July 25, 2009

The Humble Poppy

Some of us are quite partial to a poppy seed bagel or cake. Not many know that this is seed from exactly the same poppy as the one from which opium and all its derivatives come (heroin, morphine, codeine amongst others). It is also the same delicate garden flower we all enjoy.

It is a common misconception that there is a clear distinction between poppies useful for opium extraction and ornamental or food poppies. It is not difficult to manufacture opium tea with a high morphine content from poppies readily available at flower shops. There is no distinction. They are all Papaver Somniferum, the sleep bringing poppy.

Morphine and codeine are popular poppy based drugs in wide use in the west as painkillers. The UK government has recently given the go-ahead to the pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith (Johnson Matthey) to cultivate opium poppies in England. One major opium poppy field is based in Didcot, Oxfordshire. Simultaneously, production has been made illegal in Afghanistan with millions of dollars spent on torching the crop.

The poppy has a chequered history. The Opium Wars in 1839 and 1858 led to the suppression of China and the British forced Indian opium on to the unwilling Chinese. By 1905 more than 25% of the male Chinese population was addicted. There were an estimated 70 million junkies by the time of the 1949 Revolution.

From 1898 to 1910 heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough medicine for children.

The World Health Organisation says that millions of people who are too poor for medicine suffer in agony as a result of being denied painkillers. In 2004, consumption of morphine per person in the United States was about 17,000 times that of Sierra Leone.

A recent proposal from the European Senelis Council hoped to solve the problems caused by the massive quantity of illegally produced opium in Afghanistan, most of which is converted to heroin and smuggled for sale in Europe and the USA. This proposal is to license Afghan farmers to produce opium for the world pharmaceutical market, and thereby solve another problem, that of chronic underuse of potent analgesics in developing countries. The proposal has been overruled by the British Government.

What is really going on in the poppy fields of Ahghanistan? Poppy farmers and the debt cycle in Afghanistan – an interesting article.


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