Published July 24, 2013
Of all plants used in the field of medicine, none has been as widely employed – nor has helped to save as many lives and ease suffering – as the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. The plant and its derivatives have been used since antiquity. Cultivation of opium poppy dates to the Neolithic Age, and remnants of opium date back as far as 10,000 years, to ruins of Swiss lake dwellers. Sumerian images of opium date back to 4,000 BC. The ancient Minoans, whose culture flourished in Crete during the Bronze Age, employed opium and its sap as medicine.
Several narcotics, known collectively as opiates, derive from opium – including morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine and noscapine. In total, as many as fifty alkaloids are present in opium poppy. Categorized as a euphoric agent, the opium poppy is the source of the very first medicinal compound ever isolated in pure form. That alkaloid – morphine – was isolated in 1804 by German pharmacist Friederich Serturner. He dubbed the alkaloid morphium, after Morpheus the Greek god of dreams, for its capacity to induce sleep.
Morphine, the most abundant alkaloid in opium, is the most effective and potent pain-relieving agent in medicine, acting directly upon the central nervous system. For relieving severe or agonizing pain, morphine is the gold standard. When someone is suffering debilitating pain, especially due to injury or surgical procedures, no other substance will relieve pain as well or as quickly. First sold by the Merck chemist shop in 1827, morphine is used in virtually every hospital today. That shop eventually became the global drug giant Merck Pharmaceuticals.
The second most abundant alkaloid in the opium poppy is codeine, which also possesses pain-relieving properties. Codeine is most widely used as an antitussive, or cough relieving agent. Formerly used in over-the-counter cough syrups, codeine is now available only by prescription, as it is both psychoactive and habit-forming.
The opium poppy yields a sticky latex that has been employed since antiquity as a mind-altering drug. The latex is prepared in large balls and can be stored for long periods of time. In history, the largest trader of opium was Britain’s East India Company, which plied the opium trade heavily in China, enslaving millions of Chinese into opium addiction in the 1800s.
Laudanum, a bitter, reddish-brown fluid extract of opium, became an addictive agent in the United States in the 1700s and 1800s. It is still available today, though only by prescription. Used as a pain-reliever and a cough suppressant, laudanum found its way into numerous patent medicines and so-called “snake oils” prior to its legal regulation. Unlike morphine, codeine or the other opium alkaloids, laudanum is an extract of whole opium latex, containing all of the narcotic compounds found in that sap.
Today, large-scale cultivation of opium poppies for the production of heroin can be found in Mexico, Afghanistan, and throughout Asia. Oddly, heroin was first developed by drug giant Bayer as a cure for morphine addiction. It worked. Today there is relatively little morphine addiction, though an estimated 9 million people globally are now addicted to heroin. Technically it is illegal to grow opium poppies in the U.S., but enforcement of this is fuzzy as opium poppies are popular ornamental flowers grown widely in America and Canada. Opium poppies are controlled according to the Controlled Substances Act.
The opium poppy, with its globe-shaped seed pod and beautiful flower petals, makes an impressive site, especially when there are thousands of flowering poppies all in one place. I have seen large fields of poppy in Morocco, and the sight is breathtaking. Woven deeply into various cultural histories, and critically valuable to the field of medicine, opium occupies a rare and important place in the human story.