Opium poppy as a drug

In the 19th century opium became a popular narcotic. It was sometimes intentionally used as a recreational drug. More often, users would take opium as a medicine and fall victim to its highly addictive properties. Opium was most often used in the form of laudanum, a mixture of opium latex and alcohol. Opiates such as opium, morphine and heroin induce intense feelings of euphoria, but are highly addictive, and cause serious damage to the brain and the body.

Morphine and heroin

A drawing of two Indian men smoking.
Men smoking opium in an East India Company drawing, c.1860.

The harmful effects of addiction to opium were recognised early on, but have been overshadowed by the even more damaging effects of morphine and heroin.

Morphine is the main active ingredient in opium, and was first isolated as a pure chemical in 1803. With the development of the hypodermic syringe in 1853, it became widely used for pain relief, and is still used in medicine today. As with other opiates, there is a strong risk of addiction.


Heroin does not occur in nature, but was first synthesised from morphine in 1874. Initially marketed as a non-addictive medicine, it has since beem recognised as the most damaging form of opiate. Heroin addiction is widespread, and the demand has had a major effect on the economy and politics of the main regions of supply, Afghanistan and the 'Golden Triangle' of southeast Asia.