Sunday, September 30, 2012

New Book on Opium Gets Its Facts Wrong

    A new book titled Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction by Steve Martin has been recently published.  Martin is a collector of opium smoking paraphernalia and has an online museum [Link] that has some cool pictures of opium pipes, dens and smokers.  I haven't read the book but based on this interview with Collectors Weekly [Link], it seems Martin is woefully uneducated about the basic pharmacology of opium.  Take the following quotes for example:

    "The interesting thing about opium is that until the Chinese invented this system for vaporization—sometime in the 18th century—there was no pleasurable way to ingest opium. People were eating it. People were smoking it, mixed with tobacco. But eating it causes really bad side effects, the worst being constipation for weeks. And burning it destroys certain alkaloids in the opium that make the intoxication enjoyable."

    "Then a Chinese inventor whose name is completely lost to history came up with a system for vaporizing it. That invention opened the door for opium to become a recreational drug. Suddenly, all the bad side effects were lessened. Vaporizing opium takes out a lot of the morphine content, which is the thing that makes you feel stupefied and out of it. Good-quality opium, smoked with the proper accoutrements, is energizing. It doesn’t put you on the floor. Well, you’re lying on the floor to do the actual smoking, but that’s just because it’s the most comfortable position to hold the pipe over the lamp."

    There are numerous alkaloids in opium the most important being morphine (and to a lesser extent codeine).  Morphine is responsible for the majority of the effects of opium and while opium is not the same as morphine, opium minus the morphine is just not opium.  It is like cannabis without THC or beer without alcohol.  Opium is just as active when eaten, brewed into a tea, taken as an alcoholic tincture (laudnum) or smoked.  The route of administration does have some impact on the drug experience, but not in the way Martin describes.  Eating it does not cause "really bad  side effects" that can be countered by smoking.  Constipation is a side effect of morphine that cannot be avoided by smoking it.  While its true that vaporizing opium "takes out" (degrades from the heat) some of the morphine, a lot of morphine is also lost (not absorbed) when opium is eaten.  Opium was a popular recreational drug and medicine long before the 18th century.

    The most egregious error comes from this line in the book description:  "At once a powerful personal story and a fascinating historical survey, Opium Fiend brims with anecdotes and lore surrounding the drug that some have called the methamphetamine of the nineteenth-century."

    Methamphetamine and opium are about as different as two drugs can be.  Methamphetamine is a stimulant, opium a narcotic analgesic.  Martin may have put together a nice collection of opium smoking images, but if this is the results of "years of intensive research" he should go back to school.

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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Alan Turing the Junkie of his Time

     For those of you that don't know Turing was a mathematical genius who worked on breaking Nazi codes for the British during WW2.  He was able to decrypt the famous "Enigma Machine" used by Nazis to encrypt transmissions.  He probably single handedly saved thousands of Allied lives in the war.  What was his reward for his service?  In 1952 he was arrested and charged with acts of homosexuality ("Gross indecency").  He was given female sex hormones, effectively castrating him.  He died two years later of probable suicide, although some dispute whether it was murder. [Note: suicide info taken from wikipedia]

     There are interesting parallels between how society chooses to scapegoat certain segments of the population.  Troy Duster writes in the Legislation of Morality about how certain traits become the defining characteristic of the individual in the public mind.  For example a man might be kind, generous, able to work and take care of his family.  He doesn't steal or engage in other victim-crimes, but if he is an addict or homosexual none of that matters.  The mere fact that he has the status of addict or homosexual precludes any notion of compatibility with also being a moral person in the eyes of those judging him.  The label of addict or homosexual becomes a total identity that prevents others in society from forming an unbiased opinion about the person's worth.  Once the label is applied people avoid the individual and he is ostracized to the fringes of society.

     Homosexuality has come a long way since the 1950's.  Thomas Szasz makes the point that it was only when homosexuals organized and demanded recognition of their rights as human beings that society, and particularly psychiatry, began to change their opinion of homosexuality from a mental disease to something resembling a human right.  It is my opinion that drug users need to undergo the same transformation.
It is my view that the "treatment not incarceration" position taken by most liberals is just as morally bankrupt as the "lock up all the junkies and throw away the key" conservative position.   I do recognize that some users and addicts are deeply troubled by their drug use, just as some homosexuals are deeply troubled by their sexual orientation.  I have no problem with people seeking help for things they perceive are causing problems in their life.  However I have a major problem when other people make that decision for them.  Forced treatment for addicts who do not want it should be viewed in the same light as "conversion therapy" for homosexuals who do not view their sexual orientation as a problem in their life that needs correcting.

     Unfortunately within the US so many drug users believe that their use of drugs is abuse and the symptom of a disease.  This is only reinforced by institutes like the National Institure on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which claim that drugs "hijack" the brain.  But what does this really mean?  If your brain has been hijacked then you are not in control of your actions and thus not really human.  If you are not fully human then you are not afforded the inalienable rights which all people are entitled to and thus coercive measures that would normally be considered gross violations of human rights (especially loss of liberty and torture) become acceptable.  Both addicts and homosexuals have been lobotomized for their "diseases."  Some "rehabs" like Straight Inc. have used "treatments" like beatings, restraints, sleep deprivation and public humiliation.  Check out Stanton Peele or google Rise and Fall of the Official View of Addiction by Bruce K. Alexander for devastating critiques of the addiction as a disease model.

     In 100 years people will look at the treatment of drug users in the same light as treatment of Jews in 1940's Germany, Japanese-Americans in the US during WW2 and homosexuals from the 19th century well into the 20th.  I only hope it won't take 100 years so I can see the transformation in my lifetime.  Drug users have been at the vanguard of every single important civil rights issue in this country.  I have been watching user unions get politically organized with a mixture of glee and sadness.  I am very pleased that people are finally pushing back against a system that seeks to marginalize, criminalize and yes even exterminate a group of people for their choice of intoxicant.  It only makes me sad that these organizations are almost all in countries other than the US.  Given the political climate in the US these days an organization advocating for the right of people to use illegal drugs would probably be branded supporting terrorism.  I can hear the refrain now, "don't you know heroin use supports al Qaeda!"

     We could solve two major problems, opiate addiction in the US and criminal organizations funded by illicit crops, virtually overnight if the US bought all the opium produced in Afghanistan and sold it at cost to our citizens.  Opium may still be tainted with the association of an illegal drug but no where near the level of heroin.  In the public mind these two substances are very different.  Opium is "natural" and therefor "green," "organic" and a "plant not drug".  Heroin is a chemical, and therefor "toxic", "unnatural" and "bad drug."  The same arguments cannabis advocates make for the plant vs. synthetic drugs.  Although in both cases they may not be wrong, its just the issues are more complicated than "natural vs unnatural."

     I am exhausted at times trying to forward the debate.  Fortunately we are not alone.  It seems as though the drug reform movement has more allies than ever before.  People are finally realizing that if we keep doing what we have been doing for the past 100 years, and especially since the 1980's, we are going to have the same results.  On one hand the Reagan-era war on drugs was a disaster for users, but just like the escalating enforcement of alcohol prohibitionists in the 1920's was its eventual downfall, so the overreaching of the drug prohibitionists will be their downfall.  We don't need to convince people to legalize, just convince them prohibition doesn't work.  I think that just about everyone who doesn't work for the government can see that prohibition is a failure.  It's just that all we have ever known for nearly three generations in the US is prohibition.  There are now more voices than ever calling for decriminalization.  Decriminalization is only a band-aid on a gushing chest wound, legalization is the only logical conclusion to ending prohibition.  Once people accept the idea that ending prohibition won't cause the sky to fall they will come to legalization on their own.

     Evidence from countries that have decriminalized like Portugal is irrefutable.  As more countries and states decriminalize, some will experiment with different models of legalization.  If the US and the UN would just get out of the way this would happen a lot faster.  Columbia just announce plans to give addicts prescriptions for cocaine.  Canada and a host of European countries are using heroin prescriptions.  In the first trial of heroin prescriptions in Canada 10% of the people were given dilaudid in place of heroin.  The addicts couldn't tell the difference.  While we know there is no pharmacological reason to use dilaudid over heroin there is a big difference in the public's mind.  Dilaudid prescriptions may be the way forward for those who reject methadone or suboxone.  I suspect morphine or raw opium would also be acceptable for a great number of opiate users.

     There is a great debate available on youtube titled: DPA's Ethan Nadelmann Debates Former DEA Head Asa Hutchinson at University of Arkansas.  The debate was sponsored by the organization students for sensible drug policy so the crowd is naturally biased, but I think Nadelmann completely destroyed the vacuous arguments put forth by Hutchinson.  Nadelmann is super smart and has a mastery of the issues few others possess.  I always enjoy seeing him on TV and reading his articles in various publications.  It almost makes you feel sorry for those debating against him, but not really.

     But then again I'm biased.  Most of what I read is anti-drug war blogs, articles and books.  I do try to read the pro-prohibition literature, if only to understand the arguments put forward, know your enemy and all that, but honestly one can only stomach so much hypocrisy, misinformation and puritanism.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Do Opiate Users Read More Than the General Population?

I have heard other people mention that junkie's read more than the general population.  I have no idea if this is true or even a testable hypothesis.  Making any statements about opiate addicts is plagued with the problems of trying to get a good sample.  Virtually any statement made about addicts should be prefaced with the phrase, "of the population that is known to the authorities".  I would like to think that opiate users are less aggressive and more introspective than the general population, two traits that may lend itself to reading books.  It is said that the legendary junkie Thomas de Quincey was a literary junkie.  His addiction to books was more responsible for his financial ruin than his opium addiction.  At the time opium was cheaper than beer.  Oh to have lived in the 19th century, I was born 100 years too late!