OPIUM, HEROIN AND THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE

OPIODS AND OPIATES

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heroin
Opium, morphine and heroin and synthetic drugs with similar effects and chemistry are known as opiates or “opiods” and are regarded as analgesics (painkillers). One of the biggest problems with opiates is that they can be addictive. Efforts to produce non-addictive analgesics based on opium have only lead to more addictive drugs.

Opiates are alkaloids. They work by binding to opiod receptors in the human body found mainly in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. There are at least four major classes of opium receptors in the body. The effects that opiates have depends on which receptors they bind to.

The are four broad classes of opiods: 1) endogenous opiod peptides produced by the body; 2) opium alkaloids such as morphine and codeine that are produced by the opium plant; 3) semi-synthetic opiods such as heroin and oxycodene; and 4) fully synthetic opiods such as pethidine and thethadone that have structures unrelated to opium alkaloids..

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morphine
Websites and Resources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) justice.gov/dea/concern ; Vaults of Erowid erowid.org ; United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) unodc.org ; Wikipedia article on illegal drug trade Wikipedia ; Frank’s A-to-Z on Drugs talktofrank.com ; Streetdrugs.org streetdrugs.org ; Council of Foreign Relations Forgotten Drug War article cfr.org/drugs/forgotten-drug-war ; Illegal Drugs, country by country listing, CIA cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Books: Buzzed by Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D. Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D. of the Duke University Medical Center (Norton, 2003); Consuming Habits: Drugs in Anthropology and History by Goodman, Sharratt and Lovejoy; Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times and Places by Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter (Cambridge University Press).

Book: Opium, a History by Martin Booth (1998, St. Martin's Press); Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson (Chronicle)

Opium and the Opium Poppy

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raw opium seized in Afghanistan
Opium is an addictive narcotic made from the dried, bitter, thickened latex of the seed pod a certain kinds of poppies. Used as a medicine and painkiller and for recreation, it can be smoked, eaten, drunk or made into the more powerful drugs such as morphine and heroin. About 10 kilograms of opium produces one kilogram of morphine which yields one kilograms of heroin.

Opium, heroin and morphine all derived from the opium poppy. There are numerous species of poppies, including the corn poppy, the Oriental poppy and the California poppy (California's state flower), but only two varieties of poppies (Papaver somniferum and Papaver bractatum ) contain extractable amounts of opium and only Papaver somniferum is used in the legal and illegal opium trade.

Believed to be native to the Mediterranean area and sometimes raised as a garden plant, Papaver somniferum produces lovely flowers that vary greatly in size and some in a variety of colors, including with white, pink, red, and purple. It comes in dozens of varieties, adapted to different climates and soils. The dried seed cases are sometimes used for decoration and the seeds can be used as a flavoring for cakes and bread.

The opium poppy produces a number of alkaloids. Morphine is the most prevalent, making up 10 to 16 percent of raw opium. There are lesser amounts of codeine, a narcotic alkaloid that is milder than morphine.

See Separate Articles on the Golden Triangle, Opium, Heroin and Methamphetamines and the Use, Production and Trade of These Drugs in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Morphine and Heroin

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Morphine
Morphine is a natural alkaloid derived from opium seed pod. It and codeine occur naturally in opium and are the active ingredients in opium that get a person high. Available in a powder and in liquid form, it is named after the Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, who was sometimes dedicated with a handful of opium poppies.

Morphine is still regarded as the best means for treating violent pain and is still widely used to treat the pain from things like kidney stones, acute pancreatitis and severe injuries. Ambulances carry it to treat burn victims, relax people pinned in crashed vehicles so they can be more easily removed, and provide immediate relief for people with congestive heart failure by dilating blood vessels and preventing fluid from backing in the lungs.

Heroin is a derivative of morphine. Known by a host of nicknames including smack, junk and H, it is usually sold in the form of a white, beige or chocolate brown powder. When taken orally it rapidly break down into morphine in the body, but when injected, and to a lesser extent, when smoked, it produces an overwhelming rush, or surge of pleasure.

Heroin is one of the most addictive substances known to man. It is significantly more potent than morphine and enters the brain from the blood more easily. Heroin comes in various grades. Pure heroin hydrochloride is a white powder. It is prized for purity and is sometimes referred to China White. Lower grades are brown in color as a result of various impurities and is called brown sugar. The lowest quality heroin is black tar, often from Mexico. Heroin sold the streets is usually cut with things like talc, baking powder, or quinine. The amount of heroin varies from 10 percent to 70 percent.

OPIUM CULTIVATION

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opium poppies
Opium is an ideal cash crop and is practical for people living in remote areas with poor roads because it doesn't spoil or rot, the buyers come to them, it is relatively easy to transport over a long distance and it brings a much higher price than conventional cash crops. A pound of opium commands the same price as a quarter ton of rice and is much easier to get to market deal than a bulky crop like potatoes. Some farmers consume opium but many grow it just for money. Those that consume it sometimes get so absorbed smoking it they neglect clothing, health care and even food and the fields that produce the opium.

Opium grows best at an altitude of 3,000 to 6,000 feet in hot areas. It is usually grown in remote valleys and hillsides in mountainous regions because the climate in these areas are often ideal for opium growing. Remote areas are also advantageous because they are often beyond the reach of the government and can be protected by local militias. Authorities are usually not welcome in these areas for obvious reasons and if the do get in they often have difficulty finding and eradicating opium.

In addition to the social costs of opium cultivation---addiction, a lazy, spaced out population---the slash and burn farming techniques used to grow it cause deforestation, severe soil erosion, and other environmental problems. Opium depletes the soil quickly, and consequently it rotated with nutrient-providing crops or grown using slash-and-burn techniques, growing it in one area until nutrients in the soil are depleted and then slashing and burning a new area and growing crops there until the soil is depleted, and repeating the process again.

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Opium poppy
Opium and heroin production is poverty based. Most of the money is made by the smugglers and dealers. Farmers are paid a relative pittance. Between the time it leaves their hands and hits the streets it increases in value about 5,000 times. A typical farmers earns $600 from his crop, barely enough for a farmer to feed his family and handful of animals. Many opium farmers live in villages without electricity or running water.

Websites and Resources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) justice.gov/dea/concern ; Vaults of Erowid erowid.org ; United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) unodc.org ; Wikipedia article on illegal drug trade Wikipedia ; Frank’s A-to-Z on Drugs talktofrank.com ; Streetdrugs.org streetdrugs.org ; Council of Foreign Relations Forgotten Drug War article cfr.org/drugs/forgotten-drug-war ; Illegal Drugs, country by country listing, CIA cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Books: Buzzed by Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D. Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D. of the Duke University Medical Center (Norton, 2003); Consuming Habits: Drugs in Anthropology and History by Goodman, Sharratt and Lovejoy; Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times and Places by Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter (Cambridge University Press).

Book: Opium, a History by Martin Booth (1998, St. Martin's Press); Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson (Chronicle)

Opium Growing

Opium poppies are relatively easy to grow and do well in places where that other crops have difficulty taking root. Adaptable plants, they grow well in harsh soils and flourish in places with little water as well as in places with plentiful water supplies as long as heavy rains do not damage the flowers. Opium takes only about two months to reach maturity and farmers usually also grow it with dry-land rice, potatoes, cabbage, or vegetables.

Opium can earn farmers far more money than other crops. Opium is a labor intensive crop that requires five times as much labor as wheat. The fields require a lot of weeding and planting and harvesting requires a lot of manpower and time to gather a relatively small amount of opium.

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opium in Afghanistan

Opium is planted in the autumn and harvested two times: in the spring and early summer. Before planting, opium farmers often taste the soil. If it is sweet (meaning its has a high lime content) it is ideal for growing opium. To prepare the fields, overgrowth is burned off, and the soil is tilled and fertilized In many places planting is a family affair with men poking holes in the soil with dibble sticks while women and children follow behind sowing seeds.

Opium poppies look like young dandelions when they sprout. Just before harvest time the poppies bloom and produce fields of brightly colored flowers.

Opium depletes the soil quickly.

Opium Harvesting

Opium harvesting begins after the opium poppies have bloomed and their petals have fallen off, leaving behind a swollen pod (also called capsules), which is usually bulbous-shaped but sometimes is elongated or oblong. Opium is derived from the sap or latex produced inside the pod before seeds form. The latex can be white or pink. Ripe seed-laden capsules produce very little or no opium.

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poppies ready to harvest
Harvesters make a shallow incision in poppy's pod with a sharp blade or needle-like knife, allowing the milky, alkaloid-rich latex to oozes from of tiny tubes in the pod. The opium is allowed to ooze out overnight. Harvesters return the next day to scrape of the latex---now blackened raw opium---with an iron scoop or crescent-shaped tool. The opium is usually scraped off in the morning before the heat of the day make it stick too tightly to the pod. The next day the harvesters return again and keep collecting the raw opium as long as it oozes out of the pod.

It takes about 2,000 poppy plants (each with a single flower and capsule) to produce to one kilo of opium. Each capsule yields is lanced four or five times. T quality of the opium gets progressively better until the third lancing and deteriorates after that.

The buyers, often tribal leaders, usually come to the farmers to buy their crops. This is very convenient for the farmers. Moving crops such as grains or vegetables to a market can entail a lot of work and money.

The brokers usually take a 20 percent cut, sometimes more f they lent the farmers money to grow their crops. The brokers deliver the opium to refining operations. If the market is flooded sometimes they will store the opium until the price rises. Opium retains its potency for a long time and can be stored for years.

Opium Cultivation in Southeast Asia

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opium harvesting
Many of the hill tribes in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar have traditionally produced opium as their main source of income. Chinese traders introduced opium to ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia. The French as well as the English grew it as a cash crop. One forth of the money the French earned in Southeast Asia was generated from opium. The French gave poppy seeds to ethnic minorities in Laos, and gave them advise on how to increase their opium yields. At one point about 90 percent of the Laos's total opium output was produced by the Hmong.

Golden Triangle is the world's largest and most famous opium growing region. Covering an area the size of Nevada and at one time the source of 60 percent of the heroin consumed in United States, it embraces the lovely green mountains and valleys of northern Thailand, western Myanmar (Burma) and northeastern Laos. Most of the opium and heroin is produced in Myanamr and to a lesser extent Laos. The section of the Golden Triangle in Thailand is pretty tame these days. Many former opium-growing areas are now popular trekking areas. Production in Myanmar and Laos are much lower than they used to.

Many minorities live in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet, an altitude perfect for growing opium poppies. Opium and corn are often grown together. Opium is planted in September or October and harvested after the New Year. Corn is planted in May or June and harvested in August or September before opium is planted.

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opium harvesting
Before planting Hmong farmers taste the soil. If it is sweet (meaning its has a high lime content) then the soil is ideal for growing opium. During planting men march along poking holes in the soils with a dibble stick while women and children follow behind sowing seeds.

The social costs of opium cultivation include addiction, a lazy-spaced population. Some blame the degradation of the soil in the region by slash and burn agriculture on opium. Slash and burn farming techniques used to raise opium have caused heavy deforestation, severe soil erosion, and other environmental problems. Opium depletes the soil quickly, and consequently many of the tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic---settling on one area to raise an opium crop and then moving on to a new place once the soil was worn out.

Individual Hill Tribes and Opium Production

Many of the hill tribes in Southeast Asia have traditionally produced opium as their main source of income. Chinese traders introduced opium to ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia. One forth of the money the French earned in Southeast Asia was generated from opium. The French gave poppy seeds to ethnic minorities in Laos, and gave them advise on how to increase their opium yields. At one point about 90 percent of the Laos's total opium output was produced by the Hmong (Miao).

Many minorities live in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet, an altitude perfect for growing opium poppies. Opium and corn are often grown together. Opium is planted in September or October and harvested after the New Year. Corn is planted in May or June and harvested in August or September before opium is planted. Opium grows well in poor soils. Before planting Miao farmers taste the soil. If it is sweet (meaning its has a high lime content) then the soil is ideal for growing opium. During planting men march along poking holes in the soils with a dibble stick while women and children follow behind sowing seeds.

The Yao, Hmong, Akha, Lahu and Lisu in Thailand have traditionally grown rice to eat and opium for medicine and money. Profits are used to buy jewelry, silver bars, rifles, radios, pigs and buffalos.

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opium harvesting
The Wa, a group of former-head-hunters, now controls some of the major opium growing areas in Myanmar. The Karens live in the lowlands rather than in the mountains. Karen farmers are known for growing opium but no consuming it.

The Lisus, Akha and Hmong, have traditionally been the biggest opium producers in the Golden Triangle'. Hmong men in some villages don't do much except sit around the village and get drunk or smoke opium. Akha women are known as being hardworkers while men waste away much of their life smoking opium.

The social costs of opium cultivation include addiction and a lazy-spaced out population. Opium toleration policies in Thailand have ended. There the Hmong and other groups have been encouraged to grow alternative cash crops. At one point about 90 percent of the Laos's total opium output was produced by the Hmong. The Hmong have long used opium for ritual and medicinal purposes. In the 1970s many Hmong smoked opium on occasion, but not to the point of addiction. It was regarded as acceptable for elderly people to smoke opium and pass away the end of their life in peaceful euphoria but was considered disgraceful for young people to become addicted. National Geographic recounted a story about a Hmong man who ordered his son to stop smoking. The young man tried and failed. The father then told him to kill himself. He did.

Some blame the degradation of the soil by slash and burn agriculture on opium. Slash and burn farming techniques used to raise opium have caused heavy deforestation, severe soil erosion, and other environmental problems. Opium depletes the soil quickly, and consequently many of the tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic---settling on one area to raise an opium crop and then moving on to a new place once the soil was worn out.

Opium, Morphine and Heroin Production

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The raw opium scraped from the pods must be prepared or refined into a form that can be smoked or made into morphine. To do this the raw opium is dissolved in water with calcium hydroxide and simmered over a very low heat, producing a brown solution that is filtered to remove impurities such as plant material, soil, and waxes and fibers in the opium pods. The solution is then evaporated slowly over a low heat and the resulting smokable opium is pressed into bricks.

Pharmaceutical companies extract opium using the Gregory process which involves mashing and cooking the entire poppy excluding the roots and leaves in a diluted acid solution and then isolating alkaloids such as morphine and codeine using the Acid/Base extraction and purification method.

Heroin is made from morphine paste, which in turn is derived from opium. Morphine base and crude heroin can be easily manufactured from opium by anyone with some basic knowledge of chemistry and easy-to-obtain materials. To produce morphine, opium is dissolved in water and reacted with lime fertilizer, causing the morphine to precipitate out. This crude morphine is purified further by reacting it again, this time with ammonia, and mechanically filtering it. The resulting morphine base weighs about only 10 percent of the original quantity of opium. Medical morphine is processed further so it can be injected or swallowed.

To make heroin, morphine is reacted with acetic anhydride, a chemical also used in the production aspirin in a five step process that involves: 1) cooking the morphine for six hours at 85 C with an equivalent weight of acetic anhydride; 2) purifying it with water and hydrochloric acid; 3) adding sodium carbonate to make the particulates settle out, resulting in crude No. 3 brown sugar heroin; 4) heating the heroin in a mixture of alcohol and activated charcoal; and 5) dissolving the heroin in alcohol and precipitating out nearly pure white flakes of heroin when a mixture of ether and hydrochloric acid is added.

The fifth step is by far the most difficult and dangerous because the ether can easily explode. This step yields easy-to-inject “No. 4 heroin,” of China White, that is the most sought after in Western markets. The purity and quality of heroin is determined by the purity of the extracted morphine. Most black heroin has a low purity level because of contaminant left after the refinement of opium into morphine.

Heroin Production Laboratories

Heroin is produced mostly in illegal labs located deep in the remote places. Often they are little more than shacks, set up temporarily in the jungle or mountains, with some modest lab equipment, plastic basins, rubber tubing, bottles of chemicals, picnic table and simple presses. Sometimes they are quickly thrown together to fulfill a single order and can be quickly taken down if authorities are seen in the area.

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Synthesis of Heroin from Opium

A typical lab keeps the chemicals necessary to produce the morphine and heroin stored in industrial drums. These include calcium hydroxide, needed to cook the raw opium into morphine; hard-to-get acetic anhydride, needed to make heroin; ammonium chloride, which transforms the morphine into low-grade No. 3 heroin; and volatile ether which turns the brown heroin into 90 percent pure No. 4 heroin.

The heroin is processed into one kilo bricks, sometimes stamped with logo of the producer . One kilo of crude morphine paste is produced from 10 to 12 kilos of opium. One kilo of paste can be transformed into one kilo of heroin by treating it with acetic anhydride.

Some workers became addicted simply by breathing in the steam and fumes coming from the vats used to simmer the opium gum. One addict who got hooked by working in a morphine paste lab told Newsweek, “When you get home, after the opium wears off, your legs and arms begin to ache, and so you start eating or smoking opium to relieve the pain.”

Golden Triangle and the Opium and Heroin Trade

The Golden Triangle is one of the world's largest and most in famous opium-growing regions. Covering an area the size of Nevada and mountainous Golden Triangle is probably named after the gold once used to barter for opium, it embraces the lovely green mountains and valleys of northern Thailand, western Burma and northeastern Laos. The Golden Traingle is also one of the poorest regions in Asia. In some places the addiction rate is higher than the literacy rate. Most of the people that live here are ethnic minorities known as hill tribes.

At one time about 70 percent of the heroin on the streets in the United States originated in the Golden Triangle. The region produced 3,000 tons of opium in 1996, 60 percent of the global supply. In the late 1990s, the Golden Crescent in Pakistan, Iran and particularly Afghanistan surpassed the Golden Triangle as the world's largest opium-growing area.

Myanmar produces 90 percent of the heroin and opium produced in the Golden Triangle. Laos produces some but much less than Myanmar. Thailand used to produce quite a lot but it doesn’t anymore. Many of the former opium growing areas in Thailand are now popular trekking areas. Sometimes opiums harvests are lower than they otherwise might be due to heavy rains and cold winters in the area. In addition, Chinese authorities have tried to crank down on the drug production and smuggling along China’s border with the Golden Triangle area.

In 1994, it was estimated the drug baron Khun Sa and the United Wa State Army controlled 75 percent of the heroin originating in the Golden Triangle. A Panthay Chinese Muslim from Burma, Ma Zhengwen, assisted Khun Sa in selling his heroin in north Thailand. In 1996, Khun Sa retired and the United Wa State Army took over many of the areas he controlled.

According to Wikipedia: “Over the two decades of his unrivalled dominance of the Shan state, from 1974 to 1994, the share of New York street heroin coming from the Golden Triangle—the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos—rose from 5 percent to 80 percent. It was 90 percent pure, "the best in the business", according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And Khun Sa, the DEA thought, had most of that trade. [Source: Wikipedia]

History of the Golden Triangle Opium Trade

Opium was introduced to China by Arab traders during the reign of Kublai Khan (1279-94). The drug was highly valued for its medicinal qualities and was grow by some ethnic minorities in south China to raise money to pay tributes to the Chinese Emperors.

Opium as a major cash crop was introduced to the Golden Triangle by the British in the colonial period. It was grown as a cash crop for the French as well as the British. But it was Chinese who once fought for the Kuomintang troops with Chiang Kai-shek against Chairman Mao's Red Army that introduced big time production and smuggling.

The British aggressively marketed opium in China. The result: lots of addicts. Some smoked the drug in opium deans. Others took opium pills. Cheap pill known as pen yen gave rise to the expression have a "yen" for something. Chinese who came to the United States in the 19th century to work as laborers brought opium smoking with them. Opium dens opened in San Francisco and towns where Chinese railroad workers stayed. By 1890, there were a number of "smoke houses" in the basements in back-ally buildings in New York. The customers included prostitutes, showgirls, businessmen and tourist as well as Chinamen.

Kuomingtan and the Golden Triangle Drug Trade

In 1949, the remnant's of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomingtan (Chinese nationalists) army retreated to the mountain of Burma along the Chinese border and tried to organize attacks against the Red Army. To raise money the Kuomintan encouraged peasant farmers to raise opium, which the Chinese nationalists sold for huge profits. Later the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma financed their operation with money from the opium and heroin trade.

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “Following Mao Zedong's victory in China in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang soldiers came streaming south, and, supported by the surviving Republic of China government in Taiwan—and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)— they tried in vain to "liberate" the mainland from their new sanctuaries in Myanmar, then known as Burma. The Kuomintang invasion resulted in a reign of terror for the ordinary people who lived in the areas, as the nationalist Chinese collected taxes, forcibly enlisted recruits and encouraged poppy cultivation in the area to finance their "secret" army. At the age of 16, Khun Sa formed his own armed band to fight the intruders. In the early 1960s, his small private army was even recognized officially as the "Loi Maw Ka Kwe Ye", a home guard unit under the Myanmar army. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007*]

"Ka Kwe Ye" (KKY), which literally means "defense" in the Myanmar language, was Yangon's idea of a local militia to fight the Kuomintang as well as local, separatist Shan rebels. The plan was to rally as many local warlords as possible, mostly non-political brigands and private army commanders, behind the Myanmar army in exchange for the right to use all government-controlled roads and towns in Shan state for opium trafficking. By trading in opium, the Myanmar government hoped that the KKY militias would be self-supporting. The warlords, who were supposed to fight the insurgents, strengthened their private armies and purchased with opium money military equipment available on the black market in Thailand and Laos. Some of them, Khun Sa included, were soon better equipped than the Myanmar milirtary itself. *

Vietnam War, the CIA and the Golden Triangle Drug Trade

The Vietnam War was a boon for the opium and heroin business. Americans in Southeast Asia not only provided a fairly well paid source of buyers they also provided ways for Asian drug producers to export their products around the world. Before that time Turkey and the Middle East were the primary source of opium. As time went on demand increased and to meet demand production increased as more drugs flooded the market more people had access to drugs. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide of Thailand: “As the cycle expanded opium cultivation became a full-time job for some hill tribes within the Golden Triangle. Hill economies were destabalized to the point where opium production became a necessary means of survival for thousands of people, including the less nomadic Shan people.”

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA allegedly helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. From 1960 to 1973, the C.I.A. allegedly trained Hmong tribesmen to fight against Communist in Laos and the Hmong in turn financed some of their efforts by selling opium. There is much controversy about how deeply the CIA was involved in the Southeast Asia drug trade. If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade. See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

William M. Leary, the University of Georgia historian, wrote: “For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill.... As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: "American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors--just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam."

According to Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, the French administration of Indochina had financed its covert operations with the drug trade, and the CIA had simply replaced the French, to finance similar operations. He said he was told by retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA that the French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade: “The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence. He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

“During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940s to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism. Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism. During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980s, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States. While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you're involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.”

The CIA set up an airline called Air America that was involved in various activities associated with the war: moving fighters, flying reconnaissance missions, dropping and picking up spies and searching for downed aircraft. Some say Air American was involved in drug smuggling.

Opium and Heroin Production and the Golden Triangle

Most of the opium produced in the Golden Triangle is grown by subsistence farmers on two acre plots of land. Opium is usually raised as second crop after their main food source rice is planted in May and harvested in September. On average the farms earned about $650 in the 1990s from five kilograms of opium crops. The money was used to buy everything from fertilizer to guns. In many places where opium is grown, the land is too high and too cold for rice and corn grown there doesn’t taste good.

A 2013 United Nations report said that just over 9 metric tons of heroin was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, compared to 6.5 metric tons in 2010, while 2.7 metric tons of opium was seized in 2012 compared to 2 metric tons in 2010.

The opium harvesting season is in January and February. In Southeast Asia opium is usually in wrapped bundles called jois. Each joi weighs 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds), the amount of opium produced by 3,000 poppies. In Thailand about 2.2 kilograms of raw opium is grown on one rai of land (1,600 square meters).

Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was refined into a super-pure form of heroin known as China White (also known Heroin no. 4). Favored by intravenous drug users in the United States, it was stronger and cheaper than heroin from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan that circulated during the 1960s. Golden Triangle opium was also made into Heroin No. 3 smoking heroin, favored by addicts in Southeast Asia.

Most of China White has been refined from opium in remote but sophisticated jungle laboratories. In the 1990s these laboratories also began producing amphetamines such as "ice" which are very popular in Asia as well as in Europe and the U.S.

After the crackdown on opium and heroin production in Thailand in the 1980s most of production was done by opium farmers in Myanmar and heroin labs in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Thailand remained a key link in the smuggling.

There was a steady increase of opium production in the Golden Triange in the 1980s and 1990s. About 4,000 tons of opium was produced in the Golden Triangle in 1995, most of it from northeast Myanmar. At that time it was estimated that two tons of f heroin was smuggled through Thailand, with only about two percent of it being intercepted by authorities despite a large DEA presence in the area.

Opium Production in Myanmar, Decline in Opium Production in Myanmar , See Myanmar.

Opium Production in Thailand, See Thailand

Opium Production in Laos, See Laos

Opium Smuggling and the Golden Triangle

For a time much of opium and heroin smuggled out of the Golden Triangle was carried by mule trains. In the past much it was transported through remote mountain in Thailand beyond the reach of police and trucked to Bangkok, where it was transported on commercial ships through Taiwan to North American cities. As routes between Burma and Thailand were shut down, new routes opened up through China, Vietnam, Laos, India and Cambodia.

Now much of the opium and heroin smuggled out of the Golden Triangle goes through China and to a lesser extent Laos, Vietnam and India. Some leaves through Yangon and is shipped to destinations in Australia, Europe and the United States.

Opium Smuggling Into China

Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle is purified into heroin in jungle laboratories and smuggled into the Yunnan province in China, where it is delivered to Chinese syndicates who ship the heroin to Kunming and then to Shanghai, Hong Kong and other coastal cities where it is loaded onto one of thousands of ships bound for North America, Europe and some intermediary point.

According to a U.S. News and World Report article: "A broker...might be approached by another broker representing a Hong Kong businessmen who wants to invest in a shipment of heroin...the investors strike a deal with a group of ethnic Chinese in the United States—for example, New York businessmen who own legitimate restaurants or retail stores. The heroin may change hands several more times between these U.S. importers and street retailers, who for the most part are not Chinese but Italian-American, African-American and Dominican."

The famed French Connection bust in the 1960s seized only 110 kilograms of heroin. In comparison China alone seized 40 times that amount in 1995.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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