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In the pharmaceutical industry, opium is derived from a natural substance extracted from the poppy plant and serves as the raw element for painkillers such as morphine and codeine. The illegal drug heroin, also a derivative of opium, is possibly the most addictive drug in the opiates family.
Opium has been the subject of popular fascination for centuries. Two reasons might explain this phenomenon: First, opium and heroin create a fast and strong addiction in their users, and second, images of opium have been much used by European artists and writers in the last two centuries in their representations of an exotic Far East. Literary representations include Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Jean Cocteau’s Opium (1928), and even an illustrated book for children, The Blue Lotus (1936), by Belgian author Herge, features some scenes set in an opium house in Shanghai. Nowadays, the word opium has become a part of everyday life, even though it still represents a real danger. For example, Opium is the name of a long-standing, luxury Yves Saint Laurent perfume. In 1967, the U.S. rock group Velvet Underground released a song titled Heroin; in 1969, the Rolling Stones recorded a song cowritten with Marianne Faithfull called Sister Morphine.
In the 19th century, England traded opium in China against the Chinese state’s will, and that conflict was a contributing factor in the Anglo-Chinese War (1839-42), also known as the Opium War. The Second Opium War (1856-60) was also known as the Arrow War or, in China, the Anglo-French War.
Presently, Afghanistan is the largest world producer and exporter of illicit opium, while Indiaand to a lesser degree Turkey-produces most of the “legal” opium used for medical and pharmaceutical purposes through a licensing system.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), and other sources, thousands of Afghan farmers grow and harvest opium poppies in rural zones. The International Monetary Fund has found that opium accounts for up to 50 percent of the Afghan economy.
Although sometimes part of an underground economy, farmers involved in poppy cultivation may run a family business or a small enterprise, and reinvest the annual profits into equipment, machines, and buying new fields, as in any mainstream business. They do not worry much about ethical issues, citing the fact that they live in a poor region without many resources. However, the risks are high because these farmers can easily become addicted to their product in a country where solutions to drug-related problems (like detoxification clinics) do not exist.
According to UNOCHA, the harvest of an average of just six kilograms of opium poppies provides the equivalent of about $3,000 to an Afghan farmer for a year of work, making it much more profitable than any other crop in the country. Apart from profitability, poppy cultivation also has social meanings and cultural roles. In Afghanistan, owning a poppy field is a symbol of wealth and can even serve as a gift in marriages.
Introduced in the 1960s in various Asian countries, so-called “opium replacement programs” tried to shift farmers involved in poppy cultivation toward other products, vegetables, and grains. In the current combat against illegal opium production, plans have been created to reimburse Afghan farmers for destroying their lucrative harvests of poppy plant. This is a rare case when the targeted destruction of natural plants on a large scale can have positive effects on mankind.
However, the fight against narcotics faces extensive corruption and poverty in Afghanistan. A 2006 World Bank and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report states, “Efforts to combat opium production in Afghanistan have…failed to prevent the consolidation of the drugs trade in the hands of fewer powerful players with strong political connections.”
There are also strong links between the illegal drug trade and terrorism in Afghanistan, as opium has become a way for terrorist organizations to access large amounts of money. In other words, it is the drug users and heroin addicts in Western countries who, albeit indirectly, finance some terrorist actions. According to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, other countries producing illicit heroin include Colombia, Burma (Myanmar), and Mexico.
- Jean Cocteau, Opium: Journal d’une Desintoxication, (Delamain & Boutelleau, 1928);
- Common Sense for Drug Policy, “Heroin Production on the Rise Again in Afghanistan,” Common Sense for Drug Policy. November 19, 2007;
- Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821);
- Herge (Georges Remi), Le Lotus Bleu (The blue lotus) (Casterman, 1936);
- International Monetary Fund (IMF), “IMF Executive Board Approves US$119.1 Million PRGF Arrangement for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” News Release (n.6/144, June 26, 2006), www.imf.org;
- United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks, “Afghanistan: Interview with Female Opium Farmer,” www.payvand.com
- World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Afghanistan’s Drug Industry: Structure, Functioning, Dynamics, and Implications for Counter-Narcotics Policy,” worldbank.org.