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The Plant Of Joy
is an extract of the exudate derived from seedpods of the opium poppy, Papaver
somniferum. The poppy plant was cultivated in the ancient
civilisations of Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Archaeological evidence
and fossilised poppy seeds suggest that Neanderthals may have used the
opium poppy over thirty thousand years ago. Less controversially, the
first known written reference to the poppy appears in a Sumerian text
dated around 4,000 BC. The flower was known as hul gil, plant of
joy. The Egyptian Eber papyrus of some 3500 years ago advises use of
condensed juice of the unripe seed pod "to prevent the excessive
crying of children". Papaver somniferum is the only species of
Papaver used to produce opium. It is believed to have evolved
through centuries of breeding and cultivation from a Mediterranean-growing
wild strain, Papaver setigerum.
conveys its effects in The Odyssey. In one episode, Telemachus is
depressed after failing to find his father Odysseus. But then Helen...
a happy thought. Into the bowl in which their wine was mixed, she slipped
a drug that had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and
banishing all painful memories. No one who swallowed this dissolved in
their wine could shed a single tear that day, even for the death of his
mother or father, or if they put his brother or his own son to the sword
and he were there to see it done..."
some parts of the contemporary Middle East, chilled glasses of poppy tea
are served to mourners at funerals to ease their grief.
somniferum has long been popular in Europe. Fossil remains of
poppy-seed cake and poppy-pods have been found in Neolithic Swiss
lake-dwellings dating from over 4,000 years ago. Poppy images appear in
Egyptian pictography and Roman sculpture. Representations of the Greek and
Roman gods of sleep, Hypnos and Somnos, show them wearing or carrying
poppies. Throughout Egyptian civilisation, priest-physicians promoted the
household use of opium preparations. Such remedies were called "thebacium"
after the highly potent poppies grown near the capital city of Thebes.
Egyptian pharaohs were entombed with opium artefacts by their side. Opium
could also readily be bought on the street-markets of Rome. By the eighth
century AD, opium use had spread to Arabia, India and China. The Arabs
both used opium and organised its trade. For the Prophet had prohibited
the use of alcohol, not hashish or opiates.
Greek physicians either ground the whole plant or used opium extract.
Galen lists its medical indications, noting how opium...
poison and venomous bites, cures chronic headache, vertigo, deafness,
epilepsy, apoplexy, dimness of sight, loss of voice, asthma, coughs of all
kinds, spitting of blood, tightness of breath, colic, the lilac poison,
jaundice, hardness of the spleen stone, urinary complaints, fever,
dropsies, leprosies, the trouble to which women are subject, melancholy
and all pestilences."
authorities were scarcely less enthusiastic. Physicians commonly believed
that the poppy plant was of divine origin; opium was variously called the
Sacred Anchor Of Life, Milk Of Paradise, the Hand Of God, and Destroyer Of
Grief. Medical pioneer Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), sometimes known as
'the English Hippocrates' and 'the Shakespeare of medicine', writes....
the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve
his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium."
may be overstating God's benevolence; but by relieving emotional as well
as physical pain, opiates have been understandably popular. Robert Burton
(1577-1640), scholar, priest and author of Anatomy of Melancholy,
commended laudanum - essentially opium dissolved in wine - for those who
reason of their continual cares, fears, sorrows, dry brains [which] is a
symptom that much crucifies melancholy men..."
opium was probably the world's first authentic antidepressant. Unlike
other pain-relieving agents such as ethyl alcohol, ether or the
barbiturates, opium doesn't impair sensory perception, the intellect or
motor co-ordination. Pain ceases to be threatening, intrusive and
distressing; but it can still be sensed and avoided. In low doses, opium
may sometimes be pleasantly stimulating rather than soporific. In the
East, opium was typically treated as a social drug; and opium-smoking was
a tool for conviviality. Nowadays a life of habitual opioid use evokes
images of stupor and mindless oblivion, yet ironically Coleridge coined
the word intensify to describe opium's effects on consciousness.
significant advance in opium-processing occurred in the sixteenth century.
In freebase form, the alkaloids found in opium are significantly less
soluble in water than in alcohol. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus
Bombastus von Hohenheim (1490-1541), better known as Paracelsus, claimed:
"I possess a secret remedy which I call laudanum and which is
superior to all other heroic remedies". He concocted laudanum
[literally: "something to be praised"] by extracting opium into
brandy, thus producing, in effect, tincture of morphine. His original
witches' brew contained extra ingredients such as crushed pearls, henbane
and frog-spawn. It was steeped in alchemical mumbo-jumbo: Paracelsus
called opium itself "the stone of immortality". Thomas Sydenham,
however, went on to standardise laudanum in the now classic formulation: 2
ounces of opium; 1 ounce of saffron; a drachm of cinnamon and cloves - all
dissolved in a pint of Canary wine.
can be habit-forming. Yet the sometimes spectacular ill-effects noted by
early modern writers when coming off laudanum probably owed more to its
ethyl alcohol content than its opium. As their opioid tolerance increased,
so did users' consumption of tinctures: De Quincey's florid withdrawal
signs on abstaining...
was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by
paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed, for centuries,
at the summit, or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was
worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all
the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me; Seva laid wait for me. I came
suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the
ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years, in
stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart
of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles;
and laid, confounded with all unuttemble slimy things, amongst reeds and
an alcoholic's delirium tremens rather than a junky's cold-turkey.
the nineteenth century, vials of laudanum and raw opium were freely
available at any English pharmacy or grocery store. One nineteenth-century
author declared: "[Laudanum] Drops, you are darling! If I
love nothing else, I love you." Another user, the English
gentleman quoted in Jim Hogshire's Opium for the Masses (1994),
enthused that opium felt akin to a gentle and constant orgasm.
opium imports rose from a brisk 91,000lb in 1830 to an astonishing
280,000lb in 1860. Despite British control of Indian production, most
domestic imports came from Turkey. This was because of the superior
morphine content - 10-13% - of Turkish opium; opium's varying potency
depends on its particular growing conditions. For obscure reasons, opium
was most popular among the rural peasantry of the Fens. The British
Medical Association estimated that sparsely populated Cambridgeshire and
its environs consumed around half of Britain's annual opium imports. This
consumption was topped up by generous use of poppy-tea brewed from
were introduced to the pleasures of opiates at their mothers' breast.
Harassed baby-minders - and overworked parents - found opium-based
preparations were a dependable way to keep their kids happy and docile;
this was an era before Ritalin. Sales of Godfrey's Cordial, a soothing
syrup of opium tincture effective against colic, were prodigious. But
Godfrey's Cordial had its competitors: Street's Infants' Quietness,
Atkinson's Infants' Preservative, and Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.
was viewed as a medicine, not a drug of abuse. Contemporary medical theory
didn't allow that one could become addicted to a cure. However, the
chemists and physicians most actively investigating the properties of
opium were also its dedicated consumers; and this may conceivably have
coloured their judgement.
of distinction certainly consumed opium in copious quantities. Samuel
Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote Kubla Khan in a dream-like
trance while under its spell; opium promotes vivid dreams and rich visual
imagery as well as gentle euphoria...
Xanadu did Kubla Khan
English author Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) writes of "the
marvellous agency of opium, whether for pleasure or for pain". De
Quincey seems to have treated opium as a mood-brightening smart-drug. The
author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) draws
invidious comparisons with alcohol. He attributes a heightening of his
mental powers to opium use...
wine disorders the mental faculties, opium introduces amongst them the
most exquisite order, legislation and harmony. Wine robs a man of
self-possession; opium greatly invigorates it....Wine constantly leads a
man to the brink of absurdity and extravagance; and, beyond a certain
point, it is sure to volatilize and disperse the intellectual energies;
whereas opium seems to compose what has been agitated, and to concentrate
what had been distracted. ...A man who is inebriated...is often...brutal;
but the opium eater...feels that the diviner part of his nature is
paramount; that is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless
serenity; and over all is the great light of majestic intellect...."
Quincey states that not he himself, but opium, should be regarded as the
true hero of his essay. Opium was his "Divine Poppy-juice, as
indispensable as breathing". By reputation, opium users have dull
wits, idle lives and diminished sensibility. This was not de Quincey's
verdict. He made a habit of going to the opera under its influence - and
found his experience of music delightfully enhanced...
opium, by greatly increasing the activity of the mind, generally
increases, of necessity, that particular mode of its activity by which we
are able to construct out of the raw material of organic sound an
elaborate intellectual pleasure...It is sufficient to say, that a chorus,
etc of elaborate harmony displayed before me, as in a piece of arras work,
the whole of my past life - not as if recalled by an act of memory, but as
if present and incarnated in the music; no longer painful to dwell upon,
but the detail of its incidents removed...and its passions exalted,
spiritualized, and sublimed..."
induces gentle, subtle, dream-like hallucinations very different from the
fierce and unpredictable weirdness of LSD. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
likens opium to a woman friend, "...an old and terrible friend, and,
alas! like them all, full of caresses and deceptions." Across the
Atlantic, in 1842, William Blair describes his experiences with opium in a
New York magazine...
I was sitting at tea, I felt a strange sensation, totally unlike any thing
I had ever felt before; a gradual creeping thrill, which in a few minutes
occupied every part of my body, lulling to sleep the before-mentioned
racking pain, producing a pleasing glow from head to foot, and inducing a
sensation of dreamy exhilaration (if the phrase be intelligible to others
as it is to me) similar in nature but not in degree to the drowsiness
caused by wine, though not inclining me to sleep; in fact far from it,
that I longed to engage in some active exercise; to sing, dance, or
leap...so vividly did I feel my vitality - for in this state of delicious
exhilaration even mere excitement seemed absolute elysium - that I could
not resist the tendency to break out in the strangest vagaries, until my
companions thought me deranged...After I had been seated [at
the play I was attending] a few minutes, the nature of the excitement
changed, and a 'waking sleep' succeeded. The actors on the stage vanished;
the stage itself lost its reality; and before my entranced sight
magnificent halls stretched out in endless succession with galley above
gallery, while the roof was blazing with gems, like stars whose rays alone
illumined the whole building, which was tinged with strange, gigantic
figures, like the wild possessors of lost globe...I will not attempt
farther to describe the magnificent vision which a little pill of 'brown
gum' had conjured up from the realm of ideal being. No words that I can
command would do justice to its Titanian splendour and immensity..."
was also well known in Chinese antiquity. One 10th century poem celebrates
how the opium poppy can be made into a drink "fit for Buddha".
Ancient peoples either ate parts of the flower or converted them into
liquids to drink. But by the 7th century, the Turkish and Islamic cultures
of western Asia had discovered that the most powerful medicinal effects
could be obtained by igniting and smoking the poppy's congealed juices;
and the habit spread. The widespread use of opium in China dates to
tobacco-smoking in pipes introduced by the Dutch from Java via the island
of Formosa in the 17th century. Whereas Indians ordinarily ate opium, the
Chinese smoked it. The Chinese mixed Indian opium with tobacco, two
products traded by the Dutch. Pipe-smoking was adopted throughout the
region. Predictably enough, this resulted in increased opium-smoking, both
with and without tobacco. Old encrusted opium-pipes were still valuable
because they contained a residue of charcoal and raw opium known as
"dross". Dross could be recycled with tobacco plus various
adulterants and sold to the poor. Styles of opium pipe reflected the
relative wealth or poverty of their owners. Pipes ranged from bejewelled,
elaborately ornamented works of art to simple constructions of clay or
the late-1700s, the British East India Company controlled the prime Indian
poppy-growing areas on the Ganges plain between Patna and Benares. The
company dominated the Asian opium trade; but they did not create it.
"Take your opium" was a standard greeting in some Indian cities
even before the Europeans arrived. By 1800, however, the British East
India Company had a virtual monopoly, controlling supply and setting
prices. Dealers, merchants and users alike lovingly assessed the quality
and potency of their merchandise with the ardour of a wine connoisseur.
According to The Chinese Repository, discerning purchasers of the
raw product looked for opium of...
firm texture, capable of receiving an impression from the finger; of a
dark yellow color when held in the light, but nearly black in the mass,
with a strong smell, and free from grittiness..."
was already heavily used in China as a recreational drug. The Imperial
Chinese court had banned its use and importation, but large quantities
were still being smuggled into the country. In 1839, the Qing Emperor, Tao
Kwang, ordered his minister Lin Tse-hsü to take action. Lin petitioned
Queen Victoria for help; but he was ignored. In reaction, the Emperor
instructed the confiscation of 20,000 barrels of opium and detained some
foreign traders. The British retaliated by attacking the port-city of
began the First Opium War, launched by the biggest, richest and perhaps
most aggressive drug cartel the world has ever known, the British Empire.
The Chinese were defeated. They were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing
in 1842. The British required that the opium trade be allowed to continue;
that the Chinese pay a large settlement and open five new ports to foreign
trade; and that China cede Hong Kong to Britain.
didn't last. The Second Opium War began and ended in 1856 over western
demands that opium markets be expanded. The Chinese were again defeated.
In 1858, by the Treaty of Tientsin, opium importation to China was
formally legalised. God-fearing British traders claimed that the
hard-working Chinese were entitled to "a harmless luxury"; the
opium trade in less respectable hands would be taken over by
"desperadoes, pirates and marauders". Soon opium poured into
China in unprecedented quantities. By the end of the nineteenth century,
it has been estimated that over a quarter of the adult male Chinese
population were addicted.
North America, the initial history of Papaver somniferum was
somewhat more peaceful. During the first few centuries of European
settlement, opium poppies were widely cultivated. Early settlers dissolved
the resin in whisky to relieve coughs, aches and pains.
plant had further uses. Papaver somniferum produces lots of small
black seeds. Poppy-seeds are an ingredient of typical bird-seed and a
common garnish on rolls. Poppy-seeds can also be ground into flour; used
in salad-dressings; added to sauces as flavouring or thickening-agents;
and the oil can be expressed and used in cooking. Poppy-heads are infused
to make a traditional sedative drink.
distinguished early Americans grew Papaver somniferum. Rightly or
wrongly, they would today be treated as felons. Thomas Jefferson
cultivated opium poppies at his garden in Monticello. The seeds from its
plants, including the poppies, were sold at the gift-shop of Thomas
Jefferson Center for Historic Plants until 1991 - when a drug-bust at the
nearby University of Virginia panicked the Board of Directors into ripping
up the plants and burning the seeds. The cultivation of Papaver
somniferum is banned in the USA under the Opium Poppy Control Act of
1942. Amateur horticulturists, however, continue to value the beautiful
red, yellow and white flowers as an adornment to their gardens.
the nineteenth century, the only opioids used medicinally or
recreationally took the form of crude opium. Opium is a complex chemical
cocktail containing sugars, proteins, fats, water, meconic acid, plant
wax, latex, gums, ammonia, sulphuric and lactic acids, and numerous
alkaloids, most notably morphine (10%-15%), codeine (1%-3%), noscapine
(4%-8%), papaverine (1%-3%), and thebaine (1%-2%). All of the latter,
apart from thebaine, are used medicinally as analgesics. The opioid
analgesics are of inestimable value because they reduce or abolish pain
without causing a loss of consciousness. They also relieve coughs, spasms,
fevers and diarrhea.
thebaine, though without analgesic effect, is of immense pharmaceutical
worth. This is because it can be used to produce semi-synthetic opioid
morphine analogues such as oxycodone (Percodan), dihydromorphenone (Dilaudid),
hydrocodone (Vicodin) and etorphine (Immobilon). Classes of morphine
analogue include the diphenylpropylamines (e.g. methadone), the
4-phenylpiperidines (e.g. meperidine), the morphinans (e.g. levorphanol)
and 6,7-benzomorphans (e.g. metazocine). Although seemingly structurally
diverse, all these compounds either possess a piperidine ring or contain
the critical part of its ring structure. Etorphine, for instance, is a
very potent analogue of morphine. On one occasion a team of researchers,
working in the 1960s under Professor Bentley of Macfarlan Smith and Co,
drank mid-morning tea that had been stirred with a contaminated rod. They
were soon laid out. The scientists had unwittingly drunk a drug later
developed as etorphine. Etorphine is over 1000 times more powerful than
morphine; it is used in dart-guns as Immobilon to subdue elephants and
rhinos. Fortunately the scientists recovered.
was first isolated from opium in 1805 by a German pharmacist, Wilhelm
Sertürner (1783-1841). Sertürner described it as the Principium
Somniferum. He named it morphium - after Morpheus, the Greek god of
dreams. Today morphine is isolated from opium in substantially larger
quantities - over 1000 tons per year - although most commercial opium is
converted into codeine by methylation. On the illicit market, opium gum is
filtered into morphine base and then synthesized into heroin.
had long hunted for effective ways to administer drugs without ingesting
them. Taken orally, opium is liable to cause unpleasant gastric
side-effects. The development of the hypodermic syringe in the
mid-nineteenth century allowed the injection of pure morphine. Both in
Europe and America, members of high society and middle-class professionals
alike would jack up daily; poor folk couldn't afford to inject drugs.
Morphinism became rampant in the USA after its extensive use by injured
soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. In late nineteenth-century
America, opiates were cheap, legal and abundant. In the judgement of one
historian, America became "a dope fiend's paradise". Moreover it
was believed that injecting morphine wasn't addictive. Quitting habitual
opium use can cause malaise, flu-like symptoms, and depression; morphine
seemed an excellent cure. In China, for instance, early twentieth century
missionaries handed out anti-opium remedies in such profusion that the
pills became known as "Jesus Opium"; their active ingredient was
Soldiers, missionaries and patent-medicine salesmen were not alone in
eulogising its properties. A leading American medical textbook (1868)
revealed that opiates...
a feeling of delicious ease and comfort, with an elevation of the whole
moral and intellectual nature...There is not the same uncontrollable
excitement as from alcohol, but an exaltation of our better mental
qualities, a warmer glow of benevolence, a disposition to do great things,
but nobly and beneficently, a higher devotional spirit, and withal a
stronger self-reliance, and consciousness of power. Nor is this
consciousness altogether mistaken. For the intellectual and imaginative
faculties are raised to the highest point compatible with individual
capacity...Opium seems to make the individual, for a time, a better and
optimism about morphine's non-addictive nature proved sadly misplaced.
Women in particular came to be seen as especially vulnerable to opiate
dependence. The most likely candidate for addiction, according to American
doctor R Batholow, was...
delicate female, having light blue eyes and flaxen hair, [who] possesses,
according to my observations, the maximum susceptibility..."
stereotypes, rampant xenophobia and lurid images of white slave-traders
abounded too. In the 1850s and 1860s, tens of thousands of Chinese had
emigrated to the USA to help build the western railroads and work the
California mines. Opium-smoking was an integral part of Chinese culture;
and its effects offered a merciful relief from dirty and backbreaking
work. But the medical tide was turning. Dr Hamilton Wright, newly
appointed US opium commissioner, blamed "the Chinese vice" for
corrupting the nation's youth....
of the most unfortunate phases of the habit of smoking opium in this
country [was] the large number of women who have become involved and were
living as common-law wives or cohabiting with Chinese in the Chinatowns of
our various cities..."
Dr John Witherspoon, later President of the American Medical Association,
exhorted the medical community to...
our people from the clutches of this hydra-headed monster which stalks
abroad through the civilized world, wrecking lives and happy homes,
filling our jails and lunatic asylums, and taking from these unfortunates,
the precious promise of eternal life..."
the search began for a powerful non-addictive alternative to opium and
morphine. In 1874, English pharmacist C.R. Alder Wright (1844-1894) had
boiled morphine and acetic acid to produce diacetylmorphine, C17H17NO
was synthesized and marketed commercially by the German pharmaceutical
giant, Bayer. In 1898, Bayer launched the best-selling drug-brand of all