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Monday, 14 November 2016

Opium

It was the Assyrians who discovered the calming and sedative properties of the opium poppy, which they cultivated. They used it medicinally to relieve pain, induce sleep, and bring on feelings of serenity and wellbeing for psychologically damaged patients.

Opium poppy seed pod exuding latex from a cut

The ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, Minoan, Greek, Roman, Persian and Arab Empires all made widespread use of opium, which was the most potent form of pain relief then available.

By the seventeenth century, opium was being mixed with tobacco for smoking, and its addictive properties were being recognized.

At the turn of the 19th century, opium was deemed in Western countries to be the most effective painkiller. It was usually dispensed as a dark brown alcoholic solution, but unfortunately its use had become particularly addictive.

Storage of opium as a pharmaceutical, Germany, 18th or 19th cent. By Bullenw├Ąchter

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge started using opium as a pain reliever in around 1796. His and Dorothy Wordsworth's notebooks record that he suffered from a variety of medical complaints, including toothache and facial neuralgia. There appears to have been no stigma associated with taking opium then, but also little understanding of the physiological or psychological aspects of addiction.

Whilst a student at Oxford, the English essayist Thomas de Quincey (August 15, 1785 – December 8, 1859) took opium to relieve a toothache. This became a lifelong addiction and eventually all his teeth fell out and he had to live on liquids.

De Quincey is best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. First published anonymously in September and October 1821 in the London Magazine, the Confessions was released in book form the following year Many scholars suggest that in publishing this work, De Quincey inaugurated the tradition of addiction literature in the West.

Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon.

Laudanum, which was opium mixed with alcohol, was widely used throughout Victorian society as a medicine. William Gladstone used laudanum to settle his nerves before parliamentary speeches and once glugged down so much he was forced to go to Baden Baden to recuperate. The taking of laudanum was socially acceptable in Victorian England and Gladstone's doctor came and administered it twice a day.

Widespread medical use of unprocessed opium continued until late in the century when it gave way to morphine, which could be injected at a precisely controlled dosage. Opium was prohibited in many countries during the early twentieth century, leading to the modern pattern of opium production as a precursor for illegal recreational drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Opium users in Java during the Dutch colonial period c. 1870

The 2010 documentary film Restrepo chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley who are battling in a country whose biggest money earner is the illicit trade of opium.

Australia supplies about 50% of the world's legally-grown opium used to make morphine and other painkillers.

The phrase ‘pipe dream’ originates from the fantasies induced by smoking opium.

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