Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the species of plant from which opium and poppy seeds are derived. Opium is the source of many opiates, including morphine (and its derivative heroin), thebaine, codeine, papaverine, and noscapine. The Latin botanical name means the "sleep-bringing poppy", referring to the sedative properties of some of these opiates. The poppy is the only species of Papaveraceae that is an agricultural crop grown on a large scale. Other species, Papaver rhoeas and Papaver argemone, are important agricultural weeds, and may be mistaken for the crop. The plant itself is also valuable for ornamental purposes, and has been known as the "common garden poppy", referencing all the group of poppy plants. Poppy seeds of Papaver somniferum are an important food item and the source of poppyseed oil, a healthful edible oil that has many uses. It is widely grown as an ornamental flower throughout Europe, North America, South America, and Asia.
Papaver somniferum has many sub-species or varieties and cultivars. Colors of the flower vary widely, as do other physical characteristics such as number and shape of petals, number of flowers and fruits, number of seeds, color of seeds, production of opium, etc. Papaver somniferum Paeoniflorum Group (sometimes called Papaver paeoniflorum) is a sub-type of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double, and are grown in many colors. Papaver somniferum Laciniatum Group (sometimes called Papaver laciniatum) is a sub-type of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double and deeply lobed, to the point of looking like a ruffly pompon. A few of the varieties, notably the Norman and Przemko varieties, have low morphine content (less than one percent), much higher concentrations of other alkaloids. Most varieties, however, including those most popular for ornamental use or seed production, have a higher morphine content, with the average content being 10%.
Australia, Turkey and India are the major producers of poppy for medicinal purposes and poppy-based drugs, such as morphine or codeine. The USA has a policy of sourcing 80% of its narcotic raw materials from the traditional producers, India and Turkey. A recent initiative to extend opium production for medicinal purposes called Poppy for Medicine was launched by The Senlis Council which proposes that Afghanistan could produce medicinal opium under a scheme similar to that operating in Turkey and India. The Council proposes licensing poppy production in Afghanistan, within an integrated control system supported by the Afghan government and its international allies, to promote economic growth in the country, create vital drugs and combat poverty and the diversion of illegal opium to drug traffickers and terrorist elements. Interestingly, Senlis is on record advocating reintroduction of poppy into areas of Afghanistan, specifically Kunduz, which has been poppy free for some time. The Senlis proposal is based in part on the assertion that there is an acute global shortage of opium poppy-based medicines some of which (morphine) are on the World Health Organisation's list of essential drugs as they are the most effective way of relieving severe pain. This assertion is contradicted by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the "independent and quasi-judicial control organ monitoring the implementation of the United Nations drug control conventions". INCB reports that the supply of opiates is greatly in excess of demand.
The British government has given the go-ahead to the pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith (a Johnson Matthey company) to cultivate opium poppies in England for medicinal reasons. This move is well-received by British farmers, with a major opium poppy field based in Didcot, England. In March 2010, researchers from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary published an article in Nature Chemical Biology about their discovery of two enzymes and their encoding genes, thebaine 6-O-demethylase (T6ODM) and codeine O-demethylase (CODM), involved in morphine biosynthesis derived from the opium poppy. The enzymes were identified as non-heme dioxygenases, and were isolated using functional genomics. Codeine O-demethylase produces the enzyme that converts codeine into morphine.
The opium poppy is the source of two food ingredients: poppy seed and poppyseed oil. The seeds contain very low levels of opiates, and the oil extracted from them contains even less. Both the oil and the seed residue also have commercial uses.