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The poppy’s magic comes from morphine, the principal active ingredient in opium. Morphine is an alkaloid, which have toxic, stimulant or analgesic effects.
As narcotics, opium, morphine and heroin are drugs that relieve pain, relax spasms, reduce fevers and induce sleep. Acting as an analgesic, or pain reliever, the morphine blocks messages of pain to the brain, producing euphoria and deadening anxieties and tensions. It also suppresses coughs, constipates by inhibiting the flow of gastric juices, slows down respiration and dilates the blood vessels in the skin. All of these characteristics are invaluable in medicine, not to cure specific illnesses or injuries but to provide relief from symptoms. In the long history of opium use around the world, people in search of euphoria and well-being have managed to introduce opium and its derivative into the body every way imaginable; in addiction to being smoked, it has been drunk, eaten, sniffed, rubbed on and injected.

Morphine, which had been introduced into China in the late nineteenth century, was at first lauded by missionaries and addicts alike as a potential cure for the opium smoking habit. Pills containing opium or morphine were handed out by missionaries with such regularity that they were called “Jesus Opium.” Morphine cures for the opium habit were sold in North America as well, advertised in newspapers and magazines. However, the wording of both ads and packaging seldom mentioned the nature of the ingredients.

Opium was introduced to the West in the 1850s. And, as if opium wasn’t enough, cocaine, ether, hashish, chloroform and absinthe also became popular around the same time. In fact, the consumption of all drugs in all forms remained legal until the early twentieth century.

Heroin, a semi-synthetic substance derived from morphine by simple structural modification, was first created in the 1870s, shelved, and then rediscovered in 1898 by Heinrich Dresser, a chemist for the Bayer Company of Germany. Heroin was initially marketed as a remedy for tuberculosis, laryngitis and coughs. If was also, ironically, touted as a potential cure for morphine addiction.

By the 1920s, when countries around the world began to realize how damaging drugs were to health and productivity, widespread adoption of anti-opium and anti-drug legislation put opium out of reach of the ordinary person. No longer available without a prescription, opium and morphine became forbidden stuff, and as such the centre of an emerging criminal class and the streetwise drug pusher. Violence, gang warfare and smuggling escalated on an international scale, and, in spite of government and individual efforts to find solutions, little has changed; these problems are still with us.

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson, 1999, Excerpts

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