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Opiate History

Table of Contents

Opiates have been used for centuries, both recreationally and for their pain-relieving effects. Because of their addictive nature, opioids 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 went on to the Assyrians, who passed it to the Babylonians. The Babylonians, in turn, gave their knowledge to the Egyptians.
Opium trade flourished, and the trade route included the Phoenicians and Minoans. Shortly after, it continues 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 hit the markets commercially three years later.

U.S. Regulates Opium, Black Market Emerges

In 1905, there was a banning of opium by the U.S. Congress. 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 ten 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 on the Body

Opiate activates the receptors in the brain and body. The two most common effects are pleasure, reward, and pain relief. Natural endorphins also activate these opiate receptors. When opiates are injected, inhaled, crushed, or chewed, they travel quickly through the bloodstream, flooding receptors. Stimulation of the receptors can cause higher amounts of dopamine to be released. This chemical response results in a “rush,” or in other words, 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. Active opiates found in opium include morphine, codeine, thebaine, and papaverine. Synthetic opioids 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. Opioids 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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