The pharmaceuticals that doctors prescribed were often sourced from natural substances. For example, the ubiquitous aspirin was once made from boiling willow bark to make a tea. No one knows how people figured out that boiling willow bark made a painkiller, nor did they know that the chemical in the willow bark tea that relieved pain was actually salicylic acid. In 1853 a chemist made acetylsalicylic acid, which is the synthetic form of the boiled willow bark tea known as aspirin. The same goes for opiate drugs derived from the poppy plant. However, unlike willow bark tea, the poppy plant is still widely in use to make opiate drugs.

Poppy Plant Drugs

The most recognized poppy plant produces a beautiful red and black flower. Since it is a symbolic flower of wartime remembrance, you may have seen members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) collecting donations and handing out artificial poppy flowers to those who donate. Poppy seeds are also used in making poppy seed rolls to eat, but the dessert does not contain drugs as the active narcotic chemicals are no longer in the seeds by the time the flowers are harvested. However, the poppy plant does, at other times, contain morphine and codeine.


The poppy plant produces a pod that will leak a white latex liquid if it is cut. The liquid contains the active chemicals used to make opium, heroin and other opiate-based drugs. The liquid hardens into a resin that is removed later. It is then processed into more potent chemical narcotic forms for legal as well as illegal drug use. Opium used to be smoked in opium dens in America in the 19th-century as it was introduced by Chinese workers. Today, the most popular illegal form of a drug derived from poppy plants is heroin.

Synthetic Opioid Painkillers

Opiate-based painkillers may be made in a semi-synthetic or fully synthetic manner. Some of the synthetic versions of opiates include Demerol(meperidine), fentanyl and Dilaudid (hydromorphone). Methadone, a drug used to help treat opiate addiction, is also a synthetic opioid. Professionals, like those at Potter’s House Apothecary, know that opiates interact with the opiate receptors in your brain to relieve pain. The result is a reduction in pain and a high depending on the dose and administration. Heroin mainlining refers to the resulting drug effect hitting the brain within seconds after injecting it. Ingesting pills takes time to reach the bloodstream. The problem, other than reduced abilities when under the influence of opiate drugs, is how your body craves the substance if you do not give it a continuous supply. The more addictive the personality, the easier it is to get hooked on opiates fast.

Making Opiate-Based Painkillers

The range of how drugs that derive from the poppy plant are made is quite varied. The dried resin that leaks from a cut poppy pod is still harvested and used in both the illegal drug trade as well as in the production of semi-synthetic opioids. Poppies have morphine, codeine and thebaine. You likely have heard of morphine being given to those in a lot of pain in hospitals, and maybe you have received a prescription for codeine after a dental extraction. Thebaine is what is in Oxycontin, and it is another drug that is in the common vernacular. Though heroin used to be in some consumer products years ago, it refers to just the illegal form of opiate derived from poppy chemicals. While heroin (diacetylmorphine) was a name created by the Bayer Company, it now refers to a street drug that may contain any manner of impurities or potency-enhancing chemicals such as fentanyl. All opiates, whether derived from poppy resins or made from laboratory alkaloids, are processed and refined to make concentrated powders that can be made into anything from pills to injectable drugs.

Opiate-based painkillers can help people recovering from surgery or even dealing with chronic severe pain. However, the risk of addiction is great. People can respond differently to chemical substances known to be addictive. It is why some people can have a casual drink or a single glass of wine and never become addicted while others become alcoholics. There is no absolute test a doctor can give to determine who will or will not become addicted to opiates or how long or how much it would take to cause addiction. This is why opiates are controlled substances.

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