Opium is the name given to the milky latex that comes from the unripened pod of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). When harvesting opium, the poppy pods are scored with a sharp blade and the latex that oozes out is collected.
Opiates like opium, morphine and codeine are depressant (sedative) drugs. They slow down body functions like heart rate and breathing. They also reduce pain and have been used to synthesise a very wide range of painkilling drugs. Unfortunately, opiate drugs have the potential to be addictive.
While opium is rarely used recreationally in the UK today, it has a long and colourful history of use worldwide – see below.
Methods of use
Opium is most commonly smoked but can also be eaten raw, made into a pill or made into a tincture for drinking.
As a Class A drug the maximum sentence for the possession of opium is 7 years. The maximum sentences for supply and/or production are life imprisonment, a fine or both.
The earliest reference to use of opium is amongst Sumerian people in the Middle East 6,000 years ago. It was used as a medicine and recreational drug amongst the Ancient Greeks and by the 7th or 8th century AD commonly used in Chinese medicine.
Use in China became widespread and caused great concern to the Emperor and authorities. Most Chinese opium was imported into China from India by the East India Company. In other words a British company was the main supplier to China using opium grown in conquered lands in India and the British government benefited greatly from the tax revenue. The Chinese introduced harsh laws to try and stop their people using opium. When this did not work in 1839 the Chinese authorities in Canton seized opium from British ships and flushed it into the sea. The British sent in troops and the Chinese authorities backed down.
In 1856 a similar incident led to a second ‘Opium War’ with the British navy shelling Canton and opening up other ports. The opium trade increased again so that up to 15 million Chinese became regular opium smokers. The Chinese authorities made opium use legal and began to grow their own poppies. Within a few decades Chinese opium production outstripped the Indian grown supplies and British sales and influence declined. In time China became a main supply for opium use in Europe.
Opium was used in the UK (and the rest of Europe) in medicines from the 1550s and by the 17th century drugs like laudanum – a mixture of opium and alcohol – were used for all sorts of ailments including to kill pain, aid sleep, for coughs, diarrhoea, period pains and for toothache and colic in babies. This trend continued well into the 19th century with the availability of many opium-based medicines bought from grocery stores and use of opium by many famous writers and poets. Concerns about the rising number of infant deaths through opium overdose resulted in the first controls on sales of opium in 1868.
Morphine was first synthesised from opium in 1805 by a German chemist and was advertised as a new wonder medicine that was non-addictive and could even be used for the treatment of opium dependence. About 1850, the hypodermic syringe came into use and at that time people believed that smoking opium, rather than injecting opiates led to dependence. Thousands of soldiers in the American Civil War came home addicted to morphine given to them to ease the pain of their injuries. In 1874, again in Germany, heroin was first made from morphine – again it was advertised as non-addictive, this time as a substitute for morphine.
See also our page on heroin.
Last updated March 2022