Although once popular as a painkiller most opium is now refined into heroin and sold illicitly for high prices in almost every city on the planet. All of this heroin started life as the gum gleaned from Papaver somniferous, the opium poppy.
For decades most of the worlds illegal opium has been produced in Afghanistan and the ‘Golden Triangle’, a region of south west Asia. In recent years the amount coming out of Latin America, predominantly Mexico and Colombia, has increased, though cocaine is still the most widely produced drug in the region as it is far easier to refine in large amounts and is currently very popular which means high prices are paid for it.
Opium is obtained from the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy and this is the only poppy that produces opium even though almost all poppies will bleed a milky, sticky latex like sap if the unripened seed pods are nicked with a sharp knife.
A common garden annual in the U.S., the opium poppy bears blue-purple or white flowers 5 in. (13 cm) wide on plants about 3–16 ft (1–5 m) tall, with lobed or toothed silver-green foliage. It is also grown for its tiny nonnarcotic ripe seeds, which are kidney-shaped and grayish blue to dark blue; the seeds are used in bakery products and for seasoning, oil, and birdseed.
Seeds from the opium poppy are edible and are used in a variety of foods, especially in baked products.
Unlike the inripe seed capsules of opium poppies, the ripe seeds do not contain narcotic chemicals. They are used in many forms of cooking.
The seeds can be cooked in water with oil and salt and served with rice where they provide a nutty flavour. They are also blended with tamarind into a curry paste. In confectionary they are sprinkled on sweets and are added to baked goods like breads and cakes.
In traditional medicine opium was made from the air-dried milky latex or juice from the unripe seeds from poppies. The quality of opium would vary depending on whether black or white seeds were used.
Opium from India contained not only high levels of the alkaloid morphine but also the alkaloid codeine This could explain why it was traditionally used to relieve pain and to suppress coughs. The presence of another alkaloid called papaverine in the seeds could explain why the extracts relaxed muscles and reduced stomach and respiratory spasms.
Opium was not recommended for long-term use as it causes dryness of the throat, decreases the ability of the gut to absorb food, increases constipation and increases the pumping action of the heart and can lead to heart failure and ultimately death. The main problem with incorrect use of opium is of addiction. If an addiction is not treated early it will usually result in death.
The seeds were also used in Ayurveda and Siddha medicine. They were cooked and ground with sugar and cardamom seeds and used to treat diarrhoea, coughs and asthma. Extracts of poppies were used to treat fevers, tuberculosis, liver and kidney problems as well as diseases of the urinary tract.
Legal production of opium to use as a base for narcotic analgesics accounts for more than 50% of the opium grown worldwide. Australia and India have ideal poppy growing climates and most of the medicinal opium is grown in one of the two countries.
Opium is widely used as a local native medicine in some parts of the world and the process of obtaining it is simple. The unripe seed heads are slit from just beneath the flattened head of the pod down to the area where the pod joins the stem. This is done several times allowing the latex to seep out. This is collected, boiled in water, passed through a simple filter and dried. The opium contains a number of active ingredients that work together to make this a potent pain killer. Indigenous people in these areas smoke it, eat it or prepare it as a drink, all of these methods of ingestion provide them with the opiate effect of the drug.
Opium poppies look VERY like the common oriental poppy and care should be taken to make sure you get the ornamental variety for your flower bed. Most people cannot tell them apart unless they know a good deal about the poppy genus.
The legalities of growing opium poppies varies widely depending on where you live, in some places even selling the seeds is illegal, in others only a certain amount of plants are allowed, in many the law is not clear on the subject. If you intend cultivating these flowers its advisable to seek local legal advice first.
Lizzie Bennett retired from her job as a senior operating department practitioner in the UK earlier this year. Her field was trauma and accident and emergency and she has served on major catastrophe teams around the UK. Lizzie publishes Underground Medic on the topic of preparedness.