What is Opium?

By The Fix staff 07/10/14

Opium is a narcotic depressant derived from the seedpod of an opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). As a primary source of morphine and codeine, it is commonly used as an analgesic painkiller. Opium itself is now illegal to possess, especially in its most popular illicit form, heroin. It can be a source of euphoria or peacefulness depending on the amount of use and method. 

Opium can take on multiple appearances in color (from a yellow-brown to black) and state (liquid, solid, or most commonly as powder) and carries a very distinctly bitter taste and odor. Other names for the drug are Buddha, Ze, Dover’s Deck/Powder, O, Hope, and Ah-Pen-Yen.

How Opium affects the brain

When taken consistently, opium can alter the structure and function of the brain. Opium binds to the brain’s pleasure-enhancing and painkilling receptors to amplify these states. Continued opium use can cause the synapses, neurons, and brain cell shapes to change, leading to modifications in behavior. Opium abusers characteristically become more erratic and impulsive in their decisions and experience changes in their motivation, emotions and behaviors as a result of even occasional use of the drug. Opium can also create confusion, memory loss, hallucinations, and convulsions.

Signs of Abuse

These are similar to intoxication. Short-term effects and signs include bloodshot eyes, confusion, slurred or rapid speech, delayed reactions, loss of appetite and weight, insomnia, sinus problems, and nausea. At the optimal moments of being "high" opium abusers appear to be in euphoric states. However, depending on the dosage, behavior might at times become energetic or, conversely, drowsy given that the drug is classified as a depressant. Mid-term signs of abuse include fixation with the drug; a pattern of avoiding prior commitments to family, work, or friends, and lying to cover up the severity of abuse. 

Long term effects of abuse

Health-related issues associated with opium abuse include a weakened immune system, blood disorders, and fatal respiratory or renal failure. Fatal doses do not necessarily come only at higher tolerance levels; opium-related deaths can result quickly and easily. People who smoke opium are also subject to higher risk of lung cancer and disease, and they risk damage to the heart, liver, and kidneys, other vital organs and the brain. Health-related damage may remain even after drug use has ceased. Moreover, those who inject opium tend to become afflicted with vein damage, blood contamination and other common risks associated with intravenous drug use. Withdrawal itself is characterized by nausea, vomiting, anxiety, pain throughout the body, diarrhea, and high blood pressure. 

Opium overdose can lead to lifelong health complications or death due to respiratory system failure and not enough oxygen to the brain

Opium overdose

A significant issue regarding overdose is that it often mirrors the opium high itself and therefore can be difficult to detect. Users who have overdosed can experience hallucinations, depression, shallow breathing, vomiting, confusion, and coma. If it is suspected that a person has overdosed, successful treatment is available but should only be administered by a medical professional unless Naloxone, which is highly effective in cases of overdose from any opiate, is available. Those who know addicts personally, and addicts themselves, are encouraged to acquire Naloxone from the pharmacy so they have it available in case of emergency. In any case, always call 911 and seek medical attention as soon as possible.  

The medical profession issues strong warnings against mixing opium with its more popular derivatives: codeine, morphine, heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone and hydromorphone. Given that all these depress the central nervous system, the outcome of mixing can be fatal. Also highly hazardous is mixing opium and derivatives with alcohol, anesthetics, barbiturates, antihistamines, and benzodiazepines. (The usual goal of mixing is to prolong the “high” even though the risk for coma or death is greater.) When mixed with other substances to create what is known as “Black" - a blend of opium, marijuana, and methamphetamine - the risks are also high. The use of another common opium hybrid, “Buddha” - a compound of marijuana spiked with opium - also poses risks.


Most opium addicts experience nausea, vomiting, anxiety, pain throughout the body, diarrhea, and high blood pressure during detox. Even so, detox treatment can be successful. Methadone and Buprenorphine, long-acting "agonists" that block the effects of opiate drugs, are opioid-based medications that rid the body of opium cravings. Naltrexone is also helpful as receptor blocker. These medications can help with the return to a reasonably functional life while allowing time to work on deep-seated emotional and psychological roots of addiction without craving.

Drug Tests

All standard and extended U.S. drug tests test for opium and its derivatives. Opium is detectable in urine for 1-2 days, and in hair for approximately 90 days.

Legal Status

Opium is a Schedule II narcotic by U.S. federal classification. The legality of opium poppy, poppy straw, and concentrate of poppy straw causes some confusion because opium-producing poppies are grown around North America for ornamental purposes or for flower arrangements, and are used in cooking and baking recipes. If the opium poppy is being grown as a source of opium or its derivatives, it is considered illegal and a violation of the Controlled Substances Act. Opium that is used for legal commercial pharmaceutical use is grown with a special government issued license, but is not common in the U.S.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

The Fix staff consists of the editor-in-chief and publisher, a senior editor, an associate editor, an editorial coordinator, and several contributing editors and writers. Articles in Professional Voices, Ask an Expert, and similar sections are written by doctors, psychologists, clinicians, professors and other experts from universities, hospitals, government agencies and elsewhere. For contact and other info, please visit our About Us page.