Opium Cultivation

The History of Opium Cultivation

Opium cultivation and use has a long history dating back to the Neolithic age. With respect to cultivation and production, the British Colonial and Golden Triangle periods stand out above the rest.

Opium in the British Colonial Period

In order to expand their empire, the British took control of poppy producing regions of India in the 17th century. Soon they began selling a mixture of tobacco and opium to China. Although officially prohibited, consumption in China continued to grow. By 1906, an estimated 27% of the male population in China was addicted. Global production peaks at this point with an estimated 41,000 tons of opium produced. 39,000 tons were consumed in China alone. Since then, Chinese consumption has dropped but worldwide consumption has increased.

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is the term given to nations in Southeast Asia involved with opiate production and trade. Opium was brought to this region by hill tribes migrating from China. Most of the global heroin supply, a form of processed opium, came from this region between the early 19th century and 1991 when Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer. Production in the Golden Triangle increased after the end of World War II when China clamped down on production domestically. More of the market share was transferred to this region in 1955 when production was suppressed in Iran by the ruling government. The bulk of the cultivation was and still is in northeastern Myanmar. The raw opium was then converted to heroin along the Thai-Myanmar border. The finished product was transported towards Bangkok) for distribution into international markets. The US was the main destination of the Golden Triangle’s heroin, famously known as China White.

Illicit Opium Cultivation Centers

The opium cultivation centers of the world can change drastically. There are several reasons for this, including changing political situations and variable weather patterns. Since 2001, production in Afghanistan has been increasing. Over the past decade, Afghanistan and has become by far the leading producer of illicit opium. According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan cultivated 193,000 hectares of opium poppies. This correlates to 8,200 metric tons of opium, accounting for 93% of the global supply. Other leading cultivators of illicit opium include: Columbia, Laos, Mexico, Myanmar and Pakistan.

Legal Opium Cultivation

Opium poppies are cultivated legally in a number of countries to provide the pharmaceutical industry with the plant extracts required to produce a variety of painkillers such as codeine and morphine as well as antidotes used to treat overdose of heroin and other drugs. Legal opium poppy cultivation is authorized in at least 19 countries for pharmaceutical use including: Australia, Austria, China, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, India, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Macedonia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom

South Korea, China, India and Japan are the only countries to produce opium from the poppy capsule. Of these, India is the only county that legally exports opium. The other countries usually produce the materials used by the legal drug industry by the Gregory Process. In this, where the entire plant (aside from the roots and leaves) are mashed and stewed in a dilute acid before the active alkaloids are recovered from acid-base extraction and purification. This technique is used because it lends itself to modern mechanized agricultural techniques and captures more of the active components that can be sold.

Legally Produced Opiates and Black Market Sales

Australia is the leading producer of legal opiates, accounting for about 40% percent of global supply. The bulk of this occurs in Tasmania, an island that is difficult to access. In India processed opium is sold on the black market, as the rate for legal opium is fixed by the government at a low rate. The government makes an effort to combat this by requiring farmers to sell 56 kilograms of opium per 0.1 hectare per year in order to maintain their license. However, this is not completely effective.

Global Flow of Opium Products

Precise quantification of the global flow of opium and heroin is difficult due a lack of public records. However, general distribution information is available. Transport can take the form of land, sea or air delivery.

Afghani and Southwest Asian Distribution

Opium and Heroin from Southwest Asia has traditionally taken two routes. The Balkan Route through Iran and Turkey on toward Europe is the primary path of opiate transport. Another major transport route is the Silk Route which leaves northern Afghanistan through central Asia before arriving in Russia.

Afghani Opium in Iran

Iran is estimated to have the highest per capita use of opium globally. Because of this and strict law enforcement, opium prices are very high. Consequently, large quantities of opium are smuggled through Herat and other border towns in Afghanistan into Iran for local consumption.

Southeast Asian Distribution

Myanmar produces opiates that are sent overland to other Southeast Asian nations. Australia and North America receives shipments from this region that are smuggled by maritime channels. Significant amounts of opium and heroin are sent by land to China for local consumption. Some of this smuggled heroin is sent to Hong Kong and other regions for distribution to more affluent areas of the world.

Latin American Distribution

Although only small quantities of opiates are produced in Latin America, the region is an important source of heroin smuggled into the United States. Most heroin in Latin America comes from Colombia and Mexico. Colombian heroin arrives directly via commercial airlines by couriers smuggling 1-2 grams at a time. Mexican product typically arrives over land routes through the border with the US in commercial and private vehicles.

Opium Profits

Cultivation of opium is one of the most profitable crops for farmers to grow. As a percentage of the total value of the finished product however, farmers receive the smallest slice of the pie. In 2002, Afghan farmers received $300 for a single kilogram of opium. Purchasers resold the product for $800, and the equivalent amount of product in the form of heroin fetched $16,000 on the streets of Europe. Traffickers make the most profit but make numerous payments to regional leaders, border guards, police, etc. The estimated value of the global opium trade was $65 billion in 2009.

The Opium Plant

Opium poppy is the species of plant that opium and poppy seeds are extacted from. The latin name papaver somniferum means sleep-bringing poppy. Opium poppy is an annual plant growing to a height of up to 150 cm. The flower consists of four lilac colored petals. These petals are weakly attached to the opium fruit, known as pods or capsules] (http://www.houseofopium.com/en/somniferum.html). Each plant yields between 3-8 opium pods. The pods contain the active constituents that are harvested 3-7 days after the petals fall off. Each pod contains over 200 tiny, [kidney shaped seeds. The seeds escape from slots in the upper part of the capsule and are known to self-sow in British gardens. The seeds are edible in raw or cooked form and used in many recipes as they contain no narcotic activity.

The Process of Opium Cultivation

The steps involved in opium cultivation include:

* Land Preparation
* Planting
* Weeding and thinning
* Harvesting

Land Preparation for Poppies

The land is prepared by turning, tilling and breaking up soil high in nutrients such as potash. Fertilizers may also be added to increase the nutrient content of the soil.

Planting Poppies

During planting, poppy seeds can be buried just under the soil or simply tossed by hand. About 3 kilograms of seed are needed for every 1 hectare of land. Other crops may be planted within the poppy fields at this time as well. Crops such as maize help protect young plants from heavy rains and also prevent excessive weeding.

Weeding and Thinning of the Poppies

After about a month of growth, weeds and weaker plants are removed (thinning) so that more nutrients and room will be available for the healthier plants.

Harvesting Opium

Finally, the poppy plant can be harvested between 3-4 months after planting, when the poppies are in full bloom. Just after the petals fall off, the main capsule is scored multiple times allowing the opium gum to ooze out. The next day the gum is scraped off and the process repeated up to five times or until no more gum oozes out. The gum is then dried for a few days before being sold or stored for later processing into morphine or heroin. Lastly, the capsules are cut from the stem, dried, and broken open for their seeds which can be sold or used the following year.

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