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Opiate Addiction: A Human Problem for 6,000 Years

Opiate addiction is thought by many to be a modern problem caused by disintegration of traditional cultural values. However, this type of thinking is not grounded in reality. Addiction to opium has probably plagued mankind for around 6,000 years, but some evidence has been found that strongly indicates Neolithic man was cultivating and using the poppy plant as many as 30,000 years ago. If this is true it would imply that opiate addiction is a problem that has quite literally evolved with man.

More than 6,000 years ago ancient Sumerians wrote of the poppy plant and its cultivation. And while we don’t know to what extent this culture used the plant for its euphoric effects, (although their name for the poppy translates to “joy plant”) we do know for certain that by the time of the ancient Greeks, addiction to opium was widespread. However, use of opium for its medicinal properties was also rampant. In ancient times as much as today, opium was used to treat pain, headaches, diarrhea, coughing and other ailments. In fact, the use of this drug was so widespread that ancient physicians were divided about whether or not the drug had any “magical” or “supernatural” powers and regularly argued about this in public settings.

Recreational use of opium in ancient times was just a common part of everyday life. Ancient societies in India, Africa, China and eventually Europe were being overrun by the opium trade, which spread to all corners of the known world. Use of the drug grew with the human population, and by the time the nineteenth century arrived, opium addiction had saturated every corner of the globe- including the newly formed United States of America.

During this time, Britain had a stranglehold on most of the trade routes- especially into and out of China- one of the biggest consumers of opium. When the Chinese opium addiction problem became overwhelming, the government fought back, seizing tens of thousands of pounds of opium and refusing to admit further shipments. This led to the infamous First Opium War, where China was resolutely defeated by Britain and forced to allow the trade to continue and expand. But in 1856 China rebelled once more and was yet again put down by the British Empire. As a result, more than one quarter of the adult male population of China was addicted to opium by the turn of the century.

While the Opium wars were being waged in the East, the United States was growing massive quantities of poppy plants in the West, utilizing the opium for medicine, products and recreation. Thomas Jefferson was a prolific grower of the poppy, and some of the most highly esteemed intellectuals of the time were regular opium users. But when the Civil War broke out, morphine had only recently been isolated from opium and was made readily available to soldiers on both sides, leading to the development of thousands of severe morphine addictions – especially with the advent of the hypodermic needle.

In an effort to control the opium and morphine addiction leftover after the Civil War, scientists and pharmacists set out to create a new substance to treat the effects of addiction to these drugs. The resulting drug was developed by Bayer and became the world’s best-selling brand of all time: Heroin. And while it wasn’t easy to see during the time, we now know from unfortunate experience that Heroin is one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs out there.

So if you’re suffering from addiction to morphine, heroin, oxycodone or any other substance, you should know that you’re not alone: this problem has been afflicting humans for millennia. But it doesn’t have to affect you any more- all you need to do is pick up the phone and get help to regain control over your life. Why wait any longer?

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More