The miracle drug

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A brief insight into the history and modern synthesis of morphine

"Presently she cast a drug into the wine whereof they drank, a drug to lull all pain and anger, and bring forgetfulness of every sorrow... " This is a passage of the well-known book Odyssey written by Homer. It was written in the 8th century BC and describes the heroic journey of Odysseus, a journey of myths and mysteries, of beasts and heroes, and of Gods and their divine blessings.

One of these blessings was the so-called ‘Nepenthes’ a plant that could be mixed with wine to create something that would ease all the pain and makes one forget all their misery and despair. This is perhaps the earliest described use of opium leaves. Opium is harvested from the Papaver somniferum or, in normal English, the opium poppy. Hippocrates and Socrates also mention it as a hypnotic, narcotic and styptic drug and were sceptic of its use because of its severe side effects.

In literature of the Byzantine Empire its usage is also described, this time as a mixture that would ease all pain but that can have hypnotic side effects. An ancient Roman emperor named Marcus Aurelius was even presumed to be addicted to the poppy leaves. Much later the same poppy leaves were a vital part of our Dutch economy during the Dutch Golden Age of trade and exploration, During this time it was popular to mix the opium with tobacco to induce a ‘dream-like state’ that would ‘heighten one’s senses’. The British took drug-trafficking to an entirely new level by monopolizing the opium trade and therefore starting the two extremely destructive Opium Wars against China. The Chinese still hold a grudge over that to this day.

It was not until the early 19th century that a man named Friedrich Sertürner managed to extract the very first alkaloid out of the opium plant. He administered this to himself and three young boys. All four almost died. He called the alkaloid Morphium after the Greek goddess Morpheus, the Goddess of Dreams, because morphium had the tendency to induce sleep. Sertürner himself became addicted to the drug and warned against using the drug on patients. Nevertheless, morphium became very popular, especially when treating pain and opium addiction.

But due to a lack of knowledge, a lot of people became addicted to what was now called morphine. Especially during the American Civil War, a lot of soldiers suffered from Soldier’s Disease, which was basically an addiction to alcohol and morphine caused by pain treatment. During the early 20th century, laws were made to control the use and distribution of morphine. After almost a decade of research, morphine is now widely used and even listed in the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines: the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system.

Modern synthesis of morphine  

Modern synthesis of morphine is a complicated process, it consists of drying the opium poppy, extracting the alkaloids and finally extracting the morphine from the alkaloids. The morphine content of the poppy straw, or its exudate, is about 20%. This is generally the highest amount of all the alkaloids. The poppy straw is dried and the crude opium is extracted with water, and then filtered. The extract is then mixed with ethanol and made strongly basic with ammonium hydroxide. Morphine usually precipitates  and is further purified by means of crystallization as its sulfate. When morphine is used in modern medicine, it is usually administered as this sulfate. The remaining parts of the opium poppy, which are mostly the seeds, can be eaten or used for further cultivation.


Facts and numbers concerning morphine

  • Around 500 tons of morphine is produced each year. In 2013, around 45 tons were used directly for pain.

  • About 70 percent of morphine production is used to create other opioids, including heroin and hydromorphone.

  • Heroin can be made out of morphine, it is a lot more potent but short lasting. Because of its excessive use as pleasure-drug, heroin possession is considered illegal in most countries.

  • The heroin market has an estimated value of$55 billion

  • Most opium poppies are cultivated in Afghanistan and Hungary.

  • Morphine is highly addictive, long time treatment can lead to withdrawal symptoms afterwards.