After writing this post, I came across Alex’s obituary and guestbook on Legacy.com. By all accounts, Alex was a great kid – loved and admired by many – an accomplished hockey player and musician with a love for the mountains. This could have been you or I, or worse, one of our own children.
Breaking my heart this morning is news from Boulder that last month’s death of 20-year-old CU student, Alexander McGuiggan, was from consumption of “opium tea.”
Police department spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said investigators believe McGuiggan and others had acquired poppy plants — which are available legally over the Internet — and were boiling pods to make intoxicating tea.
Police believe McGuiggan knew that the tea he was drinking was made of opiates, Huntley said.
“What he may not have been as aware of was the dangers of what he was ingesting,” she said.
The Boulder County Drug Task Force is investigating other people who may have been involved in “the procurement of the tea, and the making of the tea,” Huntley said. Those people could face charges, she said.
A previous report has been that the student and friends were boiling up poppy seeds, but I was suspicious as those lack significant amounts of opiates. Instead, as Ryan Morgan of The Boulder Daily Camera reports accurately, the students appear to have obtained seeds for Papaver somniferum, and grown plants, and extracted the latex from mature pods. Opium is an alcoholic tincture of the pod latex and is comprised of approximately 10% morphine, 0.5% codeine, and other lesser naturally-occurring opioids (the plant synthesizes these opiates of the “benzomorphan” class in a biosythetic pathway beginning with the amino acid, L-tyrosine.).
The sad fact is that we’ve known for over 200 years that this is a bad idea: based upon growing conditions, harvest time, and extraction method, the resulting concoction can provide an extremely variable dose of these compounds. Used medicinally as one of the strongest analgesics (“painkillers”) we know, in higher doses the opiates can impart a warming sense of euphoria but, at even higher doses, suppresses the respiratory control center of the brain stem, resulting in death.
This is an illustration of the German chemist/pharmacist, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, from a fabulous 1965 book entitled, “Great Moments in the History of Pharmacy.” The then-Parke-Davis drug company commissioned artist Robert Thom to draft this one of 16 illustrations telling the ancient and recent history of drugs and is, in fact, the source of my blog name, Terra Sigillata.
Sertürner’s place in pharmaceutical history comes from his realization that while opium extract was a superb analgesic, the dose could not be controlled well. He then experimented with extraction techniques in the search for the pure chemical compounds made by the plant that confer the painkilling, euphoric, and sedating activities. As a result, he first isolated morphine from opium in 1806, deriving the name from the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus, and the suffix, -ine, to indicate the alkaloid quality of the compound.
Hence, Sertürner created the first standardized drug from a plant extract.
Today, one can still purchase various plant materials and chemical extracts as herbal medicines at the local grocery, pharmacy, or health food store. But these remedies fails to acknowledge the principles of pharmaceutical chemistry that Sertürner taught us 200 years ago. However, most herbal medicines have a wide margin of safety and the wide range of potency of these concoctions is rarely a real problem.
However, morphine and other opiates have what is called a narrow therapeutic index – that is, a very small range between their therapeutic effects and toxic effects. Yes, my friends, natural medicines can be toxic.
Sadly, Alexander McGuiggan and his college buds were playing with fire when making opium extract teas. Not that I condone any kinds of illegal use of scheduled, controlled substances, but it would have been safer to procure a pharmaceutical product on the streets of Boulder or Denver since these diverted pills would at least have had a known quantity of compound that could then be looked up in any online or print prescription drug reference source.
I don’t mean to make light of this tragedy but I am reminded of the quote from the late Isaac Hayes’ character, Chef, from South Park – a show set in a town based on Fairplay, Colorado (known as during the Gold Rush days as South Park City), about 100 miles from Boulder:
”There’s a time and a place for everything, and it’s called college.”
Young adults in college are going to experiment with the increments of knowledge they gain and experiment with recreational drugs.
This case is not a time for prosecution – it is a time for education.
President Benson: if you or members of your office are reading, I know of a CU President’s Teaching Scholar who’d love to come back and give a few lectures on recreational drug use and risks.