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Heroin - An Overview

In the 1970s Turkey was the world's leading source of opium poppies and heroin, their derivative. Backed with $20 million from the US, Turkish authorities paid farmers to switch from poppies to alternative crops to help stem the illicit drug trade and confine poppy cultivation to licit uses. Other poppy growing regions rushed to take Turkey's lead in the heroin market, and in the past five years, worldwide production of heroin has past five years, worldwide production of heroin has increased more than 50 percent.

Today Burma is the world's largest producer of opium poppies followed by Iran and then Afghanistan. Making up the area in Southeast Asia known as the Golden Triangle, Burma, Thailand and Laos produced an estimated 715 tons of opium this year. The region in Southwest Asia stretching from Iran through Afghanistan south into Pakistan known as the Golden Crescent, however, produced about 820 tons.

Until 1980, Pakistan produced twice as much opium poppies as Afghanistan and Iran combined. But now, Iran and Afghanistan produce about 20 times as much opium as Pakistan. Drought in part explains this reversal as does increased enforcement measures. Pakistan drug traffickers, however, simply moved production operations across the border, while retaining a key refining and transport center in Pakistan.

Opium poppies are also grown in Mexico with the largest concentrations in the tri-state area of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango. As officials continue to crack down on traffickers in Pakistan, India, Greece and the United Arab Emirates are increasingly becoming shipping centers for heroin shipments.

For the most part, efforts to control opium production in response to growing worldwide problems of drug abuse have been stumped. Unlike the situation in Turkey where few farmers relied on opium poppies for their livelihood and grew other crops, in Thailand and other opium-producing countries, farmers rely more heavily on the poppy. The Pushtuns (Pathans) along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan have grown poppies and produced great quantities of opium gum for centuries. The Kurds and several other ethnic groups in Iran are also traditional opium producers. Here, the deeply entrenched opium culture, which pervades many social and religious practices, has strongly resisted eradication programs. In Mexico, where depressed economic conditions prevail, farmers eagerly welcome the high earnings from opium production.

Customarily planted in the fall, the opium poppy requires a moderate amount of water, grows three to four feet tall on a thin stalk and produces several blossoms and egg-sized seedpods. When the blossoms fall, farmers lance the pods and collect the white, latex-like raw opium that oozes out and coagulates into a gum. Through a series of steps, which takes from one to three days, the gum is heated and mixed with chemicals to produce heroin. A single kilo of heroin requires 10 kilos of opium gum.

In Southwest Asia, opium farmers have traditionally sold the gum to merchants in the small border towns of the Khyber Pass region. The merchants store the gum until they can sell it to traffickers who move it by many routes to markets outside Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Mexico acapardores, or gatherers, buy the opium gum from cultivators on orders from a laboratory operator or middleman trafficker who profits by supplying gum to the laboratories.

For years drug-producing countries have viewed drugs as an American problem because the US consumes more drugs than any other nation. While addiction among tribal Pushtuns is generally not severe, Pakistan and Afghanistan and other opium-producing countries are beginning to realize addiction is a growing problem in their own nations. The rapidly increasing flow of opiates into India where opiate cultivation is licensed has spurred the practice of opium in morning tea among farm workers, and in cold milk as a party drink among the elite. According to reports of several Russian detectors living with Afghan rebels, Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan use drugs extensively and some sell gasoline, ammunition and stolen guns to support their habits.

After long negotiations with officials, farmers in Thailand agreed to cut poppy cultivation by 30 percent in exchange for improved roads. But while the United Nations has spent millions of dollars in the last few years setting up pilot crop-substitution programs to show peasants how to grow coffee, kidney beans and potatoes, American-financed rural development projects to build and repair roads have considerably eased the transport of opiates for Thailand's own addicts as well as for traffickers. It is believed that as much as 85 to 90 percent of Thailand's poppy crop is consumed by its population. Reports have also surfaced that fertilizer provided for substitute crops has been used to enhance opium productions.

On the surface no other economic endeavors seem to offer such profitable returns. Opium farmers can sell a kilo of opium gum for $30 to $35. In the US, a kilo of heroin sells wholesale for $55,000 to $285,000. Centuries of tillage and erosion in Pakistan have so severely depleted the soil in many areas that farmers are unwilling to plant the few remaining fertile spots with crops much less remunerative than opium poppies. In Afghanistan, rebel guerrillas reportedly use opium earnings to buy arms to fight Soviet troops. In Burma, opium is also alleged to be a major source of wealth for several "rebel" armies, including the Burmese Communist Party, the Kachin Independent Army and the Shan United Army, who have been fighting the Burmese government for decades and who control most poppy regions.

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