Opium is the original base of pain medications. Orange poppies waving in Oriental fields are breathtaking to behold. Their seed pods contain one of the most deadly -- or beneficial, depending on your viewpoint -- substances on earth.
Excavations of the remains of Neolithic settlements in Switzerland have shown that poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum) were already being cultivated. As early as 3200-2600 B.C. They may have been harvested for the 45% oil food value, but the slightly narcotic property of this plant was undoubtedly already known then.
Arabic doctors were well aware of the beneficial effects of opium and Arabic traders introduced it to the Far East. In Europe it was reintroduced by Paracelsus (1493-1541) and in 1680 it had reached England. In that year, the English doctor Sydenham wrote about the pain-killing properties: "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and efficacious as opium."
In the Far East, opium dens were born faster than the peasants could be enslaved to harvest the poppies. People entered these dens to escape reality and there they lived in a constant state of pleasant opium dreams until they ran out of money or died. If they ran out of money, they were put out on the streets where they would do anything to get more money so they could re-enter their den of dreams. Desperate families would seek their loved ones in these dens and retrieve them, only to lose them again and again to the strong addiction of opium.
To depict the history of opium, Japan has created the Hall of Opium which will open to tourists later this year, near Chiang Rai in the fabled Golden Triangle, a remote and lawless region of South-East Asia.
In 1806 Friedrich Serturner was the first to extract one of these substances in its pure form. Codeine (Robiquet, 1832) and papaverine Merck, 1848) followed. Morphine was a blessing during the American Civil War where field conditions were so hideous often all a doctor could offer was relief from pain.
However, all was not peaches and cream. As "patent medicines" such as Laudanum were developed and widely sold in America, concern about the addictive properties first began to surface.
It was easy for housewives confined in sod shanties buffeted year-round by the constant winds of the plains to find first a momentary relief and then longer and longer periods of pleasant escape in a bottle of Laudanum. Gradually it went from a traveling medicine man's hands into those of the early doctors and pharmacists at the general store.
The problem of opium addiction and American pressure led to the first International Opium Conference in 1909 at Shanghai with representatives from countries with colonial possessions in the Far East and Persia. This conference laid the foundation for the International Opium Conference in The Hague in 1911.
This conference lead to the first international convention, the Opium Convention of January 23, 1912, although its extent only obliged the affiliated countries to take measures to control the trade in opium within their own national legal systems.
The Germans, with their heavy investments in the pharmaceutical trade, were successful in having the wording changed in all articles to do with morphine and cocaine from "control" to "try to." The ratification of the convention was ultimately made dependent on countries not present at the conference. In sum, it was quite ineffective in controlling opium trade.
Another conference, held in The Hague in the year 1913, was just as ineffective, and only at a third conference at the same place in 1914 was a protocol signed allowing the convention to take place without the signature of all participating countries.
The United States reacted by passing the Harrison Narcotics Act on December 17, 1914 which controlled the trade and made it illegal for unauthorized persons to possess heroin. The Act set a maximum fine of $2000 and/or five years imprisonment.
World War I brought all efforts to a halt as the bloody battlefields demanded as much pain relieving morphine as could be delivered.
The matter came up again after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. This time the United States introduced the provision that all countries which had not signed and/or ratified the convention of 1912 should still do this. The convention was handed over to the League of Nations in 1920 for enforcement. England brought the Dangerous Drugs Act into force in 1920. While America had outlawed the use of heroin for medical purposes, England upheld this purpose and found the provision of heroin to addicts to be an acceptable medical practice.
The chemical derivatives did, however, fall under the joint commitment. Heroin, more than opium, became the object of the battle. To make this battle more effective the League of Nations held two conferences which led to two Geneva Conventions: one of 11 February and one on 19 February 1925.
The first convention limited the domestic production of and trade in opium in the colonies in the Far East. The second extended the substances covered under the Convention to include the coca leaf, raw cocaine, ecgonine and Indian hemp. Also, the states were to step up monitoring of the preparation, trade and possession of the 'numbing' substances involved.
However, use of these were was not punishable. Opium was still being legally cultivated and consumed in the East. An opium monopoly was seen as an effective way of combating misuse. In 1931 there were efforts to ban opium for nonmedical purposes. New conventions were signed for this purpose. The last Geneva convention for the suppression of the illicit traffic in narcotics laid down harsher punishment, superficial imprisonment for all offenders of the provision from the relevant conventions.
Ironically enough the Americans did not sign this one because it did not go far enough. After World War II the United Nations took over the matter. The Economic and Social Council of this organization set up the U.N. Commission of Narcotic Drugs.
This Commission, made up then of 40 member states, started preparations for a worldwide drugs policy. This resulted in the Single Convention New York, March 30, 1961) which replaced all previous conventions with one. Now all parties are required to take the necessary legal and administrative measures to restrict the trade, production and possession of narcotics to scientific and medical purposes.
All activities not directed towards these purposes are considered punishable offenses. The convention has four lists of substances with regard of which a different regime of supervision applies, and on recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) the UN can add certain new substances to these lists.
However it must be shown that these substances present a serious threat for public health or are involved in illicit traffic. The first is a clear criteria, the second clearly not.
As long as a substance is not forbidden, production, trade and use can, of course, not be illegal! Depending on the degree of misuse, substances from one list can be put on another. National legislation would then have to be adapted to these changes. It is of interest with this to note when the European ratified all these conventions drug abuse was not a social problem.
Unlike all other laws, the opium laws in Europe were not introduced as a reaction to a social problem, but were more or less imposed by foreign countries, namely the United States, the '...barbarians of the West' for their 'extraordinary savage idea of stamping out all people who happen to disagree ... with their social theories' against narcotics, against alcohol and in 'their recent treatment of Socialists'.
And, the world was a victim of American Puritanism, for in Europe it was really only still in a few Chinese communities that nonmedical opium was used. It was no longer a problem in Asia either now that the aggressive sales tactics by the colonial rulers had ended.
That is also disputed in most European countries, but in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam and in Rotterdam, it was tolerated as long as its use remained limited to the Chinese.
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