Main type

Opium can be categorised as belonging to the group of drugs known as ‘narcotics’. It is also sometimes referred to as an ‘opioid’, which is a substance that affects the opioid receptors in the brain.

Opium is made from the milky white liquid that comes from the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. When dried this liquid forms a browny yellow latex, which is rich in a variety of different chemical compounds including codeine and morphine. Its final appearance after being processed is either as a tar-like block that is brown to black in colour or a brownish powder. The drug is almost exclusively mixed with tobacco and smoked but it can also be injected or eaten.

The history of opium goes back thousands of years. There is evidence of many ancient civilisations, including the Greek, Roman, Assyrian and Persian Empires all using opium, often to relieve pain when carrying out surgical operations. Opium was used in this medical context for centuries, before other drugs like morphine became preferred for pain relief.

In 18th Century Britain opium was recommended for a number of disorders including insomnia and psychosis and opium pills were widely used by the Union Army during the American Civil War.

Recreational use of opium took hold in China in the 15th Century. Over the following centuries recreational usage increased in the country despite being subject to prohibition in 1729. The British exclusively traded opium with China thanks to its monopoly on its production and exportation from India and the British Government’s continuation of this trade despite Chinese prohibition led to a series of ‘Opium Wars’ around the middle of the 19th Century.

In the early 19th Century the chemical compounds morphine and codeine were successfully isolated from the opium poppy. Being able to precisely calibrate the dosage of these drugs for intravenous injection made them instantly preferable to opium as a pain reliever and use of opium in medicine became largely obsolete.

Opium became a banned substance in many countries around the world in the early 20th Century. Afghanistan is currently the largest producer of illegal opium.

Other Types

‘Laudanum’, which has also been referred to as ‘Tincture of Opium’ is a suspension of powdered opium in a solution of ethanol. It was a popular drug in Britain in the 19th Century where it could be bought openly and was the base of a number of medicines.

This kind of preparation of opium is now most often used to ease the withdrawal symptoms of the babies of heroin addicts.

Heroin is an illegal drug that is a ‘semi-synthetic’ derivative of opium. Heroin is made from morphine (one of the chemical compounds or ‘alkaloids’ of opium) and is many times more powerful in its effect.

Opium itself goes under many street names, including Big O, O.P., Hop, Skee, Midnight oil, Joy Plant, Pen Yan, Tar, Hillbilly Heroin, Block and Black Stuff.

Major Effects

Despite the initial euphoria that opium can cause in the user, which may develop into a sense of general wellbeing and then drowsiness, the drug can have devastating effects in both the long and short term. One of the effects of opium is to slow down the breathing of the user. This can lead to unconsciousness and death particularly with large doses. A user may feel confused, disorientated and nauseous as a result of taking opium. Lack of co-ordination, impaired judgement and a sense of emotional detachment are common side effects of the drug, as is chronic constipation.

Other effects of opium include a rise in aggression, an itchy sensation all over the body, increased urination, visual impairment and uncontrollable sweating.

When used in conjunction with depressants, opium has severe life-threatening consequences. Alcohol, barbiturates and antihistamines are all drugs that depress the central nervous system and when taken with opium, can cause hyperventilation and ultimately, death.

Using opium long-term results in the user developing a tolerance to the drug, which means that they must increase their dose in order to achieve the same effect. This in turn leads to the potential for fatal overdose. The lack of appetite associated with using the drug and the increased vomiting that users experience, can also lead to substantial weight loss over time that may have dire consequences for a user’s health.

Opium is highly addictive, meaning users can very easily become physically dependent on the drug and experience extremely unpleasant and debilitating withdrawal symptoms when they try to reduce their intake or stop.

Production countries

Afghanistan produces the largest proportion of illegal opium in the world. Since the end of the Taliban regime in 2001, production has steadily grown until a point where over 90% of the worlds opium can be said to derive from the opium poppies grown on Afghanistan soil. The country is the most significant part of the so-called ‘Golden Crescent’, an area in Asia where opium production flourishes, taking in Pakistan, another opium producing country, and Iran, which plays a large role in the consumption and shipment of the drug.

In addition to The Golden Crescent is The Golden Triangle, which is formed from the main producer in South East Asia, Myanmar (formerly Burma) plus Vietnam, China and Laos. Myanmar produces the second-largest amount of illicit opium after Afghanistan. Ruthless drug lords have co-ordinated the production and supply of opium in the country for many years, despite the Myanmar government attempting to eradicate production of the drug. Cultivation of opium is centred in the Shan State area of the country.

In Afghanistan the areas where the most opium transactions take place are the Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which border Pakistan. The most commonly used route for trafficking from Afghanistan is via Pakistan to Iran.

Opium is most likely to be converted into its most powerful derivative, heroin, before entering Europe. This is partly because heroin is less bulky than raw opium and thus easier to smuggle. One route that heroin enters Europe is the ‘Balkan route’ via Turkey and the ‘Northern route’ via Russia.

Mexico is a significant producer of illicit opium and all indicators suggest its output to be steadily increasing. Compared to the countries above, there has been less monitoring of the cultivation of opium in Mexico so the true size of its role in opium production is difficult to ascertain.

Guatemala is another country that is responsible of cultivating significant amounts of opium for the world drug trade. In 2005 Guatemala dedicated no less than 100 hectares of its land to the exclusive cultivation of the opium poppy. The country’s close proximity to Mexico and the high level of alleged state corruption may be said to be the principle reasons for the rise in opium and other drug production within Guatemala in recent years.

As well as those countries notorious for illegal opium production, reportage of opium poppy elimination programmes tell us that opium cultivation occurs in many other countries too. It is estimated that a significant degree of illegal production goes on in India and Colombia for instance.

Also emerging as potential major producers of opium are Nepal and China. Thanks to unrest in the Tarai region of Nepal, the cultivation of opium is said to be flourishing. Nepal borders India where both legal production and illegal cultivation occurs and thanks to poor law and order in Nepal, illegal production of opium has leaked over the border.

Adding to those countries producing opium illegally are those that are producing the drug legally according to international drug treaties. Turkey and India are examples of such countries where this legalised production has been employed as a means to curb illegal opium production. The aim is ultimately to inhibit the synthesis of opium into heroin and instead encourage the legal exploitation of the opium poppy for legitimate use in the pharmaceutical industry, mainly for the production of codeine and morphine. The methods used to process the opium poppy for legal means is significantly different to those used for illegal production, aiding the monitoring of production facilities.

This is one example of the ways governments around the world are attempting to curb the production of illicit opium. For many of the poor farmers in Afghanistan and other countries, the financial gain associated with growing opium poppies is too great to ignore, despite the attempts of various governments to outlaw the cultivation of the drug producing plant. Licensing farmers producing illicit opium into producing opium for the pharmaceutical market will, it is hoped reduce the amount of illicit opium being produced.

Nevertheless the focus on encouraging legally grown opium has its own drawbacks. In the last 10 years, for example, there are signs that the face of opium production has undergone significant change, with opium trafficking rings now focussing on India thanks to the rise in legal opium cultivation there and the opportunities that this presents for illegal production.

Facts and stats


Out of all the opiates, opium is the most crude form of its kind and the least powerful in terms of potency. It is made by making shallow slits on the un-ripened seed pod of the opium poppy, allowing its milky fluid to flow out and harden into a sticky gum on the surface of the plant. This yellow coloured latex is then scraped off and further dried to create raw opium. Here are the main facts you need to know about opium:

  • The use of opium goes back thousands of years.
  • Opium was commonly used as a pain reliever until the development of morphine.
  • It can be smoked (most often with tobacco), injected, snorted or eaten.
  • Its appearance on the street is as a brownish powder or dark-coloured soft block.
  • It is highly addictive and dependence develops rapidly.
  • Users need to increase their opium dosage to achieve an effect comparable to the last dose.
  • Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, sweating, itching, yawning and shivering.
  • The process of withdrawing from opium is more painful than withdrawing from heroin and lasts longer.
  • Opium contains many other chemical compounds called alkaloids including morphine and codeine.
  • Laudanum or Tincture of Opium is raw opium suspended in a solution of ethanol.
  • There is a high risk of death due to hyperventilation when opium is taken with depressant drugs like alcohol.
  • Overdosing on opium is likely to result in slow, shallow breathing, seizure, disorientation, unconsciousness, coma and death.
  • Drug rehabilitation and detox programmes are the safest way to break opium dependency but painful withdrawal symptoms are unavoidable.


  • It is estimated that over 5,000 tons of opium was produced worldwide in 2002 and over 7,000 tons in 2006.
  • Before the Taliban government outlawed opium production in 2000, Afghanistan was responsible for the production of around 70% of the world’s opium. During the ban, production fell by 94% to around 74 tons per year.
  • In 2007 the UN Office on Drugs and Crime published a report into opium production in Afghanistan. It said that 193 hectares of land in the country was being used to cultivate opium poppies. The poppy crop went on to produce over 8000 metric tonnes of raw opium, which accounted for approximately 93% of the world’s heroin.
  • In 2010 Afghanistan was still producing around 90% of the world’s opium.
  • The UNODC report from 2007 estimated that in excess of three million Afghans were involved in the cultivation, processing or trade in opium and that the opium produced from Afghanistan alone was responsible for the direct or indirect deaths of over 100,000 people around the world.
  • Most deaths from opium consumption were found to be most likely to occur in India, China and Southeast Asia – the location of increasing markets for the drug. In 2007 Afghanistan’s own government claimed that more than a million people in the country were addicted to opium which equated to around 3.7% of the overall population. In 2010 this figure was estimated to be 1.5 million out of the country’s 30 million population.
  • In 2007 Afghan farmers earned around one billion US dollars from their opium crop, around 13% of the country’s GDP.

Addiction Signs

Those habitually using opium may experience weight loss and malnutrition thanks to the appetite-suppressing nature of the drug and the increased instances of vomiting that users experience.

Opium addicts often become single-minded in their pursuit of the drug to the exclusion of all other interests. Therefore an opium addict may no longer take interest in their dress, general appearance and personal hygiene.

Someone who uses opium may likely have excessively low blood pressure and experience respiratory disorders, especially if they are smoking the drug.

A reduced libido is another sign of opium use. Although initially the effect of opium may increase sexual desire, long-term a reduced interest in sex is common.

Opium users may also become distanced from their friends and family as the drug creates a sense of emotional detachment, meaning personal relationships are no longer seen as significant.

Opium use will result in the user’s pupils becoming constricted so that they appear very small. Someone on opium may scratch themselves frequently because itching skin is one of the effects of the drug. Appearing drowsy and suddenly falling asleep are other outward signs of opium use, as are sudden periods of hysteria or manic activity. An opium user may also sweat profusely, and appear confused or disorientated.

If someone is regularly snorting opium, their nostrils are likely to appear red and sore. If they are injecting opium then needle marks will be visible on the body, most often on the arms, on the ankles, in the groin area or behind the knees.


Detoxification is the first stage in treating addiction to opium. This involves getting rid of all traces of the drug within someone’s system as a first step to overcoming their physical dependence upon it. This process commonly lasts several days, during which time the addict will experience severe withdrawal symptoms that may include insomnia, diarrhoea, vomiting, chills, muscle spasm and chronic pain.

As with heroin addicts, the synthetic opioid methadone is sometimes used to wean an addict off opium, but due to the addictive nature of methadone itself, this is rarely done in anything other than extreme cases. Prescribing a drug with similar effects as opium is known as ‘replacement therapy’.

Once an addict has overcome the physical dependence on opium, there still exists a strong dependence psychologically. Treatment centres recommend that those recovering from opium addiction remain in their care for up to and over a month so that the recovering addict can receive an extended period of psychological support after their physical withdrawal programme has been completed. Counselling sessions can go on for a number of months and addicts are often encouraged to join so-called ’12 Step’ programmes, where groups of addicts share their experiences of addiction and their progress in living a life of sobriety.

Behavioural or cognitive therapy may also be used in a one-on-one context to teach addicts how to change their behavioural patterns associated with the drug. It may be that problems are identified in the addict’s personal life that have led them to a dependence on opium, and new ways to deal with these problems are explored in therapy sessions.

An addict may be prescribed medication by a doctor to help them deal with leading a life without opium. Naltrexone is one such prescription drug that is often used to treat alcoholics or those who have been dependent on opium or its derivative opiates. It is most often used in cases where an addict has had occasions of relapse in the past. A doctor may also prescribe some form of anti-depressant to someone recovering from an opium addiction. This may because issues with depression have led the patient to drug addiction originally, or because the prospect of living a life free from drugs causes the addict to experience extreme anxiety.

Someone attempting to overcome a dependence on opium can choose a number of different ways to get professional help including faith-based programmes, clinical treatment and psychological therapy, but clinical treatment is considered by far the most effective. Because of the strength of addiction associated with opium, and the extreme pain caused by withdrawal, it is unlikely that an addict will be able to self-treat and break their dependence on opium without clinical support.

When undergoing rehabilitation, addicts are not allowed to use pain medication during the initial detoxification process, making this a crucial stage in an addict’s attempt to overcome their addiction. This is a stage at which addicts can relapse and turn back to opium, but making it through this period will greatly increase the chances of an opium addict kicking the drug for good.