Imitation Morphine Tablets in the Illicit Traffic


A series of examples of the ingenuity of the illicit trafficker in breaking the law.


Pages: 4 to 6
Creation Date: 1951/01/01

Imitation Morphine Tablets in the Illicit Traffic

A series of examples of the ingenuity of the illicit trafficker in breaking the law.

The nature, supply, and distribution of drugs used for narcotic addiction have undergone many changes. One of the most evil was the change from the crude drugs, of which the worst was opium, to the purified, active principles and derivatives, such as morphine, heroin, and cocaine. Beneficent in medicine when used for the relief of pain and surcease from suffering, these same drugs, in their use by addicts, have brought misery, degradation, and crime, beyond telling.

A landmark in the struggle against narcotic addiction was the adoption of the "Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs", also known as the 1931 Convention. Prior to that time, huge quantities of narcotic drugs, manufactured ostensibly for medical purposes, were escaping from control and were being used for the purpose of addiction.

The 1931 Convention has been very successful, but illicit dealers in narcotics have not ceased their activities. For a time, some factories shifted from country to country, setting themselves up where the laws were most lax and trying to maintain a semblance of legality while still pouring out a flood of narcotics into illicit channels. As successive countries adopted more stringent controls, these activities became more and more concealed. Broadly speaking, the manufacture of narcotic drugs in known factories is now limited to the legitimate medical and scientific needs of the world. There is some diversion to illicit purposes, of course, but this is no longer the main source of the narcotic "white drugs" of addiction, and is of minor importance compared to their manufacture in concealed, illicit laboratories.

The drying up of many sources of supply and the tightening of controls all the way along the line, resulted in enormous increases in the price paid by addicts for drugs. Still the demand exceeds the supply, so that adulteration and dilution of the drug is quite general. In the United States, the principal drug of addiction is heroin but the pure salt of heroin is almost unknown in the illicit traffic. The most common adulterants are quinine, which is present more often than not, and procaine; in addition virtually every dealer who handles the drug illicitly takes his turn in diluting it with lactose (milk sugar), sucrose (ordinary powdered sugar), mannitol, or some other inert substance.

Many addicts in the United States think that heroin is a weaker narcotic than morphine, though in reality it is much stronger. The manufacture of heroin has been prohibited in this country for many years, and the addicts know only the illegal, adulterated, diluted drug. On the other hand, they can sometimes get legal morphine on prescription-this often involving forgery or some other crime, at which the confirmed addict does not hesitate. Also morphine can sometimes be stolen from a drugstore. The addict's acquaintance with legal morphine leads him to believe that it is the stronger drug.

In such circumstances, diverted or stolen drugs in their original packages command especially high prices in the illicit traffic. The racketeers and other criminals who prey on the addicts while supplying them with narcotics know this, of course. They do not actually have stolen narcotics for sale very often, but much more often they counterfeit labels, containers, and revenue stamps, in order to enhance the price of the narcotics.

An interesting case of this kind occurred in the United States, during 1948-1950. In fact, any number of cases of law-breaking were involved, as the counterfeit "morphine pills" were spread over almost the entire country. Indeed the first discovery was made in the Philippines. The "Philippine angle" was never entirely cleared up as to its connexion, if any, with later developments.

In May 1948, a seizure was made in the Philippines of 1,222 vials labelled:

  1. "20 soluble Hypodermic Tablets No. 3,

    "Morphine Sulfate U.S.P.

    "1/4 grain (0.0016 grm). Poison.

    Warning-May be habit forming. Caution. To be used only by or on the prescription of a physician.

    "Property of the United States 1334139.

    "John Wyeth & Brother, Inc. Philadelphia, Pa."

The label was a good imitation. The tax stamp was counterfeit. No narcotic at all was found in the tablets; in this case the tablets were simply a fraud on any purchaser.

In September 1948, a passenger from Manila was picked up as he arrived at the airport of Honolulu, Hawaii, and found in possession of a large supply of counterfeit labels.

In the early part of December 1948 narcotics investigators in Kansas City, Missouri, found that tubes containing what purported to be morphine hypodermic tablets were being sold in Kansas City. Two peddlers there were buying them, about $700 worth at a time, at $20 per tube of 20 tablets labelled as 1/4 grain tablets of morphine sulphate or $4 per grain. Legitimately such tablets-if they had been genuine-would have been worth about 70 cents per tube, or 14 cents per grain. They were being sold to other addicts by the two peddlers at $7 per grain.

These tablets were found to contain poorly acetylated heroin as the narcotic.

At about the same time, a similar tube and tablets were found in South Carolina, in the possession of a doctor who had been supplying addicts. He admitted having obtained it from a man and wife running a gasoline service station in North Carolina, a pair believed to have dealt in counterfeit ration coupons for gasoline, during the war. This tube had the label-counterfeit of course-of Merck & Co.

The Kansas City tubes bore the Wyeth label, like those seized in the Philippines. But some peculiarities were noted. The narcotic stamp was overprinted with "E R S & S", presumably standing for E. R. Squibb & Sons. Doubtless this had been copied from a genuine stamp on a Squibb tube, then used with the counterfeit Wyeth label. One tube was found on which "hypodermic" was spelled "hyopdermic". Also on some tubes the cancellation date of the narcotic tax stamp appeared to be 8 December 1949, although the tubes were obtained in December 1948.

In 1949, the tubes and tablets began to be found in many parts of the United States. Seizures were made especially in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and in the Carolinas. Some tubes bore an E. R. Squibb label and some a Parke-Davis label, counterfeit of course. Another Wyeth label was also found, which had "Philadelphia" abbreviated as "Philada". On the same label the decimal comma was used for the gramme equivalent, instead of the decimal point which is customary in the United States.

Although there were so many different labels it seemed likely that the tubes were coming, probably not exactly from a single source, but from some kind of loose association of racketeers, counterfeiters, and dealers in illicit narcotics. Strenuous efforts were made to trace the glass tubes or vials, but without any definite result. There was only one glass manufacturer in this country making a similar tube at the time, but an exact match for the tubes illegally used could not be found in the legal trade.

The tablets themselves were counterfeit. They varied considerably in composition but there was a general similarity. Nearly all of them purported to contain 1/4 grain morphine sulphate but instead contained heroin hydrochloride which, when hydrolyzed to morphine, amounted to about 1/12 to 1/24 grain. Since heroin is considerably stronger than morphine the users may not have felt too badly cheated. All the tablets also contained another alkaloid, brucine. This was unquestionably put in to imitate the morphine reaction with nitric acid, in case anyone got suspicious and applied this generally known test, in which morphine differs from heroin. The "heroin" was sometimes straight diacetyl-morphine and in other cases was rather poorly acetylated (or possibly, had been partly hydrolyzed in making the pills), so that the pills contained some morphine and monoacetyl-morphine as well as diacetylmorphine. All contained corn starch and lactose also. In the earlier analyses benzoic acid was generally found; later, benzocaine was found instead of benzoic acid. In a few cases quinine was present. Some of the pills became more or less brown with age while others remained white.

It is possible that some of the adulterants were already present in the "heroin" used, and were not intentionally added in making the pills. In one New York case both bulk "heroin" and "morphine" tablets were seized. This "heroin" contained heroin (diacetylmorphine) hydrochloride, benzoic acid, quinine, and small amounts of lactose and starch. The "morphine" tablets contained heroin hydrochloride, brucine, quinine, lactose, and starch, and some of the tablets also contained morphine hydrochloride.

The tablets had a considerable distribution in the Carolinas. There are certain regions in these states where morphine addiction is almost endemic, dating back to the time before there were any laws controlling narcotics, and it has been impossible so far to stamp it out completely.

A case was made against a dealer, X. Y., who was also an addict himself. When arrested, he told the narcotic agents the full story of his recent activities in dealing in narcotics.

He began his account with 1947. In the early part of this year, and previously, he had dealt in "Spanish type" morphine labelled "Medical Depot, Madras" and "English type" morphine labelled "Burroughs and Wellcome". 100 grains of the "English" morphine cost $275. An ex-convict, W. Z., who had served about three years in prison on a black-market charge, was employed by X. Y. in running liquor from Baltimore into "dry" territory, and later in his narcotic transactions. About the middle of the year X. Y. was offered 200 bottles of "good stolen morphine" with 60 grains to the bottle at $2.50 a grain. He took four bottles, paying $600. In September 1947 he was offered the tubes of "morphine", which in this case had the Merck label and were claimed to have been stolen by a night watchman from Merck and Co. X. Y. bought 1,500 grains (according to the label) in tubes and paid $2,250 for the 300 tubes. He got suspicious of the genuineness because all the tubes had the same number. On 2 October 1947 he bought ? kilo of heroin for $2,550 and 500 grains of the tube morphine-"Merck"-at $1.50 a grain. On 1 November 1947 he bought 1,200 grains of the "phony morphine" as he was now calling it, at $1.40 a grain, a total of $1,680. With continued dealing, X. Y. got the price at which he bought down to $1.15 and finally down to 90 cents a grain (the value of real morphine tablets sold legally being only about 14 cents per grain). He got the price of heroin down to as "low" as $1,200 per ? kilo. He sold the phony morphine at up to $2.50 per grain. His principal customers were themselves dealers and peddlers; some were users of the drugs themselves and some were not. They paid around $300 to $500 at a time, or even more.

A few of the other transactions of X. Y. may be mentioned. June 1948, ? kilo of heroin bought for $1,800; 15 September 1949, ? kilo of heroin for $1,400; 22 October 1949, $1,200 paid for ? kilo of heroin and $900 for 1,000 grains of the phony morphine; 28 November 1949, 4 ounces of heroin and 1,000 grains of phony morphine for $1,700.

As a result of intensive work by the narcotic agents, and partly from information supplied by X. Y., a number of dealers in illicit narcotics in the Carolinas were arrested, tried, and convicted. Some sentences were: Henry Gainey, ten years; Paul Sadler, seven years; Willie Dudley, three years; Howard Overman, four years; Ned Welch, three and a half years; Nathan Cheek, five years; John Muse, eighteen months plus a two-year sentence suspended for five years probation;

M. G. Batson, two years; Fred Green, three years. One narcotic dealer was also a bootlegger and on conviction of bootlegging was sentenced to two years in prison and a $35,000 fine.

At Chicago, Michael Filishio and Frank Tovar were each sentenced to five years for a heroin case and counterfeiting.

The pills only began appearing on the Pacific Coast-to the knowledge of the narcotic agents, at least-in 1950. On 17 February 1950 there was a seizure in California of six bottles each containing 100 of the ? grain "morphine" tablets. In general, however, during 1950 these pills began to disappear from the traffic in illicit narcotics.

Most of the illicit narcotics of the United States are distributed from New York City, and these pills were no exception. One important source, Peter Locascio, was arrested in New York in possession of 5? pounds of heroin and 3,048 vials of "morphine", each containing 20 tablets and bearing counterfeit labels and stamps.

An attempt to order a plate from an engraver revealed a method of obtaining plates for the counterfeit tax stamps. The plate asked for was to read:

1? All States


Inter Revenue 1?

Evidently it was to be cut in two, the right half to be joined to another half-plate which would have on it,



Inter Revenue 1?

In fact some of the counterfeit stamps on morphine tubes showed printing from two plates joined together.

It is not possible to give anything approaching a full account of the cases arising out of the investigations of these morphine tablets. In fact many are still pending in the courts and it will be years before the story can be completed.

The special dangers of such pills in the illicit traffic are obvious. For example, a criminal pharmacist could stock them for sale to addicts, and still not appear to have anything but legal narcotic supplies if his store were given a superficial inspection or even raided by the police. In general in the United States this was not done; the sale of the pills was usually through completely illegal channels, and the labels were rather a fraud on the miserable addicts than an attempt to disguise the traffic with any semblance of legality. The backbone of this particular traffic in the United States has been broken. Narcotic authorities in other countries should be alert to see that it does not establish itself anywhere else.