With its array of colors ranging from white to pink to red to purple to blue, the poppy is a flower that has graced gardens around the world. Yet the juice from this botanical beauty has sparked wars, created incalculable wealth, and wreaked indescribable suffering upon millions. For centuries there has been cultivation of cannabis, coca, and the opium poppy. From the opium poppy has come morphine drips in hospitals, from the coca plant has come cocaine which is used in certain medical surgeries, and from the cannabis plant has come various hemp products. While these plants have provided useful products, they are also among nature’s most addicting and potentially deadly vegetation. This exhibit provides an overview of these “Big Three” addictive plants. Including previously reported cases, there are now at least 19 U.S. deaths associated with poppy seeds in the literature.
With its array of colors ranging from white to pink to red to purple to blue, the poppy is a flower that has graced gardens around the world. Yet the juice from this botanical beauty has sparked wars, created incalculable wealth, and wreaked indescribable suffering upon millions.
The poppy plant, Papaver somniferum, produces opium, a powerful narcotic whose derivatives include morphine, codeine, heroin, and oxycodone. The term “narcotic” refers to opium, opium derivatives, and their semi-synthetic substitutes. Narcotics are used therapeutically to treat pain, suppress cough, alleviate diarrhea, and induce anesthesia. However, they are some of the most addictive substances known to man. As misused drugs, they are often smoked, sniffed, or injected.
The earliest reference to opium growth and use is in 3,400 B.C. when the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia). The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil, the “joy plant.” The Sumerians soon passed it on to the Assyrians, who in turn passed it on to the Egyptians. As people learned of the power of opium, demand for it increased. Many countries began to grow and process opium to expand its availability and to decrease its cost. Its cultivation spread along the Silk Road, from the Mediterranean through Asia and finally to China where it was the catalyst for the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s.
Today, heroin’s long journey to drug traffickers begins with the planting of opium poppy seeds. Opium is grown mainly by impoverished farmers on small plots in remote regions of the world. It flourishes in dry, warm climates and the vast majority of opium poppies are grown in a narrow, 4,500-mile stretch of mountains extending across central Asia from Turkey through Pakistan and Burma. Recently, opium has been grown in Latin America, notably Colombia and Mexico. The farmer takes his crop of opium to the nearest village where he will sell it to the dealer who offers him the best price.
The Silk Road
The Silk Road is an 18th-century term for a series of interconnected routes that ran from Europe to China. These trade routes developed between the empires of Persia and Syria on the Mediterranean coast and the Indian kingdoms of the East. By the late Middle Ages, the routes extended from Italy in the West to China in the East and to Scandinavia in the North. Opium was one of the products traded along the Silk Road.
To fund their ever-increasing desire for Chinese produced tea, Britain, through their control of the East India Company, began smuggling Indian opium to China. This resulted in a soaring addiction rate among the Chinese and led to the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. Subsequent Chinese immigration to work on the railroads and the gold rush brought opium smoking to America.
Opium Dens and Paraphernalia
Opium dens were established as sites to buy and sell opium. Dens were commonly found in China, Southeast Asia, the United States, and parts of Europe. Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the Mid-1800s to work for railroads and the Gold Rush and brought the habit of opium smoking with them. Opium dens sprang up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and spread eastward to New York. Browse the images below to learn more about equipment used to smoke, measure, and weigh opium for centuries.
Chinese Style Opium Pipe: This antique opium pipe set, circa 1821, highlights the exquisite details that could be afforded by rich Chinese opium smokers.
Opium Smoking Equipment: In addition to the traditional pipe, opium smokers could also use a lamp for heating the opium as well as various tools to manipulate the gummy substance.
Weights and Scales: These scales and the elephant-shaped gold weights were used to accurately measure opium for sale.
Medical Use: An Ancient Medicine
Opium was known to ancient Greek and Roman physicians as a powerful pain reliever. It was also used to induce sleep and to give relief to the bowels. Opium was even thought to protect the user from being poisoned. Its pleasurable effects were also noted. The trading and production of opium spread from the Mediterranean to China by the 15th century. Opium has many derivatives, including morphine, codeine, oxycodone, and heroin. Browse the images below to learn more about each derivative.
Oxycodone is synthesized from thebaine, a third component of opium. Like morphine, it is used for pain relief. Oxycodone is taken orally. When misused, the tablets are crushed and snorted or dissolved in water and injected.
Opium (and the majority of its derivatives, with the exception of heroin which is Schedule I), is listed as a Schedule II controlled substance because of its medical benefit but potential for misuse. However, various opium derivatives manufactured in combination with other medical substances (like Tylenol with Codeine) may be assigned to Schedule III, IV, or V under the Controlled Substances Act. Click here to review detailed descriptions of the drug schedules.
A scientific illustration of an opium poppy flower from Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz (1885).
Morphine: In 1803, morphine, the principal ingredient in opium, was extracted from opium resin. Morphine is 10 times more powerful than processed opium, quantity for quantity. Hailed as a miracle drug, it was widely prescribed by physicians in the mid-1800s. Morphine is one of the most effective drugs known for the relief of severe pain and remains the standard against which new pain relievers are measured.
Codeine: Codeine, another component of opium, is medically prescribed for the relief of moderate pain and cough suppression. It has less pain-killing ability than morphine and is usually taken orally. As a cough suppressant, it is found in a number of liquid preparations.
Heroin: First synthesized from morphine in 1874, the Bayer Company of Germany introduced heroin for medical use in 1898. Physicians remained unaware of its addiction potential for years, but by 1903, heroin misuse had risen to alarming levels in the United States. All use of heroin was made illegal by federal law in 1924.
Oxycodone: Oxycodone is synthesized from thebaine, a third component of opium. Like morphine, it is used for pain relief. Oxycodone is taken orally. When misused, the tablets are crushed and snorted or dissolved in water and injected.
Poppies as Food: Besides being used for drug manufacturing, the poppy is also the source of poppy seeds which are greatly prized as food. Items such as poppy seed bagels and lemon poppy seed cake are sought after for their delicious flavors.
Poppy Seeds for Cooking: Poppy seeds for use in cooking can be purchased at local markets. The majority of poppy seeds used for food come from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Although these seeds do have opium content, the amount used for cooking purposes is extremely small. Consumption of poppy seeds can produce a positive result on drug tests.
Poppies for the Garden: Poppy flowers come in a variety of colors and are prized for the beauty they bring to the landscape. In several states, various species of poppies are planted along the sides of highways for erosion control, for example, the red corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas). Although the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has the highest concentration of narcotics, all poppies in the Papaver genus do contain some amount of narcotic.
Growing Poppies: Poppy seed packets can be purchased at many local shops that sell gardening supplies.
Effects on the Body
Good Effects of Opiates: No other substance has been found to be as effective as opiates for the management of extreme pain. In addition to its analgesic qualities, it is a very effective cough suppressant, anti-diarrhea medication, and sleep-inducer.
Bad Effects of Opiates: The major drawback of opiate use is the potential for misuse and addiction. Effects include drowsiness, slurred speech, confusion, memory loss, pupil constriction, dilation of the blood vessels causing increased pressure in the brain, constipation, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, fatigue, hallucinations, sexual dysfunction, convulsions, and respiratory depression. Effects from using non-sterile needles and adulterants mixed with opiates include skin, lung, and brain abscesses, endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart), infected and collapsed veins, and diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.
The Heroin Molecule
Opium from poppy plants contains several natural alkaloids including morphine and codeine. All opiates share the same basic molecular structure, with just a slight change in the end molecules to differentiate heroin from morphine, codeine, oxycodone, and other varieties.
Heroin Changes the Brain
After heroin use is stopped, symptoms like depression, abnormal mood swings, insomnia, psychosis, and paranoia remain. These brain scans show a reduction in dopamine receptors which control judgment and behavior. This reduction is a result of regular heroin use.
Graphic courtesy of NIDA.
How Heroin Works
Heroin binds to receptors in the brain and produces feelings of euphoria. Its structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter and taps into the brain’s communication system, interfering with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. This similarity in structure “fools” receptors and allows the drugs to lock onto and activate the nerve cells. Below is a model of an opiate chemical attaching to a receptor in the brain.
Graphic courtesy of B.K. Madras.
Harvesting Opium Poppies
The milky fluid that seeps from cuts in the unripe poppy seed pod has, since ancient times, been scraped off and air-dried to produce what is known as opium. The seedpod is first incised with a multi-bladed tool. This lets the opium “gum” ooze out. The semi-dried “gum” is harvested with a curved spatula and then dried in open wooden boxes. The dried opium resin is placed in bags or rolled into balls for sale.
Legal Production of Opium
Legal growing of opium for medicinal use currently takes place in India, Turkey, and Australia. Two thousand tons of opium are produced annually and this supplies the world with the raw material needed to make medicinal products.
Photo courtesy of Mallinckrodt.
Mallinckrodt, one of the pharmaceutical companies licensed to deal in legal poppy production, uses crates such as this to ship its poppy products around the world.
Heroin Drug Trafficking
Currently, there are three main sources for illegal opium: Burma, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Opium and heroin are ideal trade products–they are in great demand, are very profitable to produce, and the products take up little space. With modern transportation, opium and heroin can be moved from one country to another within days or a few weeks. Opium and heroin have an extensive and stable shelf life, allowing the products to be stored for long periods of time.
DEA is committed to halting the global trafficking of heroin. In 2008, DEA seized 13,719 kilograms (30,245 pounds) of heroin in operations around the world.
Clandestine Heroin Laboratory in Afghanistan: In 2010 groups in Afghanistan produced 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium, using clandestine labs well hidden in the country’s topography.
Heroin Brick Mold: Morphine is extracted from opium and the morphine base is transported to clandestine heroin laboratories or processed into heroin directly. The heroin powder is distributed either loose in bags or pressed into bricks with a mold.
Heroin Bag Stamps: Drug traffickers routinely mark their products with logos or characters as a marketing tool to keep brand loyalty among their customers as well as to remain anonymous if the drugs are seized by law enforcement. This camel stamp was used by drug traffickers in Afghanistan.
Branded Plastic Bags Used for Packaging of Illegal Heroin: Many consumers have their favorite brand of the drug.
From the Farm to the Arm
The majority of the world’s heroin is produced using the Southwest Asian Method of processing.
Step One: Raw opium that has been collected from poppy pods is mixed with a calcium solution and hot water in large barrels. It is stirred vigorously and allowed to settle for many hours.
Step Two: The clear liquid on the top contains the morphine and is siphoned out into another container. A binding chemical is added, then returned to the barrel and heated. This chemical binds to the morphine causing it to fall to the bottom of the barrel.
Step Three: The contents of the barrel are stirred and filtered out. The residue is dried in the sun resulting in a brown morphine base.
Step Four: Morphine base is combined with another chemical solution and heated until the solution turns black in color. It is then cooled down, quenched with water, and filtered to remove some impurities.
Step Five: In a separate container, sodium carbonate is dissolved in water, then added to the morphine base and stirred to create heroin base.
Step Six: The heroin base is mixed with several more chemical solutions, including charcoal and water, and then stirred. It is filtered multiple times to remove the charcoal, and the resulting residue is dried.
Step Seven: One last chemical is added to the dried heroin base and then filtered.
Step Eight: The final dried product is white heroin hydrochloride, or powdered white heroin.
A slightly different processing method is used to make heroin in Colombia. Instead of leaving the opium to dry overnight on the pod, the liquid opium is harvested immediately for processing. The frequent rains in that region necessitate immediate removal of the opium from the pod to prevent it from being washed away. The liquid opium is then mixed with hot water and similar steps to those that are outlined in the Southwest method are used.
Cannabis, Coca, and Poppy: Nature’s Addictive Plants
For centuries there has been cultivation of cannabis, coca, and the opium poppy. From the opium poppy has come morphine drips in hospitals, from the coca plant has come cocaine which is used in certain medical surgeries, and from the cannabis plant has come various hemp products. While these plants have provided useful products, they are also among nature’s most addicting and potentially deadly vegetation. This exhibit provides an overview of these “Big Three” addictive plants.
Nature is rich in diversity. There are many different botanicals that have many different uses. Mankind has long sought to harness plants for a variety of purposes. Scientists have conducted research to discover new medicines and cures from plants across the globe.
There is a constant search for medicines that will improve the quality of life, manage or alleviate pain, and cure diseases. Botanicals are one source for those medicines. They can also be sources for other products and chemicals. Some plants have many serious side effects. With cannabis, coca, and the opium poppy, the challenge is a balance between using the products from the plant for their intended use in a safe manner while avoiding the illegal use and misuse that has had so many detrimental effects on society over the centuries.
Opioid exposure associated with poppy consumption reported to poison control centers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Including previously reported cases, there are now at least 19 U.S. deaths associated with poppy seeds in the literature. Authors recommend that practitioners working in opioid treatment and recovery be alert to use of poppy to treat pain and symptoms of withdrawal.
- Eva Greenthal , Peter Lurie & Suzanne Doyon (2021): Opioid exposure associated with poppy consumption reported to poison control centers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Clinical Toxicology, DOI: 10.1080/15563650.2020.1866766
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