People Have Used, Abused Opioids For Thousands of Years

By Kelly Burch 08/20/19

PBS explored the history of opium use and its acceptance throughout myriad societies. 

ancient romans also partook in opioid use
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Thousands of years before Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers were flooding rural America with prescriptions for pain meds, orders for opium were being taken in ancient Mesopotamia, kickstarting humanity’s love affair with the dangerous drugs. 

According to PBS, the ancient Mesopotamians referred to opium poppies as “joy plants.” Nearly 500 years B.C., the so-called father of medicine, Hippocrates, pointed to the benefits of opium. 

“Ancient Greeks, Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, people in Middle Ages, Europeans from renaissance to now, knew opium as an ever-approved next-door medicine—a panacea for all maladies,” Sankar Bandyopadhyay, a researcher at Penn State University, wrote in a study published in the journal Neurology

Bandyopadhyay points out that ancient texts including the Bible and The Odyssey make reference to opium. 

Accepted, Rejected, Reintroduced

The view of opium in the West was confounded by religious zealots in the 1300s who saw it as an Eastern tradition, and therefore rejected it. However, it was reintroduced as a pain medication in the 1500s, and use became more widespread. In the 1600s, the Queen of England even instructed her ships to purchase opium from Asia. By the late 1700s, the British East India Company had a lucrative monopoly on the opioid trade. 

When morphine was isolated in 1805, Western doctors thought that they had developed the first way to harness the pain-relief powers of opioids without putting people at risk for abuse. However, that turned out not to be true. 

“By 1830s one-third of all lethal poisoning was due to opium—marking the first recognition of a social evil,” Bandyopadhyay writes. 

When morphine was isolated from opium poppies and eventually heroin and synthetic opioids were developed, the toll of drug use became even worse. People began turning to opioids in an attempt to live pain-free lives. 

“Recognition of subjective pain as the fifth vital sign, with pressure on providers to prescribe scheduled medicines, added additional strokes to this menace of prehistoric dimensions,” Bandyopadhyay writes. 

The study points out that “virtually all plants and animals” have receptors for opioids, predisposing people to abuse. 

“Genetic factors for opioid specific heritable vulnerability contributes to nearly 50% of abuse," Bandyopadhyay writes. “Prevalence of mood disorders in today’s world add substantial susceptibility.” 

Bandyopadhyay concludes: “This nemesis has anchors on history, culture, mythology, religion, biology, genetics and psychology. A thorough knowledge of the upstream is necessary for a successful downstream regulation.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.