OPIUM- A HARMFUL DRUG

DR. S.M. ALAM & DR. M.A. KHAN
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)

June 27 - July 3, 2011

Opium is the dried narcotic juice of the white poppy. Drugs like heroin, codeine and opium are included in this group. The common action of these drugs on the nervous system is that brain control of bodily organs is lost. The brain is badly damaged due to their use and the nerves get loosened. Feeling for hunger is lost and one suffers from constipation.

There is continuous loss of weight and one gradually slips into death. There are several other adverse effects such as moral and spiritual effects, social effects, physical effects, physiological effects and economical effects.

The chemicals inside the opium affect the central nervous system so as to produce dizziness, euphoria, depression, loss of memory, unconsciousness and drowsiness.

The source of opium is the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, one of the few species of Papaver that produces opium. Through centuries of cultivation and breeding the poppy for its opium, a species of the plant was evolved that is now known as somniferum. The genus, Papaver, is the Greek word for poppy. The species, somniferum, is Latin for sleep-inducing.

The psychological effects of opium may have been known to the ancient Sumerians (Circa 4000 B.C.), whose symbol for the poppy was hul (joy) and gil (plant). The plant was known in Europe at least 4,000 years ago, as evidenced by fossil remains of poppy seed cake and poppy pods found in the Swiss lake dwellings of the Neolithic Age. Opium was probably consumed by the ancient Egyptians and was known to the Greeks as well. Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.), the Father of Medicine, recommended drinking the juice of the white poppy mixed with the seed of nettle.

The opium poppy probably reached China about the 7th century A.D. through the efforts of Arab traders who advocated its use for medicinal purposes. In Chinese literature, however, there are earlier references to its use. The beginning of widespread opium use in China has been associated by some historians with the introduction of tobacco into that country by the Dutch from Java in the 17th century. The Chinese were reported to mix opium with tobacco. The practice was adopted throughout the area and eventually resulted in increased opium smoking, both with and without tobacco. In 1803, the German pharmacist F. W. Serturner isolated and described the principal alkaloid in opium, which he named morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. By the 1850s, the medicinal use of pure alkaloids, rather than crude opium preparations was common in Europe.

In the United States, opium preparations became widely available in the 19th century and morphine was used extensively as a painkiller for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. The inevitable result was opium addiction, contemporarily called the army disease or soldier's disease. These opium and morphine abuse problems prompted a scientific search for potent, but non-addictive painkillers. The Bayer Pharmaceutical Company of Germany was the first to produce the new drug in large quantities under the brand name heroin.

The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is an annual plant, i.e., the plant matures one time, and does not regenerate itself. New seed must be planted each season. From a small seed, it grows, flowers, and bears fruit (a pod) only once. The entire growth cycle for most varieties of this plant takes about 120 days. The tiny seeds germinate quickly in warm air and sufficient soil moisture. In less than 6 weeks, the young plant emerges from the soil, grows a set of four leaves, and resembles a small cabbage in appearance. The lobed, dentate (jagged-edged) leaves are green with a dull gray or blue tint. Within two months, the plant grows from 1 to 2 feet in height, with one primary, long, smooth stem. The upper portion of this stem is without leaves. One or more secondary stems, called tillers, may grow from the main stem of the plant. Single poppy plants in Southeast Asia often have more than one tiller.

The main stem of a fully matured opium ranges between 2 and 5 feet in height. The green leaves are oblong, toothed, and lobed and vary between 4 to 15 inches in length at maturity. The matured leaves have no commercial value except for use as animal fodder. As the plant grows tall, the main stem and each tiller terminate in a flower bud. During the development of the bud, the peduncle portion of the stem elongates and forms a distinctive hook that causes the bud to be turned upside down. As the flower develops, the peduncle straightens and the buds point upward. A day or two after the buds first point upward, the two outer segments of the bud, called sepals, fall away, exposing the flower petals. At first, the exposed flower blossom is crushed and crinkled, but the petals soon expand and become smooth in the sun. Poppy flowers have four petals. The petals may be single or double and are either white, pink, reddish purple, crimson red, or variegated.

Opium poppies generally flower after about 90 days of growth and continue to flower for 2 to 3 weeks. The petals eventually drop to reveal a small, round, green pod which continues to develop. These pods (also called seed pods, capsules, bulbs, or poppy heads) are either elongated, or globular and mature to about the size of a chicken egg. The oblate-shaped pods are more common in Southeast Asia. Only the pod portion of the plant can produce opium alkaloids. The skin of the poppy pod encloses the wall of the pod ovary. The ovary wall consists of three layers: the outer, middle, and inner layers. The plant's latex (raw opium gum) is produced within the ovary wall and drains into the middle layer through a system of vessels and tubes within the pod. The cells of the middle layer secrete more than 95 per cent of the plant's opium when the pod is scored and harvested.

Farmers harvest the opium from each pod while it remains on the plant by making vertical incisions with a specially designed homemade knife. After the opium is collected, the pods are allowed to dry on the stem. Once dry, the largest and most productive pods are cut from the stem, and the seeds are removed and dried in the sun before storing for the following year's planting. An alternative method of collecting planting seeds is to collect them from intentionally un-scored pods, because scoring may diminish the quality of the seeds. Poppy seed may also be pressed to produce cooking oil. Poppy seed oil may also be used in the manufacture of paints and perfumes. Poppy seed oil is straw yellow in color, odorless, and has a pleasant, almond-like taste.

The opium poppy thrives in temperate, warm climates with low humidity, and requires only a moderate amount of water before and during the early stages of growth. The opium poppy plant can be grown in a variety of soils-clay, sandy loam, sandy, and sandy clay-but it grows best in a sandy loam soil. This type of soil has good moisture-retentive and nutrient-retentive properties, is easily cultivated, and has a favorable structure for root development. Clay soil types are hard and difficult to pulverize into a good soil texture. The roots of a young poppy plant cannot readily penetrate clay soils, and growth is inhibited. Sand soil, by contrast, does not retain sufficient water or nutrients for proper growth of the plant. Excessive moisture or extremely arid conditions will affect the poppy plant's growth adversely thus reducing the alkaloid content. Poppy plants can become waterlogged and die after a heavy rainfall in poorly drained soil. Heavy rainfall in the second and third months of growth can leach alkaloids from the plant and spoil the harvest. Dull, rainy, or cloudy weather during this growth stage may reduce both the quantity and the quality of the alkaloid content.

The major legal opium production areas in the world today are in government-regulated opium farms in India, Turkey, and Tasmania (Australia). The major illegal growing areas are in Southwest Asia and in the highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand) - popularly known as the Golden Triangle. Opium poppy is also grown in Colombia, Mexico, and Lebanon. The highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia, at elevations of 800 meters or more above sea level, are prime poppy-growing areas. Generally speaking, these poppy-farming areas do not require irrigation, fertilizer, or insecticides for successful opium yields. Most of the opium poppies of Southeast Asia are found in Burma. Laos is the second-largest illicit opium producing country in Southeast Asia and third-largest in the world behind Afghanistan and Burma. In China, small crops of opium poppies are cultivated by ethnic minority groups in the mountainous frontier regions of Yunnan Province.

A typical household of Mainland Southeast Asian highlanders averages between five and 10 persons, including two to five adults. Such a household of poppy farmers can cultivate and harvest about 1 acre of opium poppy per year. Most of the more fertile fields can support opium poppy cultivation for 10 years or more without fertilization or insecticides before the soil is depleted and new fields must be cleared. In choosing a field to grow opium poppies, soil quality, access to sunlight, and acidity are critical factors, so experienced poppy farmers choose their fields carefully.

Before the rainy season in April, thousands of highland poppy fields all over the region are set ablaze. A fog-like yellow haze hangs over the area for weeks, reducing visibility for hundreds of miles. In the mountains, the density of haze can block out the sun and sting the eyes. Nearby provincial airports are occasionally closed due to poor visibility caused by burning fields. Toward the end of the rainy season in August or September, highland farmers in Mainland Southeast Asia prepare fields selected for opium poppy planting. By this time, the ash resulting from the burn-off of the previous dry season has settled into the soil, providing additional nutrients, especially potash. Traditional, chemical fertilizers, chicken manure, human faeces, or the region's abundant natural supply of bat droppings are often mixed into the planting soil before the poppy seed is planted. The planting is usually completed by the end of October.

The opium poppy seed can be sown several ways: broadcast or tossed by hand; or fix-dropped by hand into shallow holes dug with a dibble stick, which is used to poke holes in the soil. About 1 kilogram of opium poppy seed is needed to sow 1 acre of land. Approximately 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of seed are used for each hectare. The seeds may be white, yellow, coffee-colored, gray, black, or blue. Seed color is not related to the color of the flower petals. Beans, cabbages, cotton, parsley, spinach, squash, or tobacco are usually planted with opium poppy. These crops neither help nor hinder the cultivation of the opium poppy, but are planted solely for personal consumption or as a cash crop.

In the highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia, it is also common practice to plant maize and opium poppies in the same fields each year. The maize keeps down excessive weeds and provides feed for the farmer's pigs and ponies. It is grown from April to August. After harvesting the maize, with the stalks still standing in the fields, the ground is weeded and pulverized. Just before the end of the rainy season, in successive sowings throughout September and October, the poppy seed is broadcast among the maize stalks. These stalks protect young opium poppy plants from heavy rains.

After a month of growth, when the opium poppy is about a foot high, some of the weaker plants are removed (called thinning) to allow the other plants more room to grow. The optimum spacing between plants is between 20 and 40 centimeters, or about 8 to 12 plants per square meter. Some researchers in Northern Thailand have reported as many as 18 plants per square meter, but such crowding is believed to hinder plant growth.

During the first two months, the opium poppies may be damaged or stunted by nature because of the lack of adequate sunshine, excessive rainfall, insects, worms, hailstones, early frost, or trampling by animals. The third month of growth does not require as much care as the first 2 months. Between 3 and 4 months after planting from late December to early February, the opium poppies are in full bloom. Mature plants range between 3 and 5 feet in height. Most opium poppy varieties in Southeast Asia produce three to five mature pods per plant.

In mainland Southeast Asia, the opium yield from a single pod varies greatly, ranging from 10 to 100 milligrams of opium gum per pod. (Opium gum yield per capsule correlates very closely with capsule volume.) The average yield of raw opium gum per pod is about 80 milligrams. The dried opium yield ranges between 8 and 20 kilograms per hectare in this region. As the farmers gather the opium, the larger or more productive pods are sometimes tagged with colored string or yarn. These pods will later be cut from their stems, cut open, dried in the sun and their seeds will be used for the following year's planting. An acre of poppy will produce at least 20 kilograms of seed. The wet opium gum collected from the pods contains a relatively high amount of water and needs to be dried for several days. High-quality raw opium will be brown (rather than black) in color and will retain its sticky texture. It will contain no more than 15 per cent water.

Raw opium in Burma, Laos, and Thailand is usually sundried, weighed in a standard 1.6-kilogram quantity, wrapped in a banana leaf or plastic, and then stored until ready to sell, trade, or smoke. Some opium smoking is common among many adult opium poppy farmers to ward off hunger and cold. Heavy addiction generally is limited to older, male farmers and is used as an analgesic for chronic pain. Based on studies in Thailand, the average yearly consumption of cooked opium per smoker is estimated to be 1.6 kilograms. A typical opium poppy will be dried, wrapped, and placed on a shelf by February or March. If the opium is properly dried, it can be stored indefinitely. Excessive moisture and heat can cause the opium to deteriorate slightly.

Before opium is smoked, it is usually cooked. Uncooked opium contains moisture, vegetable matter, and other impurities which detract from a smooth-smoking product. The raw opium which is collected from the pod is placed in an open pot of boiling water where the sticky glob of opium alkaloids quickly dissolves. The clear brown liquid, sometimes called liquid opium, is actually opium in solution. This liquid then is reheated over a low flame until the water turns to steam. When the water has evaporated, a thick paste remains. This paste is called prepared opium, cooked opium, or smoking opium and it is dried in the sun until it has a putty-like consistency. The net weight of the cooked opium is generally about 20 per cent less than the original raw opium.

Cooked opium is suitable for smoking or eating by opium users. Most other ethnic groups including Chinese opium addicts prefer smoking cooked opium. Raw or cooked opium contains more than 35 different alkaloids, including morphine and codeine. Heroin manufacturers must first extract the morphine from the opium before converting the morphine to heroin. The extraction is a simple process, requiring only a few chemicals and a supply of water. Morphine sometimes is extracted from opium in small clandestine laboratories, which are typically set up near the opium poppy fields.