What is Opium?
Opium comes from the opium poppy plant. Opium is then used to create certain opioid pain medications such as morphine. Morphine is often administered before and after procedures in medicine. As well as morphine, opium serves as the basis of the illicit drug heroin, also classified as an opioid and a narcotic.
Synthetic opioids are created for medicinal purposes to replicate some of the effects of opium. There are also synthetic opioids specifically manufactured for use in illicit drugs.
“Over 2.5 million Americans suffer from opioid use disorder, which contributed to over 28,000 overdose deaths in 2014,” according to the NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse. These staggering numbers have gone up even since 2014. The use of opium, semisynthetic opioids like heroin, and prescription pain medicines have become so pervasive it’s often referred to as the opioid epidemic.
Opium is from the poppy plant, and it’s base for opioid drugs used in medicine like morphine. There are semisynthetic opioids, as well as synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Synthetic opioids are created to replicate the effects of opium on the central nervous system.
Why is Opium So Addictive?
While opium itself isn’t necessarily a commonly used substance in the U.S., opioids and opiates are a big topic of discussion. The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Opium is the basis of these drugs.
Opiate and opioid are often terms that are used interchangeably with one another, but they are different in the strictest terms. An opiate is a drug naturally derived from the opium poppy. Opioid, on the other hand, refers to synthetic drugs or substances that are created to replicate the effects of opium.
Either way, both opiates and opioids can be extremely addictive. Opium and drugs that are derived from it, or synthetically created, all bind to certain receptors throughout the central nervous system. These receptors, when activated, can create a feeling of euphoria in users along with pain relief, relaxation and drowsiness.
The Effects of Opiates
When the opioid receptors are activated, it can also slow the functionality of the central nervous system. Functions controlled by the central nervous system include breathing and heart rate.
Opium and opioids are addictive because when these receptor sites are activated, it creates a reward cycle in the brain. The brain then wants to continue seeking out the trigger that created the pleasant or euphoric feelings. In this case, it was a drug. When someone is addicted to opium or any other opioid, their use of it becomes compulsive and out-of-control.
Signs of Opioid Abuse
When someone uses opium or other opioids even only a few times, they may become addicted. Signs of opium or opioid abuse can include:
- Using more than is prescribed
- Continuing to use opioids even after a doctor no longer advises it
- Using opioids without a prescription
- Intentionally using opioids for the effects they bring, such as euphoria
If someone is abusing opium or opioids, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re addicted. However, opioid abuse significantly raises the likelihood they will become addicted.
Signs of Opioid Addiction
Addiction is a chronic and diagnosable disorder. Medical and psychological professionals can assess a patient based on certain signs and symptoms of an opioid disorder.
They can then determine not only if someone is addicted to opium or opioids, but also how severe that addiction is. Addictions and substance use disorders are diagnosed anywhere from mild to severe.
Signs of an opioid addiction can include:
- Continuing to use opioids, even if you don’t want to
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and responsibilities
- Obtaining more opioids is a top priority
- Using opioids even when there are negative side effects and outcomes
- Developing a tolerance and needing larger doses
- Strong cravings
- Opioids become a prime focus in life
The Numbers Behind the Epidemic
The abuse of opioids, which includes prescription pain medicines, heroin, and synthetic opioids, has led to such a crisis in the U.S. that the costs associated with it are in the billions.
The following are key statistics regarding the opioid epidemic in the U.S.:
- Anywhere from 21 to 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain are believed to misuse or abuse them
- Anywhere from 8 to 12 people who are prescribed an opioid develop a substance use disorder
- It’s estimated that between 4 and 6 percent of people who abuse prescription opioids move onto using heroin
- The number of opioid overdoses went up 30 percent from July 2016 to September 2017 in 45 states
- In 2016, more than 42,000 people died from opioids including prescription pain medicines, heroin, and fentanyl.
So what does all this have to do with opium? As was touched on, opium is the base of many naturally-derived opioids. It’s also what synthetic opioids are created to be similar to.
Opium vs. Heroin
Opium is a naturally-occurring opiate. Opiate is the specific term used to describe narcotics that are naturally derived. It’s often used interchangeably with an opioid, although opioid technically refers to synthetic narcotics. Opium has long been used as a pain medicine and a recreational drug.
In fact, the use of opium for both purposes is believed to go as far back as 4,000 BCE.
There is an active chemical compound in opium that is responsible for its ability to fight pain, but also the euphoric high and the pleasant feelings it creates. That chemical compound is morphine, which is often used in medicine.
At the Center of the Addiction
Heroin, which is at the center of the opioid epidemic, is derived from opium but only partially. It’s semisynthetic. Heroin is created when opium is first changed to morphine, and it then goes through a process of synthesis. That synthesis into heroin makes the morphine more potent. Opium, morphine, and heroin are all highly addictive.
Opium is usually smoked, but it can also be injected intravenously or used in pill form, while heroin is primarily used intravenously.