Opium (poppy tears, lachryma papaveris) is the dried latex obtained from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Opium contains up to 12% morphine, an alkaloid, which is frequently processed chemically to produce heroin for the illegal drug trade. The latex also includes codeine and non-narcotic alkaloids such as papaverine, thebaine and noscapine. The traditional method of obtaining the latex is to scratch ("score") the immature seed pods (fruits) by hand; the latex leaks out and dries to a sticky yellowish residue that is later scraped off. The modern method is to harvest and process mature plants by machine. "Meconium" historically referred to related, weaker preparations made from other parts of the poppy or different species of poppies.
The production of opium itself has not changed since ancient times. Through selective breeding of the Papaver somniferum plant, the content of the phenanthrene alkaloids morphine, codeine, and to a lesser extent thebaine, has been greatly increased. In modern times, much of the thebaine, which often serves as the raw material for the synthesis for hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and other semi-synthetic opiates, originates from extracting Papaver orientale or Papaver bracteatum.
Opium for illegal use is often converted into heroin, which is less bulky, making it easier to smuggle, and which multiplies its potency to approximately twice that of morphine. Heroin can be taken by intravenous injection, intranasally, or smoked (vaporized) and inhaled.
Manuscripts of Pseudo-Apuleius's fifth-century work from the tenth and eleventh centuries refer to the use of wild poppy Papaver agreste or Papaver rhoeas (identified as Papaver silvaticum) instead of Papaver somniferum for inducing sleep and relieving pain.
The use of Paracelsus' laudanum was introduced to Western medicine in 1527, when Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known by the name Paracelsus, returned from his wanderings in Arabia with a famous sword, within the pommel of which he kept "Stones of Immortality" compounded from opium thebaicum, citrus juice, and "quintessence of gold." The name "Paracelsus" was a pseudonym signifying him the equal or better of Aulus Cornelius Celsus, whose text, which described the use of opium or a similar preparation, had recently been translated and reintroduced to medieval Europe. The Canon of Medicine, the standard medical textbook that Paracelsus burned in a public bonfire three weeks after being appointed professor at the University of Basel, also described the use of opium, though many Latin translations were of poor quality. Laudanum was originally the sixteenth-century term for a medicine associated with a particular physician that was widely well-regarded, but became standardized as "tincture of opium," a solution of opium in ethanol, which Paracelsus has been credited with developing. During his lifetime, Paracelsus was viewed as an adventurer who challenged the theories and mercenary motives of contemporary medicine with dangerous chemical therapies, but his therapies marked a turning point in Western medicine. In the seventeenth century laudanum was recommended for pain, sleeplessness, and diarrhea by Thomas Sydenham, the renowned "father of English medicine" or "English Hippocrates," to whom is attributed the quote, "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium." Use of opium as a cure-all was reflected in the formulation of mithridatium described in the 1728 Chambers Cyclopedia, which included true opium in the mixture. Subsequently, laudanum became the basis of many popular patent medicines of the nineteenth century.
During the 18th century, opium was found to be a good remedy for nervous disorders. Due to its sedative and tranquilizing properties, it was used to quiet the minds of those with psychosis, help with people that were considered insane, and also to help treat patients with insomnia. However, despite its medicinal values in these cases, it was noted that in cases of psychosis it could cause anger or depression and due to the drugs euphoric effects, it could cause depressed patients to become more depressed after the effects wore off because they would get used to being high.
The standard medical use of opium persisted well into the nineteenth century. U.S. president William Henry Harrison was treated with opium in 1841, and in the American Civil War, the Union Army used 2.8 million ounces of opium tincture and powder and about 500,000 opium pills. During this time of popularity, users called opium "God's Own Medicine."