The History of Opioids

Sep 29, 2014

From the poppy fields of ancient Mesopotamia, to the pleasantly packaged version we now receive from the pharmacy, opioids have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The addictive properties of these substances have been recognized right from the beginning, and the opium trade has always been surrounded by danger, desperation, and money. If you follow the history of opioids, you will follow the history of addiction too.


Joy Plant (3400 B.C.): The Sumerians who originally cultivated the opium poppy in what is now Iraq, called the plant Hul Gil, which means “joy plant”. They would pass it on to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and eventually, the Egyptians. From Egypt, a flourishing opium trade is established with Greece, and then the rest of Europe.


From Magic to Medicine (460 B.C.): Although used for medicinal purposes, opium was largely viewed as a recreational or spiritual enhancer, containing magical qualities. The Greek philosopher, Hippocrates, who is known as the “Father of Medicine”, was the first to reject the magical properties of opium, and to elevate its medicinal value.


Chinese Demand (400 A.D.): From Europe the spread of opium continued to India and Persia. This region would become the main producer of opium for the next several centuries. Use of the drug spread to China, where it caught on like wildfire. China became the world’s major consumer of opium in a short time.


European Opium Ban (1300s): The Holy Inquisition which took place in Europe during this time regarded anything from the East as being from the devil, including opium. The substance was banned from Europe for over 200 years.


The Reformation and Laudanum (1527): As the Holy Inquisition ended, medical practices begin making new strides again. Paracelsus reintroduced opium into medicine under the name of laudanum. As opium is regained popularity in Europe, citizens of China became ravaged by addiction to the substance, and the rulers there tried to figure out how to rid themselves of the drug without destroying their position in the trade market.


Chinese Opium Ban (1799): Despite civilian bans on non-medicinal opium use, China continued to be the top consumer of the drug, and continued to suffer widespread addiction epidemics. Chinese immigrants brought opium to America. Chinese opium dens could be found in nearly every town. In 1799, the emperor of China completely banned any use, cultivation or trade of opium in an effort to rid the country of the drug.


Morphine and Hypodermics (1803):Serturner of Germany isolated and purified the active ingredient in opium, and named it morphine, or “God’s own medicine”. It was thought to tame the addictive qualities of opium while enhancing the medicinal value. The invention of hypodermic needles in 1843 made it faster and more accurate to administer.


Heroin is the Answer (1878): Numerous wars have been fought over opium trade, and morphine has been shown to be equally as addictive as raw opium, if not more so. Recreational opium use was banned in the U.S, except in Chinatown. C.R. Wright developed heroin as a “non-addictive” alternative to morphine.


Addiction Grows (1900s): By 1903, heroin addiction in our country had risen to alarming rates. Since then, it has been one of the major focuses of medicinal science to figure out a way to impart the pain relieving properties of narcotics, while removing the dangerous addictive liabilities. Now, in 2014, prescription narcotic addiction is the most common form of addiction in our country (second only to alcohol), while narcotics continue to be the major form of effective pain relief.