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Magic and Misery—Poppies Will Make You Sleep

Many drugs and medicines obtained from nature are medical miracles. The number of plant species on the planet is around 400,000, but only about 18,000 have medicinal use. However, there are always new discoveries, so preserving our planet’s botanical gifts should be mission critical. When I think of a miracle plant—one that must be balanced in its use—I think of one used since ancient times—Papaver somniferum.


Papaver somniferum, a member of the poppy family, is valued for its beautiful flowers that grace the garden and its seeds that give crunch and flavor when used in baking. But the poppy capsule contains some of the most potent natural pain medications we have—morphine and codeine. Yet, in addition to their miracle qualities, these drugs can also be addictive, produce unwanted death, and in some cases, be used as an agent for intentional death. Remember, it’s the dose that makes the poison.


Poppies were grown in ancient Egypt and referred to in the medical text the Ebers Papyrus (1552-1534 BC). The alkaloid extract of the poppy plant was recommended as a remedy for children who cried continually. A little bit of this extract would put the baby to sleep—a known effect of opiates. In the nineteenth century, laudanum, a tincture of opium that contained both morphine and codeine in alcohol, was used for a similar purpose and could be bought without a prescription. Morphine works on the opiate receptors in the brain. Opiates primarily act on the central nervous system, producing pinpoint pupils (miosis), drowsiness, euphoria, and in high doses, causing respiratory depression leading to death.



Morphine was first extracted in the early 1800s and used for pain control. Codeine, another alkaloid analgesic found within the poppy plant capsule, is about 2% of the alkaloids in opium. Codeine is metabolized to morphine by the liver. Heroin (diacetylmorphine) was synthesized from morphine in the late 1800s and was initially thought to be less addictive than morphine. However, that was not the case, and later heroin was classified as a Schedule 1 Drug (no accepted medical use in the US). Although illegal, heroin can still be bought through illicit means. Opiates, semisynthetic opioids (e.g., oxycodone), and synthetic opioids (e.g., fentanyl) have likely killed more people than any other class of drug.


The image of Dorothy Gale and the Lion from The Wizard of Oz mysteriously falling asleep as they cross the field of poppies is a classic scene from the 1939 movie. The Scarecrow and the Tinman are unaffected, lacking opiate receptors. The Wicked Witch of the West got it right when she said, “Poppies, poppies will make them sleep.”


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