“Opium has been recently made from white poppies, cultivated for the purpose, in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.... comparatively large quantities are regularly sent East from California and Arizona, where its cultivation is becoming an important branch of industry, ten acres of poppies being said to yield, in Arizona, twelve hundred pounds of opium.”
--Massachusetts Government Health Report, 1871
By the mid-1800s, as many people know, opium could be legally purchased in the United States as laudanum, patent medicines, and various elixirs. Less well known is the fact that opium was a godsend during the bloody years of the Civil War. Maimed and disabled soldiers found relief in morphine, the potent alkaloid of opium named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Used against constant, intractable pain, opium and its derivatives were among the most humane medical drugs ever discovered. How could a physician withhold them?
Today, after countless drug wars have merged into a single, inflexible federal stance on “drugs,” morphine and its derivatives remain so stigmatized, so entangled in drug wars and global narco-politics, that the danger of losing sight of their humanitarian applications looms larger than ever.
At least half of all cancer patients seen in routine practice report inadequate pain relief, according to the American College of Physicians. For cancer patients in pain, adequate relief is quite literally a flip of the coin.
A September 10 New York Times report by Donald G. McNeil Jr. highlights studies by the World Health Organization which amply document the ongoing scandal in pain management. At least 6 million cancer and AIDS patients currently receive no appropriate pain treatment of any kind. In addition, WHO estimates that four out of five patients dying of cancer are also suffering severe pain. The numbers of untreated patients suffering intractable, unrelieved pain from nerve damage, burns, gunshots, sickle cell anemia, and a host of other medical conditions can only be guessed at.