The Opium Trail

Soldier patrolling poppy fieldPhoto:
Image: illuminating9_11

The opium poppy is the key ingredient for all narcotics. Opium is directly extracted from it and converted to heroin in the lab. The ratio is about 10:1 – to make 1 kg of heroin, it takes10 kg of opium. One acre of traditional poppy seed harvesting usually yields 3 -5 kg of raw opium. But where does it go from there and who profits? Not the farmer and not the end user, that much is clear.

Could you extract opium from any type of poppy? No, there are many species that belong to the poppy family whose flowers are not even red – they can range from white, yellow and orange to red, pink and even blue.

Opium poppies in white, red and as pod:
Opium poppies and podPhoto:
Images: afgooey74 (left) & Laughlin Elkind

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) – with red or white flowers – is the one that opium and many refined opiates like morphine, thebaine, codeine, papaverine, and noscapine, are extracted. We’ll take a look at the opium derivates first to get an idea of its uses before we follow the opium trail.

Opium Derivates and Uses

Thebaine is a Class A drug that has stimulatory rather than depressant effects; morphine is considered the prototypical opioid that acts directly on the central nervous system (CNS) and is used in medicines for pain relief and against diarrhea and cough, for example.

Codeine could be directly extracted from opium but is usually synthesized from morphine. Like the former, codeine is also used in many medicines because of its pain relieving, anti-cough and anti-diarrheal properties.

The base of all opiates – raw opium, also called “poppy tears”:
Raw opiumPhoto:
Image: Erik Fenderson

Papaverine is an opium alkaloid used mainly in the 1970s for the treatment of spasms, especially those involving the heart and brain and is occasionally used to treat erectile dysfunction. Though an FDA-study in the late ‘70s questioned papaverine’s therapeutical qualities, it is still available in the market.

Noscapine is mainly used for its cough-suppressing qualities but has also been administered to stroke and cancer patients. Being quite readily available as a prescription drug, noscapine has a history of over-the-counter drug abuse in several countries.

Opium’s most famous derivate, heroin, is synthesized from morphine and both used as a pain killer and recreational drug, known for its extremely high potential for abuse and addictive properties.

Heroin-inventor Bayer’s pre-1904 advertisement and a 5 mg “medicine” bottle:
Bayer adPhoto:
Image: Unknown (left) & Leridant

Heroin was invented by the German drug company Bayer as an alternative to morphine – said to not have the addictive side effects of the former. Right. Little did the company know that they had just invented the most addictive drug to date…

Today, opium production is legal as long as it falls under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and related international drug treaties. It’s understood that any person or company interested in legal opium production would be scrutinized by the relevant national law enforcement agencies.

A drug company’s poppy field in Northwest Tasmania:
Poppy field in TasmaniaPhoto:
Image: Emily Walker

The sign reads: “Illegal use of crop may cause DEATH” (in capital letters).

There is a part of the plant whose consumption is perfectly legal – poppy seeds of course! They are a staple in the diets of many countries and are a preferred ingredient when baking but are also using in pressed form as poppyseed oil.

Papaver somniferum seeds:
Poppy seedsPhoto:
Image: Odedr

Yum – delicious poppy seed pastry:
Poppy seed pastryPhoto:
Image: Bartosz Senderek

Opium Cultivation and Consumption through the Ages

Opium poppies have been cultivated and utilized for food, anesthetics and ritual purposes since the Neolithic Age, starting around 9500 BCE, if not earlier. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians and Arabs all knew about opium’s many purposes. It is mentioned in most of the important medical texts of the ancient world.

Harvesting opium by slicing the pod vertically and waiting for the sap:
Harvesting opium sapPhoto:
Image: Dmcdevit

Millennia of research have therefore gone into opium harvesting, production, processing and methods of consumption as we know them today. That opium is often associated with war is no coincidence – unprocessed opium was used for pain relief in many wars, including the American Civil War, before it was replaced by morphine because it was easier to administer – it remains the standard of pain relief for casualties of war even today.

Opium has been consumed in China for recreational use since the 15th century but because it was rare and expensive and therefore hard to obtain, it did not catch on until the 17th century when it was mixed with tobacco for smoking. Addiction to opium was first recognized then and prohibition followed but with little effect.

Opium production in Calcutta in 1900:
Opium productionPhoto:
Image: Bourne & Shepherd

In fact, the British tried to increase Chinese opium consumption to broaden their market of opium customers for poppies grown in India. This led to two Opium Wars between Britain and China in 1839 and 1858, respectively. They ended with Britain trading opium throughout China. By 1905, opium use had become quite mainstream and more than a quarter of the male population in China was addicted.

British opium ships:
British opium shipsPhoto:
Image: Shizhao

Chinese anti-opium propaganda poster, circa 1930:
Anti-opium propaganda, ChinaPhoto:
Image: Steve Chasmer

The famous opium dens associated today with decadence and debauchery were soon found all over as opiates reached their peak of popularity worldwide in the early 20th century when there were no legal restrictions on the distribution or use of opium and the drug’s addictive and damaging properties were not yet widely known.

In the United States, a variety of factors contributed to the drug problem of the early 20th century: many medicines contained opium without warning labels, therefore subjecting patients suffering from something else to drug addiction; immigrants from East Asia popularized opium smoking; purified opium and morphine became readily available and the invention of the hypodermic needle popularized intravenous use of the drug.

Opium den in a Chinese lodging house around 1890:
Opium denPhoto:
Image: unknown

The prohibition of opium, enforced by legal action, would lead to the illegal drug trade and tightly regulated prescription drugs containing opiates that we are faced with today. Which brings us to the opium trail – how does raw opium turn into one of the many opiates and travel to the many middlemen and customers around the world?

Refining raw opium into morphine base is a simple chemical process that is usually done in crude laboratories not far from the poppy fields as the jelly-like, smelly raw opium is bulkier and more recognizable and therefore harder to smuggle. Morphine base is a sticky, brown substance that is usually sun-dried and pressed into bricks.

Looks like elephant poop – raw or black tar opium seized in Afghanistan:
Black tar opiumPhoto:
Image: Bentlogic

Some of that morphine base is kept for consumption as is for smoking; some is processed into other opiates; and a significant percentage is processed into heroin. As we will see when looking at the history of opium trafficking, wars played and continue to play a crucial role for the opium trail.

Opium and Wars

The Second World War for example disrupted opium and heroin trafficking because usual trade routes became inaccessible. After the war, the Sicilian Mafia took advantage of the general postwar confusion and weakness of the new Italian government and set up heroin labs. Sicily was a strategic location because it was on the historic opium trade route from the East into Europe and further on to the United States.

After the Second World War, heroin remained legal only in some countries as health and addiction risks were widely known and most western countries declared it a controlled substance by the second half of the 20th century.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, anti-communist efforts by the United States against China and support for anti-Chinese operations in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar fuelled the opium and heroin trade and production and led to the development of the Golden Triangle – till date the second largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan.

A map of the world’s primary opium/heroin-producing countries:
Heroin worldPhoto:
Image: Cerveaugenie

The Heroin World – i.e. the countries where opium poppy fields can be found – is easily divided into three main areas: In Southwest Asia, Iran, Pakistan, Northern India and Afghanistan form what’s known as the “Golden Crescent”; in Southeast Asia, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam form the “Golden Triangle”; and in South America, Colombia and Guatemala are the main opium growers; Mexico in Middle America.

Afghanistan and the Golden Crescent opium hub developed after US-backed mujahidin raised money for arms through drug trade during the Soviet-Afghan war in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Internal fighting of the Sicilian gangs and harsher legal enforcement favored the shift to Afghanistan where heroin for the international market was produced at lower prices. By 1980, 60% of heroin sold in the United States originated in Afghanistan.

Security and opium poppy cultivation are directly linked in Afghanistan:
Afghan poppy cultivationPhoto:
Image: United Nations Department of Safety and Security

The cultivation of opium and therefore the heroin production reached its peak in Afghanistan in 1999. The Taliban banned poppy cultivation in 2000; a move that cut production by 94%. Burma then took over as the world’s largest opium producer. But in 2002, after involvement of foreign troops and the establishment of an interim government, Afghan opium cultivation soared once more, reaching an all-time high in 2006.

Who Gets a Piece of the Poppy Pie?

Afghan opium accounted for 87% of the world’s heroin production in 2002 and yielded 60% of the country’s gross domestic product. Or, put differently, although less than 4% of arable land in Afghanistan was used for opium poppy cultivation in 2006, the harvest’s revenue was over $3 billion—more than 35% of the country’s total gross national product (GNP).

Some of the 600 lb opium seized at an alleged Taliban safe house in Helmand in May:
Opium captured in AfghanistanPhoto:
Image: Sean K. Harp

The answer to the question if the world opium production has increased since the beginning of the 20th century is both yes and no. The overall global production has fallen drastically since 1906, the year with the highest output ever with 41,000 tons! But consider that 39,000 tons were consumed in China alone, that leaves “only” 2,000 tons worldwide, the total amount used in 1980 for legal and illegal uses.

We should clarify our initial question, specifying that opium consumption in China has fallen drastically but that it has increased worldwide: By 2006, the worldwide opium production had more than tripled to 6,630 tons in just two decades.

World opium production from 1800 to 2006:
World opium productionPhoto:
Image: Mike Serfas

The price structure paid or given to people involved shows how huge the margins are: In 2002, Afghan farmers received $300 for 1 kg of opium; the price for purchasers in Afghanistan was $800, and $16,000 on the streets of Europe in the form of heroin.

Smuggling of opium is relatively rare – opium is usually processed further into one of the many opiates, most often heroin as this is the strongest and most profitable. Plus, one small vial containing many doses can be hidden more easily than bulky raw opium.

Opium pipes for sale in China today:
Opium pipes in ChinaPhoto:
Image: Terisa Folaron

Given that in many opium-producing countries a conviction for drug trafficking carries the death penalty, going for the most profitable yet highest risk drug makes sense in a warped kind of way. Just by the way – the same drug trafficking penalties apply to foreign visitors if convicted in any of these countries.

And the farmers? Cultivating poppy fields is easily one of the most profitable crops in the world. In countries with high poverty and few alternatives, many a farmer opts for poppy production. However, anti-opium campaigns are on the rise in Afghanistan, appealing to farmers to plant more traditional crops like wheat.

An anti-opium poster in Afghanistan:
Anti-opium poster, AfghanistanPhoto:
Image: Todd Huffman

According to photographer Todd Huffman who encountered this anti-poppy propaganda quite frequently on his travels through Afghanistan, the text says something like: “Poppies are the crop of death. Grow wheat and make bread.”

It is estimated that today, about 10% of Afghanistan’s population is involved in opium cultivation in one way or another – that’s approximately 2.9 million Afghans from 28 of 34 provinces.

If the whole cycle is explained properly, especially that more profits go to opium traffickers and even more to their international counterparts, farmers may be swayed to switch their crop – less than one fifth of the $3 billion in opium profits actually goes to them. Plus, the campaign above plays heavily with family values – showing a son having food to eat and (implied) a father to look up to.

Another option may be to legalize the medical opium production as proposed by the Senlis Council. If successful, this might solve the problem of illegal opium production in Afghanistan while lowering the prices of prescription drugs including morphine or codeine worldwide and making healthcare more affordable.

American soldiers patrolling a poppy field in Afghanistan:
Soldier patrolling poppy fieldPhoto:
Image: illuminating9_11

Fact is that the illegal drug trade anywhere in the world thrives on instability and chaos, making it seem as if drug money could buy protection and safety. Focusing on basic needs and especially individual security may be the first step to take – with the big question being by whom as decades of foreign occupation in Afghanistan have shown that temptation to stray from one’s intended path is high.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12