CHAPTER 2: THE STORY OF OPIUMDr. Anil Aggrawal,
Professor of Forensic Medicine,
at the Maulana Azad Medical College,
e-mail Dr Anil
An interesting legend tells us about the origin of the poppy plant as also about the effects of opium on chronic addicts. Long ago on the banks of the River Ganges lived a rishi. A mouse shared his hut. Since the mouse was afraid of cats, he requested the rishi to turn him into a cat. On becoming a cat, dogs started troubling him and so he sought another transformation, but now into a dog. This wish too was granted. However, his troubles continued which he tired to overcome by seeking further transformation such as those into a monkey, boar, elephant and then finally, into a beautiful maiden. This beautiful maiden, called Postomoni, married a king, but soon after fell into a well and died. The aggrieved king turned to the rishi for solace. The rishi promised to make his wife immortal, and converted her body into posto or the poppy plant. The rishi said, “A capsule of this plant will produce opium. Men will take it greedily. Whosoever partakes of it will acquire a particular trait of each of the animals into which Postomoni was transformed. In other words, the consumer of the capsule will turn out to be as mischievous as a mouse, as fond of milk as a cat, as quarrelsome as a dog, as unclean as a monkey, as savage as a boar, as strong as an elephant and, as spirited as a queen!”
Poppy plants are cultivated in small fields in the bright sunny plains and valleys. The countries where poppies are grown are Greece, Turkey, China, India, Iran, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. It grows wild in other areas ranging from the Far East to the USA. However, for the most part, the largest quantities come from three areas of the world: the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Laos, Burma, Thailand), the ‘Golden Crescent’ (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran), and Mexico. The crop is alternated with maize, tobacco and other crops. The seeds are sown in several batches from September to April so as to avoid loss of the entire crop due to frost, drought or any other calamity. The plants are thinned to allow a distance of about 25 cms between them. Each plant branches near the ground and reaches a height of 60 to 150 cm. The plants flower during end of May and beginning of June. The flower is very beautiful and ranges in colour from white to purple with shades of red and orange being most common. It is about 10cm in diameter and has four petals concealed within two sepals. The buds droop but straighten up as they open, throwing off the covering of the calyx. After fertilization, the flower petals fall off and the fruit, known as the poppy capsule, can be seen. It reaches the size of a small pomegranate and looks quite similar to it. A single poppy plant bears about five to eight poppy capsules.
Raw opium contains about twenty-five alkaloids, all of which together constitute about one-fourth of the weight of raw opium. The major alkaloid is morphine which constitutes about 10 to 20 per cent of raw opium.
Morphine is a potent suppressor of pain and is a very useful drug in painful conditions, especially in severe chest pain arising due to heart attacks. It also induces sleep in no time. In fact the name morphine comes from the Greek ‘god of dreams’, Morpheus. Incidentally Morpheus was the son of Hypnos, the Greek ‘god of sleep’, and our word ‘hypnosis’is derived from it. Hypnos was also the brother of Thanatos, the ‘god of death’. The scientific study of death in all its aspects is thus known as thanatology. Morphine not only brings sleep and dreams but may cause death when taken in large doses. About 200 mg of morphine is known to cause death. Thus,in a way, morphine is associated with all these three gods, who are so closely related to one another.
Barely eighteen years after morphine was discovered, it was used for homicide. In 1823, a twenty-seven year old French doctor, Edme Castaing, mixed morphine in the wine given to his friend, Auguste Ballet, to kill him. Auguste was soon taken violently ill and he promptly sent for Dr Pellatan, a professor at the Paris School of Medicine. Dr Pellatan noticed that Auguste’s pupils were contracted almost to pin-points. This was an unmistakable sign of morphine poisoning and after Auguste’s death, Dr Pellatan ordered an autopsy. This revealed morphine in the body. Dr Casting was found guilty and guillotined. Since then criminal use of morphine has tended to be confined to medical profession alone. A simple reason for this is the medico’s easy access to this drug.
Morphine is very sparingly soluble in cold water, but dissolves in boiling water easily about one part dissolving in 500 parts of boiling water. In fact, these days morphine is extracted by putting raw opium in boiling water, removing the undissolved opium gum and processing the solution. Morphine is officially prepared in blocks of about 3” x 4” x 1” in size, weighing about 300 to 350 gms and sometimes marked with the trade marks ‘999’ or ‘AAA’. It requires approximately 10 kg of raw opium to produce 1 kg of morphine. Quite paradoxically, as the poppy capsule ripens, the percentage of morphine in it starts decreasing. We have seen earlier that opium is extracted from unripe capsules only. Ripe and dry poppy capsules contain only traces of morphine (about 0.1 per cent). Their warm decoction is, however, used sometimes by villagers as a sedative, fomentation and poultice.
The next most abundant alkaloid in raw opium is narcotine which constitutes about 2 to 8 per cent of the raw opium. The name comes from Greek narke meaning ‘numbness’ or ‘stupor’. Codeine constitutes about 0.3 to 4 per cent, the name coming from the Greek kodeia, meaning a ‘poppy head’. It has the property of suppressing cough and is a main constituent of many cough mixtures. Papaverine constitutes about 1 per cent, the name coming straight from the Greek papaver meaning ‘poppy’. Thebaine constitutes about 0.2 to 0.5 per cent, the name coming from Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt, where raw opium was used abundantly and freely. These five alkaloids make up more than 24 per cent of raw opium. The remaining 1 per cent is made up by the rest of the twenty odd alkaloids which are present in very minute quantities. Quite surprisingly, poppy seeds, known in India by the name khus khus, are quite innocuous and do not contain any alakloid. They are the only parts of the poppy plant not to contain any alkaloid. Not only are they not poisonous, they are used for flavouring food. They are white in colour, have a pleasing nut-like taste and are sprinkled over some Indian sweets. They have a very high protein content. They yield a bland oil, known as poppy-seed oil (khus khus ka tel), which is largely used for culinary and lighting purposes. They are also used as common flavouring agents and these days we have soaps, shampoos and perfumes boasting of the fragrance of khus.
Another narcotic that comes from a different plant (cannabis) is hashish. We shall have more to say about it in a subsequent chapter. A reference in ancient Sanskrit texts indicates that at one time there might habve been some confusion between the narcotics opium and hashish. The word khus-khus (poppy seed) which is sometimes pronounced as khush-khush seems to be the origin of the modern work ‘hashish’.
It appears that Greek warriors regularly took Nepenthes before going to war in order to dull their senses to danger, and surely Helen must have prepared this decoction at other times too. It is not surprising that she had learnt this recipe from the Egyptian queen, Polydamna (wife of Thos) as poppies were grown abundantly in Egypt. In fact, Sicyon, a town in Egypt, boasted of the cultivation of so many poppies that it came to be known as Mekone, i.e. ‘the town of poppies’. The word comes from the Greek word mekon meaning ‘a poppy’. Incidentally the word mekon makes a surprising appearance in an entirely unrelated word ‘meconium’ which is a term applied to the first fecal discharges of a new-born infant. The name was given because these stools bear a strong resemblance to the thick juice of the poppy opium. The word mekon appears also in meconic acid an acid present in raw opium (about 5 per cent).
The ancient Italian corn-goddess, Ceres (the word ‘cereal’ comes from her name) is also supposed to have taken opium to soothe her pain. That is why sometimes statues of Ceres show poppy heads in her hand. Even in ancient art places we see poppy as a mythological symbol of sleep or a personification of Hypnos, the ‘god of sleep’, portraying a bearded man leaning over the sleeper and pouring poppy juice contained in a vessel of horn upon his eyelids. Scribonius Largus (AD 40) mentions the method of preparing opium and points out that the proper drug is derived from the capsules of the poppy and not from the foliage of the plant. Representations of poppies were often engraved on Roman coins of the later ages. In Jewish history, such representations have been found on the bronze coins of John Hyrcanus, prince and high-priest of the race of the Maccabees (135-106 BC).
Probably the original home of the opium poppy was Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It was from here that opium spread to other places. Hebrews called it ophion and Arabs, af-yun both names being derived clearly from the word ‘opium’. The Chinese o-fuyung was in turn derived from the Arabic word.
Hippocrates (460-377 BC),the Greek physician, known as the ‘father of medicine’, was possibly acquainted with poppy juice for he has referred to a substance called mecon with both anti-purgative and narcotic action. However, the meconion of Greek botanist, Theophrastus (372-287 BC), is the first authentic reference to the juice of the poppy.
Galen was the leadingmost physician in Rome from about AD 169-192. It was Galen who so enthusiastically lauded the virtues of opium that its popularity grew to new heights by the end of the second century. The drug was even distributed by Roman shopkeepers and itinerant quacks, following its release for common use by Roman Emperor, Severus, at the end of the second century.
Opium was also used extensively by Arab physicians, the most celebrated of whom was Avicenna (AD 980-1037). Avicenna recommended opium especially for diarrhoea and eye problems and it is said that he himself succumbed to an overdose of the drug. It were the Arab traders who introduced opium to the East around this time. Prohibition of wine by the holy Quran made Muslims very vulnerable to the use of opium. The Mughal emperors, Babur and Humayun, were inveterate opium-eaters.
Opium was brought to China and other parts of the eastern world in the 9th century by the Arab traders. Many travellers have mentioned opium very prominently in their travelogues. In 1511, Barbosa, on his travels to India, mentioned opium as an Indian product in his description of the Malabar coast. In 1546, the French naturalist, Belon, travelled through Asia Minor and Egypt and found that the Turks were such great opium addicts that they were prepared to purchase it with their last penny.
Almost a century before Sydenham, the Swiss physician, Paracelsus (1493-1541), known as the ‘Luther of medicine’ referred to opium as the ‘stone of immortality’. He was an opium-eater himself. He once boasted, “I possess a secret remedy which I call laudanum and which is superior to all other heroic remedies.” Three centuries later the famous US writer and physician, Oliver Wendell Homes (1809-94), was still singing its praises, “Opium...the Creator himself seems to prescribe, for we often see the scarlet poppy, growing in the cornfields, as if it were foreseen that wherever there is hunger to be fed, there must also be pain to be soothed.” Sir William Osler (1849-1919), the famour Anglo- Canadian physician, went to the extent of describing opium as ‘God’s own medicine’.
Among the litterateurs who were gripped by the pleasures of opium was the famous British poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), best known for his poem Kublai Khan (1816). This poem, which made him so famous, was written under the influence of opium. Opium addicts often show a very peculiar form of behaviour. When opium is not given to them, they become listless, but on getting it, they spring into action, often working more energetically than a normal person. Opium eating and narcotic addiction, in general, came to acquire a bad reputation during the twentieth century, because prior to this its dangers were relatively unknown; hence, little or no stigma was attached to opium-eating. In the summer of 1797, Coleridge fell ill and retired to his farmhouse. He was prescribed a drug containing opium by his doctor, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair. He slept for about three hours during which time he ‘dreamed up’ the entire Kublai Khan. On awakening, he immediately took out his pen and paper and started writing the lines of the poem. Unfortunately at that very moment a person called upon him for some purpose and detained him for more than an hour. Coleridge sadly found that he could not recollect the ‘dream’ again. In his own words the poem “had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas without the restoration of the latter.” In his later life Coleridge became a regular opium- eater. Once he exclaimed, “Laudanum gave me repose, not sleep; but you, I believe, know how divine this repose is, what a spot of enchantment a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands.” Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), the British critic, wrote, “To tell the story of Coleridge without the opium is to tell the story of Hamlet without mentioning the ghost.”
The celebrated British essayist, Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), had his first taste of opium when he was nineteen years old. He began taking tincture of opium to counter neuralgic pains he was suffering from. He described his introduction and addiction to opium in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), stating that within an hour of consuming it, his neuralgic pains disappeared and he could launch on a sea of pleasurable fantasy which lasted for several years. In his book, he exclaims, “Thou hast the keys of paradise, oh, just subtle and mighty opium.” He claimed that no quantity of the drug could intoxicate him and he compared it to wine thus: “The pleasure of wine is always mounting and tending to a crisis after which it declines; that from opium, when once generated, is stationary for eight to ten hours; the one is a flame, the other, a steady and equable glow.” He ultimately realised that opium was harming him and he titled the third part of his book as ‘The Pains of Opium’ (Part II of his book, from which the above quotes are taken is entitled, ‘The Pleasures of Opium’. In the third part he describes his nightmare experience while under the influence of the drug, and his tremendous struggle to overcome his habit. The gradual reduction of the dosage was in itself a torture, but he finally succeeded in freeing himself from its cltches.
Other well-known persons who were opium addicts were English poet laureate Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692); the English poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), Francis Thompson (1859-1907) and Arthur Symons (1865-1945), French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), American short-story writer, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and American actress, Barbara La Marr (1896-1926). Commenting on the pleasures of opium smoking, the French naval officer, Claude Farrere (1876- 1957), once wrote: “Certainly, no spasm of the heart or marrow is comparable to the radiant rape of the lungs by that black smoke.” French author and film-maker, Jean Cocteau (1889-1962), was such an opium addict that without opium he could not write or direct films. Once he bacame so ill that for several days he could not sleep, eat or smoke opium. His throat got constricted. At last, someone puffed opium smoke into his mouth and like a galvanised corpse, he staggered from his bed and gave a virtuoso performance that was full of ideas, wit and poetry.
Dr Anil Aggrawal
Drugs on Stamps: Pictures
Chapter Three of Narcotic Drugs