Some science behind the scenes

Poppy straw

Opium Poppy straw can be one of several different things:

  • What is left after the poppy seed harvest, so the dried stalks, stem and leaves of poppies grown for their seeds
  • The dried leaves and stalk harvested after the seed pod has been used for traditional opium extraction
  • The dried leaves, stalk and seed pod used in commercial manufacture of morphine or other poppy alkaloid derived drugs, where no extraction using traditional methods of latex extraction has been made

The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs defines poppy straw as "all parts (except the seeds) of the opium poppy, after mowing".

How is it used – licit use

Up until the 1930s the straw was regarded as a waste product, but when chemical processes became more sophisticated, the pharmaceutical industry realised they could extract a number of the raw alkaloids from the straw to use to produce codeine and morphine. 

It was an Hungarian chemist, János Kábáy who in 1925 developed a method to extract morphine from dried poppy straw. The method is to extract the alkaloids from the crushed plant with diluted sulfuric acid. The extraction is performed in many steps (one amount of crushed plant is at least six to ten times extracted, so practically every alkaloid goes into the solution). From the solution obtained at the last extraction step, the alkaloids are precipitated by either ammonium hydroxide or sodium carbonate. The last step is purifying and separating morphine from other opium alkaloids.

The somewhat similar Gregory process was developed in the United Kingdom during the Second World War which begins with stewing the entire plant, in most cases save the roots and leaves, in plain or mildly acidified water, then proceeding through steps of concentration, extraction, and purification of alkaloids. Other methods of processing poppy straw use steam, one or more of several types of alcohol, or other organic solvents.

Poppy straw is now the source of 90% of the world supply of legal morphine (for medical and scientific use).   For the pharmaceutical industry it does not therefore particularly matter what the raw material contains as the extraction process will sort out the constituents. 

For many farmers supplying only to the pharmaceutical industry, the production of poppies for straw is far more efficient than the labour intensive extraction of latex opium by hand. Opium poppies grown principally for the extraction of alkaloids from poppy straw is found in  Australia, China, France, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

If you are a farmer growing poppies for their seeds, it has the added advantage of providing an extra source of revenue from what would otherwise be a waste product. By 1950, about 10% of the poppy seed harvest of many of the old Eastern block countries, for example, was also yielding morphine. Opium poppies that are grown principally for the seed crop, with licit poppy straw as a by-product, can be found in the Czech Republic, Serbia and Montenegro.

Harvesting of poppy straw can be almost entirely mechanised. It is a somewhat similar process to growing wheat.  The plants are allowed to mature fully, then a machine is used to harvest the entire field. The ripe poppy seeds are separated out by threshing and winnowing, and the remainder is poppy straw. Despite the definition above given by the Single convention, although poppy straw should only consist of the above ground parts of the plant, the roots may be harvested as well.

How it is used – illicit use

One illicit use for the straw is in manufacturing ‘Polish heroin’.  Polish heroin is a crude preparation of heroin made from poppy straw. It was used mainly in Central and Eastern Europe prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of communist control of the countries of the Warsaw Pact or Eastern Bloc.  It contains heroin, morphine, codeine (in small amounts), and some amount of monoacetylmorphine, a precursor to and analog of diacetylmorphine. It is extracted from poppy straw by using ion exchange resin, acetone, ammonia water and a few other chemicals used in the last step of production.

And poppy straw is also available on the illicit market in ‘smoking mixtures’ and in ‘poppy tea’ infusions.  Often it is crushed into a sort of powdered form which makes it impossible to tell what has been put into the powder.  Poppy straw has also been used to make what looks like conventional powdered opium – but isn’t.

The Problem – which alkaloids

Let us suppose that you are able to get hold of some poppy straw or some fancifully labelled smoking mixture and you think – whoopee I can smoke this and it will be a cheap form of opium.  You would be wholly and dangerously wrong.

As you can see, because the objective of producing poppy straw is in the production of pharmaceuticals and the objectives of pharmaceutical companies is wholly different to yours,  you are in the difficult position of not knowing what you are getting. It is highly unlikely you will get what you want.

The straw – although generally papaver somniferum, may not always be the right variety nor may it be the simple variety – the non mutant or genetically engineered hybrid and so on.   For example, the Tasmanian Papaver somniferum L. elite cultivar C048-6-14-64 contains morphinan, tetrahydrobenzylisoquinoline, benzo[c]phenanthridine, and phthalideisoquinoline.

Even if the straw is for the poppy seed trade or is the by product of fairly conventional opium production, you would still be at risk, because the leaves, stem and particularly the roots contain very different alkaloids in very different proportions to those found in the latex from the unripe seed head.

The Papaver Somniferum cultivar "Marianne", for example, used in the production of poppy seeds contains practically no morphine.  It is worth mentioning that , 80.5% of the alkaloids of the latex of this poppy let alone the straw contain the alkaloids narcotoline and noscapine. Only 18.8% of the relative total alkaloid content are morphinan alkaloids.

In the root system of a number of cultivars, the major alkaloids are sanguinarine/10-hydroxysanguinarine and dihydrosanguinarine/10-hydroxydihydrosanguinarine.

For example a patent filed in May 2000 states the following:

“There is disclosed an improved poppy straw of a stably reproducing Papaver somniferum for the extraction of thebaine and/or oripavine, the threshed straw having thebaine and oripavine constituting about 50% by weight or greater of the alkaloid combination consisting of morphine, codeine, thebaine and oripavine”.[ United States Patent: 6,067,749]

Oripavine does not occur in opium, but it does occur in many type of poppy straw and in the quantities it occurs, it is toxic……….

Analgesic activity and toxicity of oripavine and phi-dihydrothebaine in the mouse and rat". Archives Internationales de Pharmacodynamie et de Therapie 254 (2): p223–40. PMID 6121539
Oripavine possesses an analgesic potency comparable to morphine; however, it is not clinically useful due to severe toxicity and low therapeutic index. In both mice and rats, toxic doses caused tonic-clonic seizures followed by death, similar to thebaine.

Remember that for the pharmaceutical industry the presence of high quantities of oripavine can be a benefit “In poppies subjected to mutagenesis and selection on a mass scale, researchers have been able to use poppy straw to obtain large quantities of oripavine, a precursor to opioids and antagonists such as naltrexone”, but for a casual user it could be a disaster.

Oripavine has a lot of uses in the pharmaceutical industry. Etorphine (Immobilon or M99), for example,  is a semi-synthetic opioid possessing an analgesic potency approximately 1,000-3,000 times that of morphine.   It was first prepared in 1960 from oripavine, from papaver somniferum poppy straw and from related plants, such as  Papaver orientale and Papaver bracteatum.  Etorphine is often used to immobilize elephants and other large mammals and is available legally only for veterinary use.  Veterinary-strength etorphine is fatal to humans.

In summary

 Don’t use poppy straw.

You actually have no idea of its alkaloid content.  It could be high in thebaine, low in morphine, low in papaverine, very high in codeine, very low in narcotine and so on.  And it could contain oripavine.  It could kill you.


Comparative qualitative and quantitative determination of alkaloids in narcotic and condiment Papaver somniferum cultivars. - Frick S, Kramell R  Schmidt J, Fist AJ, Kutchan TM. - Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry, Weinberg, Saale, Germany


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