Use of opium dates back further than there is history. Archeological digs in Switzerland have found Opium Poppy seeds and pods, dating from the Neolithic age--the "New Stone Age", a period running from 5500 B.C. to 8000 B.C. This makes opium the oldest known drug.
The first people known to have used opium are the Sumarians who lived in lower Mesopotamia (now western Iraq). The Sumarians are best remembered as the culture that invented writing. But in most ways, they were far ahead of their time. They produced ten times as much food as other farmers in the region--largely due to their use of irrigation. They traded extensively with their neighbors, especially food and the drugs opium and beer--it is estimated that as much as half of the Sumarian barley crop went to beer production.
The use of opium by the Sumarians dates back as far as 3500 BC (5500 years). It is known that they used opium medicinally. Some contend that it was not used recreationally. This is highly unlikely, however; the Sumarian name for the opium poppy is hul gil, which means "joy plant". Plus their use and export of alcohol indicates that recreational use of drugs was as important to the people of that time as it is today.
Opium Moves West
Thanks to the trading ties of the Sumarians with their neighbors, the secret of opium--how to produce it--eventually traveled westward. By 1300 BC, the Egyptians were cultivating poppies for the production of opium. The opium they produced was an extremely popular commodity; they traded it as far away as Greece and even central Europe.
The first mention of opium by the Greeks was made around 330 BC by Hippocrates--the father of medicine. He wrote about opium's usefulness in curing a number of diseases, especially diarrhea.
Later, around 150 BC, another Greek physician--Galen--took up opium as a kind of cause. Even though he is credited with writing the first description of an opium overdose, he still advocated its use for a number of medical purposes.
Dioscorides made the last real Greek investigation of opium in the first century AD. His analysis is as valid today as it was then. He noted that it was highly effective at relieving nausea, diarrhea, and insomnia. He even noted its use as an aphrodisiac.
Opium Moves East
Opium has a much greater association with the Far East than it does with the West. People often assume that opium originated in the East and was exported to the West--part of the "yellow menace". Even though opium was first produced in the Middle East, the introduction of opium to the Far East took a circuitous route. It was only after opium was being produced in the west--Egypt and Europe--that it was exported to the Far East.
At around 330 BC, Alexander the Great introduced opium to Persia. This was not the first time that opium had been sent to Persia, however. Some 3000 years earlier, the Sumarians were trading opium with them. With the decline the Sumarians, however, opium stopped being imported. As a result, opium vanished from Persian culture. So when Alexander brought it there, it was a new commodity.
It was much later that opium finally arrived in China--700 years later. It came by way of Arab traders, but the opium itself came from Egypt.
Although the Chinese are usually imagined to ingest opium by smoking, it was primarily drank (just as it was elsewhere) for the first 1000 years it was used there. It was the Dutch who began the practice of combining opium with tobacco and smoking it in a pipe around 1500. This practice was introduced to the Chinese about 200 years later by the Portuguese. Smoking opium quickly caught on in China.
The practice did not stay in use for long, however. The Chinese gave it up in favor of the direct vaporization technique, which is still the most widely used by smokers today.
Around the same time as the Dutch began smoking opium, Laudanum was invented. This was in 1527. Although laudanum can contain many different ingredients, it is--in its most basic form--opium dissolved in alcohol. The most famous of these was Sydenham's Laudanum, which was a combination of sherry and opium; the sweetness of the sherry made the bitter taste of the opium more palatable. Sydenham's Laudanum is also distinguished as being one of the first "patent medicines". Laudanum is important in the history of opium because users in the West most often used opium in that form for the next 400 years.
China Opium Import
Over the next few centuries we see an increase in the export of opium from Europe into China. This was due largely because Asia had many commodities that Europeans wanted but the Europeans had little the Asians wanted. The thing the British most wanted from China was tea. About the only thing the Chinese did want from the Europeans was opium. The Chinese grew their own opium poppies, of course. But they were not very successful at it. As a result, they did not produce nearly enough opium to satisfy their own market. In addition, the opium they did produce was of a low quality that was little coveted.
England Takes Over
Even though the Portuguese and Dutch had been big exporters of opium to China, by 1800 England had a near monopoly on opium exported to the region. The East India Company was responsible for this export, but they were so involved with the British government by the time of the Opium Wars, that it doesn't make sense to talk about the opium traders as anything but "England".
Business was booming. The market was growing almost every year due to a number of causes. First, the population of China was increasing rapidly at this time--roughly doubling from 1750 to 1850. Second, the number of per capita users was increasing. Third, per user consumption was increasing.
The Chinese government had made opium illegal in 1796. For the 40 years following the enactment of the law, the government did nothing much to enforce it. When the government did finally try to enforce the opium ban, it led to the two Opium Wars, although in fact they are pretty much just one war with a long cease-fire in the middle.
Today, it is fashionable to see the two Opium Wars as being a fight between the caring, paternal Chinese government--trying to save its people from the horror of opium addiction, and the greedy English--lining their pockets by making the Chinese people into virtual slaves. This was true even of English observers at the time, like John Barrow:
It is a curious circumstance that we grow poppy in our Indian Territories to poison the people of China in return for a wholesome beverage which they prepare almost exclusively for us.
This view--common though it is--is no more correct or objective than the view that new-world merchants where enslaving Europe with their export of coffee and tobacco.
The facts are that the Chinese government was concerned about one thing: its large trade deficit with England. No country likes to have large trade deficits, because it means that the wealth of the country is being moved to another country--especially when exchanged for an ephemeral product like food or drugs. It is true that the Chinese government made opium smoking illegal much earlier than the 1796 law. This was based mostly on hysteria--"Opium smoking makes the face shrivel up"--and the government did nothing to actually stop opium from coming into the country, until it became economically unpleasant to lose so much of the country's wealth. During all this time, the Chinese government had no problem with the use of the poor quality opium that China was producing.
On the other side, the English were not forcing the Chinese to take their opium. The Chinese wanted it. Roughly two centuries before the Opium Wars, European governments banned the import of silk from Asia. However, no one accuses the English of enslaving Europe over, silk. Why? Because the Europeans wanted the silk; England was just selling it to them. Similarly, the Chinese wanted opium; England was just selling it to them.
The first Opium War started due to the seizure of 95 tons of opium from British merchant ships. In effect, China was simply enforcing a law that it had created but not enforced for almost 50 years. Just the same, it looked very much like simple theft given the English had been doing this business for the previous 50 years.
England Wins Opium Wars
Britain won the war in 1842. But the Chinese government never really complied with the ambiguous terms of the surrender treaty. As a result, hostilities resumed in 1856 over an incident very much like the one that started the first Opium War (seizing a ship's cargo and charging its crew with drug smuggling). The Chinese government finally admitted defeat in 1860.
Opium Use In China
The end result of the two Opium Wars was that the Chinese people were allowed to buy good quality, opium, imported from India. Due to this, opium use and addiction continued to increase for the rest of the 19th century. But these rates where only comparable to the rates that existed after opium importation by the English was stopped in the early 20th century. In addition, they were nothing compared to the rates for other drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine--then or now.
At the end of the first Opium War--the opium addiction rate was extremely low: less than 1%. Even at the turn of the 20th century when opium imports were stopping, the addiction rate was 3.4%. It is hard to compare this number to modern China, because for years the communist government made China isolated from most other countries. Food as well as opium did not get imported very much. As a result, opium addition stayed very low, just as hunger stayed high. As soon as China became involved in global legal commerce, the opium started flowing in and the addicts started piling up.
The opium addiction rates for modern Iran--the highest per capita opium users in the world--at the time they were deciding to dismantle their "opium dealers get death" program because it didn't work, was right at 2.8%--very close to the Chinese peak, when opium was freely available. If opium use as medicine is included, this number is certainly higher than 3.4%.
An interesting aspect of opium use in China during this time was that users still made rational economic decisions about their use. While England kept opium imports to China low in order to increase the market price, the number of opium users stabilized--even though plenty of high-priced opium was coming in from other sources. When England increased imports and decreased prices to stop other countries from selling to China, use went up. In other words, opium users decided how much they would spend on opium, based on price, just like they would with any other commodity.
Especially when talking about opium and its related drugs, there is a strong tendency to make the unstated assumption that addiction--in and of itself--is harmful. This assumption is simply untrue. Addiction is not necessarily harmful. This is especially true when the drug in question is legal, readily available, and cheap. Under such circumstances, addicts are usually able to lead normal and productive lives. For example, caffeine causes little harm to the hundreds of millions of people throughout the world who are addicted to it.
In some cases, addiction can even be helpful. Again using the caffeine analogy, coffee drinking is normally associated with higher employee productivity in corporate environments. In fact, there is much evidence that indicates that the increase in stimulant and depressant use during the 19th century was caused by changes in the work environment. Before the industrial revolution, people were allowed to work as their body's dictated. With industrialisation, people were expected to work specific times. Thus, they needed stimulants to get them going in the morning and depressants to make them relax at night.
As discussed before, the Chinese immigrants who helped build the intercontinental railroad where known for their high level of productivity and their high level of opium use. Their opium use allowed them to bear the physical pain and mental boredom of the job. But it is likely that the high level of opium consumption was a result of these difficult aspects of the job.
Meanwhile, Back in the Laboratory
While all of the political machinations were ensuing in Asia, Friedrich Setuerner was doing work in his laboratory that would change the world forever. He isolated the drug found in highest abundance in opium: morphine--named after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep. It turns out that morphine is also responsible for the majority of the opium effect--especially for the euphoria and the "dream like" state it creates in the user.
The Beginning of Modern Medicine
This marked the beginning of modern pharmacology. Science began investigating all of the natural drugs to see what was inside them. This has been done more to opium than to any other drug. Since Seturner's work, scientists have isolated over fifty distinct alkaloids in opium. And the search continues with no end in site.
The isolation of morphine also brought about a change in the way medicine was used. Doctors and patients alike expected drugs to be very specific in their actions. In western countries, drugs like opium are simply not prescribed. Instead, one particular compound from opium is given to a patient--usually in pill form.
The Death of Opium
The beginning of the 20th century saw most countries creating laws that banned the use of opium. The United States banned opium for a number of reasons. Probably the most important, at the federal level, was that the government wanted to cozy up to China in order to gain access to its lucrative markets.
The Science of Racism: Eugenics
At the local level, opium was banned because of its association with the Chinese. In fact, many of the early laws banned opium use by the Chinese; whites were exempt. This kind of racism was also responsible for much of the global pressure to make drugs illegal: the Eugenics movement.
The idea behind this movement was to make human bloodlines stronger by, among other measures, keeping them free of impurities. The banning of drugs was supposed to create better humans because drugs "dirtied" the body and the soul. Eugenicists thus saw the phrase "cleanliness is next to Godliness" as discouraging the listener from soiling his body with alcohol and other "polutants"--not as encouraging regular bathing.
A big part of this "pollution" existed because different races inter-bred. The global Eugenics movement gave us the Nazis, the Drug War, and Narcotics Anonymous where people proudly announce how long their bodies have been "clean". Very few NA members know with what they are allied. But the Nazis knew very well; Hitler was favorably inclined towards the United States largely because of the history of the Eugenics movement there.
A common message found in Nazi concentration camps at the beginning of World War II proclaimed, "There is a road to freedom. Its milestones are Obedience, Endeavor, Honesty, Order, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Truthfulness, Sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland." It was signed "Adolf Hitler", but it could just as easily have come from any modern day politician: John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. The radical ideals of the Eugenics movement are now accepted facts. George Orwell put it most bluntly: "Freedom is slavery".
The Eugenics Movement saw its greatest triumph in the creation of drug laws that had not existed outside of religious rule. It basically stopped the use of opium anywhere except right near the source. But the ban did not work in the way the idealists had wanted. Since opium was now illegal, it became important for distributors to increase the potency of what they were distributing--out went opium and in came heroin.
Black Market Distribution
This is always the case: illegal commodities are sold in their most concentrated forms. Today, most alcohol is distributed as beer and wine. During prohibition--when it was illegal--alcohol was mainly distributed as whisky. So today, most illegal inter-country distribution of opium is done with heroin. Heroin is a slight chemical alteration of morphine--the most active of opium's many active ingredients. But heroin is much more potent than opium. And since heroin is very expensive, users commonly inject the drug right into a vein rather than simply drinking or smoking it.
Misguided Government Regulation
So the governments of the world, in trying to solve one problem, created a much bigger problem. Today, there are more addicts as a percent. Since they inject their drugs, there are more sudden deaths. In addition, there are more diseases spread and more deaths associated with them. Finally, since the cost is high, many addicts resort to crime to acquire the money they need to buy their drugs. The laws the governments make continue to be more of the same--making bad problems worse. And there is no public acknowledgement of this. In fact, it is worse than that.
Government agencies are in a position to grow regardless of their success or failure. If drug use goes up, they make the argument that they need more resources to fight the drug problem because it is getting worse. If drug use goes down, they make the argument that they are doing a great job and would do even better if they were given more resources. "Paid if they do, paid if they don't."
Today, opium is appreciated by drug users, as much in a sense of nostalgia as anything during those rare instances when they can get it. Opium use is still quite common, however, in areas that are close to the opium poppy growing regions. But even if opium is not used very much directly--either for medicine or recreation, it is still profoundly important to the modern world.
Opium and all the drugs that have been derived from it are the most important pain relievers in existence. Similarly, recreational drug users still use vast numbers of drugs derived from opium. Such users run the gamut from the guy who takes the occasional teaspoon of codeine cough syrup to get high, all the way to the prostitute heroin addict who sells his body to get his daily supply of drugs. For good and for bad, opium continues to have a profound effect on the cultures of the world.