Morphine and heroin are two sides of the use that humanity has given to opium. As an analgesic, pain reliever, but also as a drug. In fact, one of the most widely used illegal narcotics. Behind all these uses there is a lot of history, one that Professor David Sucunza from the Department of Organic Chemistry and Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Alcalá has gone through in his book ‘Drugs, drugs and poisons’ to analyze from a multidisciplinary point of view how Humanity has been related to the different substances that it has been able to obtain naturally. “We can talk about opium, morphine and heroin. We have both uses”, says the teacher.
“The impact that the use of chemical compounds secreted by living series has had on history is a very broad field: that of natural products. Since I studied chemistry, I find it very interesting to see the very diverse points of view”, explains the teacher. Points of view that can come from chemistry, its structures and properties, but also from biology, studying living beings that secrete compounds. “They have had a very important significance,” emphasizes the teacher.
The use and study of these components can also be studied from the point of view of anthropology, as occurs when they are used medicinally. “The perspectives that affect these compounds are very varied and they have very interesting histories.” This is what he wanted to reflect through the 25 examples that he studies in his book.
the case of opium
Opium is probably one of the best known substances both in its uses as a drug and medicinal. “Its use is attributed to China, but the reality is that it was a substance introduced in the 18th century in the areas we know today as Turkey or Iran,” explains Sucunza. What did happen in China was that there were two opium wars and that is why it is associated with the country. “It was sold from India by the British, one of the world’s leading opium dealers. There was a big problem of addiction among the Chinese population and it ended up being declared illegal”, explains the professor.
That is why the first opium war took place, because Great Britain “refused to accept” this outlawing and decided to use their right to sell opium “wherever they pleased”. The second war was produced with the intention that China would open its borders to be able to continue selling opium. “This leads the country to an economically disastrous situation and that leads to the great emigration that occurs in the second half of the 19th century,” says Sucunza. “After the collapse of the Chinese economy due to the opium war, the Chinese population arrives just when slavery had been abolished in America and they arrive to take their place in a very similar situation.”
But what is opium really? “It is a latex that secretes the fruit of the dormant flora, a painkiller that is discovered by trial and error. It was only in the 19th century that its active principle, morphine, was isolated”, explains Sucunza. The use of opium and so many chemical compounds has been “fundamental” in many processes for the human being. “Until the advent of modern medicine, which we can establish at the end of the 19th century, people sought remedies from natural sources. Today, 80% of the world population uses medicinal plants as the main remedy for health”, reflects the teacher.
Of course, this widespread use of these substances does not mean that “they are better”. “They are not. Modern medicine is superior, because it adds traditional knowledge to all the drugs that have been developed. However, a large percentage of the population still does not have access to them, because modern medicine is practically restricted to rich countries or people with more money from poorer countries”, reflects the UAH professor. “What we can find in nature is not only used in our health, but also in drugs, or poisons: cocaine, hallucinogens, tobacco or alcohol,” he explains.
Something as everyday as coffee, tea and chocolate did not exist in Europe until the end of the 16th century. “It is curious how in the 17th century there were even illegalizations or prohibitions on the use of coffee, and there are several countries in which its consumption was prohibited for decades as it was seen as something harmful,” he says. However, this has more to do with the “suspicion” caused by its consumption, as it is a new habit. “The illegalizations are happening and it’s been a long time since anyone associated coffee or tea with something pernicious.”
“I’ve written a book on naturally occurring compounds, but I don’t want it to seem like I’m advocating the use of medicinal plants. I believe that modern medicine has many advantages over the use of medicinal plants, a use that is not at odds with them”, explains the professor. In fact, he points out that currently one of four drugs coming onto the market are natural products or derivatives of them. “Modern medicine continues to investigate them and to use their isolated active ingredients, because it allows us to see the precise dose of the patient, something that cannot be known if we take the medicinal plant and do not know its active ingredient; we also don’t know how it affects our complexion, ”he emphasizes.
His book ‘Drugs, drugs and poisons’ is written for informative purposes, not as a teaching tool. “I have used some stories that I narrate in the book in class, because they allow chemistry to be contextualized with its historical uses, making students interested in the subject and realize its importance, beyond pure chemical data”, he concludes.