Poppies and Opiates

Poppies include a number of attractive wildflower species found growing singularly or in large groups. Many species are also grown in gardens. Of all the poppy plants, the opium poppy or Papaver somniferum is the most important. The plant has been used for many thousands of years.

P. somniferum is an annual plant with a simple or only slightly branching stem. The leaves are ovate-oblong and of grey-blue greenish color. The flower can vary in color; pink varieties are the most common. Incisions made in the unripe capsules of P. somniferum release white latex that quickly hardens and turns brown after contact with oxygen. The hardened brown latex is called raw opium; each capsule releases approx. 20 to 50 mg.

The main active alkaloid in opium and other parts of P. somniferum is morphine, which was first isolated in 1806 by the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertuerner [15]. He called the isolated alkaloid "morphium" after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. It was not only the first alkaloid to be extracted from opium, but the first alkaloid ever to be isolated from any plant. With the invention of the hollow needle and the syringe, morphine was used in the treatment of postoperative and chronic pain, as well as an adjunct to general anesthetics. Unfortunately, morphine had as much potential for abuse as opium. Looking for a safer and nonaddictive opiate, Felix Hofmann synthesized in 1898 diacetylmorphine [16]. From 1898 to 1910 di-acetylmorphine was marketed by Bayer under the brand name heroin. The drug was promoted as a nonaddictive morphine substitute and cough medicine for children. Bayer marketed heroin also as a substitute drug for morphine addiction before it was discovered that heroin is converted to 6-acetylamorphine and morphine by human cholineesterases [17]. Figure 19.1 shows the chemical structures of morphine (3) and heroin (4).

The abuse of opioids was common in the late 19th century, leading to the International Opium Commission in 1909 (in Shanghai) as the first step toward international drug prohibition. Based on this meeting, the first international drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention, was signed in 1912 at The Hague. This convention went into force globally in 1919, when it was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles [18]. Today, opium and opiates are controlled by the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations under Article 23 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and subsequently under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Opium-producing nations are required to designate a government agency to take physical possession of illicit opium crops as soon as possible after harvest and conduct all wholesaling and exporting through that agency [19].

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