This blog post is going to focus on a particularly interesting plant called Papaver somniferum, more commonly known as the opium poppy. Not only does this plant have a fascinating medicinal history, it also impacted heavily on us socially.
Firstly, a bit on the poppy’s medicinal use. Opium, the narcotic extracted from the plant’s seed pod, contains a number of natural painkillers and has been used in pain relief for millennia. In the 17th century, a tincture of opium combined with alcohol became readily available to the general populace under the name laudanum. Along with acting as a painkiller, laudanum was quickly employed as a cure for almost every ailment: from colds to heart problems to menstrual cramps. The drug morphine was later extracted from the opium poppy by the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in the early 19th century. Morphine quickly became one of the most widely used painkillers in medicine. A further extract, called heroin, was released in 1898 by the drug company Bayer. This well known drug is now an illegal substance that is frequently abused. All of the forms of opium can be highly addictive and long term use may result in interference with the brain’s endorphin receptors. These receptors are responsible for preventing the transmission of pain signals, making withdrawal difficult.
P. somniferum use predates human recorded history and has been found in Neolithic burial sites as far back as 4,200 BC. The use of opium has been documented in numerous ancient medicinal texts including the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1,500BC and those by Hippocrates in 460 BC and Dioscorides in 1st century AD.
One country that has played a big part in the history of opium is China, which was first introduced to P. somniferum between the 4th and 12th centuries via the trading route known as the Silk Road. By the 1600s, opium was smoked with tobacco and had become a popular pastime for the social elite. The recreational use of opium soon spread to the lower classes and its popularity soared. British traders from the East India Company sold large quantities of opium to smugglers to meet the growing demand for the drug. Worried by this, the Chinese Emperor began to take serious measurers to stop the illegal importation of opium, and in 1838 opium worth millions was destroyed by the Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu.
Since opium smuggling accounted for 15-20% of income for the British Empire, they started of the First Opium War on 18th March 1839 to combat the clampdown. The British won in 1842 and implemented a series of Unequal Treaties. The first of which, the Treaty of Nanking, involved trade concessions as well as forcing the Chinese to pay a total of 21 million ounces of silver in compensation. When Britain tried to make further demands in the 1850s, the Chinese refused and the Second Opium War began. Once again, China lost and this time was forced to legalise the opium trade.
Soon opium use spread from China to the west and, as opium dens became commonplace in cities, Britain attempted to curb the use by its populace. From the 1880s onwards, they tried to reduce opium production in China by discouraging its use. However, this had the opposite effect and opium’s popularity continued to escalate. After the introduction of the more addictive heroin by Bayer, the use of opium and heroin soared even further.
In 1906, the anti-opium initiative was set up by the Chinese to attempt to eradicate the problem. The initiative tried to turn public opinion against the drug through numerous methods, such as meetings, legal action and the requiring of licence. Opium farmers had their properties destroyed, land confiscated and sometimes publically tortured in an attempt to turn the general population against using opium. Though cruel, this method was quickly deemed a success with the majority of Chinese provinces ceasing opium production. However, this success was short-lived. By 1930, China had become the primary source of opium in Eastern Asia. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are addicted to opiates in one form or another and heroin continues to be a widely abused drug across the world.
Despite its chequered past and uses, the opium poppy has still contributed greatly to modern medicine and produces one of the most widely used painkillers today: morphine.
 According to the World Drug Report 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime