An opioid crisis has plagued the US since the end of the 20th century, leaving a horrifying trail behind it. The abuse of a family of analgesics originally introduced by the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family, has led to public order and health problems capable of destroying entire communities and cities. Under the premise of being as powerful as morphine but not as addictive, compounds such as oxycodone or hydrocodone (trade name Vicodin) created a giant mass of drug addicts that devastates the country on an apocalyptic scale.
Today, its most visible face is fentanyl, another powerful opiate that has lengthened and taken humanity’s love affair with opiates to new heights. This substance, which is extracted from the capsules of the poppy (Papaver somniferum), gives rise to derivatives such as morphine or heroin that have been consumed since practically the beginning of centuries. More than a dozen types of seeds of this plant have been found in archaeological sites in Switzerland, Germany and Spain. Furthermore, the term opium appears in ancient Sumerian tablets as equivalent to the word ‘enjoy’ and in Babylonian representations with great reverence for the plant.
The recreational use of poppies is already documented at that time, but above all their use as analgesic ointments and infusions since Ancient Egypt and later in Greece. According to the Ebers papyrus, its use was recommended to “prevent babies from screaming loudly”, while for Greek doctors opium was prescribed for toothache, the discomfort of diarrhea and strong fevers. Specifically, in the precarious hospitals of the time, upon arrival the patients were subjected to a ‘healing dream’ to relax them and this substance was also used to make antidotes for the poison. Rituals dedicated to gods associated with the night as Hypnos (sleep), Thanatos (death) or Pluto (Roman version of Hades) They included large quantities of opium.
Many of the Roman emperors, from Trajan to Mark AntonyThey consumed, followed Greek medical precepts, medicinal preparations loaded with opiates every morning without any developing dependence. In general, there is no news of addicted people or whose consumption and distribution was linked to organized crime throughout the entire period. Antiquity. There is not even a Roman word for opium addicts.
Opium smokehouse in a Chinese guest house in San Francisco (c. 1890) ABC
Hand in hand with Greek expansion, the substance jumped from the Mediterranean basin to Asia, which today is considered the main place of production. The Persian doctor, philosopher and scientist Ibn Sīnā used it as a euthanasia, while in the Córdoba of the Umayyads The substance was introduced against an infinite number of evils. However, in the Arab world it did soon acquire the recreational use that is associated with it today. Smoked, mixed with hashish and consumed with grape syrups, the Arabs did it both privately and in public celebrations.
Some even attributed an invigorating effect to it, as reflected Hans Sachs, a famous author of calendars from the mid-16th century: «As they toured the battlefield, they saw with surprise that the Saracens still had a hard and erect phallus. The field doctor – without showing signs of surprise – explained to them that there was nothing extraordinary about this, since it was well known to everyone that the Turks used to take opium, and that opium produces sexual excitement even after death.
And precisely in the heart of Asia, in the mid-19th century, a conflict took place around opium that showed the destructive capacity of this substance. In a period in which the United Kingdom imported almost all of its tea from China, the British East India Company dedicated itself to introducing opium trafficking to the Asian country to balance the trade balance. Opium and its derivatives (morphine, heroin, etc.) spread virulently throughout the empire at the beginning of this century and turned thousands of Chinese workers into addicts. It is estimated that each laborer could spend two thirds of his salary on this drug. The Chinese authorities soon banned opium and, through Emperor Daoguang, complaints were raised to London for encouraging a traffic that was causing millions of addicts.
Drugs as casus belli
Seeing that diplomatic channels had nothing to do with the enormous profitability of this trade, the Chinese authorities took action. In 1839 alone they confiscated nearly 20,000 chests of opium. London responded, for its part, by sending a small army that within a few years defeated the Chinese forces and forced Beijing to sign a humiliating peace. Among the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Nanking They included the payment of 21 million silver dollars in reparations and the opening of several of the country’s ports to all merchant ships, including Shanghai. In addition, China was forced to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain and grant British citizens in the area extraterritoriality (the right to be tried by British courts. With the Second Opium War, the United Kingdom also forced the country to allow the opium trade and cede the neighboring Kowloon Peninsula in 1860.
After the opium wars, the rest of the European powers (France, Germany, Russia), as well as extra-European ones (USA and Japan), came for the rest of the loot and forced the Chinese Government to sign as many unequal treaties, which also included extraterritoriality clauses that prevented the application of Chinese laws to foreigners.
At the European level, opium experienced a return trip in the mid-16th century. In 1527, el suizo Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, brought from Arabia recipes based on a mixture of opium and ethanol to treat certain ailments. At the beginning of the 19th century, the constant search for increasingly powerful analgesics led to Friedrich Sertürner to isolate and experiment with morphine for the first time. In 1832 codeine was isolated and in 1874, the first semi-synthetic opioid, heroin, was synthesized, which would soon be distributed by the Bayer pharmaceutical company.
It was marketed as a safer alternative to morphine and therefore a perfect children’s cough syrup. By 1902, heroin produced up to 5% of Bayer’s total profits, which in those years introduced oxycodone to the market. Numerous synthetic opioids such as methadone and fentanyl have continued to appear in recent years to complete the cocktail of harder drugs.
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