Morale: The Demon Drug

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June 3, 2014: As if Pakistan didn’t have enough problems it is now suffering from a return of the opium and heroin trade. This comes in the form of poppy cultivation returning from Afghanistan. Poppies are the plant that produces opium and that is further refined into heroin. The immense profits from the sale of opium (locally) and heroin (internationally) have kept the Taliban and several Afghan warlords going over the last decade. Meanwhile the growing tribal rebellion in Baluchistan (southwest Pakistan) has created enough unpoliced areas near the Afghan border for the Afghan drug gangs on the other side to expand poppy production into Baluchistan. The drug gangs offer attractive terms to Baluchi farmers, so that crops of poppies produce ten times the profit of food crops. All this is part of a cycle that has been going on for several centuries.

Back in the early 1980s 2,000 tons of opium were produced a year, nearly all of it for legitimate medicinal products. But illegal production continued in the Golden Triangle (the ancient poppy growing area where the borders of China, Burma and Thailand meet). When the new communist government shut down Chinese opium production in the late 1940s, the Chinese producers moved to Burma and Thailand. The Thais soon shut it down, but Burma, run by a military dictatorship, needed the money and didn't crack down until the 1990s (partly to destroy the military power of Chinese and local tribal drug warlords who grew militarily strong off their heroin profits). Heroin production then picked up in Pakistan and by 2000 it had been driven across the border to Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban did not resist this trend because in the late 1990s they needed the money. The Taliban government heavily taxed drug production, and even halted production in 2000 because of oversupply (and falling prices.) The Taliban told Western nations that they were suppressing the opium production in return for foreign aid, but they allowed opium production to resume in 2001 when the foreign aid was not forthcoming. Opium has always been all about money.

Because of the Taliban policy in the 1990s, most of the poppy crops in Afghanistan are found in two provinces (Helmand and Kandahar, where the most pro-Taliban tribes are). But by 2010 that started changing as growing tribal unrest in northern Burma, and increased demand for illegal drugs in China began taking business away from the Afghan drug gangs. It's all about a plant (the poppy) and the opium it produces. A ton of heroin is made by refining 7.5 tons of opium (using 260 tons of acetic anhydride, an industrial chemical) into a ton of Heroin. That makes good business sense as heroin is a much stronger and addictive drug than opium and sells for 30-40 times as much as the same weight of opium.

Meanwhile Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan are suffering a growing opium addiction problem. There is some heroin addiction as well, but only among the wealthy. Opium is cheap (10-20 cents a gram) enough so that even the poor can get hooked (if they can hustle and steal enough money to feed their habit.) Because of religious prohibitions, alcohol is difficult to come by in these countries.

Opium is not explicitly forbidden to Moslems, is easier to conceal, and provides a better high. Even Taliban members use opium. This addiction problem is why most government officials in the region are down on opium, unless they are getting large bribes from the drug gangs. This is the case in Afghanistan, but many local leaders oppose the drug trade anyway. It's a disease that their own children are vulnerable to. In a way, the drug trade is inherently self-destructive. Despite all the cash it brings to those running it, the drugs eventually devastate the families of those involved in the business. It is, literally, a deal with the devil. The Islamic clergy are particularly down on the opium trade. Even many pro-Taliban clerics, who realize that drug money supports efforts to spread and enforce their conservative religious beliefs, oppose drug use.

Opium, produced from the sap of the poppy plant, has been used by humans for thousands of years. But the expense of producing the drug long limited its use to medicinal purposes, and as a narcotic for the very few wealthy enough to afford it. That changed with the industrial revolution, which created more efficient production methods (making the drug cheaper) and more money (and more customers).

But before that there was a sustained Chinese effort to stamp out the opium trade. China was the wealthiest pre-industrial nation in the 15th century, and local opium production found a growing market among wealthy Chinese. The Chinese rulers soon realized that drug addiction was disabling a growing number of the most productive people in the empire. By the early 18th century, China began outlawing opium as a recreational drug. Then, a century later, Britain forced China (via the two "Opium Wars") to allow opium imports from British poppy plantations in India. Britain pleaded economic necessity, because China encouraged exports, but restricted imports, and Britain needed something to even the trade balance. When opium is available there is always a market. Opium is highly addictive, and many Chinese were willing to spend most of their income just to stay high. Sound familiar?

A century ago, China was still a nation full of opium addicts, and about 41,000 tons of opium a year were produced (five times current production), with 95 percent going to China (and, at that point, largely produced there instead of in India). The Chinese Communists outlawed opium when they came to power in 1947, a popular move, even among many of the addicts.

By the early 20th century most of the industrialized nations had already outlawed opium and heroin. It was legal until the 19th century, but addiction became a major social problem as more people could afford to get high and did so, with disastrous impact on society as a whole. The historical experience is quite clear; legalizing opium, and its derivatives (morphine, heroin, codeine, etc.) does not work. The problem was made worse in the 19th century, as Western chemists developed ways to concentrate the narcotic effect of opium by refining it into powerful sedatives like heroin, morphine and codeine. These were used as painkillers, and their availability was at first restricted to medicinal uses. The growing chemicals industry was ready to provide what was needed.

During the 1990s, the Taliban taxed the drug trade, even as they condemned actually using the drugs. There was quite a bit of tension within the Taliban leadership over the organization's relationship with the drug gangs. That tension has not disappeared. The compromise solution is to allow production within Afghanistan, as long as it is all exported to infidel (non-Moslem) nations. But it doesn't work that way, and the Afghan drug production has created over ten million addicts in Afghanistan and neighboring nations. Pakistan does not want the heroin trade under any circumstances and that may make the poppy production in southwest Pakistan short lived.

 


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