Amoenitates Exoticae, 1712:642-5).

Early History of Opium in China

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Opium Wars sea battle
Opium has long been used in China and the Far East to stop diarrhea and treat other medical problems. The quality of the opium produced in China was inferior to the opium brought from India by the British. By 1000, the medicinal use of opium poppy seeds is widespread. By 1100, the more potent capsule is in use, but pure opium is not extracted from the capsule. By the medicinal use of pure opium is fully established; native opium is manufactured, but recreational use is still limited. [Source: Erowid.org <>]

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “Opium had been consumed in China since the eighth century and several emperors had sung its praises. It began to be smoked with the introduction of tobacco in the late 16th century, turning its consumption from a medicinal to a social habit. By the 1830s, China was producing large quantities of opium domestically, though the imported drug was judged superior. The British traders argued, disingenuously no doubt, that they were merely supplying an existing demand, delivering the opium to a network of Chinese traders who distributed it across the empire. “[Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]

In the 1600s, the habit of smoking opium became popular in Formosa (now Taiwan) after Dutch sailors introduced tobacco smoking and residents of the island mixed tobacco and opium. The Formosans introduced the custom to the mainland, where tobacco was abandoned and opium was smoked alone. In 1729, reports reach Peking of the evils of opium smoking (shrivelling up the features; early deaths) in Formosa and Fukien; Emperor Yung Chen prohibits the sale of opium and the operation of smoking houses. [Source: Erowid.org <>]

British and the Growth of Opium use in China

In 1757, Britain annexed Bengal and the Chinese confined foreign trade to Canton where it could be restricted and controlled in the interests of revenue for the Chinese. Hong Kong merchants serve as intermediaries between the foreigners and the Chinese authorities. 1767: Opium from Bengal continues to enter China despite the edict of 1729 prohibiting smoking. It increases in frequency from 200 chests annually in 1729 to 1000 annually by 1767. However, much is for medicinal use. Tariffs are collected on the opium. [Source: Erowid.org <>]

The first mention of actual trading in opium at Canton was in 1779. In 1780, British traders established an opium depot at Macao. Another imperial edict prohibited consumption of opium and reiterates prohibition of its sale. In 1796, alarmed by increasing use, the emperor of China issues an edict forbiding importation of opium, as well as export of Chinese silver that is being used as a medium of exchange. Now even legitimate trade is limited to barter. Nonetheless, illegal purchase of opium with silver continues. <>

In 1799, a strong edict by authorities at Canton, supporting the emperor's decree of 1796, forbids opium trade at that port. A concurrent drive against native poppy growing was initiated. Opium became an illicit commodity. The 1799 edict increased traffic through Macao and other areas beyond government control enabling unprecedented growth. The British declared only their legitimate cargo, leaving opium on board to be picked up by Chinese merchants who smuggled it ashore in small, fast boats. In 1800, opium became identified with official corruption, criminals and antigovernment secret societies. An imperial edict prohibited domestic cultivation and repeated the prohibition against importing opium. China developed an anti-opium policy, at least on paper. Edicts continued to be issued reiterating prohibitions against importation, sale, and consumption of opium.

In 1804, opium trading resumed at the port of Canton. Though the 1799 edict was still in force, it had little effect and no immediate practical change in policy ensues.

See OPIUM WARS PERIOD factsanddetails.com/china ; OPIUM AND ILLEGAL DRUGS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com

Later History of Opium in China

The British-supplied opium was very popular in China. Rich and poor Chinese alike gathered in opium dens called divans to smoke the dreamy drug, and millions of Chinese---government officials, merchants, court servants, sedan bearers---became addicted and subdued. The opium trade significantly ate into the China's foreign trade reserves. By 1836, it transformed a huge trade surplus into huge trade deficit.

After the Opium Wars, the British aggressively marketed opium in China. The result: lots of addicts. Some smoked the drug in opium dens. Others took opium pills. Cheap pills known as pen yen gave rise to the expression have a "yen" for something.

Between 1850-1865, tens of thousands of Chinese laborers immigrated to the U.S. in a period of labor shortage, bringing the habit of opium smoking with them. Opium dens opened in San Francisco and towns where Chinese railroad workers stayed. By 1890, there were a number of "smoke houses" in the basements in back-ally buildings in New York. The customers included prostitutes, showgirls, businessmen and tourists as well as Chinamen. Opium became widely associated with dark, smoky opium dens. The custom made its way to Europe from China via the United States.

In 1878, San Francisco passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to "keep, or maintain, or visit, or in any way contribute to the support of any place, house, or room, where opium is smoked." Importation, sales and possession of opium remained legal. In 1887, the importation of opium by Chinese (but not by Americans) is forbidden.

Meanwhile in China, in 1900-1906 about 27 percent of the adult male population of China is addicted to opium. This is about 3.5 percent of the total population of the country.

Early Medical Uses of Opium

The pioneering physician Paracelusus is credited with invented tincture of opium (opium dissolved in alcohol, later called laudanum) in 1530. Describing its good and bad points, one 16th-century botanist wrote "it mitigateth all kinds of paines, but it leaveth behinde oftentimes a mischiefe woorse than the disease itselfe." Opium is believed to be the “drowsy syrup” in Shakespeare’s Othello.

20120528-opium Chinese_opium_smokers.jpg

Opium production began to take off as opium cultivation improved. In 1794, a Briton named Thomas Jine received a gold medal and 50 guineas for being the first person to produce 20 pounds of opium on a 5 acre plot of land. Twenty years later, a Scottish surgeon named John Young produced 56 pounds of opium on one acre along with potatoes, used to protect the fragile young opium plants from severe weather.

Opium and cocaine were introduced to the United States in the 19th century as cures for alcoholism. Opium use in the United States took off in the 18 40s on the heels of a temperance movement lead by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League that caused drinking in the U.S. to decline by half to three quarters. An 1872 report issued by the Massachusetts State Board of Health noted that “between 1840 and 1850, soon after teetotalism had become a fixed fact...our own importation of opium swelled.”

In the 19th century, opium was so cheap in Europe and the United States, it became a favorite medicine among working people. Laudanum (meaning “to be praised”) and "home remedy" tonics such as Hooper's Anodyne, were widely prescribed for a number of illness, especially diarrhea, well into the 1930s.

Godfrey's Cordial was given to babies to quiet them. Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup was recommned for young children who were teething. Other opium products were touted as a cures for alcoholism and marketed to wives to as way to control their alcoholic husbands.

Opium and European Intellectuals in the 19th Century

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French opium den
Opium was popular among British and French intellectuals in the 18th and 19th century. Balzac, Shelly, Byron, Dickens, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the artist Gauguin were all enthusiastic opium users. Samuel Taylor Cooleridge wrote Kublai Khan , seen by some as an ode to opium, while high on laudranum.

In The Confessions of an English Opium Eater , the 19th century writer Thomas De Quincey described how "subtle and mighty opium" brought him music like perfume and a hundred years of pleasure in one night but then went on to compare his addiction to the drug with cancerous kisses from crocodiles and a thousands of years in stone coffins.

Quincey wrote, "Farewell to smiles and laughter, farewell to peace of mind! Farewell to hope and to tranquil dreams, and the blessed consolations of sleep!

Invention of Morphine and Heroin

Morphine, heroin and cocaine were all invented or brought to the market by German chemists. Morphine was first derived from opium by a 20-year-old German pharmacist assistant name Friedrich Setürner in 1806. He named the drug morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, and ran experiments on himself, describing the curative, euphoric and "terrible" aspects of the drug. Setürner received prizes, cash and international recognition for his discovery but morphine did not become widely used until the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1853.

Morphine is believed to have been the first alkaloid to be isolated from a plant, The discovery set off a flurry of research into plant alkaloids which in turn led to the isolation of atrophine, caffeine, cocaine, quinine and other important drugs.

In 19th century United States and Europe, morphine was legal and easy to get a hold of . Women with keep wayward husbands were advised to mix the drug into their coffee as a way to keep them at home. The power, potency and agony of morphine, and later heroin, was dramatically increased with introduction of the hypodermic needle.

Morphine and opium were used before anesthesia was invented to relieve the pain of surgery. Wounded soldiers were given morphine poured onto gloves, which they licked periodically to relieve their pain. U.S. army medical kits still contain morphine, which is considered so important it remains part of the U.S. Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpile.

Heroin was developed in 1874 by a London pharmacist searching for a non-addictive form of morphine. He boiled morphine with acetic anhydride and produced a drug more soluble in fat---which enables it reach the brain quicker---and had painkilling properties about 2½ times stronger than morphine.

In 1898, Bayer Laboratories in Germany introduced heroin as a medicine 11 days after aspirin was invented, It was initially marketed as a cough and diarrhea remedy and substitute for morphine. It was called "highly effective against coughs” and was claimed to be "a safe preparation free from addiction-forming properties." It was named "heroin" because of its heroic qualities. 20120528-BayerHeroin1911.png
Bayer Heroin in 1911

Development of the Illegal Heroin Market

Opiates were widely used in Europe and the United States well into the 20th century. Housewives and businessmen were enthusiastic users of opium-based elixirs. Dorothy’s experience in The Wizard of Oz was triggered by opium. Remember the field of poppies.

Legislation to restrict narcotics like heroin, morphine and cocaine was not enacted in the United States and other countries until the early 20th century. The International Opium Commission, which first met in Shanghai in 1909, established a worldwide treaty, eventually signed by 116 nations, that declared some opium must remain available because "the medical use of narcotic drugs continues to be indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering" but measures should be taken to curb illegal production because "addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil...a social and economic danger to mankind."

Laws controlling opium imposed around the time of World War I encouraged dealers to process opium into morphine and heroin because they were easier to hide and smuggle and led to the development of the illegal heroin trade.

Before World War II most heroin was produced in laboratories in Shanghai and Tianjin China and production and distribution there was largely overseen by Chinese triads. World War II and the Communist takeover of China ended heroin production in China.

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Bayer heroin bottle
After World War II the Mafia took advantage of a weak government in Italy and deal struck between Mafia leader Lucky Luciano and American military intelligence to set up heroin labs in Sicily. At this time much of the world’s opium was being supplied by Iran and to a lesser extent Turkey. United States support of the Shah government in Iran in the 1970s and deals made between the Nixon government and Turkey sharply reduced the amount of opium coming out of Iran and Turkey.

The Vietnam War was a boon for the opium and heroin business. Americans in Southeast Asia not only provided a fairly well paid source of buyers (soldiers) they also improved the infrastructure in Southeast Asia and provided ways for Asian drug producers to export their products around the world. In the early 1970s, laboratories opened in the Golden Triangle produced high-grade China White heroin. As time went on demand increased and to meet demand production increased as more drugs flooded the market more people had access to drugs.

As Turkey and Iran dried up as opium suppliers the slack was taken up there by Afghanistan and Pakistan War in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s created conditions that favored opium cultivation and heroin production. After the Shah was overthrown in Iran, the climate for opium and heroin production improved. For a while so much opium and heroin was produced that the number if users increased in part because prices were so low.

Image Sources: 1) DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration); 2) Normal Museum; 3) Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Buzzed, the Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy by Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D., Duke University Medical Center (W.W. Norton, New York, 2003); National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, The Independent, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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