Opium through History

3400 BC

Opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gul, the 'joy plant.' The Sumerians would soon pass along the plant and its euphoric effects to the Assyrians. The art of poppy-culling would continue from the Assyrians to the Babylonians who in turn would pass their knowledge onto the Egyptians.
1300 BC

In the capital city of Thebes, Egyptians begin cultivation of opium thebaicum, grown in their famous poppy fields.The opium trade flourishes during the reign of Thutmose IV, Akhenaton and King Tutankhamen. The trade route included the Phoenicians and Minoans who move the profitable item across the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, Carthage, and Europe.
1100 BC

On the island of Cyprus, the "Peoples of the Sea" craft surgical-quality culling knives to harvest opium, which they would cultivate, trade and smoke before the fall of Troy.
460 BC

Hippocrates, "the father of medicine", dismisses the magical attributes of opium but acknowledges its usefulness as a narcotic and styptic in treating internal diseases, diseases of women and epidemics.
330 BC

Alexander the Great introduced opium to the people of Persia and India.
AD 400

Opium thebaicum, from the Egytpian fields at Thebes, is first introduced to China by Arab traders.

Ancient Indian medical work namely 'Bhavaprakasha' describes the use of Opium.

Ancient Indian medical treatises 'The Shodal Gadanigrah' and 'Sharangdhar Samahita' describe the use of opium for diarrohea and sexual debility. The Dhanvantri Nighantu also describes the medical properties of opium.

Opium disappears for two hundred years from European historical record but not from the East where its usage increased especially amongst soldiers and by medicine men. Opium had become a taboo subject for those in circles of learning during the Holy Inquisition. In the eyes of the Inquisition, anything from the East was linked to the Devil.
1400's Opium was used for medicinal purposes in China for the treatment of dysentery and cholera and other diseases.

The Portugese, while trading along the East China Sea, initiate the smoking of opium. The halucinating effects were instantaneous as they discovered. It was a practice the Chinese considered barbaric and subversive.

During the height of the Reformation, opium is reintroduced into European medical literature by Paracelsus as laudanum. These black pills or "Stones of Immortality" were made of opium thebaicum, citrus juice and quintessence of gold and prescribed as painkillers.

Portugese merchants carrying cargo of Indian opium through Macao direct its trade flow into China.

Ships chartered by Queen Elizabeth I were instructed, to purchase the finest Indian opium and transport it back to England.
1620s –1670s

Rajput troops fighting for the Mughals introduce the habit of taking opium to Assam. Opium is given daily to Rajput soldiers.

From 1637 onwards Opium becomes the main commodity of British trade with China.


English apothecary, Thomas Sydenham, introduces Sydenham's Laudanum, a compound of opium, sherry wine and herbs. His pills along with others of the time become popular remedies for numerous ailments.

The Dutch export shipments of Indian opium to China and to the islands of Southeast Asia; the Dutch introduced the practice of smoking opium in a tobacco pipe to the Chinese.

Chinese emperor, Yung Cheng, issues an edict prohibiting the smoking of opium and its domestic sale, except under license for use as medicine. However, no edict prohibiting the import of opium was issued.

The British East India Company assumes control of Bengal and Bihar, opium-growing districts of India. British companies extracted huge profits by smuggling opium trade out of Calcutta to China. Offically opium is still banned in China.

Linnaeus, the father of botany, first classifies the poppy, Papaver somniferum as 'sleep-inducing', in his book Genera Plantarum.

The British East India Company's export of opium to China reaches a staggering two thousand chests of opium per year.

East India Company assumes monopoly over all the opium produced in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Warren Hastings introduces system of contracts. Contracts for dealing in opium were awarded through auction.

The British East India Company establishes a monopoly on the opium trade. All poppy growers in India were forbidden to sell opium to competitor trading companies.

The import of opium into China becomes a contraband trade. Silver was smuggled out to pay for smuggling opium in.

East India Company introduced Bengal Regulation IV to enable appointment of Opium Agents for purchase of opium from cultivators and its processing at factories owned by the company at Patna and Ghazipur

Chinese emperor, Kia King, bans opium completely, making trade and poppy cultivation illegal.

The British Levant Company purchases nearly half of all of the opium coming out of Smyrna, Turkey strictly for importation to Europe and the United States.

Friedrich Sertuerner of Paderborn, Germany discovers the active ingredient of opium by dissolving it in acid then neutralizing it with ammonia. The result: alkaloids--Principium somniferum or morphine. Physicians believe that opium had finally been perfected and tamed. Morphine is lauded as "God's own medicine" for its reliablity as a pain killer, long- lasting alleviation and least side effects.

East India Company prohibits export of Malwa Opium from the port of Bombay.


East India Company prohibits transit of Malwa Opium or any other non-East India company opium through its territories.

A smuggler from Boston, Massachusetts, Charles Cabot, attempts to purchase opium from the British, then smuggle it into China with the help of British smugglers.


The Bengal Regulation IV amended by Regulation V of 1807 and VI of 1809. The Benaras Opium Agency and Bihar Opium Agency formed.

These regulations laid the foundation of Opium Department on a permanent basis.


John Jacob Astor of New York City joins the opium smuggling trade. His American Fur Company purchases ten tons of Turkish opium then ships the contraband item to Canton on the Macedonian. Astor would later leave the China opium trade and sell solely to England.
1819 and on-

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other English literary personalities experiment with opium intended for strict recreational use--simply for a high and taken at extended, non-addictive intervals

The British East India company entered into treaties with the Opium producing Kingdoms such as Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal, Dewas, Amjhera, Ratlam, Sailana, Sitamau, Narshingarh, Jaora, Udaipur, Jhalawar, Kota, Tonk, Baroda

Thomas De Quincey publishes his autobiographical account of opium addiction, 'Confessions of an English Opium-eater.'
1825 The East India Company Government began negotiations with the Independent States of Central India and Rajputanas with the view to procure for the company the entire opium produced in this region. Malwa opium was allowed to be exported on payment of a duty from Rs.125/- to Rs.175/- per chest.

E. Merck & Company of Darmstadt, Germany, begins commercial manufacturing of morphine.

The British dependence on opium for medicinal and recreational use reaches an all time high as 22,000 pounds of opium is imported from Turkey and India. Jardine-Matheson & Company of London inherit India's opium trade from the British East India Company once the mandate to rule and dictate the trade policies of British India are no longer in effect.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning falls under the spell of morphine. This, however, does not impede her ability to write "poetical paragraphs."
March 18,1839

Lin Tse-Hsu, Imperial Chinese Commissioner in charge of suppressing the opium traffic, orders all foreign traders to surrender their opium. In response, the British send expenditionary warships to the coast of China, beginning The First Opium War.

New Englanders bring 24,000 pounds of opium into the United States. This catches the attention of U.S. Customs which promptly puts a duty fee on the import.

The Chinese are defeated by the British in the First Opium War and forced to sign the treaty of Nanking by which British Subjects were permitted to reside with their families and trade in five Chinese port cities. Hong Kong is ceded to the British, some historians call it ‘stolen’. Chinese government paid an indemnity of 12 million dollars on account of the expenses of the British expedition in addition to 6 billion dollars already paid as ransom for the city of Canton. Further, they paid a compensation of 6 million dollars as the value of the opium which was destroyed. And another 3 million dollars was to be paid by Chinese merchants to the British subjects at Canton.

Dr. Alexander Wood of Edinburgh discovers a new technique of administering morphine- injecting with a syringe. He finds the effects of morphine on his patients instantaneous and three times more potent. A technique extensively adopted by today's addicts.
1843-1860 After annexation of Sind, all possible access to the sea except through company’s ports were cut-off for the native independent Indian Kingdoms. And the duty was gradually raised from Rs.600/- in 1843 to Rs.700/- in 1860. The Malwa opium was stacked so heavily that it led to heavy losses and ultimately it was thought prudent by the native traders to sell their opium to British Government or to smuggle out through other routes not controlled by the British Government.

The British arrive in lower Burma, importing large quantities of opium from India and selling it through a government-controlled opium monopoly.

The British and French renew their hostilities against China in the Second Opium War. In the aftermath of the struggle, China is forced to pay another indemnity. The importation of opium legalized. Opium production increases along the highlands of Southeast Asia.

The Opium Act 1857 came into force to regulate the cultivation of opium poppy and manufacture of opium. India as a monopoly of Govt. of India Opium Act 1857 regulated the sale of opium and poppy heads, their inter state import & export.

English researcher, C.R. Wright first synthesizes heroin, or diacetylmorphine, by boiling morphine over a stove. In San Francisco, smoking opium in the city limits is banned and is confined to neighbouring Chinatowns and their opium dens.

Colonial India passes the Opium Act with hopes of reducing opium consumption within India. Under the new regulation, the selling of opium is restricted to registered Chinese opium smokers and Indian opium eaters while the Burmese are strictly prohibited from smoking opium.

Promulgation of Indian Opium Act of 1878.


The British acquire Burma's northeast region, the Shan state. Production and smuggling of opium along the lower region of Burma thrives despite British efforts to maintain a strict monopoly on the opium trade.

U.S. Congress, in its earliest law-enforcement legislation on narcotics, imposes a tax on opium and morphine. Tabloids owned by William Randolph Hearst publish stories of white women being seduced by Chinese men and their opium to invoke fear of the 'Yellow Peril', disguised as an "anti-drug campaign.
1893 Jagannath Barua, President of Jorhat Sorbajanik Sabha petitioned William Erskine Ward, Esq. ICS, Chief Commissioner of Assam not to probibit cultivation and consumption of opium.

British Expeditionary Forces, explorers and hunters in the North East of India carry opium with them to appease hostile tribes.


Heinrich Dreser working for The Bayer Company of Elberfeld, Germany, finds that diluting morphine with acetyls produces a drug without the common morphine side effects. Bayer begins production of diacetylmorphine and coins the name "heroin." Heroin would not be introduced commercially for another three years.
Early 1900's

The philanthropic Saint James Society in the U.S. mounts a campaign to supply free samples of heroin through the mail to morphine addicts who are trying give up their habits. Efforts by the British and French to control opium production in South-East Asia are successful. Nevertheless, this Southeast region, referred to as the 'Golden Triangle', is to become a major player in the profitable opium trade during the 1940's.

In various medical journals, physicians discuss the side effects of using heroin as a morphine step-down cure. Several physicians would argue that their patients suffered from heroin withdrawal symptoms equal to morphine addiction.
1902-1904 The Burmese government bans the local monopoly on the retail sale of opium which was auctioned out to the highest bidder in lower Burma in 1902 and in upper Burma in 1904.

Heroin addiction rises to alarming rates.

U.S. Congress bans opium smoking.

China and England finally enact a treaty restricting the Sino-Indian opium trade. Several physicians experiment with treatments for heroin addiction. Dr. Alexander Lambert and Charles B. Towns tout their popular cure as the most "advanced, effective and compassionate cure" for heroin addiction. The cure consisted of a 7 day regimen, which included a five day purge of heroin from the addict's system with doses of belladonna delirium. U.S. Congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring contents labeling on patent medicines by pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the availability of opiates and opiate consumers significantly declines.

The first federal drug prohibition passes in the U.S. outlawing the importation of opium. It was passed in preparation for the Shanghai Conference, at which the US presses for legislation aimed at suppressing the sale of opium to China.

A new system introduced in Burma whereby licenses were allotted to selected vendors at a fixed fee and the profit was determined by the difference between the wholesale rate at which the opium was issued from the treasury and the retail price at which the vendor was required to sell to the customers. A resident excise officer supervised the sale and disposal of the surplus opium every year.

February 1, 1909

The International Opium Commission convenes in Shanghai. Dr.Hamilton Wright and Episcopal Bishop Henry Brent heads the U.S. delegation. Both try to convince the international delegation of the immoral and evil effects of opium.
December 17,1914

After 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese are finally successful in convincing the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade. Opium and its derivatives begin to be available all over the world.

Chinese warlords encourage China hill tribes to cultivate opium poppy to pay annual opium tax for their troops and to finance their war efforts.India's export of opium to China banned in 1917.

The U.S. Treasury Department's Narcotics Division (the first federal drug agency) bans all legal narcotics sales. With the prohibition of legal venues to purchase heroin, addicts are forced to buy from illegal street dealers.

In the wake of the first federal ban on opium, a thriving black market opens up in New York's Chinatown

The majority of illegal heroin smuggled into the U.S. comes from China and is refined in Shanghai and Tietsin. Opium cultivation is banned in Assam, a province in the North-East of India.

The 1931 Convention for limiting the manufacture and regulating the distribution of narcotic drugs signed at Geneva on 13 July 1931.

Agreement for the suppression of opium smoking signed at Bangkok on 27 November 1931.


The 1936 Convention for the suppression of illicit traffic in dangerious drugs, signed at Geneva on 26 June 1936.
Early 1940's

During World War II, opium trade routes are blocked and the flow of opium from India and Persia is cut off. Fearful of losing their opium monopoly, the French encourage Hmong farmers to expand their opium production. Opium is used as a substitute for wages and partly food for conscripted labour in the North East Indian State of Assam engaged in the construction of the 2100 kms long Ledo Road to Kunming, Yunan, China. Pathan contractors are employed by the British to ensure regular supply of opium to the labourers. It was also the deliberate Allied Policy to feed opium to the Kachins in the North West of Burma to seduce them to help them against the Japanese.

(During World War II)

Opium was distributed by the American commanders to their subordinates who used it for different purposes. It was given to the villagers to pay for information about enemy movements and opium was also used for money to pay for chicken, egg, rice, salt, etc. In fact it had replaced Japanese currency and British silver.
1942-1948 Opium cultivation and trade flourishes in the Shan States. Remnants of the Kuomintang Army shelter in the North East of Burma, and are helped by the United States to partly finance their resistance by selling opium, and subsequently heroin. Opium is used first time ever to pay Soldiers in northern Burma.

The 1946 Protocol amending the agreements, convention and protocols on narcotic drugs signed at Lake Success, New York on 11 December 1946.

Burma gains independence from Britain in 1948.


Corsican gangsters dominate the U.S. heroin market through their connection with Mafia drug distributors. After refining the raw Turkish opium in Marseille laboratories, the heroin is made easily available for purchase by junkies on New York City streets.

The 1948 Protocol for bringing under international control drugs outside the scope of the convention of 1931 for limiting the manufacture and regulating the distribution of narcotics drugs as amended by the 1946 Protocol, signed at Paris on 19 November 1948.


U.S. efforts to contain the spread of Communism in Asia involves forging alliances with tribes and warlords inhabiting the areas of the Golden Triangle, (an expanse covering Laos, Thailand and Burma), thus providing accessibility and protection along the southeast border of China. In order to maintain their relationship with the warlords while continuing to fund the struggle against communism, the U.S. and France supply the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result: an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts.

The Opium Protocol of 1953 was formulated for limiting and regulating the cultivation of poppy plant, the production of, international and wholesale trade in and use of opium signed at New York on 23 June 1953. Only 7 countries - Bulgaria, Greece, India, Iran Turkey, USSR and Yugoslavia were authorised to produce opium for export.

The Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, 1961 adopted at New York on 30 March 1961 consolidating the provisions of earlier conventions, protocols, agreements and treaties.

U.S. efforts to contain communism in Asia involve forging alliances with tribes and warlords inhabiting the areas of the Golden Triangle, (an expanse covering Laos, Thailand and Burma), thus providing accessibility and protection along the southeast border of China. In order to maintain their relationship with the warlords while continuing to fund the struggle against communism, the U.S. and France supply the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result: an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam is blamed for the surge in illegal heroin being smuggled into the States. To aid U.S. allies, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sets up a charter airline, Air America, to transport raw opium from Burma and Laos. As well, some of the opium would be transported to Marseille by Corsican gangsters to be refined into heroin and shipped to the U.S via the French connection. The number of heroin addicts in the U.S. reaches an estimated 750,000.

Bryan Jones, the lead guitarist and sometimes pianist of The Rolling Stones, dies of an overdose of heroin. The first reported death of a rock star by drug over dose.

Legendary singer, Janis Joplin, is found dead at Hollywood's Landmark Hotel, a victim of an "accidental heroin overdose."

The others this year, for the same reason, were Jimmy Hendrix, singer and guitarist, and Jim Morrison the lead singer and guitarist of the famous rock group The Doors..


Convention in respect of Psychotropic Substances adopted at Vienna on 21 February 1971.

Heroin exportation from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle, controlled by Shan warlord, Khun Sa. He is a major source for raw opium in the profitable drug trade. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 amended by the Protocol of 1972.
July 1,1973

President Nixon creates the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) under the Justice Dept. to consolidate virtually all federal powers of drug enforcement in a single agency.
1970 - 1978

Saigon falls. The heroin epidemic subsides. The search for a new source of raw opium yields Mexico's Sierra Madre. "Mexican Mud" would temporarily replace "China White" heroin until 1978.

The U.S. and Mexican governments find a means to eliminate the source of raw opium--by spraying poppy fields with Agent Orange. The eradication plan is termed a success as the amount of "Mexican Mud" in the U.S. drug market declines. In response to the decrease in availability of "Mexican Mud", another source of heroin is found in the Golden Crescent area--Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating a dramatic upsurge in the production and trade of illegal heroin.

Comedian John Belushi of Animal House fame and Blues Brothers, dies of a heroin-cocaine--"speedball" overdose.
September 13,1984

U.S. State Department officials conclude, after more than a decade of crop substitution programs for Third World growers of marijuana, coca or opium poppies that the tactic cannot work without eradication of the plants and criminal enforcement. Poor results are reported from eradication programs in Burma, Pakistan, Mexico and Peru.

Indian Parliament enacts a comprehensive legislation on narcotics drugs & psychotropic substances namely Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 repealing the Opium Act 1857, Opium Act 1878 and Dangerous Drugs Act, 1930. The new act comes into force w.e.f. 14.11.1985.
In 1986, Government of India creates Narcotics Control Bureau as an apex organisation to enforce and co-ordinate the drug related matters at national and international level.
Shillong Customs in the North East of India seize more than 1.1 tons of opium in two cases, and break a Pathan group working since WW II in the opium trade. During WW II opium was given to the labourers, often in lieu of food, working on the Ledo Road to Kunming in China.

Shillong Customs organise the first destruction of illicit opium cultivation in the North East. It covers Yingkiong district of Arunachal, Aiboul Joupi group of villages in Chakpi Karong sub division of Chandel District of Manipur, Champhai district of Mizoram. These destruction operation continue till 1991.


Opium production in Burma increases under the rule of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the Burmese junta regime. The single largest heroin seizure is made in Bangkok. The U.S. suspects that the 2,400-pound shipment of heroin, en route to New York City, originated from the Golden Triangle region, controlled by drug warlord, Khun Sa, who on Granada TV accuses the USA of encouraging opium production.

A U.S. Court indicts Khun Sa, leader of the Shan United Army and reputed drug warlord, on heroin trafficking charges. The U.S. Attorney General's office charges Khun Sa with importing 3,500 pounds of heroin into New York City over the course of eighteen months, as well as holding him responsible for the source of the heroin seized in Bangkok.

Colombia's drug lords introduce high-grade heroin into the United States.

The Thai army with support from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) launches its operation to destroy thousands of acres of opium poppies from the fields of the Golden Triangle region. Yet, even in 1999 opium is being cultivated illicitly in Thailand, but in smaller areas.

Heroin takes another well-known victim. Twenty-three-year-old actor River Phoenix dies of a heroin-cocaine overdose, the same "speedball" combination that killed comedian John Belushi.

Efforts to eradicate opium at its source remain unsuccessful. The Clinton Administration orders a shift in policy away from the anti- drug campaigns of previous administrations. Instead the focus includes "institution building" with the hope that by "strengthening democratic governments abroad, [it] will foster law-abiding behavior and promote legitimate economic opportunity." Very little progress in reducing demand for heroin. Not much research to investigate why more and more youth are becoming addicts. Why escape from unmanageable process of survival and competition.

Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the Seattle-based alternative rock band, Nirvana, dies of heroin-related suicide.

The Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia is now the leader in opium production, yielding 2,500 tons annually. According to U.S. drug experts, there are new drug trafficking routes from Burma through Laos, to southern China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
January 1996

Khun Sa, one of Shan state's most powerful drug warlords, "surrenders" to SLORC. The U.S. is suspicious and fears that this agreement between the ruling junta regime and Khun Sa includes a deal allowing "the opium king" to retain control of his opium trade but in exchange end his 30-year-old revolutionary war against the government.
November 1996

International drug trafficking organizations, including China, Nigeria, Colombia and Mexico are said to be "aggressively marketing heroin in the United States and Europe."

CBN starts destruction of illicit cultivation operations in Yingkiong and Lohit districts of East Arunachal Pradesh. In February 1999 a record 248 hectares are destroyed in the districts of Changlang, Khonsa, Lohit and Yingkiong of Arunachal Pradesh. Survey of addicts and illicit cultivation areas with the intention of devising a practical alternative development plan starts in October 1999 in Lohit district.
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