Morphine, nicotine, and caffeine are three unique molecules grouped together by their chemistry and impact on history.
These three chemicals are alkaloids, or plant-derived compounds with one or more nitrogen atoms apart of a carbon ring, and when smoked, are rapidly thrust into the blood stream by the lungs. This makes them quickly addictive, and is why they are considered very dangerous today.
Morphine is an alkaloid that derives its affects from a similarity it shares with endorphins; they both have a β-phenylethylamine unit. This allows morphine, like endorphins, to bind to certain parts of the brain and tell it how to perceive pain signals. However, morphine has a negative affect on the brain as well; since morphine has a phenyl ring, a quaternary carbon, a CH2-CH2 group attached to tertiary nitrogen, it also gives it a hallucinogenic quality (which is why medication with morphine found in it can only be acquired through prescription only). Nicotine is an alkaloid, which has a depressive quality (it lulls the senses). Due to its unique structure, nicotine is able to bind to nerve sites, stimulating neurological impulse. But, as soon as the bind is disrupted, muscle activity (especially the heart) is slowed, reducing the amount of oxygen circulated, creating a sedative effect. Caffeine is a less potent, but nonetheless addictive alkaloid. Caffeine’s chemical structure includes 3 CH3 groups attached to its rings. This allows it to block the affects of the molecule adenosine, which induces sleep. So, caffeine keeps one from getting tired.
The historical impact of these chemicals, though mainly observed in China, began in Britain, the colonies in America to be exact. The British realized there was money to be made with the sale of tobacco, whose affects are mainly derived from the nicotine within itself. However, they knew that to get the most bang for their buck, they would have to introduce a cheap supply of labor—slaves. And thus, slavery began to swell in the Americas.
With this cheap labor, the Brits were able to produce enough tobacco for themselves and for others, namely the Chinese. The British had long traded other resources for tea, which is abundant with caffeine, and now, with tobacco, they were able to obtain more tea without losing as much money as they had before. Well, this profitable trade caught a snag when the Chinese saw that the sedative effects of nicotine were making its workers lazy and weak, so they banned it. The Brits, however, didn’t fear because they had another resource that they had traded with the Chinese whose demand went up after the ban of tobacco, morphine! (or in this case opium!) No problem, right? The Chinese got their addictive drugs and the British got their tea. Well, the Chinese saw another problem, the morphine in opium was damaging the minds of its workers, so what’d they do? They banned that, too!
Now, there was a problem. The British couldn’t live without tea, and the Chinese wouldn’t accept their drugs in return. The British solved that problem quite intuitively; they began the illegal trafficking of drugs in China! Yay, right?! No! The Chinese declared war on Britain, and thus began the Opium War. This, however, did not work out well for the Chinese; they ended up being humiliatingly defeated with the British forcing China to trade tea for their opium.
All’s said and done, now, right? WRONG! The Chinese launched a second Opium War, which they lost even worse than the first (goodness, you would have thought they learned their lesson). This time, the consequences opened up the once-isolated-and-hateful-of-others China to open trade with Europe, ending centuries of Chinese isolation which started long before with silk and beginning China’s incline to the pinnacle of the world.
I think Penny le Couteur and Jay Burreson hit the mark with their interpretation of the importance of this molecule. It makes complete sense, every word of it. The Chinese tried to ban the trade of substances that were destroying the populous, which is the action any government would take, and the British kept trying to sell it to continue making huge profits and importing the substance that completely revolutionized their culture, which is also the action any government would take. And even as they do now, though much less of course, they waged war because of strong disagreement. Heck! They even waged a second war for the same reason, and as an attempt to prove themselves.
To me, in the world I live in, I see these molecules as being the epitome of our culture. These compounds are innocent, little bundles of chemistry that we have worked so hard to make better so that they can improve the lives of people. But instead of using them for good, people have abused them to the point where everyone has or knows someone who has had their lives rocked by these compounds. Can’t we learn that less is, in some cases, more? Or do we have to push ourselves to the brink of destruction before people wise up?