papaver somniferum

Opium History, Basic Terms

Alfred W. McCoy

Asian Opium Zone

As opium spread from its biotic home in the eastern Mediterranean across India to China by the 8th Century A.D., this long historical process created the ecological foundation for a geographically disparate, economically integrated Asian opium zone.

With the rise of the China opium trade in late 18th century and the emergence of opium as a global commodity in the late 19th century, the Asian opium zone expanded to its maximum area--extending from the Balkans, across India, through southern China, to Manchuria. During the era of multilateral drug diplomacy from 1907 to 1940, the League of Nations acted to lower production significantly within this zone. Moreover, the advent of the Cold War and establishment of a communist regime in China in 1949, removed vast territories and reduced the zone to its present area.

Since the late 1940s, Turkey has thus marked the western extremity of a near continuous opium zone that stretch for 5,000 miles along the mountain rim of Asia--through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Any reduction of production in a single sector, such as Turkey, soon becomes a strong market stimulus for increased cultivation elsewhere along the opium zone.

Although postwar US narcotics officials have operated with a de facto definition of Asia's opium zone as a series of self-contained sectors (Middle East, South West Asia, and Southeast Asia), this elongated highland zone has responded, over the past half century, to stimuli from the global drug market with a surprising speed and unanimity.

In the 20th Century, the opium poppy has been introduced to Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia by trafficking syndicates seeking a market in the United States. Although the climate, economy, and ecology of these regions is sympathetic to opium cultivation, the Americas have never produced significant quantities by comparison to the Asian Opium Zone.

Bilateral Suppression

Although the US initiated and later participated in multilateral drug diplomacy, during the past half century Washington has shown a marked preference for bilateral narcotics operations. From its foundation in 1930, the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), the antecedent of the present Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), demonstrated a predilection for bilateral operations. The founder and long time head of the FBN, Harry Anslinger, often attended League and UN multilateral meetings as the US representative, but he insisted that the FBN conduct its own investigations.

After World War II, the U.S. abandoned its multilateral approach to international suppression and extended the FBN's operations into Europe and the Middle East where it achieved a modicum of success. In these efforts against European syndicates, the FBN preferred bilateral enforcement, with its own agents working in cooperation with host country police.

In 1972 the United States launched its first major attempt at bilateral suppression of the international traffic when President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. Fighting his first battle on the Anatolian plateau, Nixon, manipulating the close U.S. military alliance with Turkey, forced that country to eradicate legal poppy growing. Simultaneously, the US applied diplomatic pressure on Paris to close Corsican syndicate heroin laboratories in Marseilles.

Scoring a stunning, short-term success, Nixon's drug war eliminated Corsican heroin refining in Marseilles and ended illicit opium cultivation in Turkey. Over the long term, however, the campaign stimulated global opium cultivation. Since demand remained constant and supply decreased, the world price for illicit opium rose, stimulating increased harvests elsewhere along the Asian opium zone.

Deciding that international intervention did not slow the drug flow, the Carter White House adopted a more cautious policy. With the exception of modest operations against opium in Mexico, Carter de-emphasized bilateral drug diplomacy.

Ignoring the lessons of Nixon's Anatolian campaign, President Bush used the same strategy for his drug war in the Andes--a combination of diplomacy and suppression to cut the drug flow at its source. Despite these similarities in broad strategy, Bush increased the weaponry in the arsenal of his drug war far beyond Nixon's modest resources--most importantly, by mobilizing the resources of the US military in support of State Department diplomacy and CIA intelligence.

Central Asia

The term is used variously to mean the countries between the Caspian Sea and Tibet, comprising Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and, sometimes, Iran.

Golden Triangle

A term of unknown origins, the phase Golden Triangle refers to a roughly triangular zone in the highlands of Southeast Asia that overlaps Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Although divided among three countries, it is a region that shares significant attributes--opium production, remote upland terrain, mountain minority populations, extreme ethnic diversity, mass Christian conversion, and a long history of insurgency. To delineate the region, trace the China border across Burma into Laos, turn sharp west at Xieng Khouang and track a line due west across northern Thailand to Mae Hong Son, and then turn north and follow the length of the Salween River.


Discovered by a British chemist in 1874, diacetylmorphine is a bonding of opium's active ingredient, morphine, with a common industrial acid, acetic anhydride. Twenty years later, in 1898, when the Bayer Company of Elberfeld, Germany began mass producing the drug as a broad-spectrum painkiller, it coined the trade name heroin for this new drug. The name was chosen because it give users the feeling of being a hero.

Approved by the American Medical Association in 1906, physicians administered heroin widely with hypodermic syringe as a non-addictive substitute for morphine, a pain killer in common use since the 1860s. Simultaneously, pharmaceutical manufacturers marketed heroin in patent medicines as a cure for many diseases, including infantile respiratory ailments.

Under the US Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, all narcotics use henceforth required a doctor's prescription. In 1923, the Narcotics Division of the Treasury Department began active enforcement of the law, a responsibility that was transferred in 1930 to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), the ancestor of the modern Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The net effect of these changes was to criminalize the personal use of heroin and cocaine.

In 1925, the League of Nations passed strict regulations on the international export of heroin and six years later stipulated that manufacturers could produce just enough for legitimate medical and scientific needs.

A powerful narcotic, heroin acts upon the brain's opiate receptors to act as a pain-killer, inducing physical addiction and lasting psychological dependence. Unlike marijuana or cocaine, heroin is a maintenance drug requiring daily dosage--a basic attribute that explains its extraordinary profitability.

While cocaine users often quit use after a few months on this drug's roller-coaster ride of euphoria and depression, heroin addicts, by contrast, continue use for many years, making them repeat customers for criminal syndicates. Since heroin requires a daily dosage to avoid the unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal, its users are more assiduous in their habit and more willing to pay a premium price for the drug. Cocaine's market and profitability thus require constant recruitment of new addicts, in contrast to heroin's patterns of long-term use that assure a more reliable and profitable illicit market.

Multilateral Suppression

Responding to pressures from a Christian anti-opium movement in the United Kingdom and the United States in the latter decades of the 19th Century, Western governments realized that legal opium trading in their Asian colonies opened them to moral censure.

In 1909, a meeting of major Western and Asian governments at the Shanghai Opium Convention marks the start of the modern era of multilateral drug diplomacy. Although this gathering produced non-binding commitments to reduction of opium trading, it set in motion a diplomacy that culminated, during the mid 1920s, in formation of a multilateral Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs within the League of Nations. Through these deliberations, the League of Nations effected, via its member states, a significant, even dramatic, reduction in the legal production of opium and processing of heroin between 1925 and 1940.

Wi th the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, this committee continued its work as the UN Committee for Drug Abuse Control. Since the ratification of the UN Single Convention on Narcotics in 1961, its multilateral efforts have become a more significant factor global drug controls. Through this body, the UN sponsors research into the patterns of drug abuse in countries such as Pakistan and engages in crop substitution programs in Laos and Thailand.

Nature Of Consumption Estimates

Estimates of drug consumption may be the most politicized and inaccurate of all modern statistics. As noted ever so wryly in a 1976 report of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse, There is an old axiom which originated in the League of Nations..."that a nation has as many addicts as it chooses to discover." In Western nations where intravenous use is prevalent, the only reliable drug-abuse statistic is the number of heroin overdose fatalities actually recorded by coroners.

All other numbers are a statistical manipulation of the ratio between a known figure, such as overdose fatalities or street seizures, and an unknown quantity, such as the number of addicts. Simply by changing the ratio of the known to unknown, bureaucracies or administrations can, for self-serving purposes, arbitrarily adjust estimates of drug abuse upward or downward. Rather than say lots of drug use or a huge addict population, this report uses drug consumption figures as descriptive numbers.

Nature Of Production Estimates

Over the past 300 years, Asia's opium-producing areas have been, almost by definition, remote from central control and state records. Since the rise of multilateral prohibition in the 1920s, it is this remoteness that both allows illicit opium cultivation and makes accurate quantification of it almost impossible. Prior to the mid-19th Century, most agricultural statistics, opium included, are erratic, anecdotal, and unverified. Although reporting for major commodities in lowland areas improved dramatically in the late 19th century, hill crops such as opium usually remained beyond the purview of enumerators.

Since the 1960s, narcotics statistics have suffered from a mix of political bias and technical problems. All host countries reporting their own drug production have a vested interest in minimization, while foreign analysts are usually involved in enforcement efforts and have a different but equally strong bias in skewing the numbers for some bureaucratic end. In its April 1994 report, the US State Department stated that Afghanistan's production in 1992 was officially 640 tons but noted that the DEA felt that country's opium output was may have exceeded 900 tons. Whether this difference was based on honest disagreement or different agency agendas, the reader can only guess. In this same report, the State Department estimates Burma's 1993 harvest at 2,575 tons, yet that same month the country's leading drug lord, Khun Sa, told me that production was actually 4,000 tons. Even in this age of technologically advanced landsat imaging, the US State Department Report for 1990 estimates Southwest Asia's actual opium production for 1987 as ranging from 790 to 1,420 tons. What is any analyst supposed to make of such numbers?

In recording each production figure, this report has been aware of the acute problems inherent in modern opium statistics. Instead of saying lots of opium or huge amounts of heroin, the report has cited these sometimes questionable statistics. Instead of taking them at face value, we suggest that production figures be regarded as descriptive numbers rather than statistics accurate in the conventional sense.


Domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean in ancient times, opium is one of the most venerable drugs in formal and folk pharmacopoeia. Opium's healing properties were detailed in the works of Hippocrates (466-377 BC) and the Roman physician Galen (130-200 AD.) Spreading across the Asian land mass, opium was described as an effective drug in China's Herbalist Treasure of 973 AD.

As a temperate crop, the opium poppy (papaver soniferum) cannot prosper in warm climates and has thus been grown in tropical Asia at cooler elevations in excess of 3,000 feet above sea level. In these regions, the poppy is usually found in mountains at the margin of nation states where it has often merged with ethnic insurgency or international conflict.

At its furthest extent in the early 1900s, farmers cultivated opium across a broad swath of the Eurasian land mass stretching from the Balkans; across Turkey, Persia, and India; to China and Manchuria. Since World War II, however, illicit opium cultivation has been confined to a 5,000 mile band of mountains stretching from Turkey to Laos.

By incising the head of the opium poppy, traditional farmers can extract its sticky brown sap from the egg-shaped bulb. Before processing into morphine base or heroin, the raw opium sap contains 7 to 15 percent morphine, the active drug, by weight. While morphine is easily precipitated from the poppy sap after simple boiling, the manufacture of heroin, a compound of morphine and an industrial acid, is a more complex chemical process.

Opium's survival as a recreational and medical drug for over 4,000 years seems to arise from its interaction with the human brain. Since the discovery of opiate receptors in the brain during the 1970s, there has been a major advance in our understanding of the molecular substrates of addiction--establishing, to put it simply, that opiate addiction is physiological, not simply psychological. Recent neurobiological research has found clear evidence for intrinsic mechanisms of opiate dependence and withdrawal in the locus coeruleus. Since opiates induce chronic changes in brain function, there are identifiable physical syndromes of opiate addiction and withdrawal.

In effect, the functioning of opium receptors in the human brain render most repeat or chronic users liable to lasting physical addiction, giving the global opiates market some unique attributes. Combing the nuerobiological with the economic allows us to identify these attributes of opium as a commodity:
(1.) the predisposition of humans to opiate addiction guarantees a ready market for any supplier;
(2.) physiological addiction creates a stable clientele of addicts that usually grows rapidly as new users join old, with few of either quitting;
(3.) addicts' need for a daily dosage of the drug to avoid withdrawal assures suppliers a reliable, high volume market of consumers who will place a primacy upon meeting their opiate needs.

In effect, opium combines the high price of a luxury good with the steady, almost inelastic, demand of a dietary staple, allowing it an unequaled profitability. Opiates addiction is, in sum, a natural physiological state, and addicts will pay any price to maintain the level of extrinsic opiates in their system. There is then no human activity more profitable opium marketing, allowing its entrepreneurs an extraordinary level of profit and political power.

Opiate Epoch

Unlike the rise and fall of rulers or their empires, the delineation of eras or epochs of opium production cannot be done with any real chronological precision. While the birth of a king or the capture of a capital have tidy dates, the complex economic and social processes involved in the production of a commodity like opium are far less palpable.

Within this imprecise exercise, we can nonetheless track broad historical trends, using quantitative indices and qualitative factors to discern both aspects of continuity and points of discontinuity in the world opium trade. Sometimes a major event, like the Second Opium War in 1858 or the fall of China in 1949, has such a far reaching impact that it serves to mark an historical watershed between commodity epochs. At other times, a cluster of variables--economic, political, social, and religious--combine to produce changes in supply or demand of opium so significant that they too mark a watershed between epochs of global opium production.

Opium As Commodity

As two leading American anthropologists, Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf, have taught us, the modern commerce in commodities involves much more than mere economic exchange. Since the rise of the modern world economy, commodities have--in a fundamental sense--shaped the politics, culture, and social structure of peoples around the globe. Concluding his study of sugar's modern social history, Mintz comments: The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. Similarly, from the late 18th century onwards, opium became a key commodity in the expanding commerce between Asia and the Atlantic nations, thereby becoming enmeshed in the economies and cultures of both regions.

Above all, it is opium's long history as a global commodity that has given its traffic a unique and little understood dynamic. During the 18th century, when it first emerged as a commodity, opium production grew as one part of a rising long-distance trade in natural stimulants--coffee, tea, tobacco, and coca--that tied First World consumers and Third World producers together in a global commerce. As demand for opiates rose in the 19th century, opium cultivation spread across the Eurasian land mass from Yugoslavia to Manchuria. Simultaneously, the pharmaceutical manufacture of opium products developed in the world's industrial centers.

By the time the United Nations adopted its Single Convention prohibiting all non-medicinal opiate use in 1961, the trade in legal stimulants--coffee, tea, and tobacco--ranked among the top 20 of the world's commodities with petroleum, wheat, and cotton. Although precise statistics are not available, there are indications that opium would have ranked equally high had such a list been compiled in 1906 when global drug supply reached its historic peak. In short, by the time prohibition efforts started, opium was already established as a major global commodity with the economic scale, social ramifications, and political support to resist any reduction of such a vital trade.

South West Asia

Like the term Golden Triangle, the phrase South West Asia has been coined to describe a zone of contemporary conflict that straddles conventional geographical divisions. During the 1980s, the Afghan war and the rise of heroin production in Afghanistan and Pakistan forced the coining of this neologism. Since Afghanistan is generally considered part of Central Asia and Pakistan integral to South Asia, there was a need to delineate a region unified by Islamic political issues, anti-Soviet insurgency, and opium trading. Instead of the popular term Golden Crescent, the phrase South West Asia is used in this report for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.



"One must not think life with
the mind, but with opium"

André Malraux

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