from Narcotic Drugs, by Anil Aggrawal,
Paperback, 8.5” x 5.5”.
National Book Trust, India,
A-5 Green Park, New Delhi-110 016.
Publication Date May 1995.
xvi+161 pages, ISBN 81-237-1383-5.
Price Rs. 46.00.


Dr. Anil Aggrawal,
Professor of Forensic Medicine,
at the Maulana Azad Medical College,
New Delhi-110002
e-mail Dr Anil

Opium or afim can rightly be called the ‘king of narcotics’. Perhaps no other narcotic enjoys so much popularity as opium. Strong addictive drugs such as heroin are synthesized from it. A person addicted to opium could go to any length to produce it. He could commit theft, robbery or murder to acquire money to buy opium or the related drug, heroin. This is one of the major reasons why opium and related drugs are banned for non-medical use in many countries. Raw opium is dark brown in colour and is a soft gummy mass having a strong characteristic odour and bitter taste. On eating it gives rise to a feeling of well being. In small doses, say of about 50 mg, it gives rise to pleasant sensations; however, in large doses it induces sleep. Still larger doses, say about 2 gm, are liable to kill a person.

The Poppy Plant

Opium comes from the poppy plant known botanically as Papaver somniferum. This plant is a dicotyledon (its seeds contain two seed leaves), belonging to the family Papaveraceae. This family is actually a cousin of the family Cruciferae to which belongs the familiar cabbage. The word papaver is a Greek word meaning ‘poppy’. Somniferum is a Latin word meaning ‘I bring sleep’. Since opium does put one to sleep, its name is quite apt.

An interesting legend tells us about the origin of the poppy plant as also about the effects of opium on chronic addicts. Long ago on the banks of the River Ganges lived a rishi. A mouse shared his hut. Since the mouse was afraid of cats, he requested the rishi to turn him into a cat. On becoming a cat, dogs started troubling him and so he sought another transformation, but now into a dog. This wish too was granted. However, his troubles continued which he tired to overcome by seeking further transformation such as those into a monkey, boar, elephant and then finally, into a beautiful maiden. This beautiful maiden, called Postomoni, married a king, but soon after fell into a well and died. The aggrieved king turned to the rishi for solace. The rishi promised to make his wife immortal, and converted her body into posto or the poppy plant. The rishi said, “A capsule of this plant will produce opium. Men will take it greedily. Whosoever partakes of it will acquire a particular trait of each of the animals into which Postomoni was transformed. In other words, the consumer of the capsule will turn out to be as mischievous as a mouse, as fond of milk as a cat, as quarrelsome as a dog, as unclean as a monkey, as savage as a boar, as strong as an elephant and, as spirited as a queen!”

Poppy plants are cultivated in small fields in the bright sunny plains and valleys. The countries where poppies are grown are Greece, Turkey, China, India, Iran, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. It grows wild in other areas ranging from the Far East to the USA. However, for the most part, the largest quantities come from three areas of the world: the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Laos, Burma, Thailand), the ‘Golden Crescent’ (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran), and Mexico. The crop is alternated with maize, tobacco and other crops. The seeds are sown in several batches from September to April so as to avoid loss of the entire crop due to frost, drought or any other calamity. The plants are thinned to allow a distance of about 25 cms between them. Each plant branches near the ground and reaches a height of 60 to 150 cm. The plants flower during end of May and beginning of June. The flower is very beautiful and ranges in colour from white to purple with shades of red and orange being most common. It is about 10cm in diameter and has four petals concealed within two sepals. The buds droop but straighten up as they open, throwing off the covering of the calyx. After fertilization, the flower petals fall off and the fruit, known as the poppy capsule, can be seen. It reaches the size of a small pomegranate and looks quite similar to it. A single poppy plant bears about five to eight poppy capsules.

Collection of Opium

Opium is collected from these capsules in an unusual manner: while the capsules are still raw (green or just showing a tint of yellow), very shallow incisions are made into the wall. This procedure is known as lancing. The capsule is hollow from the inside and contains several chambers called loculi. These loculi contain thousands of tiny, kidney-shaped seeds known as khus khus. The incision has to be shallow enough so as not to penetrate into the loculi. These incisions cut across laticiferous vessels of the capsules and the latex starts oozing out. In fact the name ‘opium’ is derived from the Greek word opos meaning ‘vegetable juice’. The abbreviation for this word was opion meaning ‘poppy juice’. The incisions are usually made in the afternoon and the exuded latex scraped off with a knife or a special instrument before being collected the next morning. Great care is taken to choose the time for making incisions so that neither rain or wind nor dew should spoil the exudation. The latex which collects on the capsule walls is often known as ‘poppy tears’. In India, the incisions are made with a special nushtar having three or four small blades, separated by spaces of about 3 mm. This nushtar is drawn from below upwards to make a set of three or four vertical incisions and the operation is repeated on each capsule three or four times at intervals of two to three days. Approximately 3 to 5 kg of raw opium can be produced from one acre of poppies in this way.

Alkaloids of Opium

Raw opium contains several special chemicals known as alkaloids. Alkaloids are very bitter-tasting chemicals. A peculiar fact is that the molecules of all alkaloids are ring-shaped and all contain an atom of nitrogen. All alkaloids are poisonous in nature although, when taken in very small quantities, they act as valuable drugs. The poppy plant is not the only one to contain alkaloids. There are several other plants which contain alkaloids. All alkaloids have names ending in ‘ine’ and in fact that is a very useful way to know whether a chemical one is talking about is an alkaloid or not. A familiar alkaloid which we all know about is nicotine which comes from the tobacco plant. Other alkaloids are strychnine which comes from the Nux Vomica plant, atropine which comes from dhatura and aconitine which comes from the aconite plant. An interesting alkaloid is cocaine which is a narcotic too and we shall read more about it in our next chapter. It is still not clear why nature has endowed certain plants with these bitter-tasting alkaloids. Surely they are so bitter-tasting that animals keep away from these plants! These alkaloids must therefore be serving the function of defence.

Raw opium contains about twenty-five alkaloids, all of which together constitute about one-fourth of the weight of raw opium. The major alkaloid is morphine which constitutes about 10 to 20 per cent of raw opium.

Morphine is a potent suppressor of pain and is a very useful drug in painful conditions, especially in severe chest pain arising due to heart attacks. It also induces sleep in no time. In fact the name morphine comes from the Greek ‘god of dreams’, Morpheus. Incidentally Morpheus was the son of Hypnos, the Greek ‘god of sleep’, and our word ‘hypnosis’is derived from it. Hypnos was also the brother of Thanatos, the ‘god of death’. The scientific study of death in all its aspects is thus known as thanatology. Morphine not only brings sleep and dreams but may cause death when taken in large doses. About 200 mg of morphine is known to cause death. Thus,in a way, morphine is associated with all these three gods, who are so closely related to one another.

Isolation of Morphine

Morphine was isolated from raw opium in 1805 by a German pharmacologist, Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Serturner (1783-1841). It was not only the first alkaloid to be extracted from opium, but the first ever alkaloid to be isolated from any plant. Like Sir Humphry Davy, who tried his discovery, nitrous oxide, first on himself, Serturner himself took the morphine that he had extracted from opium. He also used the morphine crystals in mouse food to kill the mice in his cellar and in dog food to get rid of unwanted dogs in the vicinity. He observed that morphine could evoke sleep and ultimately death in these animals. The discovery and isolation of morphine brought Serturner several honorary doctor’s degrees from outstanding universities and even a prize of 2,000 francs as a ‘Benefactor of Humanity’. But, strangely enough he was criticised later, perhaps because the setting for his scientific work was not any university but an humble apothecary shop. Serturner became embittered and turned his fertile mind to firearms, an area where he made substantial improvements. He suffered from gout in his later life and quelled his pain with the very morphine he had isolated.

Barely eighteen years after morphine was discovered, it was used for homicide. In 1823, a twenty-seven year old French doctor, Edme Castaing, mixed morphine in the wine given to his friend, Auguste Ballet, to kill him. Auguste was soon taken violently ill and he promptly sent for Dr Pellatan, a professor at the Paris School of Medicine. Dr Pellatan noticed that Auguste’s pupils were contracted almost to pin-points. This was an unmistakable sign of morphine poisoning and after Auguste’s death, Dr Pellatan ordered an autopsy. This revealed morphine in the body. Dr Casting was found guilty and guillotined. Since then criminal use of morphine has tended to be confined to medical profession alone. A simple reason for this is the medico’s easy access to this drug.

Morphine is very sparingly soluble in cold water, but dissolves in boiling water easily about one part dissolving in 500 parts of boiling water. In fact, these days morphine is extracted by putting raw opium in boiling water, removing the undissolved opium gum and processing the solution. Morphine is officially prepared in blocks of about 3” x 4” x 1” in size, weighing about 300 to 350 gms and sometimes marked with the trade marks ‘999’ or ‘AAA’. It requires approximately 10 kg of raw opium to produce 1 kg of morphine. Quite paradoxically, as the poppy capsule ripens, the percentage of morphine in it starts decreasing. We have seen earlier that opium is extracted from unripe capsules only. Ripe and dry poppy capsules contain only traces of morphine (about 0.1 per cent). Their warm decoction is, however, used sometimes by villagers as a sedative, fomentation and poultice.

The next most abundant alkaloid in raw opium is narcotine which constitutes about 2 to 8 per cent of the raw opium. The name comes from Greek narke meaning ‘numbness’ or ‘stupor’. Codeine constitutes about 0.3 to 4 per cent, the name coming from the Greek kodeia, meaning a ‘poppy head’. It has the property of suppressing cough and is a main constituent of many cough mixtures. Papaverine constitutes about 1 per cent, the name coming straight from the Greek papaver meaning ‘poppy’. Thebaine constitutes about 0.2 to 0.5 per cent, the name coming from Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt, where raw opium was used abundantly and freely. These five alkaloids make up more than 24 per cent of raw opium. The remaining 1 per cent is made up by the rest of the twenty odd alkaloids which are present in very minute quantities. Quite surprisingly, poppy seeds, known in India by the name khus khus, are quite innocuous and do not contain any alakloid. They are the only parts of the poppy plant not to contain any alkaloid. Not only are they not poisonous, they are used for flavouring food. They are white in colour, have a pleasing nut-like taste and are sprinkled over some Indian sweets. They have a very high protein content. They yield a bland oil, known as poppy-seed oil (khus khus ka tel), which is largely used for culinary and lighting purposes. They are also used as common flavouring agents and these days we have soaps, shampoos and perfumes boasting of the fragrance of khus.

Opium through the Ages

The story of opium use goes back to ancient times and is very interesting. Opium figures not only in history but also in romance and crime. It has been associated with acquisition of wealth and prosperity and with downright degradation. Opium has been the cause of murder, war, bitter feelings and punishments. While on the one hand, it has relieved humans of their most agonising pains, on the other, it has reduced them to the level of beasts!

The earliest records

The earliest available references to the cultivation of poppies and preparation of opium dates back to about 5000 BC as seen in clay tablets left by the Sumerians. Their ideograph for poppies was hulgil (joy plant). Opium is mentioned in the Assyrian medical tablets under the name arat pa pa. There is some evidence that opium poppies were being used around the same time in Europe too. In the Swiss lakes, capsules of poppies have been found. Examination of these capsules revealed that they came not in the primitive form of the poppy, Papaver setigerum, but were obtained through cultivation. It is, however, difficult to ascertain whether the plant was cultivated to obtain the oil of the seeds or merely the narcotic juice of the capsules.

Use in ancient Egypt

Opium was being used in Egypt as far back as 2000 BC as a children’s sedative and teething remedy. According to the Roman writer, Prosper Alpinus, the Egyptians were practiced opium-eaters and became faint and languid through want of it. They prepared and drank it in the form of ‘cretic wine’. which they flavoured by adding pepper and other aromatics. Interpretations of certain sections of the Old Testament suggest that opium was known to the ancient Hebrews. Their word rosh meaning ‘head’ is believed to refer to the head of the poppy and the word me-rosh, to the juice of the poppy.

The Ebers Papyrus

Opium is mentioned in Ebers Papyrus too, which happens to be the earliest record in medicine. This document was found between the legs of a mummy in a tomb near Luxor, a town on the east banks of the River Nile. It is dated about 1550 BC Incidentally, it is called Ebers Papyrus because it was acquired by a Professor Ebers in 1872 during a sale. This Papyrus describes a mixture of opium and another material which was found effective in quietening crying children. Till some time ago children in Egypt, India and even Europe were being soothed with opium. It is said that mothers often used poppy juice to smear on their nipples so that the child would immediately stop crying on sucking this ‘drugged’ milk.

Another narcotic that comes from a different plant (cannabis) is hashish. We shall have more to say about it in a subsequent chapter. A reference in ancient Sanskrit texts indicates that at one time there might habve been some confusion between the narcotics opium and hashish. The word khus-khus (poppy seed) which is sometimes pronounced as khush-khush seems to be the origin of the modern work ‘hashish’.

Use in ancient Greece

The Greek poet, Homer (9th century BC) was aware of opium and mentions it in his epics Iliad and Odyssey. In his time the use of a peculiar drug, Nepenthes, also known as the ‘drug of forgetfulness’, was fairly widespread in Greece. Opium was a major constituent of Nepenthes. When Telemachus, one of the heroes of the Trojan war visited Menelaus in Sparta, he was deeply worried about the fate of his father, Odysseus. At this time Helen, wife of Menelaus, gave Nepenthes to him so that he could forget all his worries.

It appears that Greek warriors regularly took Nepenthes before going to war in order to dull their senses to danger, and surely Helen must have prepared this decoction at other times too. It is not surprising that she had learnt this recipe from the Egyptian queen, Polydamna (wife of Thos) as poppies were grown abundantly in Egypt. In fact, Sicyon, a town in Egypt, boasted of the cultivation of so many poppies that it came to be known as Mekone, i.e. ‘the town of poppies’. The word comes from the Greek word mekon meaning ‘a poppy’. Incidentally the word mekon makes a surprising appearance in an entirely unrelated word ‘meconium’ which is a term applied to the first fecal discharges of a new-born infant. The name was given because these stools bear a strong resemblance to the thick juice of the poppy opium. The word mekon appears also in meconic acid an acid present in raw opium (about 5 per cent).

The ancient Italian corn-goddess, Ceres (the word ‘cereal’ comes from her name) is also supposed to have taken opium to soothe her pain. That is why sometimes statues of Ceres show poppy heads in her hand. Even in ancient art places we see poppy as a mythological symbol of sleep or a personification of Hypnos, the ‘god of sleep’, portraying a bearded man leaning over the sleeper and pouring poppy juice contained in a vessel of horn upon his eyelids. Scribonius Largus (AD 40) mentions the method of preparing opium and points out that the proper drug is derived from the capsules of the poppy and not from the foliage of the plant. Representations of poppies were often engraved on Roman coins of the later ages. In Jewish history, such representations have been found on the bronze coins of John Hyrcanus, prince and high-priest of the race of the Maccabees (135-106 BC).

Probably the original home of the opium poppy was Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It was from here that opium spread to other places. Hebrews called it ophion and Arabs, af-yun both names being derived clearly from the word ‘opium’. The Chinese o-fuyung was in turn derived from the Arabic word.

Hippocrates (460-377 BC),the Greek physician, known as the ‘father of medicine’, was possibly acquainted with poppy juice for he has referred to a substance called mecon with both anti-purgative and narcotic action. However, the meconion of Greek botanist, Theophrastus (372-287 BC), is the first authentic reference to the juice of the poppy.

Galen was the leadingmost physician in Rome from about AD 169-192. It was Galen who so enthusiastically lauded the virtues of opium that its popularity grew to new heights by the end of the second century. The drug was even distributed by Roman shopkeepers and itinerant quacks, following its release for common use by Roman Emperor, Severus, at the end of the second century.

Opium was also used extensively by Arab physicians, the most celebrated of whom was Avicenna (AD 980-1037). Avicenna recommended opium especially for diarrhoea and eye problems and it is said that he himself succumbed to an overdose of the drug. It were the Arab traders who introduced opium to the East around this time. Prohibition of wine by the holy Quran made Muslims very vulnerable to the use of opium. The Mughal emperors, Babur and Humayun, were inveterate opium-eaters.

Opium was brought to China and other parts of the eastern world in the 9th century by the Arab traders. Many travellers have mentioned opium very prominently in their travelogues. In 1511, Barbosa, on his travels to India, mentioned opium as an Indian product in his description of the Malabar coast. In 1546, the French naturalist, Belon, travelled through Asia Minor and Egypt and found that the Turks were such great opium addicts that they were prepared to purchase it with their last penny.

The Opium Bandwagon

After the renaissance, many prominent persons succumbed to the ‘charms’ of opium. Doctors sang its praises as an effective medicine while literature extolled its virtues as a ‘thought provoker’. Alkaloids of opium have a significant action on the human body and that is what made opium a panacea after the renaissance. Besides being a very strong suppressor of pain, it suppresses cough and produces constipation, thus being very useful in cough and diarrhoea. In fact, a form of opium known as ‘laudanum’ (from the Latin word Laudare, meaning ‘to praise’) became very popular in the seventeenth century for treating dysentery. The British physician, Thomas Sydenham (1624-89), sometimes known as ‘the English Hippocrates’, virtually put an official stamp of approval by advocating its use in dysentery and other such conditions. Also known as ‘tincture of opium’, laudanum was nothing but a solution of opium in alcohol (10 per cent opium or 1 gm of morphine to 100 cc of alcohol). Sydenham flavoured the tincture with saffron, cinnamon and clover. This exotic preparation came to be called ‘Sydenham’s laudanum’ and became a very popular remedy in Europe. So enthusiastic was his advocacy of opium that Sydenham won the nickname ‘Opiophilos’ (lover of opium). In 1680, Sydenham wrote: “Among the remedies which it has pleased almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.” His pupil, Dr Thomas Dover (1660-1742), invented the famous ‘Dover’s powder’ which contains 10 per cent of opium. Dover’s powder became a popular remedy for alleviation of pain and cough.

Almost a century before Sydenham, the Swiss physician, Paracelsus (1493-1541), known as the ‘Luther of medicine’ referred to opium as the ‘stone of immortality’. He was an opium-eater himself. He once boasted, “I possess a secret remedy which I call laudanum and which is superior to all other heroic remedies.” Three centuries later the famous US writer and physician, Oliver Wendell Homes (1809-94), was still singing its praises, “Opium...the Creator himself seems to prescribe, for we often see the scarlet poppy, growing in the cornfields, as if it were foreseen that wherever there is hunger to be fed, there must also be pain to be soothed.” Sir William Osler (1849-1919), the famour Anglo- Canadian physician, went to the extent of describing opium as ‘God’s own medicine’.

Among the litterateurs who were gripped by the pleasures of opium was the famous British poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), best known for his poem Kublai Khan (1816). This poem, which made him so famous, was written under the influence of opium. Opium addicts often show a very peculiar form of behaviour. When opium is not given to them, they become listless, but on getting it, they spring into action, often working more energetically than a normal person. Opium eating and narcotic addiction, in general, came to acquire a bad reputation during the twentieth century, because prior to this its dangers were relatively unknown; hence, little or no stigma was attached to opium-eating. In the summer of 1797, Coleridge fell ill and retired to his farmhouse. He was prescribed a drug containing opium by his doctor, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair. He slept for about three hours during which time he ‘dreamed up’ the entire Kublai Khan. On awakening, he immediately took out his pen and paper and started writing the lines of the poem. Unfortunately at that very moment a person called upon him for some purpose and detained him for more than an hour. Coleridge sadly found that he could not recollect the ‘dream’ again. In his own words the poem “had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas without the restoration of the latter.” In his later life Coleridge became a regular opium- eater. Once he exclaimed, “Laudanum gave me repose, not sleep; but you, I believe, know how divine this repose is, what a spot of enchantment a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands.” Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), the British critic, wrote, “To tell the story of Coleridge without the opium is to tell the story of Hamlet without mentioning the ghost.”

The celebrated British essayist, Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), had his first taste of opium when he was nineteen years old. He began taking tincture of opium to counter neuralgic pains he was suffering from. He described his introduction and addiction to opium in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), stating that within an hour of consuming it, his neuralgic pains disappeared and he could launch on a sea of pleasurable fantasy which lasted for several years. In his book, he exclaims, “Thou hast the keys of paradise, oh, just subtle and mighty opium.” He claimed that no quantity of the drug could intoxicate him and he compared it to wine thus: “The pleasure of wine is always mounting and tending to a crisis after which it declines; that from opium, when once generated, is stationary for eight to ten hours; the one is a flame, the other, a steady and equable glow.” He ultimately realised that opium was harming him and he titled the third part of his book as ‘The Pains of Opium’ (Part II of his book, from which the above quotes are taken is entitled, ‘The Pleasures of Opium’. In the third part he describes his nightmare experience while under the influence of the drug, and his tremendous struggle to overcome his habit. The gradual reduction of the dosage was in itself a torture, but he finally succeeded in freeing himself from its cltches.

Other well-known persons who were opium addicts were English poet laureate Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692); the English poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), Francis Thompson (1859-1907) and Arthur Symons (1865-1945), French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), American short-story writer, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and American actress, Barbara La Marr (1896-1926). Commenting on the pleasures of opium smoking, the French naval officer, Claude Farrere (1876- 1957), once wrote: “Certainly, no spasm of the heart or marrow is comparable to the radiant rape of the lungs by that black smoke.” French author and film-maker, Jean Cocteau (1889-1962), was such an opium addict that without opium he could not write or direct films. Once he bacame so ill that for several days he could not sleep, eat or smoke opium. His throat got constricted. At last, someone puffed opium smoke into his mouth and like a galvanised corpse, he staggered from his bed and gave a virtuoso performance that was full of ideas, wit and poetry.

Strange Traits

Opium is believed to increase the duration of the sexual act. Hence it is often taken by young men, who get accustomed to the drug by constant use. It is also used to steady the nerves for performing some bold deeds requiring immense courage. It is said that satis of yesteryears were fed heavy doses of opium before being asked to ascend their husband’s funeral pyre. Rajputs were known to take this drug before going to the battlefield. The French naturalist, Belon, wrote in 1546: ”Turks eat opium because they think that they thus become more daring and have less fear of the dangers of war. In war-time such quantities are purchased that it is difficult to find any left.”

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Dr Anil Aggrawal
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