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The History of Opiates

Opiates have a very important role in modern medicine. However, they are also a source of the current opiate epidemic we are facing. Humans have been making use of opiates since pre-historic times. Although, many people know the importance of opiates in today's society, only a few know its long history.

Historians believed that humans first cultivated opiates during the Neolithic period, in an area known as Switzerland today. During those times, humans cultivated Papaver (a.k.a. poppy plant), which produces the poppy seeds used to make opium. Historians agree that the people from this area were the first ones who discovered the narcotic properties of opiates.

The first written history that mentions opiates is believed to have come from the writings of Theophrastus around the 3rd century. Around this time, the Grecians discovered that drying the poppy plant's fluids would result to a substance that can cause a powerful narcotic effect when induced. This substance would come to be known as opium.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, the Arabic traders started trading opium with many Far East cultures. Also around this time, opium reached Europe, where it was used as a curative agent for a wide variety of psychological problems and illnesses.

During the beginning of the modern medicine era, scientists began exploring different uses for opium. By the 16th century, doctors started using opium prepared with an alcohol solution which became known as Laudanum which was mainly used as a painkiller.

In 1806, Friedrich Serturner isolated one active ingredient and named in morphine, from the Greek god Morpheus. Later, various scientists isolated papaverine and codeine. Papaverine, codeine and morphine then became the primary drug choices of medicine in this era, and was mainly used for pain.  By the time hypodermic needles were invented around the middle of the 19th century, morphine was then commonly used as an intravenous painkiller throughout Europe.

During the 19th century, the United States began to experience a rapid rise of opium use. The Chinese immigrants who worked on the new railroad systems brought opium from China. During the Civil War, soldiers with serious battle injuries were given opium via injection as a means of easing pain. Also, during this time, a lot of doctors prescribed morphine as treatment of opium addiction, which was somewhat ironic as they both work on the same brain receptors.

In 1803, Jean-Pierre isolated codeine from opium. Codeine was a less powerful narcotic and replaced opium as the primary agent for medicinal purposes. It was mainly prescribed as a cough remedy at the time.

In 1874, chemists began to look for a less addictive form of morphine. Instead, they produced heroin, which is twice as potent compared to morphine. Heroin addiction then became a serious nationwide problem soon after.

By 1937, Gustav Ehrhart and Max Bockmühl first synthesized methadone. They were tying to come up with a painkiller that was less addictive than heroin or morphine, and easier and safer for surgery.

Newer painkillers began to appear in the market with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. Vicodin by 1984, OxyContin by 1995 and Percocet in 1999. Many of the new opiates are synthetic and were formulated to imitate the body's natural painkillers.


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