The Chemical Production of Morphine

Introduction

Pictured here is a photograph of the opium poppy and the white sap that it produces. This white sap is collected, purified into morphine, and then distributed.

The word “narcotics” is somewhat incorrectly used today. People today sometimes use it to refer to all drugs, but the archaic version of the word is actually in reference to substances able to relieve or dull pain. As languages evolve, however, the original meanings of words can change, and in this day and age, “narcotics” is defined as substances that are derived from opium or the substitutes for opium (i.e. oxycodone). The term “opioid” has since been coined to describe the substances that mitigate pain. Despite the illicit connotation of narcotics, certain dosages of them can be legally administered to relieve pain. Care must be exercised while using narcotics as they are addictive, as this section of a chemistry textbook demonstrates.

Narcotics in the Black Market

Depicted are the chemical structures of morphine and codeine, both of which are compounds that exist within the sap of opium poppies. Additionally, these compounds are used to produce narcotics and opioids. The flowers depicted are opium poppies.

Because of their addictive nature, people can easily get hooked onto narcotics and opioids, requiring dosages that cannot be obtained legally. As such, these people turn to the black market to get their fix. The narcotics and opioids sold on the black market have been produced illegally, using methods that will be discussed later in this blog post. In fact, prior to 1960, heroin, which is a narcotic, was the substance that was produced the most for sale on the black market. In general, drugs that are produced illegally are of lower quality than those produced for medical reasons, and narcotics such as heroin are no exception.

Production of Morphine

Above is a picture of heroin in the form of powder. Heroin is derived from morphine, which can be obtained through the purification of the sap of opium poppies.

So how are narcotics actually produced? In the 1800s, the methods of production involved dissolving sap from the opium poppy into a variety of different solutions that then produced precipitates containing morphine. Once these precipitates were collected, the rest of the solution was washed away. If impurities precipitated out of the solution as well, they were discarded. If the morphine precipitate is still impure (i.e., it has elements of the opium sap that are not morphine), the process is repeated with another solution and other ways of filtering out the morphine. In one process, charcoal is used to filter out the morphine from a solution of sodium carbonate and morphine.

The end result of these processes was often morphine hydrochloride, which could be purified into morphine through crystallization followed by application of charcoal, or by pressing the morphine with hydrochloride. The solvents used in the intermediate steps of some processes, however, did not just dissolve the impurities: they also dissolved some of the morphine, and this causes the purification process to have low yield compared to the amount of opium sap that was initially used. It is the morphine that is produced during these processes that is used to make other narcotics such as codeine and heroin. Typically, the purified morphine takes the form of a white powder.

Connections to Organic Chemistry

The origin of narcotics, in the modern sense of the word, is from an organic substance secreted by opium poppies. The purification of morphine involves exploiting the solubility of the compounds inside the sap of the opium poppy, so the connection to organic chemistry is evident in the purification process.

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