Opium - c. 2500 BCE
Opium has held a pre-eminent role in the treatment of disease since the earliest days of recorded history. The medical writings of the ancient Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans extolled its wondrous properties for the relief of pain and inducement of sleep.
Islamic traders introduced opium to China in the ninth century, and it was used for the next 800 years for the treatment of diarrhea resulting from dysentery. Even until the turn of the twentieth century, it was one of the few truly effective and reliable drugs available.
Opium is obtained from the poppy, Papaver somniferum, a plant historically cultivated in southeastern Asia, Iran, Turkey, and now primarily (more than 90 percent) in Afghanistan.
Atop the plant’s main stalk are five to eight egg-shaped capsules. Ten days after the poppy blooms, incisions are made into the capsule permitting a milky fluid to ooze out. This gummy mass is scraped off the capsule and pressed into cakes of raw opium, from which some twenty alkaloids are obtained.
The two most important of these are morphine and codeine, which are responsible for opium’s effects. Heroin is readily synthesized from morphine.