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Opium Trade In Afghanistan History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Opium, till today, is the best known source for relieving pain. The word “opium” is derived from Greek word “Opion”. In Arabia it was known as Afyun, in Chinese it is “Yapien”, in Persian it is known as “Afium”, in Sanskrit the ancient Indo-aryan language it is known as “Aahi Phen” meaning snake venom. In the North-East part of India, it is referred to as ‘Kani’. Opium contains up to 12% morphine, an opiate alkaloid, which is most frequently processed chemically to produce heroin for the illegal drug trade. The latex also includes codeine and non-narcotic alkaloids, such as palavering, thebaine and noscapine. Opium for illegal use is often converted into heroin, which is less bulky, thereby making it easier to smuggle, and which multiplies its potency to approximately twice that of morphine. Heroin can also be taken by intravenous injection, intranasal, or vaporized.

India is the only country authorised by the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) to produce gum opium. Eleven (11) other countries, i.e, Australia, Austria, France, China, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Spain Turkey and Czech Republic cultivate opium poppy, but they do not extract gum. They cut the bulb with 8″ of the stalk for processing in its entirety. This method is known as Concentrate of Poppy Straw process (CPS). In India, opium poppy involves lancing and collection of latex from the incised capsule. It is laborious and skilled job requiring considerable manpower to accomplish the task in a short time span. The capsule is the most important organ of the plant as it provides raw opium – a milky exudates. It contains about 70% of the total morphine synthesised by the plant. The terminal capsule is, in general, richer in morphine content than the lateral ones. The lancing is the longitudinal or circumferential cut by an instrument, of the capsule at appropriate stage.

Medical use

Opium Poppies are the most well known of the Papavar family as far as medicinal uses.  Historically, Opium derived from these poppies been used medicinally mainly for pain relief and sedation, always by eating or smoking the Opium.  Today, derivatives of Opium Poppies (one of the most cultivated medicinal herbs in existence) are used in many familiar medications that are strictly controlled by the government because of their addictive properties.  These include morphine, heroin, and codeine, to name just a few familiar ones.

The Corn Poppy has been used through history as a remedy for bronchitis, colds, coughs, to loosen congestion, and as a mild sedative, though scientific proof of these benefits seems sketchy at this point.  Crushed, fresh or dried flower petals are used in a tea for these purposes – about 2 teaspoons per cup in boiling water up to three times per day.

The California Poppy has been used traditionally mainly as a remedy for toothaches (the root cut and the juices applied directly), and as a tea for headaches, anxiety, and insomnia.  Children seem to benefit from this for mild cases of colic, sleeplessness, and tension or anxiety.  Prepare as above for these conditions. 

The Icelandic, Oriental, and Mexican poppies, though not overtly poisonous, are not generally used medicinally today.

Under the name Diamorphine, heroin is prescribed as a strong analgesic in the United Kingdom, where it is given via subcutaneous, intramuscular, intrathecal or intravenous route. Its use includes treatment for acute pain, such as in severe physical trauma, myocardial infarction, post-surgical pain, and chronic pain, including end-stage cancer and other terminal illnesses. In other countries it is more common to use morphine or other strong opioids in these situations.

In 2005, there was a shortage of Diamorphine in the UK, due to a problem at the main UK manufacturers. Due to this, many hospitals changed to using morphine instead of Diamorphine. Although there is no longer a problem with the manufacturing of heroin in the UK, many hospitals there have continued to use morphine.

Diamorphine continues to be widely used in palliative care in the United Kingdom, where it is commonly given by the subcutaneous route, often via a syringe driver, if patients could not easily swallow oral morphine solution. The advantage of Diamorphine over morphine is that Diamorphine is more soluble and smaller volumes of Diamorphine are needed for the same analgesic effect. Both of these factors are advantageous if giving high doses of opioids via the subcutaneous route, which is often necessary in palliative care.

Recreational use

Anthropologist Michael Agar once described heroin as “the perfect whatever drug. Tolerance quickly develops, and users need more of the drug to achieve the same effects. Its popularity with recreational drug users, compared to morphine, reportedly stems from its perceived different effects. In particular, users report an intense rush that occurs while the diacetylmorphine is being metabolized into 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM) and morphine in the brain. Equipotent injected doses had comparable action courses, with no difference in persons’ self-rated feelings of excitement, ambition, nervousness, relaxation, drowsiness, or sleepiness.

Recreational users may also administer the drug through snorting, or smoking by inhaling its vapours when heated; either with tobacco in a rolled cigarette or by heating the drug on aluminium foil from underneath. When heated the heroin powder changes to a thick liquid, similar in consistency to molten wax, and it will run across the foil giving off smoke which the user inhales through a tube, usually made from foil also so that any heroin that collects on the inside of the tube can be smoked afterward. This method of administration is known as chasing the dragon (whereas smoking methamphetamine is known as “chasing the white dragon”).

Price of the opium

In India the legal opium paste cost about Rs. 1500 per kilogram. In 2002, the price for one kilogram of opium was $300 for the farmer, $800 for purchasers in Afghanistan, and $16,000 on the streets of Europe before conversion into heroin. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports that the retail price of brown heroin varies from 14.5 euro per gram in Turkey to 110 euro per gram in Sweden, with most European countries reporting typical prices of 35-40 euro per gram. The price of white heroin is reported only by a few European countries and ranged between 27 euro and 110 euro per gram. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime claims in its 2008 World Drug Report that typical US retail prices are US$172 per gram.

History – Opium trade

The medicinal properties of opium have been known from the earliest times, and it was used as a narcotic in Sumerian and European cultures at least as early as 4000 B.C. The drug was introduced into India by the Muslims and its use spread to China. Early in the 19th cent., against Chinese prohibitions, British merchants began smuggling opium into China in order to balance their purchases of tea for export to Britain, an act that set the stage for the Opium Wars. Chinese emigrants to the United States, who were employed to build the transcontinental railroad, brought the opium-smoking habit to the West Coast.

During the 19th century, opium was grown in the United States as well as imported. Besides indiscriminate medical use, opiates were available in the United States in myriad tonics and patent medicines, and smoking in opium dens was unhindered, resulting in an epidemic of opiate addiction by the late 1800s. The generous use of morphine in treating wounded soldiers during the Civil War also produced many addicts.

Importation of opium by Chinese nationals was prohibited in 1887; in 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act required accurate labelling of patent medicines. The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 taxed and regulated the sale of narcotics and prohibited giving maintenance doses to addicts who made no effort to recover, leading to the arrest of some physicians and the closing of maintenance-treatment clinics. Since then, numerous laws attempting to regulate importation, availability, use, and treatment have been passed, and the concern with opium addiction per se has largely been replaced by concern with heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and other illegal drugs.

Large quantities of opium are still grown, some for legitimate use, on opium poppy farms in Southwest Asia (primarily Afghanistan and Pakistan), Southeast Asia (the “Golden Triangle,” primarily in Myanmar), and Latin America (primarily Colombia). The opium gum may be crudely refined and smoked (e.g., “brown sugar”) or converted to morphine and heroin. Growers usually make more for opium than for other crops, and the cultivation and refining employ hundreds of thousands of people, but the real profits go to the drug traffickers. It is estimated that the street price for heroin is 153 to 183 times that of the opium bought from the farmer. Despite laws and agreements to control its use, worldwide illicit opium traffic persists.

Opium in Afghan

The UNODC traces opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan to the 18th century. Speci¬c details appear to be scarce until increased documentation occurred with the emergence of the international drug control system in the early 20th century. In 1924, Afghanistan reported low levels of opium poppy cultivation to the League of Nations and cultivation grew steadily until it was banned in 1945. In 1972, the International Narcotics Control Board, citing suspicious illicit production increases throughout Afghanistan, identi¬ed the country as the most “immediate challenge” to the control of illicit opium and trafficking . At that time the main global sources of illicit opium were Turkey, Pakistan and Iran. For the remainder of the 1970s the three countries enforced bans on opium production, leaving a vacuum in the markets for southwest Asian illicit opium and heroin.

In 1979, the Soviet invasion decimated Afghanistan’s legitimate agricultural network. Many Afghan farmers turned to subsistence farming of the opium poppy, a transformation assisted by the vacuum in the southwest Asian opium market. This tendency was promoted by the fact that pro¬ts from opium poppy farming were used by Afghani guerrillas to buy weapons to resist the Soviet forces. The Soviet occupation lasted a decade until 1989, during which time Afghanistan opium production increased an average of 15% annually. With the Soviet exodus, the absence of substantial government in Afghanistan provided even greater opportunity for opium poppy cultivation, which continued to increase. By 1994 when the ¬rst comprehensive United Nations survey of opium poppy in Afghanistan was conducted, 71,500 ha of Afghanistan was under opium poppy cultivation. By this time, Afghanistan was established as the world’s major source of illicit opium, accounting for an estimated 60% of potential global illicit production .MacDonald and Mans¬eld (2001) speculated that the “uniqueness” of Afghanistan would lessen the possibility of enforcement tactics having any substantial effects upon illicit opium.

By 2000, Afghanistan was estimated to produce 70% of the world’s potential illicit opium. Due to the greater average yield per hectare of the Afghan poppy however, it only accounted for 37% of the global total area estimated to be under illicit poppy cultivation. Myanmar’s larger area of poppy cultivation was estimated to produce only a third of Afghanistan’s opium. The distinction between poppy cultivation and opium production is important because it is the latter that has the greatest in¬‚uence upon global opium and heroin supplies. Afghanistan and Myanmar together accounted for 93%of estimated potential global illicit opium production in 2000, with Laos accounting for 3.6%, Colombia accounting for almost 2%, and Mexico, Thailand, and Pakistan for less than 1%of production. According to the UN, Afghan farmers reserved the most fertile soil and the most advanced irrigation techniques for opium poppy. The quality of the estimates of cultivation and production is reviewed later. By 2006 Afghan produced almost 92% of the total opium produced throughout the world.

Opium – Backbone of Afghan economy

The United Nations has announced that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has soared and is expected to increase by 59% in 2006. The production of opium is estimated to have increased by 49% in relation to 2005. The Western media in chorus blame the Taliban and the warlords. The Bush administration is said to be committed to curbing the Afghan drug trade. The US is the main backer of a huge drive to rid Afghanistan of opium. Yet in a bitter irony, US military presence has served to restore rather than eradicate the drug trade.

Implemented in 2000-2001, the Taliban’s drug eradication program led to a 94 percent decline in opium cultivation. In 2001, according to UN figures, opium production had fallen to 185 tons. Immediately following the October 2001 US led invasion, production increased dramatically, regaining its historical levels. The Vienna based UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the 2006 harvest will be of the order of 6,100 tonnes, 33 times its production levels in 2001 under the Taliban government. The UN estimates that for 2006, the contribution of the drug trade to the Afghan economy is of the order of 2.7 billion. What it fails to mention is the fact that more than 95 percent of the revenues generated by this lucrative contraband accrues to business syndicates, organized crime and banking and financial institutions. A very small percentage accrues to farmers and traders in the producing country. 

The foregoing estimates are consistent with the UN’s assessment concerning the size and magnitude of the global drug trade. The Afghan trade in opiates (92 percent of total World production of opiates) constitutes a large share of the worldwide annual turnover of narcotics, which was estimated by the United Nations to be of the order of $400-500 billion. Based on 2003 figures, drug trafficking constitutes “the third biggest global commodity in cash terms after oil and the arms trade.” Intelligence agencies, powerful business, drug traders and organized crime are competing for the strategic control over the heroin routes. A large share of this multi-billion dollar revenues of narcotics are deposited in the Western banking system. Most of the large international banks together with their affiliates in the offshore banking havens launder large amounts of narco-dollars.

This trade can only prosper if the main actors involved in narcotics have “political friends in high places.”  Legal and illegal undertakings are increasingly intertwined, the dividing line between “businesspeople” and criminals is blurred. In turn, the relationship among criminals, politicians and members of the intelligence establishment has tainted the structures of the state and the role of its institutions including the Military. 

Taliban’s multimillion dollar opium poppy business was a major goal of a military operation to seize this former insurgent stronghold. With the towns in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) hands, the Marines face a problem: If they destroy the crops and curb the trade, they lose the support of the population – a problem for which they have no easy solution. Destroying crops and farmers’ livelihood would undermine the broader goal of winning the support of a population that long embraced the Taliban over an ineffective Afghan government. The US army say that they let them row because if they destroy it then, the people may turn against them in a violent way. Nationwide, the Taliban earn about $300 million a year from the opium trade, according to the United Nations.

Afghan government officials in Kabul say they’d like to start destroying crops immediately, but they are holding back in many places because the towns are still so volatile. So they feel once they have no more fighting, then they can deal with the eradication. “We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income for people in the second poorest country in the world without providing an alternative source of income,” said one of the NATO spokesmen. Poppies give residents a reason to support the Taliban because the insurgents buy the crop. The plan is to compensate farmers to cover the cost of preparing their fields for next season. A number of strategies are being considered, most including a combination of cash along with seeds and fertilizer to encourage them to switch to a legal crop like wheat or soybeans. Such formulas have had some success elsewhere in Helmand. Opium poppy cultivation dropped 33 percent last year in the province, according to the U.N. But the reductions have all been in areas where the Afghan government has first established the security and control needed to combat the Taliban full-package deal of seeds, fertilizer, crop protection and guaranteed payment.

The farmers, meanwhile, say they’re worried no one has offered a real alternative yet. Tilling the land, fertilizer, all this stuff costs a lot. Wheat would not be enough even to cover that cost. They even know American and Afghan officials want them to stop farming poppy, but they are waiting to see what alternatives they offer for them in return.

Tackling Opium Trade

The first task is to keep farmers from smugglers without antagonizing them. But most farmers don’t mind such interdictions because they see traffickers, who sometimes demand high prices for their services, as fair targets of law enforcement. In its effort to discourage poppy farming, the US may have some economic factors on its side. Poppy is growing less attractive to farmers for reasons beyond interdiction. The United Nations showed opium cultivation down 22 percent in 2009 and the number of people involved in growing it had dropped by one third. Two reasons for those declines, they are lower poppy prices due to previous overproduction in Helmand and jitters about the supply of wheat from war torn Pakistan. Poppy, with its high labour costs and falling prices, is becoming less profitable than wheat. Over time these trends may push more farmers to switch to wheat. But the farmers are much happier with opium as it gives a return of three times more than wheat.

Meanwhile, locals say, the departure of the smugglers, farm hands, and processors tied to the trade has depressed activity in the bazaar, and the less labour-intensive wheat has left people idling without work. They feel under Taliban government they were able to work and do whatever they wanted to do. The Taliban didn’t interfere with their work. The Marines and US and British aid agencies are providing money to the local government for make-work projects like building footbridges and walls and clearing irrigation ditches.

In parts of Helmand, the US and British have established “food zones” where intensive efforts have been made to shift farmers on to new crops. Those regions have seen poppy cultivation go down about one third – a pretty good success rate if it is sustainable. Other districts, particularly newly taken regions like Khan Neshin, have seen much less of this effort so far. As security improves, however, outreach to farmers may increase.


Thus, illicit opium production can be assessed to be a national, regional, and global problem. This problem is deeply rooted in local as well as global histories and may only be addressed in various and specific cultural, political and economic contexts. However, any solution to the problem of illicit drug production in Asia, as in the rest of the world, has to be achieved through a global and coordinated approach. If opium suppression is to be achieved, if it is to be sustainable and not counterproductive, it has to be implemented progressively, through use of a long run strategy, as has happened in Pakistan and Thailand. Afghanistan has suffered two decades of war and economic and political disintegration. Although the role of law enforcement is necessary to rid the country of its drug economy, concrete results will not be achieved without political stability and economic development. It is only when these conditions exist that opium suppression becomes possible in Afghanistan. This is to be achieved through a broad program of alternative livelihood development, mainstreamed into national development strategies.

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