History of Codeine

poppy plant

According to the World Health Organization, codeine is the most widely and commonly used opiate in the world. It is usually administered orally and has the reputation of being the safest of all the opioid analgesics. However, this can be misleading since this use of “safe” does not include the numbers of persons that become physically and mentally addicted after extended and repeated use.

The History of the Discovery and Manufacturing of Codeine

Opium, coming from the opium poppy plant, was popular in England as early as 1704. In those early days, opium was usually sold in elixirs such as paregoric, which were marketed as “pain soothers”. In 1804, a German pharmacist discovered how to isolate morphine from opium, which gave rise to the discovery in 1832 of codeine by Pierre Robiquet, a French chemist. The name, “codeine” comes from the Greek word that refers to the head of the poppy plant.

Chemist and pharmacist continued to be excited about the medicinal properties of opium and many drugs that are still used today were isolated from these early experiments. Codeine is the “least addictive and safest” of all of the opiate drugs prescribed today, which accounts for its being the most widely used drug within this category of analgesics (falling into a group of drugs that most people call “pain-killers”). (It should be remembered that being the least addictive and safest doesn’t mean that Codeine is not addictive or safe… more about this later.)

Drug manufacturers have had to depend on using the tar from opiate poppies to synthesize morphine, codeine and almost all of the other opiate-based drugs, which is a problem since President’s Nixon’s War on Drugs made it increasingly difficult to obtain these poppies that grow mostly in areas of the world that are unfriendly to America’s pharmaceutical interest, such as Afghanistan. Drug manufacturers have had to barter with heroin dealers for the purchase of this raw codeine product. This led chemists to the discovery of a method to synthesize codeine from coal tar, which eliminated the need for having the original black-tar opium and freed the drug companies from having to compete with the illicit drug cartels.

The History of Codeine Use

cough syrup with codeine

The most common medical use of codeine is related to its ability to suppress or even end chronic coughing, medically called an antitussive. Almost all cough syrups in the United States that require a prescription contain codeine. All opiate compounds help reduce nausea and/or diarrhea and codeine is used in many of the compounds since it is the weakest opiate that will treat these symptoms without causing as many side effects and a lower probability of physical addiction.

Since codeine is considered the least strong or dangerous of the opiate pain-killers, many physicians and the public have the attitude that it is a very safe drug to take for a cough or diarrhea and because it works so quickly, many people will pressure their doctors to give them compounds of codeine for common-cold symptoms that could be treated with non-narcotic elixirs that have almost no side effects of problem.

This sense of safety with its use and the prescribing of codeine has led to many problems that could have been avoided by being more precautious about its use. Codeine is metabolized in the body and become morphine, which everyone knows is a dangerous drug. In fact, many people are labeled as being “ultra-rapid metabolizers”, which means that their bodies break down codeine into morphine much faster than the average. There are many recorded deaths in children that were given small doses of codeine after surgeries, which led to their suffocation during sleep.

It needs to be remembered that the side effects of codeine are the same as all opiates and even more pronounced in children. Signs of serious side effects include unusual sleepiness, confusion, and difficult and noisy breathing. The advantage that codeine has in stopping one’s cough can also be seen as its danger since the cough reflex is there for the purpose of clearing the throat to allow for unrestricted breathing. When this reflex is suppressed through the use of codeine, one runs the risk of suffocation, especially during times of sleep and when lying down in bed.

The history of the use of codeine wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that it is used by many as a “recreational” drug to get a “buzz” or high, that is commonly thought of as not being an issue with this drug. Phenergan with codeine is a common brand name for a cough medicine that is widely abused and has been responsible for many overdoses and deaths. Rapper “Pimp C” from the rap group UGK died of an overdose from a similar combination of syrup.

In many countries throughout the world, codeine is regulated by narcotic control laws, as it is in America, but some countries do allow for its purchase over-the-counter without a prescription, which can more easily lead to abuse and addiction. It should be remembered that Codeine is an opiate, the same as is morphine and heroin, and the regular use of this drug will cause both physical and emotional or mental addiction.

One of the biggest problems with the drug is the perception that it is mild and not a danger like other notorious opiates like heroin. This is only partly true.

Regular use of cough syrups or other elixirs, that contain codeine are as dangerous as regular use of Oxycontin or any other opiate drug, with the only difference being that it might take a longer period of continual use to become addicted. But once addicted, the withdrawals and the road back to where one was before they started using codeine is arduous and painful and to have successful outcomes, it usually requires professional rehabilitation. As with all drugs, consumers need to be aware of how dangerous these drugs actually are and to not allow friends or doctors to tell you otherwise.

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