Excerpt: When Painkillers Become Dangerous

Pain medications share a common historical heritage. Derivatives of the poppy flower, first cultivated around 3,400 B.C., have been used by humans for thousands of years. The term opiate describes naturally occurring and synthetic compounds directly derived from the poppy. The word opioid is used to describe any derivative of the opiate class. Opium contains a complex mix of sugars, proteins, fats, water, latex, gums, ammonia, sulphuric and lactic acids, and numerous alkaloids, most notably morphine, codeine, noscapine, papaverine, and thebaine. Although thebaine has no pain-relieving effect, it is used to synthesize other opioids which have become very popular: hydrocodone (Vicodin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and oxycodone (Percocet). OxyContin is a controlled release, high-concentration formulation of oxycodone.

The writings of Theophrastus (third century B.C.) are the first known reference to opium. The word opium derives from the Greek word for "juice of a plant." Opium was actually prepared from the juice of the poppy. The juice is derived from the seedpods of the flower. Ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians learned that smoking the extract causes pleasurable effects. Use of the plant later spread to Arabia, India, and China. In Europe, it was introduced by Paracelsus (1493–1541).

In the eighteenth century, opium smoking was popular in the Far East, and the opium trade was a very important source of income for the colonial rulers from England, Holland, and Spain. Opium contains a considerable number of different substances, and in the nineteenth century, these were isolated. Friedrich Sertürner was the first to extract one of these substances in its pure form. He called this chemical morphine after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep or dreams.

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