Opium Poppy

Opium Capsule with Crude Opium
Opium (Papaver somniferum) is a large annual herb from the poppy family Papaveraceae. The plants can reach a height of 1.2 meters, and particularly flourish in rich, moist soil. Due to its sensitivity to frost, most poppies are grown in regions with an average temperature of 7-23 degrees centigrade. Its seeds range in color from white to a shade of slate. Each stem is topped with a showy flower, which is white, red, pink, or purple in color. Once the flower is pollinated, it matures into a capsule which contains a milky latex rich with potent alkaloids. The total yield of alkaloids is dependent on light, temperature, plant species, and time of harvest. If the capsule is sliced open while still green (the seeds are in an immature state), the dried latex can be peeled from the capsule, yielding crude opium.
The opium poppy
When ingested, opium can have various medicinal and mental side-effects, making it a highly sought-after substance.


Opium use is tied directly to the history of China. It was used primarily for medicinal purposes until about 1600, when opium use increased when tobacco was introduced. Tobacco and opium were originally smoked together, but the amount of tobacco was gradually reduced until opium was smoked alone. Eventually, many Chinese became addicted despite a ban on the substance by the emperor. This addiction was fueled by the British trade endeavors in China. The British sought silk, tea, and porcelain from China, but the Chinese were not interested in any European goods, demanding payment in silver instead. The drain of silver was intolerable to the British. Refusing to pay the silver, the British found their solution - meet the escalating Chinese need for opium. The British had access to plenty, what with the plant being widely cultivated in India under the auspices of the British East India Company. The Chinese government sought to stop the opium trade to halt the rising addiction rate. Government actions at Canton harbor sparked the First Opium War (1839-1842). Chinese authorities confiscated and destroyed all the opium at the harbor, and were met with British warships, which crushed the Chinese opposition. Britain received major concessions, including the right to trade in opium, payment for the destroyed opium, the opening of more ports for foreign trade, and the establishment of Hong Kong as a British Colony.
The Chinese sought to end the opium trade again ten years later in the Second Opium War, but were again humiliated. Britain, the United States, and other European countries were granted additional concessions. The British opium trade remained intact until 1913, when moral pressure from both China and Britain brought an end to it. However, by this time, China was cultivating its own poppies, thus enabling further addiction and opium problems during the Japanese occupation and ending only after the establishment of the communist People's Republic of China.


Opium can either be eaten, drunk, or smoked. The most common method of preparation is to dissolve the crude opium in wine. This cocktail was known as laudanum during the Middle Ages, and became a very popular medication for centuries. Its usage peaked in the 19th century when people became aware of its mind-expanding properties. Many members of the so-called privileged class (writers, artists, and intellectuals) are guilty users. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Coleridge, and Thomas de Quincey were all laudanum addicts. The French composer Hector Berlioz glorified the opium dream in the fourth movement of his Symphonie Fantastique. Surely, people were aware of the strongly addictive nature of compounds from the poppy plant.

Global Distribution

Opium is grown both legally and illegally throughout much of the world. India is the leading grower of legal opium, where it is used to control severe pain. Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Thailand (the Golden Triangle), as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran (the Golden Crescent) traditionally have been the source of most illegal opium. In fact, Afghanistan supplies nearly 70% of the world's opium, and is the leading illicit grower. Opium in the form of heroin can be found in Mexico and Colombia.
Cultivation of opium in Afghanistan

Medicinal Uses

Poppy is one of the most important medicinal plants. Since the time of the Babylonians and Egyptians, opium has been sought for its large range of medicinal uses. It is highly effective as an analgesic (pain-killer), and is often used for its sleep-inducing properties. In the times of the Ancient Greeks, opium was used for its ability to allay the worries and sorrows of life. In addition to its appealing psychedelic uses, the flowers of the opium poppy are also grown for its seeds and seed oil. Poppy seeds are typically used in baking, and are common ingredients in muffins, cakes, and cookies. Poppy seed oil is a common cooking oil in some parts of the world. The oil is also used to manufacture paints, varnishes, and soaps. Although the quantity of alkaloids in the seeds is insignificant, it may be enough to register positive on some drug tests. This is due to the fact that the seeds and oil develop after the the capsule has lost the opium-yielding potential. Opium has also been used as an astringent, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, diaphoretic, expectorant, hypnotic, narcotic, and sedative. It is the main ingredient in morphine and codeine, two very powerful analgesics in the pharmaceutical realm.


One of the most effective analgesics on the market, the alkaloid morphine was isolated in 1806 by Frederic Serturner, a German scientist who named the compound after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. It was the first active principle isolated from the poppy. Originally taken orally, morphine's full medical potential was not realized until after the development of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-19th century.
Chemical make-up of morphine

Morphine depresses the areas of the brain involved in the perception of pain and reduces the anxiety associated with pain. It mimics the actions of endorphins, which are chemicals produced in the brain that enhance pleasurable feelings. Too much of a good thing, however, can cause damage - morphine is a general central nervous system depressent and, in overdose, can lead to death by shutting down the respiratory center in the brain.
The powerfully addictive nature of morphine became evident during the Civil War when thousands of injured soldiers becam dependent after morphine injections were administered. It became such a problem that morphine addiction was known as soldiers' disease. Physician-induced addiction was also common due to the fact that morphine was used to treat such a vast array of ailments during the latter half of the 19th century.


The drug heroin was introduced by the Bayer company in 1898, which boasted that this nonaddictive opiate had analgesic properties superior to morphine and cough-suppressant properties superior to codeine. Derived from morphine, this semisynthetic drug was dispensed in over-the-counter medicines for almost two decades. Cough syrups were administered to adults and children alike. Eventually, physicians questioned the alleged nonaddictive nature of heroin, and by 1917 cough syrups with heroin were no longer available. It turns out that heroin is six times more addictive than morphine, and misuse has led to long-standing drug and crime problems. It is both the most abused and most rapidly acting of all opiates. Though illegal in the United States, heroin still finds its way over the border. Mexico and Colombia are the two largest suppliers of the drug, and the fact that they sell it cheap enables younger adults (typically suburban teenagers) to become addicts. Highly purified heroin can be snorted or smoked, avoiding telltale needle tracks. Effects of heroin use include feelings of euphoria, dry mouth, heavy extremities, respiratory depression, constricted pupils, and nausea.

Wild Card: Symphonie Fantastique

Incorporating opium into a music lesson may be challenging. Fortunately, we have a piece of music inspired by the use of opium! Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is a programmatic orchestral work which follows a man as he pursues the woman of his dreams. The fourth movement, "The March to the Scaffold," takes the listener on a journey through the eyes of an opium user as he is lead to the guillotine. This lesson would have to be done in a high school setting, because I feel that the maturity level is too much for anyone younger. We could discuss the effects opium has on the mind and relate it to the musical devices Berlioz uses within this piece.


"Opium". www.drugs.com

Simon, J.E., A.F. Chadwick and L.E. Craker. 1984. Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography. 1971-1980. The Scientific Literature on Selected Herbs, and Aromatic and Medicinal Plants of the Temperate Zone. Archon Books, 770 pp., Hamden, CT.

Levetin, Estelle and Karen McMahon. Plants and Society, 5th Ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008