Opium Poppy

Unlike the perennial coca bush, the opium poppy flower is an annual that requires the planting of seeds for each crop. Poppies of many species grow throughout the world, but only Papaver som-niferum yields opium and its derivatives—the medicinal analgesics CODEINE and MORPHINE as well as the now illicit addictive heroin. Once planted, the life cycle of the labor-intensive poppy lasts for 120 to 150 days, from planting until the petals fall off. Day and night, certain nitrogen-containing compounds, alkaloids, are produced by the plant and stored in its cells. After the petals fall, the seed capsule swells and is incised while still green. A milky alkaloid-rich sap seeps from tiny tubes in the capsule wall, which dries, darkens, and turns gummy—becoming a substance called opium gum. Raw opium gum is converted by crude refineries into morphine base; a few pots, simple chemicals, and a source of fresh water are all that is needed to create the morphine base from which illicit heroin is made. About 22 pounds (10 kg) of opium make 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of morphine base; treating the base with acetic anhydride creates heroin. Papaver somniferum is cultivated in dozens of varieties adapted to do well in various soils and climates, ranging from southern Sweden to the Equator. Depending on the soil and climatic conditions, the growers can harvest at least two crops per year (White, 1985). Although the opium poppy seems to flourish at about 3,000 feet (915 m) in low humidity, it also grows and survives in humid lowlands, under foliage, or in full sunlight. With the aid of irrigation and pesticides, the poppy growers have expanded the conditions and acreage in which the plant will produce. The U.S. government estimated that 4,187 tons (3,800 MT) of opium, or approximately 418 tons (380 MT) of heroin—if the total were converted—were produced throughout the source countries of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia.

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