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How the Afghan Flower Flows into ERs

April 7, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Emergency Radiology
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Through the scaled up military efforts in Afghanistan, the American public has become knowledgeable about the now blooming poppies in Kandahar and their pending harvest in June, which may deliver fresh funds to insurgents.

It’s the process from harvest to heroin that more directly affects the US. About three months after the seeds are planted, the petals drop from their bulbous pods, which the farmer cuts in vertical, parallel slits, allowing the sap to ooze and eventually form a brownish-black gum. The poppy grower scrapes the gum, forms it into balls or loaf shapes, wraps them in leaves or plastic and sells them.

The buyer takes the raw opium to a clandestine refinery where it is mixed with lime and boiled in water. A morphine layer forms on top of the water, which is skimmed, “reheated with ammonia, filtered and boiled again until it is reduced to a brown paste. Poured into molds and dried in the sun, it is now morphine base” as described in an article from pbs.org. As such, it has been smoked for centuries, starting with the Dutch in the 1600s.

The next manufacturing tier, usually a black market enterprise, was accidentally discovered in 1874 by C.R. Wright, an English researcher who boiled morphine and acetic anhydride for several hours and produced impure diacetylmorphine. Still working in primitive conditions, current day heroin makers boil the two components and then add water and chloroform to aid in purification. They drain the mixture and add sodium carbonate so that the heroin becomes solid and falls to the bottom. They charcoal filter it, purify it with alcohol, heat it to lose the alcohol and further purify it with ether and hydrochloric acid to roll out the white powder. One ton of heroin thus results from about 10 tons of raw opium. The finished product is proudly branded by some producers, such as Burma’s Shan State, according to the article, with logos and fancy wrapping. 

Although most illegal poppies are grown in a 4,500 mile mountainous strip of southern Asia, planted fields were discovered last year in the middle of Oregon forests. Fifty percent of medical morphine and other painkillers comes from poppies legally grown in Australia, as reported by The BBC.

Related seminar: Emergency Radiology

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