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Opium is the dried latex substance that is derived from seedpods of the opium poppy. Raw opium contains several chemicals known as alkaloids. Some of these alkaloids are cultivated from the opium poppy to make "opiates". For example, opium contains up to 12% morphine which is used medically but can also be processed to produce heroin for illegal drug use. The opium poppy also contains varying amounts of codeine and thebaine, which are used to produce other opiates such as hydrocodone and oxycodone which are prescribed medically as narcotic pain relievers, but widely abused for non-medical purposes.

Opium can also be used as a narcotic drug on its own, and has been used in this way for thousands of years in all parts of the world. The power of opium's effects depends on how it is administered. Opium works fast when smoked, as opiate chemicals pass into the lungs where they are quickly absorbed by blood vessels and sent to the brain. Opium can also be eaten or mixed in liquid, but the effects occur more slowly when it is administered in this way.

An opium high is very similar to a heroin high, with the user experiencing a rush of pleasure followed by an extended period of relaxation, freedom from anxiety, and the relief of physical pain. In the brain, opium binds to receptors that search for pleasure-enhancing endorphins, which are naturally occurring substances in the body that relieve pain and promote a sense of well-being, and painkilling enkephalins, which are naturally occurring brain chemicals that produce drowsiness and dull pain. The effects of a dose of opium last approximately four hours.

Continued use of opium produces tolerance and dependence, where the individual will need higher and higher doses of the drug to achieve the desired effect while also experiencing a physical and psychological craving for the drug. When individuals take higher doses of opium, or take it more often, they risk possible overdose. An overdose can be fatal because the individual may stop breathing and quickly die of asphyxiation.

Someone using opium will also experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug's effects wear off. Opium withdrawal symptoms mimic a bout of the flu, including watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing or yawning, muscle pains and involuntary motion, anxiety and agitation, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, and cold sweats. Opium withdrawal symptoms can last from three to five days.

Opium users also suffer an extended period of dysphoria, anxiety, depression, and lessened enjoyment of life. Dysphoria may cause the opium user to go back to the drug for relief, which starts the cycle of abuse again.

Afghanistan is currently the primary producer of opium. Opium production in Afghanistan has increased rapidly, reaching an all-time high in 2006. According to DEA statistics, Afghanistan's production of opium constituted 82% of the world's supply. The value of the resulting heroin was estimated at $3.5 billion, of which Afghan farmers were estimated to have made $700 million in revenue.

The United States is the world's biggest consumer of prescription opioids. Most opium imported into the United States is broken down into legal or illegal opiates. Most abuse of opium occurs with processed derivatives such as heroin rather than with pure and untouched opium.