The Opium Poppy

Papaver somniferum is a native plant of central Asia; Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Images of the plant by Sumerians in southern Iraq about 4000BC imply the plant was known for its properties a very long time ago.

There are a large number of species of poppy but the only other species that contains even a trace of morphine in its production is Papaver setigerum, the Mediterranean poppy, but the quantity is much much smaller than even the wild varieties of somniferum. Ornamental poppies do not contain morphine as they are usually of a different species.

The wild poppy has colour variations from red to white as seen below in Koeh's drawing and the photo.


It is now grown elsewhere for legal and non legal reasons. Somniferum is now grown additionally in India, France, China, Australia (Tasmania), Korea ( Democratic Republic), Japan, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Spain. These countries grow it for pharmaceutical reasons, not illegal drugs. Countries producing it for mixed reasons include Afghanistan, Pakistan, South America and Mexico and Thailand.

Tasmania produces a large proportion of the world's licit opiates using varieties of somniferum that are carefully selected for high alkaloid production and careful agricultural techniques. It produces about 40% of the world's production through the poppy straw technique with an area currently of about 15000 hectares. This production goes to USA providing some 40% of that country's opiate needs. Tasmania has the highest alkaloid yield per hectare of any producer typically producing 12-20 kg/ha. Tasmania produces about 140 tonnes of alkaloid per year.

The varieties used in developed countries usually have lilac flowers, the red or white are considered weeds as they are of much lower alkaloid levels. The breeding techniques used to raise alkaloid levels are based on artificial selection and, although genetic modification has been tried in Tasmania, it has not been effective either in raising alkaloid levels or in consistency over highly effective breeding processes.

The breeding processes have produced new strains for non-morphine production. A strain that produces the precursor alkaloid, thebaine, rather than morphine was developed in Tasmania. Thebaine is now over 50% of Tasmania's production of poppy based alkaloid production.

There are two main methods of extracting the alkaloids from the plant, the opium method and the dry poppy straw method.

Opium Extraction

This is the traditional method used mostly in the third world countries such as Afghanistan and India. It is a labour intensive technique and the poppies are closer to wild varieties with relatively low alkaloid content. The poppies are all essentially morphine poppies.

The green poppy head is slit and the milky sap that exudes  from the slits is, when dried, opium. This is collected and, under International Conventions to limit illegal use of opium, bought for morphine extraction.

Straw Extraction

Straw extraction is the technique used in more developed countries. It was first developed by Janos Kabay of Hungary.

In this process, the poppy heads are left to dry in the summer sun in the field then harvested and crushed to straw. The straw is chemically treated to extract the alkaloids. This requires high quality industrial chemistry to guarantee the highest purity of alkaloids and the highest extraction rates. The trash is used as a mulch while the seeds are used as food, discarded or experimentally used as a biodiesel oil.

Currently Macquarie Oil Ltd is extracting about 300L of oil from every tonne of thebaine variety of poppy seeds. It expects to extract about 4 million L of bio-diesel fuel in 2009.


1. Why would the tradition method of opium extraction be discarded in developed countries?

2. The alkaloids collected by both methods of extraction contain a mixture of similar chemicals related to morphine. They have similar molecular masses and similar chemical properties. What issues would a company producing morphine compounds face to produce chemicals of high quality for use in medicine?

3. The same company must buy from farmers. What issues must the company guarantee to the farmer? What must the farmer guarantee to the company? In what ways would the farmer and company work together?

4. What are the implications for the structure of a large company given the above?  As a result, what sort of qualifications would the company be seeking from university graduates?

5. Would it be beneficial for the company to work with the local university? Suggest reasons why a local university should want to operate with the company?