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Opium


Opium a narcotic drug prepared from the juice of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum of the family Papaveraceae, a plant probably indigenous to the south of Europe and western Asia, but now so widely cultivated that its original habitat is uncertain. The word 'opium' is derived from the Greek opos (juice). The plant is an erect, herbaceous annual, varying much in the colour of its flowers, as well as in the shape of the fruit and colour of the seeds. All parts of the plant, but particularly the walls of the capsules, or seed-vessels, contain a system of laticiferous vessels, filled with a white latex. The flowers vary in colour from pure white to reddish purple. In the wild plant, they are pale lilac with a purple spot at the base of each petal.

Historical background The plant was cultivated in the ancient civilisations of Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Archaeological evidence and fossilised poppy seeds suggest that Neanderthal man may have used the opium poppy over thirty thousand years ago. The first known written reference to the poppy appears in a Sumerian text dated around 4,000 BC. The Egyptian Pharaohs were entombed with opium artefacts by their side. Poppy images appear in Egyptian pictography and Roman sculpture. Representations of the Greek and Roman gods of sleep, Hypnos and Somnos, both show them wearing or carrying poppies. A notable mention of the opium drug occurs in Homer's Iliad wherein he referred to the poppy juice in opium as a source of pain relief and as a healer of injuries. Hippocrates (460-357 BC) described poppy juice as the secret of the power of the mythological heroes of Apollo and Muses. In the medical treatises of Abu-ali-ibn-Sina (or Avicenna), a father of medieval medicine, opium is prescribed for curing mental and physical diseases, especially those of the eye.

Opium was introduced to South Asia through Arab traders after the conquest of Sindh. The Mughal nobility's biggest addiction was to opium, and they even put it to non-medicinal uses. In his Akbarnama, Abul Fazl mentioned the use of kuknar (a mixture of opium and hemp) by the Mughal aristocracy. The warrior Rajputs were also heavily addicted to opiums.

Opium cultivation in Bengal The earliest written mention of opium is to be found in the writings of the Portuguese traveller Pyres (1516). Its introduction into Bengal appears to have been connected with the coming of the Arabs and Persians to Bengal. The Mughal rulers made opium a considerable source of income by way of Abgari. Poppy cultivation expanded enormously when English, dutch, french, and other maritime companies began to export opium from Bengal. The east india company made it a monopoly trade in 1773. State monopoly of the trade continued down to 1937 when its production was officially regulated.

In Bengal opium had a big internal market. Its consumption became almost universal and a fashion by the late eighteenth century. 'Take your opium' was a standard greeting in Bengal society. It was even administered to noisy children to calm them down. In the army and in religious establishments, the use of opium was also widespread. The East India Company made considerable investment in the production of opium in specific districts of Bengal such as Jessore, Nadia and Rajshahi; Bihar was also a large poppy production ground of opium.

To meet its trade deficit in the China trade, the East India Company began to export Bengal opium to China from the early nineteenth century. The Chinese rulers banned its import in 1839. But the East India Company continued the trade it by illicit methods. The illicit opium trade of the company led to a full-scale war between China and Britain. But the Chinese were defeated and forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The British denuded that the opium trade be allowed to continue. The Second Opium War (1858) began over British demands that the opium markets be expanded. The Chinese were again defeated. By the Treaty of Tientsin of 1858, opium importation to China was formally legalised. Soon opium poured into China in unprecedented quantities. As a consequence of this treaty opium production in Bengal increased phenomenally.

Opium became such an important source of income for the colonial government that the Royal Commission of Opium of 1895 endorsed the British opium trade, disregarding its catastrophic moral and physical effects. The international control of the opium trade began because of US initiatives. With the persistent lobbying of the USA Government, global summits on opium control were held in 1909, 1912-14 and 1924-25. Under international and domestic pressures, the colonial state of India at last agreed to restrict and control the opium trade. Its production and trade in India was completely banned in 1937 when a representative government was established under the constitution of 1935.

The government of Bangladesh follows international conventions on narcotics control. Opium based drugs are controlled by the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1951 and subsequent Acts, and internationally by the International Narcotics Control Board. But though the Bangladesh Government is very keen to stamp out illicit narcotic trafficking, various narcotics including phensidyl enter continue to the Bangladesh market through illicit means. The cough syrup Phensidyl, a product of May and Baker (India), contains codeine which is an extraction from the poppy head. It is this magic substance 'codeine' which makes the users addicted to it. Under the Drug Ordinance of 1982, the Bangladesh Government banned this product from the import list. But it continues to pour into Bangladesh, because it began to be used as an alternative to more expensive narcotics. The Report of the International Narcotics Control Board (1995) noted that the Indian Phensidyl drug prepared for export contains more codeine than necessary and for making money from addicts. Bangladesh is now extremely vulnerable to the illicit trade of opium ridden Phensidyl from India. [Sirajul Islam]

See also hemp; narcotics; tobacco.