The History of Opiates

Opioids are biological (harvested from opium poppies) and synthetic chemicals that bind to opioid receptors in the human body and create morphine-like effects. Opiates are a subset of opioids and generally refer to naturally occurring chemicals derived from the opium poppy.

The opium poppy has been cultivated and harvested for medicinal and recreation purposes since at least 4,000 B.C. The ancient civilizations of Persia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia all cultivated the opium poppy. In the last two centuries, opium and opium derivatives have gained popularity in the western world. By the nineteenth century, vials of laudanum (a tincture of opium and ethyl alcohol) and raw opium were easily available at any English pharmacy or grocery store.

Between 1830 and 1860, British opium imports rose from 91,000 pounds to 280,000 pounds. Opium mixtures were even sold under a variety of brand names as syrups and tonics for soothing colicky babies. Opium was valued medicinally because it could reduce or eliminate pain without making the user lose consciousness. It was also effective at treating diarrhea and cough.

Until the 19th century, all opiates used for medicinal or recreational purposes were mixtures of crude opium and other ingredients. In 1805, a German pharmacist first derived morphine from opium. This was the first step toward developing modern heroin. Because morphine could be injected rather than ingested, common unpleasant digestive side effects of the drug could be avoided.

Following the American Civil War in the 1860s, morphine use became widespread in the United States, especially among injured survivors. The drug was cheap, highly available, and believed to be non-addictive. Because morphine was judged to provide the same pain relief as opium without the potential for addiction, it replaced opium for most medicinal purposes. Ironically, doctors and even Christian missionaries to China distributed morphine as a "cure" for opium addiction. In 1898, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer developed a new derivative of morphine, and first introduced Heroin as a brand name drug.

The U.S. Congress first banned opium in 1905. In 1923, the U.S. Treasury Department's Narcotics Division (the first incarnation of a national drug agency) banned all legal sales of narcotics. The Controlled Substances Act was made law in 1970 by the United States Congress as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The legislation formulated five schedules (classifications) for drugs, with different criteria for each schedule.

Schedule 1 substances meet three general criteria: The drug (or other substance) has high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and does not meet accepted safety standards for use under medical supervision. Subcategories of drugs listed on Schedule 1 include opiates, opiate derivatives, hallucinogenic substances, depressants (including GHB, the "date rape drug"), and stimulants. Along with marijuana, specific Schedule 1 drugs include PCP (also known as Angel Dust), LSD, and heroin.

Opium, opiates, and opioids have similar effects. Low doses of these substances are effective to relieve pain, suppress coughs, and control diarrhea. Medium and high doses may cause euphoria, nausea, depressed respiration, and sleepiness; users can also experience seizures, dizziness, weakness, loss of consciousness, coma, confusion, cardiac arrest, and clammy skin. High doses can easily depress respiration to a fatal level, especially when used in combination with other depressants such as alcohol.

Opiates are powerfully addictive, both physically and psychologically; the withdrawal process is severe. Symptoms of withdrawal include suicidal ideation, cold sweats, immobility, insomnia, severe diarrhea, abnormal body temperature and heartbeat, and clinical depression.

Opiate use continues to be a public health concern in the United States. Heroin and opioid prescription painkillers represent two of the most commonly abused opium-derived substances. In the National Drug Threat Assessment 2005 Summary Report, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) states that although demand for heroin is markedly lower that for other comparable illicit drugs (including cocaine, meth, and marijuana), the risks and outcomes associated with heroin abuse are so severe that it continues to represent a substantial threat.

The most recent national Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that the number of current heroin users (those who have used within the past 30 days) increased from approximately 136,000 in 2005 to 338,000 in 2006. The survey also reported that in 2006, approximately 2.5 million people (ages 12 and older) first used prescribed medication for non-medical reasons. Of these, 84% used pain relievers. Also, according to the study, first-time users of pain killers increased from 573,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2000.

Note: Recent Nation Drug Threat Assessment 2010 Report is now available online

Resource: Opiate Addiction Treatment