Some science behind the scenes

Opium supply routes

Opium’s use and the consequent trade routes associated with opium have changed over the years, but there has been a trade in opium for several thousand years.  Cultivation of opium poppies dates back to at least the Neolithic Age.  The Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Indian, Minoan, Greek, Roman, Persian and Arab Empires each made widespread use of opium.

Paracelsus carried opium in the pommel of his sword and named the alcoholic tincture laudanum – ‘that which is to be praised’; another physician addict, Avicenna, died of opium poisoning in Persia in 1037.  The production of opium has even been the subject of war.  The Opium Wars between China and the British Empire took place in the late 1830s through the early 1860s, when the Chinese attempted to stop the sale of opium by Britain, in China.  At one time in the late 1800s “more than a quarter of the male population of China were regular consumers”.  By 1906, China was producing 85% of the world's opium, some 35,000 tons, and 27% of its adult male population regularly used opium —13.5 million people consuming 39,000 tons of opium yearly.

Licit production

Legal opium production is allowed under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and other international drug treaties, subject to strict supervision by the law enforcement agencies of individual countries. The leading legal production method is the Gregory process, whereby the entire poppy, excluding roots and leaves, is mashed and stewed in dilute acid solutions. The alkaloids are then recovered via acid-base extraction and purified. Legal opium produced in this way thus has a very different profile to illegal and ‘pure production’ opium and is not recommended.

Legal opium production in India is much more traditional. The opium paste is dried and processed in two government opium factories before it is packed into cases for export. Some purification of chemical constituents is done in India for domestic production, but typically the raw opium is exported ‘as is’ by foreign importers.  Legal opium importation and subsequent processing from India and Turkey is conducted by companies such as Mallinckrodt,  Abbott Laboratories, Purdue Pharma, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson and Johnson, Johnson Matthey, Sanofi Aventis, Shionogi Pharmaceutical and Macfarlan Smith in the United Kingdom.

Currently, Australia and Tasmania, Turkey and India are the major producers of poppy for medicinal purposes.  The British government has also given the go-ahead for one pharmaceutical company to cultivate opium poppies on a commercial scale in England for medicinal reasons.  Opium poppy cultivation in the United Kingdom does not need a licence; however, a licence is required for those wishing to extract opium for medicinal products.

The World Health Organization has estimated that the current production of opium needs to increase fivefold to account for the total global medical need.

Illicit production

In terms of illicit opium, at one time Burma was a major supplier of opium, but restrictions placed in early 2000 have resulted in the movement of poppy farmers to new areas. The golden triangle is also still a major source, as is the golden crescent.   Pakistan, Colombia and Mexico are also growers.  The map below from the CIA [source Wikipedia] show the trade routes and source countries  as well as the destinations of both illicit opiates and cocaine.

In the mid 2000s Afghanistan supplanted Burma to become the world's largest opium producer. In late 2004, the U.S. government estimated that 4.5% of the country's total cropland was used for poppy cultivation, and produced 76% of the world's supply, yielding 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.  By 2006, the figure rose to  82% of the world's supply.  A large percentage of this opium is processed into morphine base and heroin in drug labs in Afghanistan.

It is no accident that the wars of the world are taking place in countries supplying oil and the basis of drugs.