Normally, each week I start my blog with an amusing anecdote seemingly unrelated to anything scientific in order to lure you in to the extraordinary world of climate change science. I wrote about aliens in order to talk about invasive species, I wrote about Valley girls in order to talk about Bengal tigers and sea level rise, and who can forget my discussion of three-ways to address tri-trophic interactions. So naturally this week when writing about climate change and heroin, I thought for sure I would start with an amusing anecdote. There had to be something funny about heroin, right?
So I started thinking about it. I could write about the quality time spent in DARE as a 5th grader learning how marijuana was a gate-way drug to mushrooms, pills, cocaine and eventually death (thanks Nancy for that winning accuracy). But that’s not really that funny. Actually it was a depressing waste of time.
I could write about the drug addicts I’ve seen shooting up on the median strip in the road on my way to work, but there really is nothing funny about that either. It’s actually kind of sad.
The truth is drugs, dangerous drugs like heroin, just aren’t really that funny. And if you’ve ever known anyone who has battled addiction, then you’d probably find nothing funny about them either.
(Except for mushrooms of course, people on mushrooms are hilarious.)
So ok most drugs are not funny, I totally get that. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. Actually, they are *really* interesting. Mostly, though, for reasons that have nothing to do with us.
You see most of the components in plants that get people high are these chemical compounds called secondary metabolites. You’ve heard me talk about them before; it’s the chemicals that make food spicy, coffee peppy and tobacco lovely. Though people have taken advantage of these compounds to our benefit and bred the crap out of the plants to increase the compound concentrations, they aren’t necessarily there for us. Secondary compounds are typically used by plants to ward off herbivores (you know, like bugs who like to munch on their leaves).
These compounds can do all sorts of messed up things to bugs, but great things for us. For example, tannins, which are a favored component in high quality wine, actually cause lesions in grasshoppers’ stomachs (1).
With climate change though, many of these compound concentrations will change, and this is true for the heroin-producing poppy plants as well.
You see, the chemical predecessor necessary for manufacturing heroin, morphine, increases in poppy plants when carbon dioxide goes up. In fact, since atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 300 ppm to 400 ppm over the past 100 years, morphine levels in poppy plants have followed suit. This trend will continue into the next century, as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. Not only that, the higher carbon dioxide makes for larger plants with more and larger capsules (poppy straws) where the morphine is extracted from. So, like big-ass, potent poppy plants (2) with loads of morphine. Sounds as messed up as it is.
Ok, but this is just morphine. How will this increased amount of morphine in each plant change heroin? Well, I can’t really say.
You see, heroin is heavily manufactured from the morphine derived from poppy plants, and for some reason the DEA is not really big on having the information on how to create heroin publically available online. So it is possible, that the chemistry is actually well managed and tested throughout the chemical process, ensuring that even if a higher concentration of morphine is going in, the same strength of heroin is coming out. But I honestly have no idea how to make heroin, or how picky heroin manufacturers are about the consistency of their product, so it is possible that they are very cognizant of this change. Or maybe not.
So as you can see, even if the story is rather depressing, the science is actually really interesting, and there are many more questions out there to answer. Maybe by the time the next study comes out I’ll have something more humorous to say about it…
1. Tannins in plant–herbivore interactions
2. Recent and projected increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the potential impacts on growth and alkaloid production in wild poppy (Papaver setigerum DC.)