Published on:
March 1st, 2010

Opiates have been used for centuries, both recreationally and for their pain-relieving effects. Because of their addictive nature, opiates can lead to dependence, tolerance and addiction if used persistently.

The opium poppy was first cultivated in lower Mesopotamia in 3400 B.C. From there, the plant was passed on to the Assyrians, who passed it to the Babylonians. The Babylonians in turn, passed their knowledge to the Egyptians.

Opium trade flourished, and the trade route included the Phoenicians and Minoans. From there, it was transported across the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, Carthage and Europe. In 460 B.C., Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” dismissed the magical attributes of opium but agreed it was useful as a narcotic.

In 330 B.C. Alexander the Great took opium to the people of Persia and India. Skip ahead some years, and the First Opium War breaks out in 1838 after China orders all foreign traders to surrender their opium.

In 1841, the Chinese are defeated by the British in this war. Importing opium became legal in 1856 after a second Opium War. Heroin, an opiate synthesized from morphine, makes its appearance in 1895 when The Bayer Company of Germany dilutes morphine with acetyls. The drug is introduced commercially three years later.

U.S. Regulates Opium, Black Market Emerges

In 1905, opium is banned by the U.S. Congress. In an effort to curb drug abuse and addiction, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act passes in 1914, requiring doctors, pharmacists and others who prescribe them to register and pay a tax. Within 10 years, the U.S. black market for heroin emerges in New York’s Chinatown. That same market thrives today, swamped by supplies coming from countries including China, Mexico, Columbia, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Opiates’ Effects in the Body

Opiate drugs activate receptors in the brain and body. Two important effects are pleasure/reward and pain relief. The brain produces endorphins which also activate these opiate receptors. When opiates are injected, inhaled, crushed or chewed, they travel quickly through the blood stream, flooding receptors. Stimulation of the receptors can cause greater amounts of dopamine to be released. This results in a “rush,” or feelings of extreme euphoria, usually followed by a calm, relaxed state. The excessive release of dopamine, combined with over-stimulation of the reward system, can lead to addiction.

Prescriptions for Opiates Rises, Along With Addiction

The term “opiates” is derived from opium, which is processed from the opium poppy. Active opiates found in opium include morphine, codeine, thebaine and papaverine. Synthetic opioid such as heroin and hydrocodone are synthesized from these substances, mainly morphine and codeine. Today, opiates are still the most effective pain relievers available in medicine, and include morphine, OxyContin , Tramadol, Lorcet and Lortab. Opiates are heavily prescribed around the world, which has sent addiction rates soaring. The societal and economic impacts of opiate addiction have far-reaching consequences for users, their families, communities and agencies involved in law enforcement and healthcare. The scourge that is opiate addiction has governments and agencies scrambling to control it.

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