Opium can be considered as belonging to the group of “narcotics”. It can also be called an “opioid”, a substance that stimulates opiate receptors in the brain.
Opium is derived from the milky white liquid from the pod of the pivot plant. When dried, this liquid forms a brownish-yellow latex, rich in several chemical compounds such as codeine and morphine. After processing, it can look like a brown to black block of resin, or a brown powder. The drug is almost exclusively mixed with tobacco and smoked, but can also be injected or ingested.
The history of opium goes back thousands of years. There is evidence that many ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians and the Persian Empire, all used opium, often to relieve pain during surgery. Opium was used in this medical context for centuries, before other drugs such as morphine became the analgesics of choice.
In 18th century Britain, opium was the treatment of choice for a number of disorders such as insomnia and psychosis. Opium pills were commonly used by the Union Army during the Civil War.
The recreational use of opium has its roots in 15th century China. Over the next few centuries recreational use grew in the country, despite being banned in 1729. The opium trade for the British was exclusively with China, which had a monopoly on production and export from India. The British government’s decision to continue this activity despite the Chinese prohibition led to a series of “Opium Wars” in the mid-19th century.
At the dawn of the 19th century, the chemical compounds of morphine and codeine were successfully isolated from the poppy plant. The ability to precisely calibrate the dosage of these drugs for intravenous injection made them an instantly preferred analgesic to opium, making the latter medically obsolete.
The early 20th century saw opium become a banned substance in many countries around the world. Currently, the largest illicit producer of opium is Afghanistan.
Laudanum”, also known as “Tincture of Opium” is a suspension of opium powder in an alcohol solution. It was a popular drug in 19th century Britain, where it was available over the counter and formed the basis of many medicines.
This type of opium preparation is nowadays most often used to relieve the withdrawal symptoms of babies born to heroin addicts.
Heroin is an illegal drug, a “semi-synthetic” derivative of opium. Heroin is a derivative of morphine (one of the chemical compounds or alkaloids in opium), and its effects are much stronger.
Opium itself is known by many sobriquets, such as Big O, O.P, Hop, Skee, Midnight oil, Joy Plant, Pen Yan, Tar, Hillbilly Heroin, Block and Black Stuff.
Despite the initial euphoria that opium can cause in users, which may continue with a general feeling of well-being followed by drowsiness, the drug can have devastating effects in the short and long term. One of the effects of opium is the slowing of breathing in the user, which can lead to unconsciousness or death, especially at high doses. Lack of coordination, impaired judgment and a feeling of emotional detachment are known side effects of the drug, as well as chronic constipation.
Other effects of opium include pronounced aggression, full-body itching, increased urination, visual impairment and uncontrollable sweating.
When used in conjunction with antidepressants, opium can have severe and even fatal consequences. Alcohol, barbiturates and antihistamines are central nervous system depressants that, if taken with opium, can cause hyperventilation and death.
Long-term use of opium develops tolerance to the drug, meaning that the user will have to increase the dose if he or she wants to continue to get the same effect, thus increasing the potential for a fatal overdose. The lack of appetite associated with drug use and the vomiting that users experience can also lead to significant weight loss, which in itself can have serious health consequences for the user.
Opium is an extremely addictive substance, meaning that users can very easily become dependent on it and experience extremely unpleasant and debilitating withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut down or stop using it altogether.
Afghanistan produces the largest proportion of illicit opium in the world. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, production has grown steadily to the point where more than 90% of the world’s opium can be considered derived from opium poppies grown on Afghan soil. The country is the most important part of the “Golden Crescent”, a part of Asia in which opium production is flourishing, including Pakistan, another opium producing country, and Iran, which plays an important role in the consumption and transportation of this drug.
In addition to the Golden Crescent, there is also the Golden Triangle, made up of the largest producer in Southeast Asia, Myanmar (formerly Burma) as well as Vietnam, China and Laos. Myanmar is the second largest producer of illicit opium after Afghanistan. Unscrupulous drug traffickers have coordinated the production and supply of opium in the country for many years, despite the Myanmar government’s efforts to eradicate production of the drug. Opium cultivation is primarily centered in the Shan State region.
In Afghanistan, the main opium transactions take place in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, bordering Pakistan. Trafficking from Afghanistan to Iran takes place mainly through Pakistan.
Opium is then most often processed into its most potent derivative, heroin, before entering Europe. This is partly because heroin is less bulky than opium and therefore easier to smuggle. Heroin generally enters Europe via the “Balkan Route” (through Turkey) or the “Northern Route” (through Russia).
Mexico is a major producer of illicit opium, and all indicators point to a steady increase in production. Compared to the other countries mentioned above, the monitoring of this opium crop in Mexico is less sustained, and it is therefore difficult to determine its exact role in opium production.
Guatemala is another country growing significant amounts of opium for the global drug trade. In 2005, Guatemala devoted no less than 100 hectares of its land to the exclusive cultivation of opium poppies. The close proximity of this country to Mexico, as well as the alleged high level of state corruption, can be considered the main reasons for the increase in the cultivation of opium and other drugs in Guatemala in recent years.
In addition to these countries known to be illegal opium producers, reports from poppy field clearance programs indicate that poppy cultivation exists in many other countries. It is estimated that a significant amount of illegal production takes place in India and Colombia, for example.
In addition to the countries that grow opium illegally, there are countries that grow it legally, in accordance with international drug treaties. Turkey and India are examples of countries that have legalized this production in order to curb illegal production. The ultimate goal is to inhibit the synthesis of opium into heroin and replace it with legal poppy production for legitimate purposes in the pharmaceutical industry, primarily for the production of codeine and morphine. The methods used in the processing of poppies for legitimate purposes are significantly different from those used in illegal production, making it easier to monitor their production sites.
This is just one example of how governments around the world are trying to curb illegal opium production. For many poor farmers in Afghanistan and other countries, the financial gain associated with opium cultivation is too great to ignore, despite repeated attempts by various governments to ban the crop. Issuing permits and licenses to farmers switching from illegal to pharmaceutical cultivation will hopefully reduce the amount of illegal opium produced.
Nevertheless, the focus on encouraging legal opium cultivation has its own drawbacks. Over the past 10 years, for example, there have been signs that the face of opium production has changed significantly, with opium traffickers now concentrating on India: since opium cultivation there is legal, this represents a significant opportunity for illegal exploitation.
FACTS AND STATISTICS
Of all the opiates, opium is the least refined and least potent form. It is prepared by superficially incising the ripening capsule of the poppy, and allowing its milky liquid to flow and harden into a sticky gum on the surface of the plant. This yellowish latex is then scraped off and dried again to make raw opium. Here are the main facts you need to know about opium:
The use of opium dates back thousands of years
Opium was frequently used as an analgesic until the development of morphine.
It can be smoked (most often with tobacco), injected, inhaled or ingested
Its appearance on the market is that of a brownish powder, or a soft dark block
It is extremely addictive, and tolerance develops very quickly.
Users must increase their dosage to achieve a similar effect to the previous dose.
Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, sweating, itching, yawning and chills.
The withdrawal process for opium is more painful and takes longer than for heroin.
Opium contains many other chemical compounds called alkaloids, including morphine and codeine.
Laudanum, or Opium Tincture, is a solution of pure opium suspended in alcohol.
There is a significant risk of death due to hyperventilation caused by taking opium along with other drugs that have central nervous system depressant effects.
The effects of an opium overdose include slow, shallow breathing, spasms, disorientation, loss of consciousness, coma and death.
Rehabilitation and detoxification programs are the best way to break opium addiction, but painful withdrawal symptoms are inevitable.
It is estimated that over 5,000 tons of opium were produced worldwide in 2002, and over 7,000 tons in 2006.
Before the Taliban government banned production in 2000, Afghanistan was responsible for 70% of global opium production. During the ban, production dropped by 94% to about 74 tons per year.
In 2007, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report on opium production in Afghanistan. It said that 193 hectares of land in the country were used for poppy cultivation. The crop produced over 8,000 tons of raw opium, accounting for about 93% of the world’s heroin.
In 2010, Afghanistan still produced 90% of the world’s opium.
The UNODC report in 2007 estimated that more than 3 million Afghans were involved in the cultivation, processing or trade of opium; and that opium produced in Afghanistan was responsible for the direct or indirect death of more than 100,000 people worldwide.
Most of the deaths caused by direct opium consumption were estimated to occur most frequently in India, China and Southeast Asia – increasingly important markets for the drug. In 2007, the Afghan government reported that more than one million people in the country were addicted to opium, which represented about 3.7% of the total population. In 2010, this proportion was estimated at 1.5 million out of a total population of 30 million.
In 2007, Afghan farmers earned about US$1 billion from their opium crop, about 13% of the country’s GDP.
SIGNS OF ADDICTION
Habitual opium users may suffer from weight loss and malnutrition, due to the anorectic nature of the drug and its vomiting effects.
Opium addicts are very often exclusively interested in their quest for the drug, to the exclusion of all other interests. As a result, an opium addict may lose interest in dress, general appearance and personal hygiene.
An opium user will often have low blood pressure and breathing problems, especially if the drug is smoked.
A reduced libido is also a sign of opium use. Although the initial effect of opium is to increase sexual desire, long-term use generally results in a reduced interest in sex.
Opium users may also become detached from friends and family. Because of the emotional detachment created by the drug, personal relationships become meaningless to the user.
Opium use results in the user’s pupils becoming very small. A person on opium may scratch frequently: itching is one of the side effects of this drug. Drowsiness and sudden sleepiness are also outward signs of opium use, as well as sudden periods of hysteria or manic activity. An opium user may also sweat profusely, and appear confused or disoriented.
The nostrils of a user who regularly inhales opium may become red and painful. If injected, needle marks are visible on the body, most often on the arms, ankles, groin or behind the knees.
Detoxification is the first step in treating opium addiction. It involves ridding the person’s system of all traces of the drug, the first step towards weaning the person off the physical addiction. This process usually lasts several days, during which time the addict will experience severe withdrawal symptoms including insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, chills, muscle spasms and chronic pain.
As with heroin addicts, the synthetic opioid methadone is sometimes used to wean the addict off opium, but due to the addictive nature of methadone itself, this option is rarely used outside of extreme cases. Prescribing a drug that has similar effects to opium is called “replacement therapy”.
Once the physical dependence is overcome by the addict, there is always a very strong psychological dependence. Treatment centers recommend that addicts recovering from opium addiction remain in their care for at least a month, if not longer, so that they can have an extended period of psychological support once the physical withdrawal is complete. Therapy sessions can last several months, and addicts are encouraged to join what are called “12 Step” programs, in which groups of addicts share their experiences about addiction, as well as their progress in their quest for sobriety.
Behavioral or cognitive therapy may also be used in individual sessions to teach the addict to change behavioral patterns associated with drug use. Problems that have led the addict to use drugs may be identified in his or her personal life, and new ways of dealing with these problems are addressed during therapy sessions.
An addict may be prescribed certain medications by a doctor to help him or her lead an opium-free life. Naltrexone is one such medication that is often used in the treatment of alcoholics or those addicted to opium or its derivatives. It is most often used in the treatment of an addict who has relapsed in the past. A doctor may also prescribe a form of antidepressant to a patient recovering from opium addiction; this may be the case when it was depression that led the patient to his or her addiction to the drug, or when the prospect of a sober, drug-free life triggers acute anxiety in the addict.
Une personne tentant de surmonter une dépendance à l’opium a devant lui un certain nombre de choix pour obtenir une aide professionnelle, incluant certains programmes confessionnels et religieux, traitement clinique et thérapie psychologique, mais le traitement clinique est de loin le plus efficace. En raison de la force de la dépendance a l’opium, et le la douleur extrême associée au sevrage, il est peu probable qu’un toxicomane parvienne a s’auto-sevrer et à briser sa dépendance à l’opium sans soutien clinique.
Pendant leur traitement, les toxicomanes ne sont pas autorisés à utiliser d’analgésiques au cours de la phase initiale de désintoxication, faisant de celle-ci une étape cruciale dans la tentative du toxicomane de surmonter sa dépendance. C’est une étape pendant laquelle les toxicomanes peuvent rechuter et retourner vers l’opium, mais parvenir à dépasser ce stade permettra d’accroitre considérablement les chances d’un opiomane de se d’arrêter la drogue pour de bon.