Morphine is an opiate found naturally in opium (derived from the opium poppy). It is a depressant or sedative drug that slows down body functions such as heart and breathing rate.

Morphine is a strong and effective analgesic used in treating moderate to severe pain. It works by mimicking the action of natural pain-reducing compounds called endorphins which are produced in the brain and spinal cord. Morphine acts on the same opioid receptors as these natural endorphins and stops pain signals being sent by the nerves to the brain. This means that even though the cause of the pain may remain, less pain is actually felt.

A vast range of synthetic opioid painkillers have been developed from morphine.

Morphine may occasionally be used in the treatment of heroin dependence, however methadone and buprenorphine are much more likely to be used partly due to the longer length of time they remain active in the body.


Morphine (named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams) was isolated from opium in 1803 by the German pharmacist F. W. Serturner. Other alkaloids in opium, such as codeine, were subsequently isolated and, in 1843, Alexander Woodin invented the hypodermic needle. By the 1850s pure alkaloids were being used medically rather than the less effective opium preparations which had dominated before.

During the Crimean War (1851-1856) and the American Civil War (1861-1865) troops had free access to morphine and opium which they carried to give assistance to wounded colleagues on the battlefield. Opiate addiction grew and became known as the ‘soldiers sickness’ and the ‘army disease.’

After the war some medical professionals even encouraged the addicted soldiers to buy their own needles so that they could continue to inject themselves at home. Estimates suggest that by 1920 there were 264,000 opiate addicts in the US.

Across the Atlantic, in 1898 a new opiate drug was being synthesised at St Mary’s Hospital in London. This new drug was said to be a safe, non-addictive painkiller and to provide a means of treating morphine addiction. It was given a name to reflect everyone’s belief that it was to be a miraculous and heroic new drug – heroin. Sadly, as we now know, heroin turned out to be far from non-addictive.

Further reading: Living with drugs by Michael Gossop, Ashgate


Morphine, like other opiates, is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act as a Class A drug. The maximum sentence for unauthorised possession is 7 years imprisonment, a fine or both.

The maximum sentence for supply or production is life imprisonment, a fine or both.

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