Morphine, nicotine, and caffeine. These molecules, though seemingly different, have some things in common; they share the common history of being factors in the Opium Wars, are all alkaloids, and have each had a profound influence shaping modern society in aspects ranging from medicine to economics to recreation. The first molecule, morphine, comes from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. In previous generations, it was used as a method of enhancing creativity, as a medical herb, and as an intoxicant. Today it continues its use in the medical world as it frequently serves as a strong pain killer; yet it frequently becomes a subject of intense addiction because of its euphoric, sedative qualities (morphine gets its name from Morpheus, the Roman god of dreams). The basic chemistry behind this molecule follows a rule that is simply enough known as the “morphine rule”. The morphine rule states that “a benzene ring, quaternary carbon atom, a CH2-CH2 group, and a tertiary N atom” must be present and in sequence. The reason that morphine is able to successfully relieve pain is that it has the ability to mimic the action of endorphins (the molecules responsible for happiness and pleasure). Although morphine was, and is, effective as a narcotic, the addiction and side effects it was causing led the Bayer and Company laboratory to create a new and improved form of morphine (or so they thought). This new form was created by using the acylation reaction that had previously been used to create aspirin. The new derivative was called diacetylmorphine and was even stronger than morphine. While that served as a benefit since it could be used in smaller doses, it did not allow for the chemists to achieve their goal because diacetylmorphine, more commonly known as Heroin nowadays, became “one of the most powerfully addictive substances known”.
The second molecule, nicotine (the major alkaloid in tobacco), was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus who discovered it when he landed in the “New World”. He saw it being used in a multitude of ways: it was inhaled or smoked into people’s nostrils, chewed or snuffed, and inhaled directly from burning masses of the Nicotiana plant (a more potent variety of modern-day tobacco that was said to cause hallucinations) during ceremonies. When Columbus brought nicotine to Europe, its inhabitants were quick to use and cultivate it, however not everyone was so readily accepting. Many criticized it for being dangerous and some places, such as Russia, even went as far as to outlaw it altogether. These may have created mere roadblocks, but did not halt the spread and influence of tobacco. The reason for its long-lasting admiration stems from the fact that it has a tendency to, more often than not, lead its users to develop addictions. Tobacco’s addictive quality can be understood by looking at its chemical makeup and biological influences. Nicotine acts as a stimulant as well as a depressant. After the stimulation wears off, it causes heart rate and blood circulation to slow down and oxygen to be delivered to the brain slower. To counteract these effects, users turn to tobacco again in order to stimulate their body’s activities. Nonetheless, nicotine has proven to be a substance of great influence. It has created copious addictions which have led to health issues, relationship complications, and, more positively, a source of economic prosperity for some.
The last molecule, caffeine, is probably the most common amongst the most people of all ages and social statures. It is found in coffee, tea, and chocolate, among other things. From cafes in Venice to the ever-so-famous Boston Tea Party, there is no doubt that caffeine has impacted lives of the past and present alike. Caffeine, like nicotine in a way, is a stimulant. Contrary to popular belief however, caffeine does not wake us up, it rather masks feelings of sleepiness. This is due to the fact that caffeine blocks the effect of adenosine, which is the chemical responsible for inducing sleep. Aside from its obvious pleasurable quirks, it also holds multiple medical purposes including asthma relief, migraine treatment, and a diuretic, to name a few. Its recreational uses has increased steadily with the emergence of chain coffee shops like Starbucks and individually packaged chocolate bars found everywhere from gas station convenience stores to five-star restaurants. There is no doubt that each of the alkaloids have had a profound influence of society and I think Le Couteur and Burreson do an adequate job of touching on those details. They mention the basic principles that connect them all together; their roles in the Opium Wars and the fact that they all can, and do, result in addiction. I think it’s important that for each of them they mentioned not only the negative but also the positive effects that have been produced because with every molecule in this book, as well as those mentioned, there is always a reaction of consequences that circle between good and bad but in the end always result in the same residing fact; that they shaped the world we know today.