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Morphine Concentrations in Stomach Contents of Intravenous Opioid Overdose Deaths

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Death caused by heroin overdose is almost always the result of intravenous injection of the drug in Australia. We briefly describe a case where a heroin overdose was initially thought to be the result of oral ingestion of the drug, primarily as a result of higher concentrations of morphine in stomach contents than in blood. During the subsequent criminal trial and investigation, however, the issue of the entero-hepatic circulation of morphine was raised as a possible reason for the presence of morphine in the stomach contents. In this study, we report on the distribution of opioids in blood, stomach contents, urine, liver, and bile in 29 deaths caused by intravenous heroin overdose. The mean total and free blood morphine concentrations were 0.60 and 0.32 mg/L, respectively, and the mean stomach contents total morphine concentration was 1.16 mg/kg. All cases had detectable morphine in the stomach contents, and 24 of 29 cases (83%) had higher concentrations of total morphine in stomach contents than in blood. The mean total morphine concentration in bile was c. 100 times that in blood, and the liver total morphine concentration averaged twice that of blood levels. We conclude that the entero-hepatic circulation of morphine and subsequent reflux of duodenal contents back into the stomach can result in the deposition of morphine in gastric contents. Consequently, the relative levels of opioids in blood and stomach contents cannot be used to determine the site of administration of the drug.
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Keywords: autopsy; entero-hepatic circulation; forensic science; morphine; site of administration; toxicology

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, NSW, Australia. 2: Division of Analytical Laboratories, Sydney West Area Health Service, Lidcombe, NSW, Australia.

Publication date: 2009-09-01

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