The Hidden History of Opioids




America’s modern opioid crisis is one that has only been around in the national spotlight for three decades. However, the use of opioids, the spread of opioids, and the regulations on opioids have been around for centuries. Opioids and opiates stem from the opium poppy and come in many legal and illegal forms such as heroin, morphine, hydrocodone (Vicodin), fentanyl, and Demerol. Many people assume that it’s safe to take the prescription opioids, but nearly 40% of overdose deaths involve prescription opioid. However, this modern crisis is one that has a long history and has actually been a problem in America and the world for millennia.


The first known record of opium cultivation is in a Mesopotamia record in 3,400 B.C. As different ancient kingdoms rose to power, they took the opium poppy with them. Traces of opium use can be found in ancient Sumerian, Greek, Persian, Minoan, and Egyptian empires. The Sumerians called it the “joy plant,” and Homer referenced its healing powers in his Odyssey. Many ancient civilizations would use the plant’s tendency to produce a high to relieve pain and even calm crying children.


By the first millennium A.D., opium was introduced into China and India by Arab traders that travelled the Great Silk Road and would become commonly associated with the Chinese in the 18th and 19th century. Under the Inquisition, European knowledge and use of opium practically disappeared because the Inquisition viewed Eastern things as of the Devil. It wouldn’t be until the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that the use of opium as medicine would be reintroduced in Europe. At the same time, Portuguese sailors introduced the smoking of opium to China.


As the European countries began colonizing the Far East, they discovered not only the availability of tea, but also the readiness of opioids and their effects on the human body. When England conquered India, they decided to make a profit off the vast regions of poppy growing production. Using the East India Company as a cover, the British Empire began to smuggle opium into China and use the money to buy silks, porcelain, and much more. China, even in the 1700s, saw the effects of opium and the increase of opium addiction, wanted nothing to do with it.


The ensuing struggle between the British Empire and China was called the First Opium War, and China lost to Britain gunboat diplomacy. In the treaty that ended the fight, China also gave up the valuable port city of Hong Kong. Roughly a dozen years following the first war, Britain and France forced China to legalize the opium trade in the Second Opium War. Many Europeans, however, still viewed opium as a horrible evil. William Gladstone, whose sister Helen had an opium addiction, believed the Opium Wars were Britain’s “national iniquity against China” and realized the destruction opium caused.


In America, opium was seen as a way to make money, and several businessmen attempted to profit from it prior to the Civil War. The Chinese immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad and mined in the California gold rush, however, helped popularize the idea of smoking opium in America. The habit of smoking opium, and doing so at opium dens, became popular in San Francisco’s Chinatown and began spreading eastward, all the way to New York, as more non-Chinese opium smokers acquired the habit.


In 1803, a German scientist isolated morphine from opium, and by the American Civil War, morphine was a popular medical treatment for pain. Some have even estimated that roughly 400,000 soldiers became addicted to morphine after the war. Soon after the Civil War, an English chemist would produce a less addictive substance than morphine and called it heroin, although today heroin is much more powerful. A German pharmaceutical company branded heroin as a substance able to help with coughs and colds and suggested that children use it. One American philanthropic society even offered to mail free samples of heroin to help an addict give up morphine! Because of the lack of understanding during the Gilded Age (generally 1865-1900), the number of addicts to heroin, morphine, and opioids in America and Western Europe greatly expanded.





Many lawmakers saw the need to restrict the use of opioids as the addiction began to spread across America. In the late 1800s, San Francisco became the first city to pass a law limiting the use of opium, making it a misdemeanor to maintain an opium den. In 1890, Congress began taxing opium and morphine, and would eventually ban opium all together in 1905. In 1909, the United States outlawed the importation of opium in a continued effort to reduce the number of heroin addicts. During the 1920s, the federal government heavily restricted the import, export, and purchase of narcotics, but this only drove addicts to buy from illegal dealers on the street and created a prosperous black market.


After WWII, the United States attempted to make friendly relations with tribal warlords in the Golden Triangle (area within Burma, Laos, and Thailand, considered one of the largest opium cultivation regions in the world) to try to stop the spread of Communism. Many of the warlords that grew opium actually received weapons and air support from the United States to help keep Communism out of the region. The Vietnam War helped see a surge in the illegal opium trade as the CIA helped smuggle opium and heroin into the United States. Because of this, by 1973 an estimated 750,000 heroin addicts were now in the United States, up from 55,700 in 1965. To curb the amount of illegal drugs coming into America, Nixon formed the DEA. By the turn of the century, the Golden Triangle continued to be a major producer of opium, but other countries in Latin America and the Middle East, and the terrorist organizations within them, have also begun growing opium as a way to earn money.


By the 1970s, the War on Drugs had begun and every president since has attempted his own method of eradicating the use of opioids. However, in the 1990s, a resurgence of opioid use began in the form of the prescription drug OxyContin. An estimated 218,000 people died from prescription opioids from 1999–2017. The current opioid crisis is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly and should be viewed as a major problem within America. Presidents have spent billions of dollars in an effort to end the opioid epidemic, but sadly to no avail.


The opioid crisis is one that has been going on for centuries, with presidents as far back as Theodore Roosevelt trying to stop the problem. But the same government that is trying to stop the epidemic is also allowing it to happen. In the 1970s, the CIA helped bring drugs into the country, while simultaneously taking out drug lords that brought that same drug into America. In the 1980s and 1990s, the FDA allowed pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma to introduce and distribute to the public opioids, which both parties knew were extremely addictive. At the turn of the century, major Latin America cartels were bringing in narcotics over the Southern border, while the government didn’t implement further measures to stop the smuggling. The opioid crisis appears over the years to be caused by the government’s allowance of its use; and then the government steps in to try to fix the problem it just caused. It is because of the government’s influence that the opioid crisis is still a major concern in America and will probably never go away.


Works Cited:


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© 2018 by Zink Publishing Inc.

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