It All Started With Opium

Opium is an addictive narcotic drug derived from the unripe seedpods of the opium poppy. The earliest reference to opium growth and use comes from the Sumerians, who referred to it as the “joy plant.” The Sumerians passed it on to the Assyrians, who passed it on to the Egyptians, and so on.

The opium poppy plant.

Opium gained great popularity in Europe and the European colonies in the 18th century and became a key ingredient in medicines that people could easily obtain without prescriptions.

Not surprisingly, many people became addicted to opium. By 1900, it is estimated that more than 200,000 people in the US were addicted to opium and its derivatives.

One of the first extracts of opium was called laudanum. A tincture of opium containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight, laudanum contains almost all of the opium alkaloids (defined below), including morphine and codeine. Its high morphine content makes laudanum a potent narcotic. (A tincture is an alcoholic extract of plant material.) 

What is an Alkaloid?

Any understanding of heroin and other drugs that produce similar effects starts with an understanding of what an alkaloid is. Alkaloids are substances that produce different effects in human bodies.  

Alkaloids defined:

Alkaloids are basic substances found in plants and animals. They are usually bitter in taste and are characterized by powerful physical and mental effects. Examples include morphine, cocaine, quinine, nicotine, and caffeine. The term can also be applied to synthetic substances that have structures and effects similar to plant-based alkaloids.

Heroin bottles circa late 1800’s.

Opium contains a number of  alkaloids including the well-known narcotics morphine and codeine. Morphine was discovered as the first active alkaloid extracted from the opium poppy plant in December 1804 in Germany.

Heroin is derived from morphine. The Bayer Company of Germany introduced heroin for medical use in 1898.

Opioid vs Opiate

The terms ‘opioid’ and ‘opiate’ are often confused. From the Encyclopedia of Molecular Pharmacology:

Strictly speaking, opiates are drugs derived from opium and include the natural products morphine, codeine, and many semi-synthetic substances derived from them. The older term opiates is now more and more replaced by the term opioids which applies to any substance, whether natural or synthetic, that produces morphine-like narcotic effects.

Following this definition, we will be using throughout this site the term ‘opioid’ to describe all classes of this drug.

A Family of Addictive Substances

The following narcotic opioids are derived directly from the opium poppy plant:

  • Opium
  • Codeine
  • Morphine

Other drugs are derived from the above drugs. 

Semi-Synthetic Opioids

Some narcotic drugs are created by making chemical modifications to natural opiates such as morphine. Some examples:

  • Heroin
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Buprenorphine (an ingredient in Suboxone)

Synthetic Opioids

Drugs that act on the body and mind like opium and its derivatives, but which do not themselves contain any opium in them are synthetic opioids. These are created in laboratories and have similar effects as opium, including similar side effects, yet they do not contain any derivatives of the poppy plant.

Synthetic opioids have been designed to mimic morphine or the effects of opium and other opium derivatives. Some well known synthetic opioids include: 

  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • Oxycontin
  • MSContin
RESEARCH NOTE: There is a great deal of confusing and often contradictory information on this subject to be found on the Web. The following page was one of the most helpful: