The poppy plant, Papaver somniferum, produces opium, a powerful narcotic whose derivatives include morphine, codeine, heroin, and oxycodone. The term “narcotic” refers to opium, opium derivatives, and their semi-synthetic substitutes. Narcotics are used therapeutically to treat pain, suppress cough, alleviate diarrhea, and induce anesthesia. However, they are some of the most addictive substances known to man. As misused drugs, they are often smoked, sniffed, or injected.
The earliest reference to opium growth and use is in 3,400 B.C. when the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia). The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil, the "joy plant." The Sumerians soon passed it on to the Assyrians, who in turn passed it on to the Egyptians. As people learned of the power of opium, demand for it increased. Many countries began to grow and process opium to expand its availability and to decrease its cost. Its cultivation spread along the Silk Road, from the Mediterranean through Asia and finally to China where it was the catalyst for the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s.
Today, heroin’s long journey to drug traffickers begins with the planting of opium poppy seeds. Opium is grown mainly by impoverished farmers on small plots in remote regions of the world. It flourishes in dry, warm climates and the vast majority of opium poppies are grown in a narrow, 4,500-mile stretch of mountains extending across central Asia from Turkey through Pakistan and Burma. Recently, opium has been grown in Latin America, notably Colombia and Mexico. The farmer takes his crop of opium to the nearest village where he will sell it to the dealer who offers him the best price.