Terra Sigillata

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.

i-ac176fbd41bb8c2ac3792c25369e02f4-Serturner.jpg

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.

Comments

  1. #1 milkshake
    March 21, 2009

    sorry for a small correction: opium is the dried latex that contains about 10% of morphine among lots of other stuff; and its only partially soluble. The alcohol tincture is properly called laudanum. But what these dudes were doing was a tea from poppy straw – the empty pods. The poppy straw is quite rich source of opiates (unlike the poppy seeds) and in fact the emty pods are the main commercial source for pharma morphine and codeine. (Collecting real opium is too labor intensive for Western companies)

    The main problem with eating/drinking opium preparations is that the effects of intoxication are delayed; when smoking opium pipe the effects are nearly instant so the user can judge somewhat how high he has got already and stop (or in the worst case, pass out).

    It is clear that these kids were wannabes. Experienced users try to adjust the dose carefully because they know from experience that smaller doses (compensated for the drug tolerance) provides a better euphoria and dreamy states with less sleepiness and skin itching than the high doses.

  2. #2 Jake Young
    March 21, 2009

    Abel,

    I don’t know the circumstances of finding this guy, but I assume appropriate treatment would have been naloxone? I also assume that it would have been effective. Do you think that the ER doc’s just didn’t know what the person had taken, and thus couldn’t administer the antagonist?

  3. #3 working class
    March 21, 2009

    This comment has been removed by the administrator.

  4. #4 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 21, 2009

    The main problem with eating/drinking opium preparations is that the effects of intoxication are delayed; when smoking opium pipe the effects are nearly instant so the user can judge somewhat how high he has got already and stop (or in the worst case, pass out).

    This holds for marijuana as well. One time I ate a bunch of pot brownies without knowing how much weed was in the brownies and how potent it was. I ended up so fucking high I literally could not get up off the floor for about three hours. Fortunately, my pals kept me supplied with beer as a lied there giggling and mumbling.

  5. #5 leigh
    March 21, 2009

    CPP, that’s a general principle of pharmacology! onset and offest of effect is generally pretty rapid via inhalation for a nice lipophilic drug, which is why smoking allows the user to titrate the dose to desired levels and then stop. onset and offset are delayed orally, but the peak drug levels, when comparing the same dose, are also lower. so you had a massive dose of thc via those brownies, and this unfortunate student had enough opium to halt his respiration. you just had to ride out the psychoactive effects. the only solution for this student would have been to realize what was going on and get himself to the ER for a dose of naloxone.

  6. #6 Abel Pharmboy
    March 22, 2009

    working class, don’t be such a heartless ass. Check out the kid’s Legacy.com obit and guestbook and tell me that you’d say that to his suffering family. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    milkshake, your comments illustrate why my career has gone a lot better since I took up company with a couple of superb medicinal and synthetic organic chemists. Thanks so much for the insights and corrections.

    Doctor Jake and others, I have been trying to find out what exactly happened at the time of the OD. I don’t have the reports but my fear is that Alex’s compatriots might not have divulged exactly what they were doing and the fact that an antidote might have been administered may be the reasons behind threatening their prosecution.

  7. #7 gillt
    March 22, 2009

    Perhaps the safety of smoking vs. imbibing a drug would seem counterintuitive to a layperson.

  8. #8 Tassie Devil
    March 22, 2009

    Opium extracted in this way can also contain thebaine, a nasty compound with a propensity to cause seizures and even cardiac arrest.

    Here in Tasmania, which is one of a small number of places licenced for growing opium poppies for manufacture of medical opiates, we have to be very aware of the risks of DIY opiate abuse.

    And yes, ‘working class’ is an oxygen thief.

  9. #9 Abel Pharmboy
    March 23, 2009

    Tassie Devil, that’s a great point about thebaine. I knew that it was used as a starting material for the semi-synthesis of other opiates but I had not appreciated fully its unusual neurostimulant effects. Very interesting to also know that down your way is licensed for medicinal poppy growth.

    Keep it coming, folks – I’m learning as much as you are.

  10. #10 PZ Myers
    March 23, 2009

    Yeah, ‘working class’ has been making similarly offensive and inane comments on my blog…he’s millimeters away from being confined to my dungeon.

  11. #11 Mr. Gunn
    March 23, 2009

    OMG let’s ban the sale of all psychoactive plants because there’s a potential someone could do something stupid.

    vs.

    No culture has every successfully protected people from their own ignorance.

    Fight!!

    /Life sucks, get a helmet.

  12. #12 Camden
    March 24, 2009

    One of my teenage friends also died from home-prepared laudanum (as far as I know it was basically vodka soaked with poppy heads).

    Please don’t do this – as the initial article explains, it is very difficult to get a safe dosage. One of my best teenage friends died very young playing around with this. It was a complete waste

  13. #13 a friend
    March 29, 2009

    I knew Alex and he was a wonderful kid. I don’t have many responses. But to Jake, his roommates found him dead the next morning. It was too late to administer anything to counteract the teas. Thank you to those who stood up for the fact that this was a young student who died and is missed deeply on a daily basis. I have heard of people making this tea before, but never quite grasped it all until now.

  14. #14 Tom
    March 30, 2009

    Abel,

    Just a note regarding your statement: “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.”.

    Our son died 6 years ago from exactly the same causes as the man in this case. Except that my did in fact use only poppy seeds, in large amounts. Eventhough there is no Morphine in the seeds, they contain traces from the rest of the plant from the processing/harvesting. We have put up a Web site that includes the coroner’s report stating that cause of death was indeed Morphine overdose from poppy seed tea. You can find our Web site at: http://www.poppyseedtea.com/

  15. #15 Tsu Dho Nimh
    March 31, 2009

    PharmBoy –
    I worked with the DEA and a USA opium processor, testing some new-fangled equipment to measure the yield from raw opium gum.

    Having the DEA keeping an eagle eye on me* (they thought I would lick the spatulas?) was not nearly as bad as the splitting headache from the fumes, the smell of the raw opium gum, and trying to deal with the road-tar texture of the stuff. If I had to do it again, I’d insist on HAZMAT gear.

    * They collected EVERYTHING we used, including the lab wipes we cleaned the spatulas with, and took it away in black garbage bags.

    Even more fun was the testing of various illegal drugs … we had lots of bags of cocaine, heroin, etc. sitting around waiting to be tested, and a couple SWAT squads surrounding the building. There was a lot of $$$ if it had hit the street. The DEA vacuumed the lab before they left to get all the spillage, with the vacuum cleaner they brought.

  16. #16 jc
    March 31, 2009

    Tom, I’m so sorry about your son. Your website will save lives.

  17. #17 student
    April 13, 2009

    someone please tell me there is a way to ban Workingclass.
    most inconsiderate person I’ve ever had to encounter, even on the internet. Is it impossible to consider that some people here might have known Alex, maybe were his friends?

    Workingclass, you’re pathetic.

  18. #18 Joe Is Smarter than All of You
    April 24, 2009

    Most people who make PST (poppy seed tea) use between 100-300 grams, although some people use pounds at a time. Usually the seeds are “cooked” in hot water. Though inexperienced users may powderize the seeds in a coffee grinder; this is dangerous. The sheer amount of different alkaloids in the seeds is dangerous in its self, some are known toxins. Also if pulverized you get more molrphine extracted as well.

    Some people report using pounds of seeds at a time to get high, if he tried to emulate this he could be in trouble.

    A much better method is using dried poppy PODS; where does is more regulated and much cleaner. Also, its a better high.

    Anyways I would suspect that he had taken some other form of a CNS depressant in concurrence with the tea. Rarely do people die from pure opiate overdose. But simply mixing benadryl with an otherwise non-lethal dose of Opiates, may potentiate the respiratory depression to lethal levels.

  19. #19 jo
    June 21, 2009

    Fucking prudes. Don’t want to do drugs?? then don’t.

    But leave everyone else ALONE, including those ostensilbly profiting from your loving pity.

    Capice??

  20. #20 PigHead
    July 6, 2009

    would it have been better to evaporate off the liquid like you would do to Ketamine? When you prepare K to be snorted, you double boil it on a pyrex above a boiling pot of water and remove the liquid. Would this have been a better method of dosage control? This way you could do small snorted “bumps” until you got the right amount?

  21. #21 yve
    September 7, 2009

    Opium tea just killed a 26 year old in west wales .

  22. #22 Glink
    October 19, 2009

    Almost 30 years ago I ordered some papaver somniferum seeds from the UK. I was so paranoid, but I had to try it. I grew about 40 square feet of opium poppies, ones that had been bred for ornamentals (they were beautiful), so they weren’t super potent. After the petals fell off I waited a week or so, and slit and scraped the pods the old fashioned way to collect opium. I got enough to fill two normal sized gelatin capsules. I took them and got one sweet buzz! But it was a lot of time and work to get high once.

    I’ve never done that again. However, I always heard that for opium tea, you DO NOT want to use the seeds for grinding or brewing! This lore is decades old, and goes back to at least the early 70s. What you want to do is to break up the dried pods, remove the seeds, then grind the pods and brew that, approximately 5-10 pods per cup of tea.

    I’ve not actually done it, so I cannot comment on the technique, but it may be that using the seeds in the grind adds some undesirable things to the brew that is the cause of death in the tragic cases mentioned here. I do know that consuming opium tea (without the seeds) is a practice that’s been around for centuries.

  23. #23 gdsfguidf
    December 16, 2009

    Maybe they should just sell the stuff in proper professional doses OTC for pain. Sort of like the old coke/morphine headache,ibs,pms, nasty root canal, hemorrhoid from hell, holy crap the circular saw just took my finger and IT HURTS come hither you sexy bullet you kind of thing.

    You know when booze was made illegal I’m sure a large number of novices made,sold, and used awful toxic,dangerous booze too. The same thing is happening here. When there is a demand for something (be it legitimate pain or young foolishness) and you restrict it people who have little to no training or experience with what they are working with will screw up with complex and simple things like…was it 40 grams or mg’s? lets go with g’s………..beep………

    FLATLINED

    So umm yeah how bout you save more lives by making it with accurate machines, smart chemists, and easy to read directions (also en espanol) on a box or bottle instead of having peeps trusting random internet instructions like

    Chew up the castor beans really well so the ricin will kill you. Just before you notice an incurable hellish stomach pain begin masturbating to really get off and out.

    (please don’t do that- 3 days to die is not sounding fun and the hospital people can do nothing to help you on that poison)

  24. #24 Peter
    December 18, 2009

    You have a lot of facts wrong. Aside from the fact that all drug laws are sumptuary laws, compelling people to abstain from vice, which is a sin, not a CRIME et al… These kids did NOT sit around and grow the poppies and then harvest the opium latex. They got dried poppy heads off the Internet and made the tea. This dude was obviously opiate naive and his system couldn’t handle it. Thebaine actually is a stimulant and keeps tea drinkers awake where Heroin users tend to nod off. Poppy tea usually lasts for up to 24 hours against Heroin’s 12 hours. Morphine is morphine is morphine. Sweet, sweet morphine…

  25. #25 David Bertelsen
    January 31, 2010

    This is a sad result of an ill informed public. Our film “Poppies: Odyssey of an Opium Eater” is an independent film based the true life of Eric Detzer. We cover his addiction to opium poppies and how he’d acquire them. Opium tea can be deathly powerful! It is apparent that this young man was only experimenting and had absolutely no idea how risky this concoction was. At every Q & A after our film is screened, I always warn the public how dangerous these pods are.

  26. #26 monglobonglo
    April 28, 2010

    A few things:

    ** while this may sound scary, as if this article just exposes the “tip of the iceberg,” opium tea use is relatively rare, even amongst opiate abusers.

    in fact, the majority of opium tea users are former heroin or oxycontin addicts who use the tea as a “maintenance” drug to either maintain or slowly ease off their tolerance.

    a quick google search shows that the majority of people asking questions about opium tea are doing so on sites that focus on opiates or drugs in general.

    such users are more likely to understand concepts of safety and dosage, even though they abuse potentially dangerous drugs.

    college kids overdose all the time. some die, many dont. for every kid dead of an opium tea overdose, there are probably 10 times as many dead of a heroin overdose.

    now that I have said that, there are a few facts I wanted to add:

    1) legal varieties of p. somniferum, which are essentially the only ones available online in the US, have ridiculously small morphine content (relative). typically less than 0.5% dry weight of straw.

    admittedly, this just means it would be hard to manufacture heroin on a large scale using such varieties. this is the likely reason that they are legal at all… because law enforcement believe that they offer little threat.

    it would still be easy to grind up 20 pods in a coffee grinder, steep 3x in lemon water, filter through coffee filters, combine filtrates, ingest, and die.

    2) illegal varieties of poppy (in the US) can have staggeringly high morphine content (wt% of the dry plant material, no seeds):

    most range between 12 and 18% morphine by dry weight (these are typically asian varieties which have been selectively bread by botanists or farmers who produce opium and sell it to drug cartels)

    one of thousands of refs to prove the value I gave:
    http://www.actahort.org/books/132/132_21.htm (11.84-14.74% morphine by dry weight)

    staggering. Consider the following:

    a field of 1000 poppy plants. each plant can contain more than one pod. lets imagine each plant has (on average) 2 pods. Each pod weighs 4 grams dry (this is pretty average)

    (note plants can have 10+ pods)

    1000 plants x 2pods/plant x 4 grams/pod x 10% dry weight morphine

    800 grams of PURE morphine (with proper extraction/purification)

    if properly farmed, such plants should have ~30 cm around them, so lets assume 0.09 m^2 per plant x 1000 plants = 90 m^2 to produce around 800 grams of pure morphine

    now you can see why these strains are illegal.

    someone could grow these in the middle of a farm somewhere on a 30×30 meter plot and produce nearly a kilogram of pure morphine every season.

    1 kilogram of pure morphine, if properly utilized can be worth as much as $300,000 on the street.

  27. #27 monglobonglo
    April 28, 2010

    “Maybe they should just sell the stuff in proper professional doses OTC for pain”

    they do in australia (i think) and the UK. its called Neurofen plus.

    ~12 mg codeine sulfate + ibuprofen otc

    both countries have large problems with addiction to these medications (as is expected with opiates). most of the addicts began using the drugs for completely legitimate purposes (old people trying to sleep, people with injuries, etc), but now are addicted so badly that they would go into horrific withdrawals if they quit cold turkey

    interestingly enough, they have realized that putting tylenol (acetaminophen) into these medications is a bad idea.

    apparently they have not yet figured this same thing out in the US.

    they still put ridiculous amounts of acetaminophen into the vicodin and related hydrocodone medications in the US

    10 mg of hydrocodone and, oh I dont know, how about 1000 FUCKING mg OF TYLENOL!?!?!

    the smallest amount is 325 mg of acetaminophen, most use 500 or 750 mg of tylenol.

    only a few manufacturers make hydrocodone meds with ibuprofen.

  28. #28 barry
    May 5, 2010

    The people selling the pods on the internet should put a warning on these, as there is a warning on most substances.I have been a user of heroin for 20 years,done alot of time for it to.I am now on a drug prescribed by a doctor it is called buprenorphine,it works great for opiate addiction. You cannot abuse it, it goes against common sense but if one takes more than 2 pills,nothing happens,I have taken 6 just to see and I wasted my medication,this is a great drug for addicts.Is it not amazing that a person can carry a loaded 357 most any where and not be a criminal,yet get caught with a gram of dope and go to prison,which has the most potential for harm the gun or the gram? A person should be allowed to use any substance they desire,if one just uses common sense and a little knowledge,the use of so called dangerous substances becomes not so dangerous. I know of a woman that drank to much water in a contest and died. What do you all think of that? An over dose form water!Its true,it has happened more than once. Ther are no dangerous drugs,there is the ignorant use of drugs,and thats where the problem is,a lack of knowledge period.Just google drug laws in portugal,you will see a country that has come to its senses 10 years ago, the people say they never want to go back to the old way,puting addicts in prison which by the way ruins thier lives for ever by giving them a felony back ground as I have,just try and get a good job with that.End this futile war on drugs,the drugs have won. Barry.