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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 7th February 2012

Ioan Grillo’s ‘El Narco’ that looks at the appalling situation in Mexico is divided into three parts. The first part ‘History’ looks at how the drug trade developed from the time of the Spanish occupation to the present day.

In one page, Grillo summarises the situation during World War II when, according to some people, the American government became the main customer for smuggled opium in order to obtain the morphine needed to offer pain relief to its field casualties. Grillo notes that there are still people in Sinaloa today who will state that such a trade took place and that a history of the drug trade on the wall of the Mexican Defence Department HQ in Mexico City includes reference to it.

In the US, however, such an arrangement has always been denied. Grillo says a journalist, in 1950, asked the Federal Bureau of Narcotics if this trade had occurred and was told that the idea was ‘utterly fantastic and goes beyond even the wildest imagination’.

Without any expectation of being able to reach a reliable conclusion, I thought it might be interesting to try and see how likely it is that morphine used by US and other allied troops came from opium poppies grown in Mexico and ‘smuggled’ into the USA.

I decided to break the task down into three parts. An attempt to estimate how much morphine was used during the war, over and above that used for pain relief during peacetime. An examination of any possibility that the Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, required had been cultivated in the USA. And a speculation on where else the poppies might have come from if not the USA or Mexico.

Though there is plenty of information available about the syrettes, the single use syringes used to deliver a half grain dose of morphine in battlefield conditions, the actual number manufactured or used seems not to be readily discovered so, while I think about ways to construct and cross check estimates, I turned to the second part of the task.

Given that large parts of the USA are perfectly suited to the growing of Papaver somniferum, and given that the needs of the war led the USA to permit the growing of Cannabis sativa, marijuana, for the production of hemp fibre to replace supplies previously obtained from parts of the world conquered by the Japanese, it would seem possible that a similar situation arose with the opium poppy.

On the face of it, however, that is not what happened. The website for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reproduces in full a Bulletin on Narcotics from 1950 entitled ‘The Suppression of Poppy Cultivation in the United States’ This bulleting runs to just under 10,000 words and is, almost entirely, concerned with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ determination to prevent the growing of poppies in order to harvest the seeds for food use.

In fact, the word ‘war’ appears only three times in the whole document but never in connection with the use of morphine as pain relief for wounded soldiers.

The document is primarily concerned with the clash between state authorities in California who wanted to allow Californian farmers to profit from supplying a demand that could not be met by imports and the Federal Narcotics Bureau that was implacably opposed to the growing of any Papaver somniferum on US soil in case the opium from it was used by ‘dope peddlers’.

It must be remembered that this was a time of ill-informed extreme hysteria about the threat from narcotics and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was horrified that one single case of someone growing poppies to consume the opium himself was indicative of the complete collapse of society that could occur if poppies were grown on US soil.

Taking a small diversion from my quest, I was fascinated to read that there was a great deal of argument over the actual presence of morphine in poppies. Individuals and organisations wanting to grow the ‘Holland Blue’, the variety of Papaver somniferum offering the best crop of poppy seeds, argued that this variety produced no morphine and, therefore, the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 did not apply to this crop.

When, finally, the tussle between state and federal law reached a federal court, one part of the poppy growers' petition asked the court to rule;

‘That it be decreed that edible blue poppies raised solely for poppy seeds are not an opium poppy, nor a plant which is the source of opium or opium products, and that the production of edible blue poppies does not come within the purport or application of the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942’

For its part, the Federal Narcotics Bureau went to great trouble and expense to have numerous samples of poppies tested in three different laboratories in order to present the court with evidence that all varieties of Papaver somniferum produce morphine though the actual amount does vary quite considerably.

Although the court found in favour of the federal government on all points, this idea that there are varieties of Papaver somniferum that do not produce opium exists in some minds even today. In my experience, some of those who still believe this can be quite passionate (putting it politely) about their contention that not all opium poppies are opium poppies and that plants grown in domestic gardens contain no morphine.

But, back to my main quest. A plain reading of this bulletin makes it clear that the federal government was not about to allow the growing of Papaver somniferum on American soil for any purpose. But, without sounding like a rabid conspiracy theorist, I’m not sure that plain reading is always the right approach to US government documents on drugs.

The conclusion of the bulletin, for example, gives a detailed assessment of how much land would be required to produce the morphine needed if the poppies were to be grown in the USA;

‘Should it be necessary for the United States, in a time of crisis, to produce its own opiates, it is thought that about 600 pounds of poppy-seeds could be obtained per acre, and about 400 pounds of dried capsule chaff. At 0.5 to 0.3 per cent morphine content in the chaff, a little over some 13,000 to 22,000 acres would be needed to fill the needs of the United States for morphine, codeine, etc.,-425,000 ounces in terms of morphine. The minimum area needed, 13,000 acres, would yield about 7,800,000 pounds of poppy-seed, as compared with normal imports of 6 million to 8 million pounds. More seeds could be used for oil. The requirements of the United States for the two products of the poppy plant could therefore very well be brought into balance, on perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 acres, if domestic cultivation should ever be necessary’.

It certainly appears that domestic production had been researched in some detail.

When the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 was passed some people, including parts of the press, interpreted it as having the intention to encourage a regulated poppy farming industry. This approach led the Bureau of Narcotics to issue a statement to clarify its position;

‘The Opium Poppy Control Act, which was recently enacted, permits the licensing of opium poppy production only for the purpose of supplying the medical and scientific needs of the Nation for narcotic drugs. There is no immediate or presently prospective need for the growth of the opium poppy to supply medical and scientific needs (emphasis added), and, therefore, it is not now anticipated that any licenses will be issued.’

Given that the morphine syrette patented by E.R. Squibb & Sons in 1939 was adopted by the US army soon after it seems remarkable for someone to put in writing, during a war, that there was no ‘immediate or presently prospective need’ for opium poppies to be grown to supply morphine.

I suppose one reason for there being no need would be if secure supplies were available from outside the USA. And if there was no ‘presently prospective need’ then those supplies must have been very secure. So, if not grown in the USA, where were the poppies for morphine being grown?