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Although the so-called Opium Wars didn't kick off until the mid-1800s, the opium poppy had already been scrutinized and vilified for centuries. In many circles, however, it was revered as an extremely effective and low-cost pain management tool. During the 18th century, opioids were also used as a cough suppressant and even sometimes as a cure-all.

Opium is harvested from the opium poppy flower, papaver somniferum. The narcotic dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, circa 3400 B.C., and was even referenced in Homer's Greek masterpiece, The Odyssey. But the opium poppy is prolific, spawning numerous mood-altering substances that have been used by humans across history, even into modern times. These derivatives are known as opioids or opiates, with the terms used interchangeably.

 

In the 1700s, the opiate of choice was laudanum, a low-cost tincture of morphine and alcohol. Today, the list of medications and substances derived from opium poppies is seemingly endless. Modern opioids include morphine and heroin, as well as a number of prescription painkillers, including codeine, oxycodone, and fentanyl.

 

But no matter the type of opioid or its given name, its addictive properties cannot be denied. Opium addiction among Chinese citizens, in fact, was essentially the catalyst for the 19th century's Opium Wars. And in modern times, opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions.

The 18th Century's Most Notorious Substances

While the Opium Wars were fought in the following century, numerous 18th-century events formed the backbone of the conflict. Great Britain's East India Trading Company was the primary culprit in what would become the Opium Wars. In the mid-1700s, England seized control of much of India, including the opium-growing regions of Bihar and Bengal. Indian-grown opium was then shipped to Southeast Asia, with the majority of the opium supply landing in China.

 

Opium addiction quickly became rampant across China, and the opium poppy trade was ultimately banned in 1799. But the regulations handed down by the Qing Dynasty leaders didn't stop the East India Company. In fact, the illegal opium trade continued to grow, with American smugglers helping to bring Turkish opium into China by the early 1800s.

 

When Lin Zexu was appointed Imperial Commissioner in 1839, he used his new power to fight back against the East India Company and its allies. Ultimately, Zexu was responsible for the destruction of 2.6 million pounds of opium. Britain then retaliated with a maritime attack from the Royal Navy.

Substance Abuse: Then and Now

It's important to keep in mind that opium was illegal in Great Britain as well as China during this time. Thus, British forces were effectively committing an illegal act when they kicked off the Opium Wars. But acts of war in defense of narcotics are unfortunately common across history and are still seen today.

 

Interestingly, however, history has also seen plenty of laws and regulations put in place that protect mind-altering substances and those who use them. For example, the hemp plant was effectively banned across the U.S. until very recently, but the opposite was true in colonial America. Hemp was used as a form of currency, and residents of 18th century Virginia were required to grow the plant on their land.

 

Hemp is a non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana and contains a compound called CBD. And where opiate misuse is concerned, hemp-derived CBD may be a promising, non-addictive pain management alternative. In modern times, we have a strong grasp on the dangers of addiction, but in the 1700s, the idea was only beginning to take hold.

 

The concept of addiction as a disease was first introduced during the tail end of the 18th century. Prior to that time, overindulging in a mind-altering substance, whether alcohol or opium, was widely seen as the low-class behavior of petty criminals. Unfortunately, that stigma still exists in some capacity, especially where opioids are concerned.

Opiates in Modern Times

While some of the stigma against opioids may be misplaced, there's no denying the societal cost. For starters, the economic toll of substance abuse as a whole is astronomical. According to Duquesne University, annual costs related to illicit drugs (including opioids) total roughly $249 billion. Along with the economic impact of opioids, there are also negative health effects to consider.

 

And in the big picture of opioids, side effects such as nausea and dizziness almost seem like minor conveniences. The opioid death toll is sobering: Prescription opioids alone cause about 46 overdose deaths every day across the U.S. To help curb those overdose numbers, treatment may be an effective option for the estimated 20.7 million Americans living with a substance abuse disorder.

 

Modern overdose numbers make the 20,000 Chinese casualties in the First Opium War seem almost trivial. Fortunately, where addicts in the 1700s likely ended up on the streets or locked in sanitariums, substance abuse treatment is commonplace today. Curbing opioid addiction may be best accomplished with a combination of treatment and alternative pain management techniques.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.