As long ago as 3400 B.C., the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians called it as Hul Gil, the 'joy plant.' The Sumerians’ knowledge of poppy cultivation passed to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and ultimately, the Egyptians.
By 1300 B.C. the Egyptians were cultivating opium thebaicum, named for their capital city of Thebes. From Thebes, the Egyptians traded opium all over the Middle East and into Europe. Throughout this period, opium’s effects were considered magical or mystical.
Some eight hundred years later, the Greek physician, Hippocrates, dismissed the idea that opium was "magical." Instead, he noted its effectiveness as a painkiller and a styptic (a drug used to staunch bleeding.)
Around 330 B.C. Alexander the Great introduced opium to the people of Persia and India, where the poppies later came to be grown in vast quantities. By A.D. 400, opium thebaicumwas first introduced to China by Arab traders.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, when anything from the East was linked to the Devil, opium went unmentioned and unused in Europe. However, the surge of seafaring and exploring reintroduced the drug in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Portuguese sailors are thought to have been the first to smoke opium, around 1500. As with any drug, smoking opium has an instantaneous effect, contrasted with eating or drinking the drug.
Laudanum, an alcoholic solution of opium, was first compounded by Paracelsus about 1527. The preparation was widely used up through the 19th century to treat a variety of disorders. The addictive property of opium (or laudanum) was not yet understood. A leading brand of laudanum, Sydenham's Laudanum, was introduced in England in 1680.
Purely recreational use of opium gained some prevalence in the early 1600s in Persia and India, where it was either eaten or drunk in various mixtures. The heavy traffic of trade and exploration by sea continued to spread the traffic of opium around the world during this period. Opium was traded everywhere from China to England. In fact, in 1606 ships chartered by Elizabeth I were instructed to purchase the finest Indian opium and transport it back to England.
The eighteenth century saw greater incursions of the opium trade into China, along with the practice of smoking the drug in pipes. The British undertook creating a demand for opium in China in order to create a trade balance for all off the tea from China they required. The opium problem became widespread enough to inspire a Chinese ban, in 1729, of the use of opium for anything other than licensed medical use. Beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company dominated the opium trade out of Calcutta to China.
The amount of opium sold into China was approximately two thousand chests of opium per year by 1767, and by 1858, that number had risen to 70,000 chests of opium. By the end of the century, the British East India Company had a complete monopoly on the Indian opium trade. In 1799, all opium trade was banned in China, but by then millions of Chinese were addicted. In some coastal provinces, 90% of Chinese adults were opium addicts by the mid-1830s.
Not to be outdone, the British Levant Company began, in 1800, to purchase nearly half of all of the opium coming out of Smyrna, Turkey for export to Europe and the United States.
In 1803, Friedrich Sertuerner of Germany synthesized morphine (principium somniferum) for the first time, and discovered the active ingredient of the opium poppy, which Linnaeus had first classified in 1753 as papaver somniferum. The discovery of morphine was considered a milestone. The medical community declared that opium had been "tamed." Morphine’s reliability, long-lasting effects, and safety were extolled. In fact, despite its potential for addiction, morphine is still the premier drug used for extreme pain in hospitals and for end-of-life care.
Following the 1799 ban on opium in China, opium smuggling began to be a crowded industry, with several well-known Americans entering the trade. Charles Cabot and John Cushing, of Boston, worked separately to amass opium-smuggling wealth. John Jacob Astor of New York City smuggled ten tons of opium into China under his American Fur Company banner, but later confined his opium selling to the English trade.
English artists, writers, and other luminaries were famously experimenting with and becoming addicted to opium in the early 19th century. By 1830, British use of opium for both medicinal and recreational purposes was at an all time high. 22,000 pounds of opium were imported from Turkey and India that year.
Laudanum continued to be popular, and was actually cheaper than beer or wine. Patent medicines (non-prescription "cures" of all descriptions,) and opium preparations such as Dover's Powder were readily available. The incidence of opium dependence grew steadily in England, Europe, and the United States during the first half of the 19th century by means of these treatments. Working-class medicinal use of products containing opium as sedatives for children was especially common in England. Those using opium for recreational purposes seem to have been primarily English literary and creative personalities, such as Thomas de Quincey, Byron, Shelley, Barrett-Browning, Coleridge, and Dickens.
The First Opium War between China and England began in 1839 as a result of a Chinese ban on opium traffic, and an order for all foreign traders to surrender their opium. In 1841, the British defeated the Chinese and took possession of Hong Kong as part of their bounty. The Second Opium War of 1856 finally made the importation of opium into China legal again, against the wishes of the Chinese government.
Dr. Alexander Wood of Edinburgh discovered the technique injecting morphine with a syringe in 1843. The effects of injected morphine were instantaneous and three times more potent than oral administration.
Heroin (diacetylmorphine) was first synthesized in 1874 by English researcher, C.R. Wright. The drug went unstudied and unused until 1895 when Heinrich Dreser working for The Bayer Company of Germany, found that diluting morphine with acetyls produced a drug without the common morphine side effects. Heroin was considered a highly effective medication for coughs, chest pains, and the discomfort of tuberculosis. This effect was important because pneumonia and tuberculosis were the two leading causes of death at that time, prior to the discovery of antibiotics. Heroin was touted to doctors as stronger than morphine and safer than codeine. It was thought to be nonaddictive, and even thought to be a cure for morphine addiction or for relieving morphine withdrawal symptoms. Because of its supposed great potential, Dreser derived his name for the new drug from the German word for `heroic.'
After decades of promoting the consumption of opium, Britain in 1878 passed the Opium Act to reduce opium consumption in China, India, and Burma. Under the new regulation, the selling of opium was restricted to registered Chinese opium smokers and Indian opium eaters.
In 1886, the British acquired Burma's northeast region, the Shan state. Production and smuggling of opium along the lower region of Burma thrived despite British efforts to maintain a strict monopoly on the opium trade. To this day, the Shan state of Burma (now known as Myanmar) is one of the world’s leading centers of opium production.
During the early years of the 20th century, the Chinese leadership worked in a variety of ways to stop the flow of opium into their country. In 1910, after 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese were finally able to convince the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade.
Despite the 1890 U.S. law-enforcement legislation on narcotics, which imposed a tax on opium and morphine, consumption of the drugs, along with heroin, grew rapidly at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Various medical journals of the time wrote of heroin as a morphine step-down cure. Other physicians argued, on the other hand, that their patients suffered from heroin withdrawal symptoms as severe as morphine withdrawal.
Finally, in 1905, the U.S. Congress banned opium. The following year, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required pharmaceutical companies to label their patent medicines with their complete contents. As a result, the availability of opiate drugs in the U.S. significantly declined. In 1909, Congress banned the import of opium. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which aimed to curb drug abuse and addiction. It requires doctors, pharmacists, and others who prescribed narcotics (cocaine and heroin) to register and pay a tax.
In 1923, the U.S. Treasury Department's Narcotics Division (the first federal drug agency) banned all legal narcotics sales, forcing addicts to buy from illegal street dealers. Soon, a thriving black market opened up in New York's Chinatown.
In the 1920s and 30s, the majority of illegal heroin smuggled into the U.S. came from China. In the 1940s, Southeast Asia, (Laos, Thailand and Burma, referred to as the 'Golden Triangle,') became a major player in the profitable opium trade. In fact, during World War II, the French occupiers of Southeast Asia encouraged Hmong farmers to expand their opium production so that the French could retain their opium monopoly. After the war, Burma gained its independence from Britain, and opium cultivation and trade began to flourish in the Shan state.
In the U.S., the heroin trade between 1948 and 1972 was dominated by Corsican gangsters and U.S. Mafia drug distributors. The raw Turkish opium was refined in Marseilles laboratories (the "French Connection,") and sold to junkies on New York City streets. In the 1950s, the U.S. preoccupation with stopping the spread of Communism led to alliances with drug producing warlords in the Golden Triangle. The U.S. and France supplied the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms, and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result was an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts. During the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up a charter airline, Air America, to transport raw opium from Burma and Laos. During this period, the number of heroin addicts in the U.S. reached an estimated 750,000.
After the Vietnam War, the heroin epidemic in the U.S. subsided somewhat. Until 1978, "Mexican Mud," temporarily replaced "China White" heroin as the most common source of heroin in the U.S. In 1978, the U.S. and Mexican governments cooperated to eliminate the source of Mexican opium. They sprayed the poppy fields with Agent Orange. The amount of "Mexican Mud" in the U.S. drug market declined rapidly. Another source of heroin cropped up in its wake, from the Golden Crescent area of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
During the 1970s and 80s, officials tried to eradicate marijuana, coca, and opium poppy farms by introducing crop substitution programs in the Third World, but the technique produced very disappointing results.
In the late 80s, the establishment of a dictatorship in Burma increased the production of opium in that country. The world’s single largest heroin seizure was made in 1988 in Bangkok. The 2,400-pound shipment of heroin, en route to New York City, was suspected to have originated in the region controlled by the Burmese drug warlord, Khun Sa. Khun Sa was indicted in the U.S. in 1990 on heroin trafficking charges, but was still at-large in Burma.
In 1992, Colombia's drug lords introduced a high-grade form of heroin into the United States at prices that severely undercut Asian sources. Despite a 1993 joint operation between the Thai army and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, among others, efforts to eradicate opium at its source remained unsuccessful in the mid-90s. The new U.S. focus adopted the approach of attempting to "[strengthen] democratic governments abroad, [to] foster law-abiding behavior and promote legitimate economic opportunity."
In 1995, the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia was the leader in opium production, yielding 2,500 tons annually. According to U.S. drug experts, there were new drug trafficking routes from Burma through Laos, to southern China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In January 1996, the Burmese warlord Khun Sa "surrendered" to the ruling junta of Burma. The junta allowed Khun Sa to retain control of his opium trade if he would end his 30-year-old revolutionary war against the government. In 1998, it appeared that approximately 18% of the heroin smuggled into the U.S. came from the Golden Triangle.