Opium poppies have been cultivated for food, anaesthesia and ritual purposes dating back to the Stone Age. In the most important medical texts of the ancient world, opium is mentioned frequently as a very potent pain reliever used by ancient surgeons during prolonged surgeries. Unprocessed opium was widely used during the American Civil War before being replaced by morphine, which could be injected at a precise controlled dose. In Eastern civilizations, opium was used for recreational purposes dating back to the 15th century but was scarce because of it's expense and rarity. The trade of opium became regular in the 17th century when it was mixed with tobacco and smoked. The smoking of opium with tobacco lead to some of the first documented cases of addiction and because of the problems opium caused, it was banned in China in 1729.
Over time opium has been replaced by a variety of purified and synthetic opioids with stronger effects. Morphine was the first pharmaceutical isolated from opium and the success created interest by others to isolate other alkaloids. Codeine quickly followed morphine and soon after that came heroin. Heroin was the first semi-synthetic opiate and was sold in the United States by the brand Bayer that is still around today. The funny thing about heroin is that it was marketed from 1898 to 1910 as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough medicine for children! Oxycodone was then released by Bayer in 1916 and was also introduced as a less addictive analgesic.
These drugs have been around for a very long time and many of them when prescribed correctly can be very effective. But in the last decade, many of these prescription opiates have been over-prescribed and turned the United States into an addicted country. The numbers of overdoses from opiates has never been higher in the past 10 years and the epidemic does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Though the destruction of these drugs is evident, it has not slowed the sales and popularity of opiates. Pharmaceutical companies continue to produce new medications and the field of narcotic prescription painkillers is extremely competitive. It is a multi-billion dollar industry and though the United States has the biggest legal opiate market in the world, our nation has very little legal poppy farming. As a result, the U.S. is dependent on other nations to produce the opium needed to produce the popular painkillers prescribed every day in our country.
According to a paper in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, researchers at Stanford University have claimed to create opiates in a laboratory. They have been able to hack yeast DNA to make opiates, with their ultimate goal of producing opioid-based medicine entirely inside fermentation vats, with no actual poppy plants required. As cool and amazing as this sounds, it scares me to no end. The fact that our country will be able to create opiates without relying on outside sources will drastically drop the price of the drugs which in turn drops the price on the black market. This will increase use and make it even more available than it is today. The future seems to be scary in the world of opiate recovery and though I love science and the advancements that go along with it, this one may be creating more problems than we could imagine.