History of Opiates

Opiates, originally derived from the opium poppy, have been used for thousands of years for both recreational and medicinal purposes. The most active substance in opium is morphine—named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Morphine is a very powerful painkiller, but it is also very addictive.

In the sixteenth century, laudanum, opium prepared in an alcoholic solution, was used as a painkiller.


Photo credit: AP WideworldMorphine was first extracted from opium in a pure form in the early nineteenth century ( first isolated between 1803 and 1805 by Friedrich Sertürner). It was used widely as a painkiller during the American Civil War (Morphine was more widely used after the invention of the hypodermic syringe in 1853–1855), and many soldiers became addicted.

Codeine, a less powerful drug that is found in opium but can be synthesized (man-made), was first isolated in 1830 in France by Jean-Pierre Robiquet, to replace raw opium for medical purposes. It is used mainly as a cough remedy.

Throughout the early nineteenth century, the recreational use of opium grew and by 1830, the British dependence on the drug reached an all-time high. The British sent warships to the coast of China in 1839 in response to China’s attempt to suppress the opium traffic, beginning the “First Opium War.”

In 1874, chemists trying to find a less addictive form of morphine made heroin. But heroin had twice the potency of morphine, and heroin addiction soon became a serious problem.

The US Congress banned opium in 1905 and the next year passed the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring contents labeling on all medicines.

Methadone was first synthesized in 1937 by German scientists Max Bockmühl and Gustav Ehrhart at the IG Farben company. They were searching for a painkiller that would be easier to use during surgery, with less addiction potential than morphine or heroin.

Yet methadone is believed by many to be even more addictive than heroin.

Meanwhile, the illegal opium trade boomed. By 1995, Southeast Asia was producing 2,500 tons annually.

New painkillers came on the market with approval from the Food and Drug Administration:

  • Vicodin in 1984, Hydrocodone/paracetamol, also known as hydrocodone/acetaminophen or hydrocodone/APAP and marketed under the trade name Vicodin among others, is a combination opioid pain medication consisting of hydrocodone and paracetamol (acetaminophen). It is used to relieve moderate to severe pain. It exists in tablet, elixir and solution in various strengths for oral administration.
  • OxyContin in 1995, Oxycodone is a semisynthetic opioid synthesized from thebaine, an opioid alkaloid found in the Persian poppy and one of the many opioid alkaloids found in the opium poppy. It is anarcotic analgesic generally indicated for relief of moderate to severe pain. It was developed in 1917 in Germany as one of several new semi-synthetic opioids in an attempt to improve on the existing opioids.
  • and Percocet in 1999 which is a combination oxycodone/paracetamol (Paracetamol is called “acetaminophen” in the United States and well known by the trademarked name, “Tylenol”) (North American trade name Percocet, generic endocet and ratio-oxycocet in Canada) is a narcotic pain reliever used to treat moderate to severe acute (short-term) pain, marketed by Endo Pharmaceuticals

These are all synthetic (man-made) opiates which mimic (imitate) the body’s own painkillers.

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