Last published: March 20, 2020
What is opium?
Opium is a depressant drug, which means it slows down the messages traveling between your brain and body. The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) from which opium is derived is one of the earliest plants of which there is recorded medicinal use.1 Evidence of opium cultivation by the Sumerian people dates to 3400BCE, although some scholars believe opium use predates Sumerian culture.2
Opium poppy pods hold a milky substance called latex that contains a number of chemicals, including morphine and codeine.1 Latex is extracted from the opium pods and dried to create opium. Typically, it is be further refined by boiling and drying again.1, 2
What does it look like?
Opium is a sticky dark-brown gum with a strong odour. It can also be manufactured into a liquid or powder.1, 2
Aunti, Aunti Emma, Big O, O, Black pill, Chandu, Chinese Molasses, Dopium, Dream Gun, Fi-Do-Nie, Gee, Guma, Midnight Oil, Zero.
How is opium used?
Opium may be smoked, eaten raw or as a pill, or made into a tincture for drinking.1, 2
Opium can be manufactured into heroin and is a prerequisite for heroin production.
Effects of opium
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk. It’s important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Opium affects everyone differently, based on:
- the person’s size, weight and health
- regularity of use
- whether other drugs are taken around the same time
- the amount taken
- the strength of the drug (which varies between batches).
Short term effects may include:
- slower, shallower breathing
- lower heart rate
- impaired reflexes
- temporary constipation
- loss of appetite.3, 4
If you take a large amount of opium, you could overdose. Call an ambulance straight away by dialling triple zero (000) if you or another person have any of these symptoms (ambulance officers don’t need to involve the police):
Symptoms of opium overdose:
- very slow breathing
- loss of consciousness
- tiny pupils.5
Untreated overdose can lead to brain damage and death.
Regular use of opium may cause:
- tolerance - needing to use more to get the same effect
- irregular periods and difficulty having children
- loss of sex drive
- dependence on opium.3, 4
Mixing opium and other drugs
Taking multiple depressant drugs, like opium with alcohol or benzodiazepines, can significantly increase the chances of overdose.
Taking opium with stimulants, like cocaine or speed, send opposite signals to your body, which can strain the heart. Mixing opium and stimulants may also mask the effects of each other, which can increase the risk of overdose.
Giving up opium after using it for a long time is challenging because the body must get used to functioning without it. Withdrawing from opium is similar to withdrawing from other opioid drugs.
Withdrawal symptoms usually start six to 24 hours after the last dose and can last around seven to ten days. These symptoms are described as flu-like, and can include:
- restlessness and irritability
- depression and crying
- restless sleep
- muscle cramps
- nausea and vomiting
- fast heartbeat.6
Opium and lead poisoning
- Some opium has been found to be contaminated with lead. The source of lead in opium is still unclear, possibly due to contamination from equipment used to process the opium, intentional adulteration of opium with lead to increase its weight, or from growing opium poppies in contaminated soil.7, 8
- Lead poisoning can have a serious effect on people’s health, including organ damage.9
Opium and the law
Opium is illegal in Australia. Federal and state laws provide penalties for possessing, using, cultivating or selling opium, or driving under its influence.
Current statistics on opium use in Australia are unknown.
If your use of opium is affecting your health, family, relationships, work, school, financial or other life situations, you can find help and support.
Call 1300 85 85 84 to speak to a real person and get answers to your questions as well as advice on practical ‘next steps’.
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- Presley CC, Lindsley CW. DARK Classics in Chemical Neuroscience: opium, a historical perspective. ACS Chemical Neuroscience. 2018;9(10):2503-18.
- Booth M. Opium: a history. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd; 1996.
- Parrott A, Morinan A, Moss M, Scholey A. Understanding drugs and behaviour. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd; 2004.
- Kalant H. Opium revisited: a brief review of its nature, composition, non-medical use and relative risks. Addiction. 1997;92(3):267-77.
- World Health Organisation.Information sheet on opioid overdose Online: World Health Organisation; 2018 [Available from.
- Brands B, Sproule B, Marshman J. Drugs & Drug Abuse. Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation; 1998.
- Soltaninejad K, Flueckiger A, Shadnia S. Opium addiction and lead poisoing. Journal of Substance Use. 2011;16(3):208-12.
- Hayatbakhsh M, Oghabian Z, Conlon E, Nakhaee S, Amirabadizadeh A, Zahedi M, et al. Lead poisoning among opium users in Iran: an emerging health hazard. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. 2017;12(43).
- World Health Organisation. Lead poisoning and health Online 2019.