What would you say if we told you there’s a shape-shifter that’s been influencing human history for thousands of years? If we said this shape-shifter has traveled across continents, started wars, torn down regimes, and claimed millions of victims? What would you say if we told you this shape-shifter might be hiding in your medicine cabinet?

Opium has gone by a lot of different names in its time – laudanum, morphine, heroin, oxycodone, and so on – but it’s all one thread in a 5,000-year tapestry. Read on to learn more about this drug and how it’s evolved throughout human history.

What Is Opium?

Before we dive into the long and complicated history of opium, let’s talk some about this substance and what it is. Opium is a product of the poppy plant, the same gorgeous red flower that gives us the seeds that top our bagels. Unfortunately, opium, and all of its related byproducts, is a highly addictive narcotic.

Opium gives users an intense “high” that creates an intense sense of euphoria, followed by a longer period of relaxation. If a user is in physical pain, that disappears while they’re under the effect of the drug. Opium can be smoked, taken in pills, or even injected into veins, depending on the form it’s in.

Beginnings of Opium Use

Opium use traces its roots back more than 5,000 years ago, around 3400 BC to the lower regions of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians who lived there started to cultivate the poppy plant, which they called Hul Gil, or “the joy plant.” They discovered that this beautiful red flower could create that sense of euphoria, and they were eager to share.

Over the following two millennia, opium began to spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Sumerians shared the poppy plant’s wonderful effects with the Assyrians, who shared it with the Babylonians. The Babylonians carried the knowledge to Egypt, where opium would really take root.

Travels Around the World

The Egyptians were the first people to bring opium to prominence on the worldwide trade stage. They began cultivating poppy fields in their capital city of Thebes. Several of the pharaohs were determined to build empires with this plant.

In particular, Thutmose IV, Akhenaton, and the famous King Tut created a thriving opium trade worldwide.

Over the next three thousand years, opium found its way to Greece, western Europe, Persia, India, and China. The drug rose and fell in popularity, with some cultures believing the drug was barbaric and dangerous. In fact, between the 1300s and the 1500s, opium disappears from the European historical record since it was linked to the Devil.

The Dawn of Laudanum

Opium first made its way back into European historical records under a different name: laudanum. Paracelsus, an influential Swiss doctor, wrote about black pills that he called “Stones of Immortality.” This new laudanum was hailed as a miracle cure, due in part to how well it could relieve pain.

Laudanum grew in popularity over the next 150 years until, in 1680, Thomas Sydenham introduced a new form of the drug. Sydenham’s Laudanum was a mixture of opium, wine, and herbs presented in the form of a pill. These pills became popular remedies for all sorts of health complaints, from headaches to constipation and more.

Trade Wars

While opium was making a new, more reputable name for itself under the guise of laudanum, trade wars over the drug still raged. European traders were busy trying to get a foothold in the Chinese opium market, while Chinese leaders were outlawing the drug. Meanwhile, the British East India Company was buying up all the opium-growing regions of India.

By 1767, the British East India Company was importing two thousand chests of opium into China every year. By 1793, they had a monopoly on the trade of opium worldwide, and China banned opium entirely in an effort to stop its rampant trade and use. With the Chinese market closed to opium, by 1800, opium traders had turned their attention to the United States.

Invention of Morphine

In 1803, a German scientist named Friedrich Sertuerner ran an experiment where he dissolved some opium in acid. He then took that solution and mixed it with ammonia to neutralize it. This gave him the active ingredient that made opium so powerful; he called this active ingredient morphine.

Scientists around the world were thrilled by this discovery, believing that they had finally found a safe form of opium. This new morphine still had powerful pain-relieving effects, but doctors believed it was the tamed version of opium. In fact, some heralded it as “God’s own medicine” thanks to the relief it could bring to patients who were in pain.

Black Market Deals

While scientists were celebrating the invention of morphine, the opium trade still raged, and China was the target on everyone’s mind. Everyone wanted a piece of the lucrative Chinese opium market, and a number of smuggling operations popped up around the world. The British East India Company’s stranglehold on the market had been broken by this time as Turkish opium made its way onto the market.

During the 1800s, a number of writers and artists began to talk about their experiences using opium recreationally. Everyone from John Keats and Thomas de Quincey to Elizabeth Barrett Browning used the drug. This created a sort of allure around opium use that only helped to cement its hold over Europe.

The Opium Wars

As you might expect, the conflict over the opium trade in China eventually boiled over into an all-out battle. The Chinese government wanted to keep opium, which they believed to be very dangerous, out of their country. But traders were determined not to lose out on the incredible amounts of money available in that market.

The first Opium War was fought between China and Britain and lasted from 1839 to 1842. In 1856, another war between the Chinese and the British, this time joined by the French, broke out and lasted four years. The Chinese lost both of these wars, and foreign traders took over parts of Chinese territory and resume trade in the nation.

Invention of Heroin

Unfortunately, it didn’t take very long for doctors to realize that morphine, their new miracle drug, wasn’t as safe as it had first seemed. In 1853, Dr. Alexander Wood discovered that you could make the effects of morphine more powerful if you injected it. And just three years after Merck began making morphine on a commercial scale, 22,000 pounds of opium a year were making their way into Britain.

As it became more apparent that morphine was more addictive than opium, doctors began looking for ways to manage these addictions. In 1874, an English researcher named C.R. Wright boiled down morphine into a new substance: heroin. In 1895, a scientist at the Bayer Company found a more sophisticated way to create heroin, and by 1898, heroin was being produced on a commercial scale.

Rise of Heroin Addiction

When heroin first made its way onto the market, it was lauded as a cure for morphine addiction. In fact, the Saint James Society mailed out free samples of heroin to morphine addicts in the United States who were trying to beat their drug addiction. Doctors believed patients could use heroin as a means to step down their morphine use, making it easier and safer to quit.

Unfortunately, this proved not to be true, and doctors soon found that heroin was every bit as addictive as morphine, if not more so. Just five years after heroin entered the market, addiction levels were climbing to alarming heights. The United States was hit especially hard by this new wave of addiction due, in part, to doctors prescribing their patients this new drug.

Downfall of Opium

Once people discovered heroin was incredibly dangerous and addictive, opium’s glory days were over. In 1905, the United States banned opium altogether, and the next year, China and England finally agreed to cut back the Chinese opium trade. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required pharmaceutical companies to label medicine bottles with their contents, which also curbed opium sales.

Opium and opiates continued to lose popularity in the coming years. In 1910, the Chinese finally succeeded in ending the opium trade there. The world was well and truly done with this drug – or so it seemed.

War on Drugs

In the wake of opium’s fall from grace, the United States passed several laws trying to deal with the aftereffects of its golden age. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act passed, requiring anyone who prescribed narcotics to register with the government and pay a tax. By 1923, the government had banned all legal narcotics sales in the United States.

At this point, you may not be surprised to learn that a black market around opium and heroin grew up and flourished. Chinese opium still dominated the black market, and efforts to contain communism after World War II led to more illegal opium pouring into the United States. Heroin addiction continued to grow until the 1970s when the fall of Saigon limited the amount of heroin coming into the country.

Invention of OxyContin

In 1995, opium got another facelift, this time in the form of OxyContin. Purdue Pharma introduced the drug, which was a form of oxycodone, as a form of pain management for patients with chronic pain. This drug was believed to be safer, gentler, and less addictive than the raw forms of opium and heroin being sold on the streets.

Purdue Pharma began marketing their new medication to doctors, telling them that it wasn’t addictive. Naturally, doctors began prescribing this new wonder medication to more and more patients. Doctors were legally required to treat patients’ pain, and oxycodone was their magic bullet.

Increasing Opioid Use

Unfortunately, as is always the story with opiates, the glory days for oxycodone didn’t last long. By 2002, more than six million people had a prescription for OxyContin, and by 2012, Americans were consuming nearly 365,000 pounds of opioids a year. By 2007, Purdue Pharma was pleading guilty to a lawsuit that accused them of misbranding OxyContin.

By 2017, experts estimate that more than 1.7 million people in the United States were addicted to opioids. In addition, 652,000 Americans were addicted to heroin, with some of those numbers overlapping. That same year, more than 47,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses.

Opioid Epidemic Today

Today, opioids are much better understood and get prescribed only in very specific circumstances. Doctors estimate that about 8 to 12 percent of people who use opioids to manage chronic pain develop an opioid addiction. Of those people, between 4 and 6 percent will develop an addiction to heroin, too, and 80 percent of heroin users started by misusing opioids.

The United States government has started putting measures in place to control the opioid epidemic. In addition to making overdose-reversing drugs and treatment services more available, they’ve started studying opioid abuse more closely. They’ve also put money towards efforts to find better methods for pain control, especially for patients with chronic pain.

Learn More About Opium Through History

Opium has been a part of human history for more than 5,000 years, although it has worn many different faces. From opium to laudanum to morphine to heroin to oxycodone, we continue going through the same patterns with this drug. Although its pain-relieving effects can be powerful, the addictive quality of opium gets the better of us every time.

If you or someone you love needs help to manage an opium addiction, check out the rest of our site at Beat Addiction Recovery. We provide a comprehensive medication-assisted treatment program for alcohol use disorder and opioid use disorder. Find a provider with us today and start getting the support you need to beat your addiction.