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Opioids: History & Types

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Opioids are opium-like drugs. Opium has been used since ancient times. Today's opioids include various narcotic pain medicines. This lesson looks at the history and the different types of opioids.

Ancient Opium

Oxycodone, morphine and heroin are all highly abused drugs, and they are also the same general type of drug. They are opioids, which are opium-like drugs that work by binding to certain receptors in the user's brain. Generally speaking, opioids help block pain messages from the user's brain.

Opioids are designed to have the same affect on the user's body as opium. Opium is an ancient drug made from the opium poppy seed pod. It originated in Southwest Asia. Opium poppies grow in dry, warm climates and have been harvested since at least 3,000 B.C.

Opium poppy seed pods

The drug was typically smoked, and used for many purposes including rituals, anesthesia and as a painkiller. While limiting pain messages, opium also increases feelings of pleasure and reward.

Opium's use eventually became widespread, as its cultivation followed the Silk Road. This was a network of ancient trade routes that ran between eastern China and the western edge of the Mediterranean.

The Silk Road stretched from the Mediterranean to China

Opium Wars and Dens

Opium's presence in China eventually led to the infamous Opium Wars of the mid 1800s. These were two different armed conflicts between China and Western countries -- mainly Great Britain -- over the right to import opium into China.

Opium dens were common throughout China, Southwest Asia and parts of Europe during this time. The dens were popular gathering spots where people could buy, sell and smoke opium. When Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the railroads and in the gold mines, they brought their opium smoking habits with them. By the 1890s, opium dens were commonplace across the U.S., and opium addiction among Americans was a growing concern. Cities and states responded by passing their first anti-drug laws.

Opium as Medicine

The opium wars and opium dens were both linked to the use of opium as a recreational drug. However, keep in mind that opium was originally an ancient medicine. Opium was also used as a medicine in the U.S. through the Civil War, then replaced by opioid drugs. The opioids are refined versions of opium, allowing controlled doses through injection and limiting certain side effects. Note that drugs derived directly from opium are known as 'opiates'.

Opioid drugs are narcotics. That term is sometimes used to refer to all controlled substances, but that's incorrect. Narcotics are opioid pain relievers, which work by affecting the user's brain and dulling the user's sense of pain. There are many different opioid drugs, including:

  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Heroin
  • Oxycodone

Opioid Pain Relievers

Let's take a closer look at these opioid pain relievers.

Morphine is the primary ingredient in opium, which was first extracted for medical use in 1803. Sometimes known as 'purified opium', it's estimated to be about ten times more powerful than opium. Morphine is the gold standard in prescription pain relief and is still widely used today, though it is closely regulated.

Codeine is the most widely used opium derivative drug, which was isolated for its own medical use in the 1830s. Codeine is a pain reliever used alone or in combination medicines, such as cough suppressants containing codeine. Codeine is typically taken orally in pill or tablet form, and is not quite as strong as morphine.

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