Opium: curse or cure?

One alternative to killing the poppies in Laos and Burma that screams out for urgent consideration is the pharmaceutical solution.

By | Fri 23 Mar 2012

The US led ‘war on drugs’ in Southeast Asia has been trying to stamp out opium cultivation since the 1970s. But the UN drug agency records that Laos and Myanmar opium cultivation is rapidly increasing.

One alternative to killing the poppies in Laos and Burma that screams out for urgent consideration is the pharmaceutical solution: to harvest the opium as much-needed morphine-based pain-killers. The medicinal importance of opium is often lost in the emotional fog and fear of drugs, addiction generated by most election campaigns in western societies.

In the remote mountains of northern Laos, a profusion of red and white poppies colours the landscape. This revival of the traditional opium crop is in defiance of a strict government ban on opium cultivation in force since 2002.

Hilltribe farmers in Luang Namtha province, after several hungry years without their traditional cash crop, have smiles on their faces again.

The same pattern can be observed in other provinces, such as Houaphan, where in one district alone poppies are blooming in eight out of eleven villages. The price of opium has soared, while other commodity prices have tumbled. So for the farmers there is plenty to smile about.

The US government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), had pushed the communist rulers of this poor landlocked nation into a crackdown on opium cultivation.

In 2006 UNODC’s head, Antonio Maria Costa, triumphantly reported that after three years of rapid eradication in Laos – which used to produce about 100 tonnes of opium a year – was, like Thailand had long claimed to be, more or less ‘opium-free’.

But in Thailand’s case it was done gradually over 50 years accompanied by massive international support for alternative crops to substitute for the uprooting of the opium poppy not the a zealously and absurdly rapid four years in Laos.

Even the third side of the infamous Golden Triangle, Myanmar, was reported to have made huge reductions in poppy-growing. In 2006 Mr. Costa mused that the famed ‘Triangle of Narcotics’ a centre of world heroin production, would soon be a thing of the past, seamlessly moving towards a haven of tourism and nostalgia.

However six years later, progress has been dramatically reversed, in favour of the traditional opium-cultivation and the poppy economy which has been the basis of livelihoods among many of the mountain peoples of Lao and the Shan state in northern Burma.

The notion that the murderous narcotics triangle had been pacified by narcotics control, was rudely shattered in October 2011.

Billions of dollars and ever-increasing budgets thrown at opium eradication and the so-called war on drugs have miserably failed to stem the global flow of narcotics. Years of narcotics repression targeting the producer countries has made no difference to the availability of heroin on the streets of London and Glasgow or cocaine on the streets of New York.

The illegal opium trade in Burma and Afghanistan finances warlords and sustains instability and various types of terrorism, yet almost unnoticed in the media, the UN reports that the developing world is experiencing a severe shortage of pain-killing opiates.

We inhabit a world of crazy skewered economics and market distortions. The hospitals of Rangoon tell their cancer patients they have no morphine to relieve the dreadful pain, and advise the relatives to buy opium on the plentiful black market.

Developing countries are home to 80% of the world’s population, but they consume just 6% of the best pain-killers known to man derived from the much-demonised opium poppy. If it is shocking that drug addicts in UK die from a heroin overdose, why are we not equally shocked that the west’s obsession with banning all narcotics, has contributed to such dreadful deprivations.

In the developing world, most patients with cancer, AIDS and other painful conditions, unable to access morphine and other opiates, are condemned to live and die in agony.


While western politicians, and narcotics agents demand that poor farmers of the third world destroy their livelihoods, ie their coca and opium crops, we happily permit the farmers from the Australian State of Tasmania to earn over $130 million dollars a year (1999 figure) from selling opium to pharmaceutical companies.

In the mountains of landlocked dirt-poor Laos, hill tribe peoples have been cultivating opium for nearly 200 years – far longer than Tasmanian farmers, the new boys on the opium bloc.

A well-known Laotian academic in Vientiane, a specialist in ethnicity and culture bitterly complained to me recently: “This is not fair. Why is it OK for Tasmania to profit from the benefits of opium but we have to destroy our crop? Why not Laos?”

Eighteen countries are members of the licit opium cultivation club with the approval of the INCB (International Narcotics Control Board) in Vienna. Among the bigger players in the licit opium export market are Australia, India, Turkey and Spain – we can call this group OPEC2 (Opium-Producing Exporting Countries).

Both morphine and codeine have featured on World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Model List of Essential Drugs since its inception in 1977, while morphine is included in the WHO’s New Emergency Health Kit. Yet the INCB, far from ensuring these needs have been met, actively discourages any more countries from applying for a licence to grow poppies for medicine.

WHO experts say there is a strong demand for more opium for medicine.
Senlis, a European research institute, estimates that meeting the global need for pain medications would require an additional 10,000 tons of opium a year _ more than the combined output of Afghanistan, Burma and Laos put together.

The failure of opium repression surely demands some radical rethinking and debate about alternative drug strategies, that focus on health and harm reduction, rather than crude and ultimately futile repression.
Western government and narcotic agencies are sadly so immersed in the drug enforcement ideological straightjacket, that alternative policies and any mention of legalisation tends to be glibly dismissed out of hand as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘unworkable,’ closing the door on debate, before a serious debate can even begin.

The evidence on the ground is that where opium crops have been cut down, poor farmers have been further impoverished to the point of destitution and bitter anger.

The Senlis Council has proposed a win-win solution. Adopting it would improve the Afghan economy, deprive terrorists of income and keep heroin away from dealers and addicts, all while offering pain relief to the third world. CIDA, the development arm of the Canadian government, has funded a pilot study.

Can illegal opium successfully be turned into a legal win-win situation where farmers, and government can enjoy mutual benefits? Turkey is a very good example. Turkish farmers were very angry when the government first introduced on a ban on their traditional crop under pressure from the US government in early 1970s. Unable to enforce the ban on illegal cultivation, Turkey with the consent of the INCB and support from the UN to set up an opium processing plant, switched to state

Why burn and destroy opium crops in Afghanistan, Burma and Laos, when their poor farmers could so easily derive the same legitimate income as their counterparts in India, Turkey and Tasmania? And if there should be over-supply in the future, trade justice would dictate that the developed countries of Australia, France and Spain should cut back their quotas, in favour of the poorest farmers from the poorest countries.

In Laos it would be far easier to implement with international supervision and technical inputs. In Burma opium and opium taxes have fuelled all sides in the Shan states. The Burmese generals have long profited from a narco-economy.

Dr. Colin Brewer, medical director of Stapleford Centre, a London treatment centre for drug addicts who contributed to a UK documentary on the drug war, saw that much of the problem was based on another facet of the unequal North-South relations in trade, economic power and control of the global agenda.

“We have a kind of pharmacological imperialism where the drugs of the first world – alcohol, tobacco – remain legal and indeed we are pushing them around Third World countries. Whereas the drugs of the Third World – cannabis, coca, opium – are outlawed by the Americans who say the only drugs that we will permit you to use are the ones that we think are okay…I don’t see the problems

caused by the Third World drugs are very different to the problems caused by alcohol and tobacco in many cases rather less.”

Given the repeated failure of drug wars, and the obsession with targeting the producers in the global chain of supply and demand, it is time to face up to the inconvenient truth that the war on drugs is unwinnable. There are clear alternatives and Turkey has shown that with the political will it can work.

The opium poppy, papaver somniferum, has been cultivated and its resins extracted for use as a narcotic since ancient times dating back to the early Greek Empire. Opium also has a long history of medical use not only in Asia and the Arab states but also in Europe. Opium pills were sold as an over-the-counter medicine in Britain right up until the 1920s. The US government drummed up the horror of narcotics and made drug addiction a crime under the US Narcotics Act in 1914.

Tom Fawthrop is a journalist and film-maker based in South East Asia for nearly 30 years who has extensively covered the region and has reported the Golden Triangle drug trade for the Guardian, Economist and many other international media.

His documentary on the Mekong ‘Killing the Mekong Dam By Dam’ Eureka films production 2011 is now available as a DVD.