Thebacon: An Opioid That You Can't Bring Home And Fry In A Pan

By Josh Bloom — Jul 21, 2023
There's a codeine analog with a strange name: "Thebacon." How does one pronounce this? Is it useful? And are there other obscure chemicals with meat-containing names? And A Dreaded Chemistry Lesson From Hell (TM) for no extra charge.
You can't make a BLT without Thebacon. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember that gag-provoking 1982 commercial for Enjoli Perfume? "You can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan (other putrid lyrics)...Cause I'm a woman)!" (Deranged woman in a seductive outfit dances around the kitchen displaying assorted pelvic gyrations.) It's hard to forget this offensive masterpiece. I know this because I'm rarely in the mood to detonate a nuclear device in my own living room, this being one exception. (1)

I only mention this ad because while doing some reading, I accidentally came across a drug with a seriously weird chemical name:  Thebacon, a Schedule I opioid drug similar to codeine (2) which is pronounced θiːbəkɒn. <---- This thing isn't terribly helpful. It's how the word is pronounced according to the International Phonetic Alphabet, so feel free to decipher it. Just be prepared to find that it won't be pronounced: "thuh bacon."

Chemically, the name makes at least some sense, but you won't find out why just yet...

Did I say "chemically?" Yes, I did! All you losers faithful readers who follow me will most certainly know by now that this means it's time for yet, another hideous installment of...

While Steve (right) expresses concern that the DEA may go after him for even hosting a chemistry lesson about opioids, Irving chides him for being worried about nothing. Little do they know that trouble in the form of Andrew Kolodny may lurk nearby.

Thebaine, aka codeine methyl enol ether (and people wonder why organic chemistry nomenclature is an insane subject), is the biosynthetic precursor of morphine. As such, it is a significant component of poppy plants, especially Papaver bracteatum, also known as the Persian poppy. You can even buy the seeds, although given today's anti-opioid climate, perhaps this isn't such a hot idea. 

Fun with AI

ChatGPT says: The name "thebaine" is derived from the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt.  But when I asked, "Isn't Thebes in Greece?" the stupid thing changed its tune: "Yes, you are correct. I apologize for the confusion in my previous response. There are actually two cities named Thebes in history—one in ancient Egypt and the other in ancient Greece."

Eager to pursue other inaccuracies, I tried a negative control: "Isn't Thebes in Cleveland?" to which it predictably responded, "As of my last update in September 2021, there is no city or locality known as "Thebes" in or near Cleveland, Ohio." This has to be correct. Just to be sure: "Are you sure?" To which I got the jaw-dropping response: "I apologize for any confusion caused by my previous responses. As of my last update in September 2021, there is indeed a neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, known as " Thebes, " suggesting that perhaps millions of Thebes are lurking all around the globe. 

Little known fact!

Did you know that Sir Francis Bacon shortened his name from Francis Thebacon because he didn't want to be associated with opium? (3)

Sorry. Chemistry time.

First, it should be obvious that thebaine and thebacon are chemically related (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Thebaine (codeine enol ether) is structurally related to thebacon (dihydrocodeinone enol acetate). The latter is metabolized by carboxylesterase enzymes to form codeine.

But thebacon isn't made from thebaine but from hydrocodone (!)

And hydrocodone (and other common opioids) are made from thebaine, one of the main constituents of poppy (Figure 2) (4). Hope you're sufficiently confused.

Figure 2. Thebaine is the raw material used to manufacture several common analgesic opioids, as well as naloxone and buprenorphine.  

Let's mercifully end this

Lest I be accused of meat bias, now a bona fide microaggression, it's only fitting that I demonstrate that there are other organic chemicals with strange, sandwich-like names. Here are a few (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Hamamelitannin is found in witch hazel. Etosalamide is used to reduce pain and fever. Optunal is a pesticide. Despite their names, none should be used to make a sandwich.

And with that, let's close (5) the...


(1) Although Thebacon is a Schedule I drug in the US, it is marketed as Acedicon in Europe. It's roughly as potent as hydrocodone.

(2) Little did I know then that decades later, far worse TV ads would plague us, for example, the ghastly Ozempic ad, which I skewered here.

(3) PLEASE tell me you didn't fall for this stupid joke. I'm begging you.

(4) Thebaine is also the biosynthetic precursor of morphine.

(5) Good luck finding a chemical with pastrami in the name.



Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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