Opium is a mixture of substances that come from a tar-like material in the fruit of the opium poppy. The use of opium in medicine and as a recreational drug has a long and storied history. From the same source come medications like morphine and codeine, and the very serious narcotic drug heroin. Although opium use is not as common as it was over one hundred years ago, and its dangers are less than other narcotics, it is still an addictive and damaging drug.
What is Opium?
Opium is a gummy substance, called latex, which comes from the fruit that results after the flower of the opium poppy has bloomed. It is a mixture of substances from a class of chemicals called alkaloids. The alkaloids in opium fall into two different categories: phenanthrenes and isoquinolines. Isoquinolines are not narcotic substances and have no effects on the central nervous system. The phenanthrenes do and are considered narcotics. Phenanthrenes in opium include morphine, codeine, and thebaine, as well as others in smaller quantities. Morphine is the most prevalent substance in opium.
Opium and many other substances are in a class of psychoactive chemicals called opioids. These are compounds that bind to opioid receptors in the body. The receptors are in all areas of the peripheral and central nervous systems and the gastrointestinal tract. Opium is also an opiate, which is any opioid substance that is found naturally in the opium poppy. Opioids are used in medicine, and have been for thousands of years, to relieve pain. They have an analgesic effect when they bind to the opioid receptors in the nervous system. However, when these receptors are flooded, the body can build up a tolerance to the opioids. When this happens, the person requires more of the drug to get the same effect. Because the receptors are also in the gastrointestinal tract, opium is also used to treat diarrhea. It also can treat severe coughs.
Opium has been long used recreationally because it creates a feeling of euphoria. Users develop tolerance and need to administer more to get a high, which can lead to addiction. It is much less addictive, however, than heroin. Heroin is derived from the morphine in opium and is much more potent and more dangerous.
Where Does Opium Come From?
Opium is collected directly from the fruit of the opium poppy. The fruit, or seed pods, of the flower are scored with a knife and the latex leaks out. It dries into a residue that is sticky and yellow and that can be scraped with a razor. This has been done by hand for thousands of years and opium is still harvested this way in many places. It can, however, also be collected by machine. Most of the opium that is harvested illegally is converted to heroin. In many places, opium is legally cultivated for the manufacture of medicines.
Several countries produce opium legally for medicines, including Great Britain, Australia, Turkey, and India. The U.S. gets nearly 80 percent of medicinal opium from Turkey and India because they are traditional producers. Opium is cultivated illegally in many places, but most notably in Afghanistan. The sale of opium from Afghanistan has been funding the Taliban for years and has presented a major problem for occupying forces. The locals often have no choice but to grow poppies in order to make a living.
How Is It Used?
Opium that is raw and taken directly from the poppy with no other processing can either be smoked or consumed as laudanum. Laudanum is a tincture of opium. It is opium dissolved in alcohol so that it can be consumed. Traditionally, laudanum was used as a painkiller and cough reliever. Recreationally, smoking opium is a more common method. Smoking opium as a recreational drug probably began in China around five hundred years ago and was quickly recognized as addictive. Opium dens, places where people gathered to smoke, proliferated in the 1700s and 1800s in places like San Francisco, which led to its prohibition. Morphine was first isolated from opium in 1804. Other substances like heroin followed and led to the slow but sure obsolescence of opium as a recreational drug. Although heroin use is far more common, opium is still smoked by some people especially in the Middle East and Asia.
What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Opium Addiction?
Although it is uncommon now, some people still smoke opium. It is less dangerous to use opium than to use heroin, but it is still risky and can cause ill health effects and addiction.
Below are some symptoms of the misuse of opium:
- Any signs of drug addiction apply here such as losing interest in other activities, financial problems, deteriorating relationships, hygiene neglect, and issues at work.
- Opium use causes a loss of appetite, so weight loss is a symptom.
- Use of opium causes physical symptoms like nausea, headache, runny nose, red eyes, excessive energy, sensitivity to sounds, insomnia, and rapid speech.
- Psychological effects of opium include confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, mood swings, anxiety, and changes in personality.
What are the Consequences of Opium Abuse?
The use of any narcotic substance can cause death. A person is at risk of dying from a single use of opium if the conditions are right. Short term effects of using opium include a feeling of euphoria, dryness in the mouth, heavy-feeling limbs, alternating alertness and drowsiness, deteriorated mental function, slowed breathing, nausea, and constricted pupils. A single overdose can cause coma and death.
When opium is abused in the long term, addiction is typically inevitable. Its use leads to reduced blood pressure, respiratory failure, and immune system weakening. Severe damage can result over time to the liver and kidneys in particular, but also to the brain and lungs. Opium cravings make a user feel pain, restlessness, and coldness.
When to Seek Opium Addiction Treatment
Any illegal use of opium is very serious. If someone you know is smoking opium or if you suspect its use, intervene as soon as possible. Even legal use can be serious, as addiction is possible. If someone you know is using opium under a prescription, but shows signs of addiction, they need an intervention immediately. The prescribing physician should be regulating the drug’s use and monitoring the patient, but sometimes addiction still occurs. If you suspect someone is in immediate danger of an overdose, do not hesitate to get emergency help.