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Opium - Encyclopedia

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What is Opium?

Opium is a narcotic drug which is obtained from the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L. or the synonym paeoniflorum). When scratched, the pod produces a milky latex called opium. This latex contains a variety of opiates including codeine and morphine. It has a long history of use in Asia and Europe.


Opium has been a major item of trade for centuries and has long been used as a painkiller and sedative. It was well known to the ancient Greeks, who named it opion ("poppy juice"), from which the present name—a Latinisation—is derived.

The image of the poppy capsule was an attribute of deities, long before opium was extracted from its milky latex. At the Metropolitan Museum's Assyrian relief gallery, a winged deity in a bas-relief from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, dedicated in 879 BC, bears a bouquet of poppy capsules on long stems, described by the museum as "pomegranates".

Opium can be smoked, sometimes in combination with tobacco. Opium smoking was often associated with immigrant Chinese communities around the world, with "opium dens" becoming notorious fixtures of many Chinatowns.

In the 19th century, the smuggling of opium to China from India, particularly by the British, was the cause of the Opium Wars. It led to Britain seizing Hong Kong and to what the Chinese term the "century of shame". This illegal trade became one of the world's most valuable single commodity trades and was described by the eminent Harvard University historian John K. Fairbank as "the longest continued and systematic international crime of modern times."

There were no legal restrictions on the importation or use of opium in the United States until the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. Medicines often contained opium without any warning label. Today, there are numerous national and international laws governing the production and distribution of narcotic substances. In particular, Article 23 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs requires opium-producing nations to designate a government agency to take physical possession of licit opium crops as soon as possible after harvest and conduct all wholesaling and exporting through that agency. Opium's pharmaceutical use is strictly controlled worldwide and non-pharmaceutical uses are generally prohibited.


opium flowers The plant is an erect, herbaceous annual, varying much in the colour of its flowers, as well as in the shape of the fruit and colour of the seeds. All parts of the plant, but particularly the walls of the capsules, or seed-vessels, contain a system of laticiferous vessels, filled with a white latex. The flowers vary in colour from pure white to reddish purple. In the wild plant, they are pale lilac with a purple spot at the base of each petal.

The capsules vary much in shape and size. They are usually hemispherical, but depressed at the top, where the many-rayed stigma occupies the centre; they have a swollen ring below where the capsule joins the stalk. The small kidney-shaped seeds, minute and very numerous, are attached to lateral projections from the inner walls of the capsule and vary in colour from whitish to slate. The heads are of a pale glaucous green when young.

Opium is extracted from the poppy heads before they have ripened, and from Poppies grown in the East, those grown in Europe yielding but little of the drug.


The principal alkaloid, both as regards its medicinal importance, and the quantity in which it exists, is Morphine. Next to this, Narcotine and Codeine are of secondary importance. Among the numerous remaining alkaloids, amounting in all to about 1 percent of the drug, are Thebaine, Narceine, Papaverine, Codamine and Rhoeadine.


The effects of opium are fairly immediate. They last 2-3 hours, depending on body size, tolerance and how much you've smoked.

Medical use

Opium is described as a narcotic. Historically it has been prescribed as a painkiller, for inflammation unaccompanied by dyspnoea, in typhus and smallpox etc.


Opium is extracted from the poppy heads before they have ripened. When the petals have fallen from the flowers, incisions are made in the wall of the capsules, care being taken not to penetrate to the interior. The exuded juice, partially dried, is collected by scraping - the scrapings being formed eventually into cakes, which are wrapped in poppy leaves or paper and further dried in the sun, the white milky juice darkening during the drying.

The best way to smoke opium is in a bong. It burns at a higher temperature than pot or tobacco, so keep your lighter at its hottest. Start with a matchhead size portion of opium per person and take it from there. From the effects noticed you can decide whether the dose is right.


Opium is an addictive substance. It is possible to overdose on opium.

Links / Further reading

Purdue University - Papaver somniferum


This article is based on the following pages:

Wikipedia on opium

Erowids Opium poppy Vault

Botanical.com on opium

Lyceaum Opium FAQ

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