The Molecule

Andy Coop very nearly spent his career watching paint dry. The son of a machinist and school cafeteria worker, Coop hailed from Halifax in Northern England. He finished his undergraduate work in chemistry at Oxford University in 1991. He was given a choice of where to continue his studies. At Cardiff University was a professor whose specialty was the chemistry of paint. Industry at the time was aiming to find a new paint that dried at a certain temperature. At the University of Bristol was John Lewis, who studied the chemistry of drugs and addiction. In the 1960s, Lewis had discovered buprenorphine, an opiate that he later helped develop into a treatment for heroin addicts.

Coop didn’t remember giving the choice much thought. Drugs sounded more interesting than paint, so off to Bristol and John Lewis he went. It was there, in 1991, in a lab at Bristol, that Andy Coop encountered the morphine molecule – the essential element in all opiates. In time, Andy Coop got hooked on the morphine molecule – figuratively, of course, for he only once took a drug that contained it, and that was following surgery.

Like no other particle on Earth, the morphine molecule seemed to possess heaven and hell. It allowed for modern surgery, saving and improving too many lives to count. It stunted and ended too many lives to count with addiction and overdose. Discussing it, you could invoke some of humankind’s greatest cultural creations and deepest questions: Faust, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, discussions on the fundamental nature of man and human behavior, of free will and slavery, of God and evolution. Studying the molecule, you naturally wandered into questions like, Can mankind achieve happiness without pain? Would that happiness even be worth it? Can we have it all?

In heroin addicts, there is a certain debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior. In fact, the United States achieved something like this state of affairs during the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. It was first observable in widespread obesity. It wasn’t just people. Everything seemed obese and excessive. Massive Hummers and SUVs were cars on steroids. In some of the Southern California suburbs, on plots laid out with three-bedroom houses in the 1950s, seven-thousand-square-foot mansions barely squeezed between the lot lines, leaving no place for yards in which to enjoy the California sun.

In Northern California’s Humbolt and Mendocino Counties, 1960s hippies became the last great American pioneers by escaping their parents’ artificial world. They lived in tepees without electricity and funded the venture by growing pot. Now their children and grandchildren, like mad scientists, were using chemicals and thousand-watt bulbs, in railroad cars buried to avoid detection, to forge hyperpotent strains of pot. Their weed rippled like the muscles of bodybuilders, and growing this stuff helped destroy the natural world that their parents once sought. Today, great new numbers of these same kids – most of them well-off and white – began consuming huge quantities of the morphine molecule, doping up and tuning out.

What gave the morphine molecule its immense power was that it evolved somehow to fit, key-in-lock, into the receptors that all mammals, especially humans, have in their brains and spines. The so-called mu-opioid receptors – designed to create pleasure sensations when they receive endorphins the body naturally produces – were especially welcoming to the morphine molecule. The receptor combines with endorphins to give us those glowing feelings at, say, the sight of an infant or the feel of a furry puppy. The morphine molecule overwhelms the receptor, creating a far more intense euphoria than anything we come by internally. It also produces drowsiness, constipation, and an end to physical pain. Aspirin had a limit to the amount of pain it could calm. But the more morphine you took, Coop said, the more pain was dulled.

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For this reason, no plant has been more studied for its medicinal properties than the opium poppy. As the mature poppy’s petals fall away, a golf-ball-sized bulb emerges atop the stem. The bulb houses a goo that contains opium. From opium, humans have derived laudanum, codeine, thebaine, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, and heroin, as well as almost two hundred other drugs – all containing the morphine molecule, or variations of it. Etorphine, derived from thebaine, is used in dart guns to tranquilize rhinoceroses and elephants. [Amazingly, Etorphine has hit the streets of America as an opiate which teens and young adults are taking to get high, only to be dropping dead due to its potency.]

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Tobacco, coca leaves, and other plants had evolved to be pleasurable and addictive to humans out of the gate. But the morphine molecule surpassed them in euphoric intensity. Then it exacted a mighty vengeance when a human dared to stop using it. In withdrawal from the drug, an addict left narcotized numbness and returned to life and to feeling. Numbed addicts were notoriously impotent; in withdrawal they had frequent orgasms as they began to feel again. Humans with the temerity to attempt to withdraw from the morphine molecule were tormented first with excruciating pain that lasted for days. If an addict was always constipated and nodding off, his withdrawals brought ferocious diarrhea and a week of sleeplessness.

The morphine molecule resembled a spoiled lover, throwing a tantrum as it left. Junkies say they often have an almost constipated tingling when trying to urinate during the end of withdrawal, as if the last of the molecule, now holed up in the kidneys, was fighting like hell to keep from being expelled. Like a lover, no other molecule in nature provided such merciful pain relief, then hooked humans so completely, and punished them so mercilessly for wanting their freedom from it.

Certain parasites in nature exert the kind of control that makes a host act contrary to its own interests. One protozoan, Toxoplasma gondii, reproduces inside the belly of a cat, and is then excreted by the feline. One way it begins the cycle again is to infect a rat passing near the excrement. Toxoplasma gondii reprograms the infected rat to love cat urine, which to healthy rats is a predator warning. An infected rat wallows in cat urine, offering itself up as an easy meal to a nearby cat. This way, the parasite again enters the cat’s stomach, reproduces, and is expelled in the cat’s excrement – and the cycle continues.

The morphine molecule exerts an analogous brainwashing on humans, pushing them to act contrary to their self-interest in pursuit of the molecule. Addicts betray loved ones, steal, live under freeways in harsh weather, and run similarly horrific risks to use the molecule.

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It became the poster molecule for an age of excess. No amount of it was ever enough. The molecule created ever-higher tolerance. Plus, it had a way of railing on when the body gathered the courage to throw it out. This wasn’t only during withdrawals. Most drugs are easily reduced to water-soluble glucose in the human body, which then expels them. Alone in nature, the morphine molecule rebelled. It resisted being turned into glucose and it stayed in the body.

“We still can’t explain why this happens. It just doesn’t follow the rules. Every other drug in the world – thousands of them – follows this rule. Morphine doesn’t,” Coop said. “It really is almost like someone designed it that way – diabolically so.”

The above is taken from Sam Quinones’ best-selling nonfiction book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” ©2015, New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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