The Opium Poppy (Papaver Somniferum)

The opium poppy is a rather large, annual herb with simple, toothed, clasping leaves, and a single, terminal slower (per stem) possessing large, showy petals (that range from white or pinkish to red or purple) and numerous stamens. The slower is followed by a green capsule, the fused stigmas of the pistil persisting as a disc-like structure on the fruit apex; the capsule eventually dries and turns brown; small apertures that function in seed release form underneath the persistent stigma disc.

Opium is a crude drug; specifically, it is the white latex (browning when dried) that exudes from the shallowly cut sides o a green (immature) capsule. As might be suspected, knowledge of opium constitutes a long history. The manuscript of Dioscorides in the first century AD contains an accurate account of the extraction of opium (that is, by slitting of the unripe capsule), outlining the basic way that it is extracted today. An appreciation of opium as an analgesic and an aid to sleep (narcotic) goes back many centuries indeed. It was no accident that Linnaeus applied to epithet somniferum to the opium poppy in 1753, indicating his awareness of its past history in relation to humankind.

From opium latex, more than 20 different alkaloids have been isolated. Perhaps the most famous of these, both in and out of medicine, is morphine, sometimes utilized, in some cases along with cocaine, in the "death and dying cocktail" (more appropriately, Brompton's cocktail) to bring relief of pain to many thousands suffering catastrophic illness, especially forms of terminal cancer. Morphine is a type of alkaloid having a strong depressant action on parts of the brain involved in the sensation of pain and also of fear and anxiety; morphine thus offers both pain relief and some sense of contentment to the terminally ill. Codeine basically is methylated morphine; it is a milder narcotic than morphine, causing less of a sensation of dull euphoria. Codeine is particularly effective in suppressing the coughing reflex center in the brain and is widely distributed as an antitussive. Medically, codeine is the most commonly used opium alkaloid. Thebaine (technically, dimethylmorphine), another alkaloid extractable from opium, is often used to make codeine. Thebaine is a convulsant, rather than a narcotic or depressant like morphine or codeine, indicating the profound difference in effect sometimes possible between even closely related alkaloids. Heroin (a synthetic drug) is a acetylated morphine and is even more powerful and addictive as a narcotic than morphine. Although heroin is not necessarily on the upswing, it continues as a major drug on the illegal drug market. Perhaps because heroin is available these days in a very pure state, death rates from heroin use have risen, although the actual rate of use of heroin has seemingly not. Heroin is particularly dangerous because of its depressant action on the portion of the brain governing respiration.

It has been illegal since 1942 to grow the opium poppy in the united states for any purpose. At present, opium is legally cultivated as a drug crop in India, Egypt, Iran, and The Soviet Union. it is cultivated to a lesser extent in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland, and several other countries. Illegal cultivation occurs in Mediterranean Europe. Other species of Papaver may or may not contain various of the opium alkaloids. However, in these other species, morphine content is seemingly low or lacking altogether, and only P. somniferum is banned from cultivation. The great scarlet poppy (Papaver bracteatum), native to the caucasus region of the Soviet Union, is cultivated as a source of thebaine (used to manufacture codeine).

Excerpt from pg.277-8 from Poisonous and Medicinal Plants by Will H. Blackwell
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