Opium: Chemical | Organic composition
Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 2:23 pm
Opium is classified as a narcotic. By definition, narcotics have analgesic (or painkilling) properties as well as effects beyond lessening pain, such as producing euphoria and addiction. Opium has long been valued for its analgesic effects. However, not all analgesics are narcotics, because they do not produce these side effects; aspirin and Tylenol are examples of non-narcotic analgesics.
Raw opium is harvested from the seed pod of the opium poppy. As many as 50 substances called alkaloids can then be derived from opium, and the opium can be further processed. Alkaloids are naturally occurring plant products that possess some pharmacological activity, and are found in other plants as well as opium poppies. Cocaine and nicotine are examples of alkaloids derived from the coca plant and the tobacco plant, respectively. Because of their chemical composition, alkaloids are often used in producing medicines.
The alkaloids derived from opium are collectively known as opiates. Morphine, codeine, and thebaine are well-known opium derivatives. Paregoric is an opium tincture (opium in an alcohol mixture).
Semisynthetic and synthetic narcotics are also produced that have opiate-like effects; these narcotics are collectively known as opioids. They include methadone and the designer drug fentanyl, and a number of commonly prescribed medicines such as Darvon, Demerol, Dilaudid, Orlaam, OxyContin, Percodan, Talwin, and Vicodin.
The poppies that produce opium grow to be 3-5 ft (1.5 m) tall, produce brightly colored flowers ranging from white, to pink, red, or purple, and do well in warm, dry climates. The plant is an annual, meaning it must be re-planted each season, and will flower and produce the seed pod from which opium is derived only once in its 120-day growth cycle. Many popular varieties of poppy produce three to five of these mature pods per plant.
After the poppies bloom, petals drop off and farmers are able to collect the opium from the unripe seed pod in the center of the flower. Illicitly harvesting opium is labor-intensive work that must be done by hand. The pod is slit with specially designed knives. Called taping, scoring, or lancing, the slit is made just deep enough to get the white latex-like sap to ooze onto the outside of the pod where the farmer allows it to dry. After the sap darkens and thickens into a sticky gum, the farmer collects it by scraping it off with another specially designed tool. This sap is raw opium. High-quality opium will be brown and sticky.
The pods can continue to ooze their sap for several days, so the farmer may tap pods to collect the opium several times. Some of the most productive seed pods will also be harvested to provide seeds for the next year’s crop. On average, a single pod produces less than 80 mg of raw opium, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). An area of 2.5 acres (1 hectare) may yield roughly 17.6-33 lb (8-15 kg) of raw opium.
After harvesting, the wet resin must be dried for several days. It will then be wrapped and stored. If dried correctly, it can be stored for an indefinite period. The DEA has reports of opium that has been stored for 10 years without deteriorating.
Raw opium may be smoked, but it is usually “cooked” first, a process in which the raw opium is boiled in water. The opium dissolves and impurities such as twigs and dirt are removed by straining. This leaves a clear, brown liquid called “liquid opium,” which is then re-heated until the water evaporates and all that remains is a thick paste. The paste is then sun-dried to the proper consistency for smoking or eating.
Both raw and cooked opium contain alkaloids. These alkaloids can be extracted from the opium to produce opium derivatives for legal pharmaceuticals or for illegal consumption, such as morphine and heroin. The morphine alkaloid content, which ranges from 8% to 12%, determines the quality of the opium.
Morphine is extracted first, and the resulting product can then be converted into heroin. Addicts generally do not use morphine base because it is not readily water soluble, thus not easily absorbed by the body. Further purification is required to produce a more pure product, morphine hydrochloride. This more refined morphine is commonly pressed into a 2x4x5 in (5x 10×2 cm) block (also called a “brick”) weighing approximately 3 lb (1.3 kg). It takes approximately 28.7 lb (13 kg) of opium to produce one of these morphine blocks.
Morphine can then be converted into heroin base and, finally, into heroin. Because of the odor of the chemicals used, heroin conversion labs may be located in rural areas. In the first step of this process, morphine is converted into a tan-colored heroin base that is approximately 70% pure heroin. In step two, this base can then be converted into smokable heroin (also known as heroin no. 3) or injectible heroin (also known as heroin no. 4).
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