Saturday, September 29, 2012

Morphine and Codeine content of Poppy Seeds

    I came across this story posted on by Pete Guither, the article is from Nature.  Outcry over jailed Russian Chemist

Some highlights:

     "In September 2011, the defence attorneys of Sergey Shilov, a Russian businessman under investigation by the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FDCS), asked her to provide an expert opinion on the amount of opiates that could possibly be extracted from 42 metric tonnes of food poppy seeds that Shilov had imported from Spain in 2010."

     "On the basis of gas-chromatography and mass-spectrometry measurements of samples analysed in her lab, Zelenina calculated the overall morphine and codeine content in the poppy-seed consignment in question to be 0.00069% and 0.00049%, respectively. In such low concentrations, opiates can only be identified or extracted in well-equipped analytical chemistry labs, she wrote."

     So a Russian businessman imported 42 metric tonnes of poppy seeds from Spain.  Poppy seeds are a legal grey area in the US as well as Russia.  Technically they are legal as long as they don't have any of the narcotic alkaloids found in opium.  Supposedly the seeds do not contain any morphine or codeine, but do contain some trace residues when they are separated from the pods.  The seed pod contains the latex from which opium is harvested.  As part of the defense analytical chemist Olga Zelenina was contracted to provide expert testimony on the feasibility of extracting opiates from the seeds.

     How much morphine and codeine is in 42 metric tonnes of poppy seed?  This is actually easy to calculate by multiplying 42,000 Kg by 0.0000069 and 0.0000049.  Doing the math you find that 42 metric tonnes of seed has a total morphine content of 289.8g and 205.8g of codeine.  However you would not be able to extract all the alkaloids from the seeds.  Natural products chemistry is notorious for having low yields.  But lets ignore that for a second and assume that you can extract and purify 100% of the narcotic alkaloids.

     According to this article from the Beckley Foundation [Link] the international price of poppy seeds are $4,600 a tonne.  Therefore 42 tonnes of seed would cost $193,200.  This gives us a cost of $666.67 per gram of morphine and $938.78 per gram of codeine, again assuming yields of 100%.  This is much higher than the black market price of morphine or heroin.  Poppy seeds are just not a viable source of opiates, at least for human consumption, though they may have an effect on some small animals.

     The result of Zelenina's report apparently angered the Russian drug warriors.  On August 15th she was arrested and charged with "aiding and abetting attempted drug trafficking by an organized group."  I guess scientific integrity is another victim of the international drug war.


  1. Plants and their chemicals should be free for everyone to use. Lack of knowledge is the problem.

  2. WHY does the government care if i Ingest Drugs or any other thing ? when they clearly don't care if I get Poisoned from chemicals found all around me in the foods I eat the clothes I wear , the water I drink and bath in , the emissions from internal combustion engines , the carpets in my Home , the paint on my walls , .......
    the List goes on and on and ON !

    1. Anonymous, you do have reason to be concerned. Many of these items do have the potential to poison you. However,I do not think poppy seeds should be one of your concerns. The level of morphine and codeine are extremely low. You will not be poisoned by eating a poppy seed bagel.

  3. Folks, the article above addresses a question of fact regarding alkaloid content in poppy seed. Whether you think that narcotics should be freely available as a matter of personal choice is a valid question; but the facts in the above case are distorted.

    Spanish poppy seed is famously high in alkaloid content, at about .025 percent by weight. Note the difference between .025 percent, or .00025 and .0000069 (and .0000049). Even if the codeine content is included (and it is not generally included in calculations like this) the difference between .00025 and .000011 is dramatic, about 24-fold by weight. The available alkaloids are readily extractible by the way, with most processes achieving well over 90% extraction of morphine (and codeine). These processes are not particularly technical and are actually quite simple if one does not mind if the major impurity in the morphine is codeine. I would guess -- and this is a guess -- that Shilov could get at least 5kg of pure morphine from the 42 tons of poppy seed (and perhaps quite a bit more were his pet scientist explain to him how to methylate the codeine into morphine too).

    So, please do argue the merits of individual responsibility versus government control, and similar issues, but don't bend the facts of this case to fit that argument.

    1. You mean "Demethylate the codeine to morphine" not "methylate."

      Its incredibly easy. Pyridine

  4. As a former poppy seed junky I have to agree that there are some very potent seeds out there.

    I also have to say that when a person buys this quantity of a natural product they have more influence over the processing of the product. It is likely that the seed selected was processed to maintain the opiates at the buyers request and of a variety that was a high producer of opiates.

  5. The internet is so confusing, which poppy seeds are good to have for pain, they are giving me really no choice.