Dismantling the monopoppy: seized opium retraced to its origins

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  • Published: Nov 1, 2016
  • Author: Ryan De Vooght-Johnson
  • Channels: HPLC
thumbnail image: Dismantling the monopoppy: seized opium retraced to its origins

Pursuit of happiness

Synthesized from the milky secretions of Papaver somniferum, opiates are nature’s doppelgänger to our natural endorphins that provide us euphoria in times of pain and distress.

Eureka! If happiness is neurochemical, can we not just bypass the pursuit of happiness with a concoction of these neurochemicals?

Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. This quartet of so-called happy chemicals surges throughout our blood as we bow to the whims of our hunter-gather biochemical algorithms. In return for increasing their odds of survival—whether by outrunning and feasting on Savannah game, by forming everlasting bonds with allies and potential suitors, or by elbowing our way to the top of the tribe’s hierarchy—our mammalian limbic brain rewarded our ancestors with pleasure.

But this feeling was and still is ephemeral, fleeting at best, and when it’s gone it’s gone—until we improve our odds of surviving once again. This has led to some people shunning enriching behaviours in favour of a direct fix of happy chemicals. This is fundamentally what illicit drugs do. MDMA, for example, uses tomorrow’s serotonin today, which explains the euphoric high and numbing low experienced during and after an MDMA trip.

Opium is another. Synthesised from the milky secretions of Papaver somniferum, opiates are nature’s doppelgänger to our natural endorphins that provide us euphoria in times of pain and distress. But these drugs are illicit for numerous reasons.

Supply and demand

Drug-induced happiness fades as soon as it comes, and those genetically and biochemically predisposed to addiction become hooked on their self-administered channel to inner bliss and contentment. Becoming unable to function without it, those suffering from biochemical addiction cause both harms to themselves and to society if crime is the means to an opiate-fuelled end.

For the poppy farmers, opiate horticulture is big money, particularly for in countries such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, which sit below the poverty line (and who monopolise nine-tenths of all produced poppies). Driven by the laws of capitalism, their cultivated opiate monocultures cross borders to where there is demand. China is but one of a long list of countries attempting to track trafficking with science.

‘The majority of opium and heroin consumed in China comes from these two regions [Afghanistan and Myanmar], but the ratio between them varies every year,’ explains Cuimei Liu, lead researcher of the study from the National Narcotics Laboratory in China.

Writing in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, Liu believes that the quantities of 30 alkaloids are dependent on the agronomic and climatic conditions they were cultivated in, and that these components could be used to fingerprint opium and identify its origin—whether Afghanistan or Myanmar. This, Liu argues, could prove a ‘valuable tool’ for law enforcement attempting to convict and close down trade routes.

Dilute and shoot

Taking 19 purified standards of different alkaloids, the forensic chemists first set out to develop a quick yet sensitive detection tool. They opted for a quick ‘dilute-and-shoot’ extraction of opiates, which they then resolved over a swift, 12-minute reverse phase gradient, sprayed with a high-voltage plume, and mass analysed over two transitions by time-of-flight (TOF) mass spectrometry.

‘Most target compounds,’ the authors report, ‘were well resolved, and those overlapped could be easily distinguished by their MS1 and MS2 spectrum.’

Liu and colleagues then tested their new method on 145 opium samples either seized along the pan-Myanmar–China route or donated by Afghan authorities. Using the peak areas to quantitate the levels of five major alkaloids—morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine and noscapine—the authors attempted to group opium samples by nationality.

This, they conceded, was ‘not achieved’, and so they then included the profiles of 14 other alkaloids in their data-crunching model—to resounding success. Scatter plotting the opiate profiles depicted three distinctive groups, discriminating opium grown in Afghanistan from that seized in two regions hundreds of kilometres apart at the China–Myanmar border.

Having pitched a strong case for geographical profiling between three regions, can their model be widened to help pinpoint the exact geolocation where seized batches were cultivated? Liu is optimistic.

‘The developed method may find application in the classification of opium from other geographical areas of the world’, she envisions.

Related Links

Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2016, Early View paper. Liu et al. Classification of Opium by UPLC-Q-TOF Analysis of Principal and Minor Alkaloids.

Frontline, Heroin in the Brain: Its Chemistry and Effects

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Opiates

Article by Ryan De Vooght-Johnson

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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