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Basic Information

Opium is the dried form of the milk of the opium poppy, valued mainly for the fact that it contains the toxic alkaloids morphine and codeine - both powerful narcotics - at around 10% w/w. The milk of other poppy varieties contains little to no morphine or codeine but may contain other opiate alkaloids.

Poppy milk is obtained from the seed heads and stems of the plant which are minced and pressed to extract it, it is then strained and allowed to dry into opium.

Opium usage is nearly as old as civilisation - the Sumerians left records of its efficacy but there is limited evidence of it being significant in Neolithic times. The 'Lotus' consumed by the lotus eaters of the Odyssey may or may not have been opium - the effects seem similar and opium is known to have been farmed on Cyprus by at least 1100 BC. As well as being an effective euphoric and soporific opium is also highly addictive.

Opium is used by smoking or chewing and requires purification before it becomes injectable.

Historically opium has been used - perhaps overused - as a pain killer and soporific since it was discovered: it was only in the last half of the twentieth century that it was finally removed from infant teething preparations and opium, or its alcoholic tincture laundanum, had been used in all kinds of medicines up to that point. In the late 19th Century the opium derivative diamorphine (a.k.a heroin) was invented - originally as an attempt to make a less addictive substitute.

Besides the medicinal benefits, opium has also been used for ritual and spiritual purposes - and for recreational use. In the 19th Century, opium was used by some writers and artists seeking to find the Muse in the drug's embrace. Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that his poem "Kubla Khan" was inspired by an opium dream, and Thomas de Quincy's 1821 book Confessions of an English Opium Eater dealt frankly with the dangers as well as the pleasures of opium addiciton.

Unsurprisingly it is that recreational use - and the highly addictive nature of its effects that lead to increased restriction by governments. Given the high demand for opiates government restrictions are frequently futile and/or counterproductive … although probably the worst example of this was the attempts of the Chinese Emperors to ban the opium trade in their country. At that time the majority of the worldwide trade was controlled by the powerful and influential Honourable East India Company whose home nation - England - placed no restriction at all on the use of opium and so the HEIC perceived the Chinese action as protectionism rather than public health. This lead more or less directly to the First Opium War … which China lost. Not long thereafter the Chinese government had another go at prohibition and the Second Opium War followed directly. Prohibition was clearly going to have to wait.

In the modern era, opium is a little … outdated … as both a medical and a recreational drug and is heavily restricted in pretty much all nations. The only legal use for it is normally as an industrial feedstock for the production of commercial opiates (normally morphine, diamorphine and codeine) … recreationally it tends to be processed into heroin (diamorphine) since that is easier to smuggle.

See Also


2. Confesions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey at Project Gutenberg

Game and Story Use

  • In a 19th Century campaign, you can establish an artistic type of dissolute character by making him an opium-eater
    • In general, however, an opiate addiction in the pre-modern era should be far less of an issue that it would be in a modern campaign … if rather more expensive.
  • In campaigns from the Victorian Era to the Pulp Era, an opium den makes a good wretched hive of scum and villainy
  • In modern day campaigns, opium smuggling is still a good plot device
  • Opium makes for great values dissonance in pre-20th century campaigns - most medical professionals of the era should regard it as virtually a panacea and it should be widely regarded as a good thing by non-professionals.
  • Bear in mind that, media portrayals to the contrary, withdrawl from opiate addiction, whilst unpleasant is not life threatening … unlike alcohol withdrawl, which can be fatal for advanced addicts.
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