By: T. Koshi, Fall 2017 The opium poppy has been cultivated for thousands of years for both its medicinal and aesthetic qualities, and this practice has continued to today. The sticky sap from the seedpods contains a combination of powerful narcotics, primarily Morphine, a popular drug for medical and recreational purposes, and is highly addictive. This sap is collected and dried, then purified into the drug called opium, and then this is sold on the black market and turned into heroin. opium has recorded use going back to Mesopotamia, and the Sumerians called it the “Joy Flower”. This combination of pain relief and drug-induced euphoria made it a popular product for trading, and so it quickly spread across Asia and Africa. Over the next thousand years, it was widely used for this euphoric effect, but slowly slips into the shadows in Europe, as racist ideas associate the drug with the Chinese, despite England importing thousands of pounds of opium each year. Around 1500, opium becomes popular again, under the guise of medicine. Mixed with sherry (wine), herbs, and gold, it is sold as a cure-all elixir. Also popular are small balls of opium, known as “Stones of Immortality”. These concoctions become extremely popular and were claimed to treat all sorts of diseases, from gout to migraines and insanity, but the addictive potential was not fully realised until the 1800s, when the Chinese emperors began trying to ban the cultivation and sale of opium and its derivatives. This lead to a war between China and Britain, which the British won, and continued the trade of opium well into the mid 19th century. It wasn’t until 1905 that the United States Congress banned the sale and use of opium, but by that time it was too late, opium, and its cousin, heroin had become world-famous, and extremely popular as a recreational drug and also as a source of profit. opium-derived products are notoriously addictive, and withdrawals may even lead to death. Why then, is it still so popular? In the last decade, we in America have seen a tremendous rise in the popularity of narcotic painkillers, both in the streets, and in the professional settings. Aside from the obvious answer that it feels good and is addictive, it has unparalleled success as a painkiller, and, many people that grow it for the black market do so to be able to feed themselves. In places like Afghanistan and Myanmar, opium production is technically illegal, and farmers face the loss of their crop as well as massive fines. The reality is that these people often have no other choice but to grow poppies. In both of these places, large extra legal forces, such as the Taliban, control large parts of the countryside, and these groups rely on the international sale of opium for heroin production. They pay the farmers nearly three times what they might make growing other crops, such as wheat or coffee, and they are also offered protection by these groups. Having a family to feed and no way to procure food for them incentivizes many farmers to turn to opium as their cash crop, and unlike coffee, which yields only every three years, opium can be harvested each year. In Afghanistan, for example, a farmer might make around $150 per pound of opium they produce, but when that reaches the United States, it will sell for nearly $30,000. This enormous profit margin keeps these mafia-style groups well funded, and keeps the farmers fed and relatively safe. Worth noting, is that even though a country’s government may have agreed to an international treaty outlawing the production and sale of opium, they are not so blind as to not see the benefit of turning a blind eye to it. Afghanistan is a prime example of this, there are thousands of acres of poppies visible from prominent government buildings, demonstrating the unwillingness of the local police to intervene. There have been some high-profile busts, but these are often little more than a show to gain international aid money. This is not necessarily nefarious tactic, since many of these areas are quite severely depressed economically. The lack of funding for programs to offer other cash crops that pay similarly is an important factor to consider when we are trying to reduce the supply of opium in the world, but there is also a significant amount of corruption that allows this illegal industry to thrive. Since the officials in charge of regulating and ending the opium trade are often forced to rely on local police forces, and these local police forces are often, understandably, sympathetic to the farmers, since the farmers do not have any say in what crops will provide enough money for them and their families to live peacefully. Added to this is the control that Militant organisations have over the areas in which opium is grown, and it is clear that the government is limited in what they can do to curb the production of this drug. In addition, the money that illicit opium trade brings in helps support the local economy, keeping many people fed in otherwise impoverished areas. Clearly the supply of opium will be around for a while to come, but what about the demand for these drugs? Why are they so popular around the world, and here in the United States specifically? The answer is that we lack the structures necessary to provide support for addicts and pharmaceutical companies has no incentive to try to limit the addictiveness of their drugs. I will address the two sides of the problem by starting at the beginning of many addict’s story. Injured by some accident or by a surgery, it is common for doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers to combat the pain, and these work exceptionally well. As anyone who has been prescribed even a mild narcotic, like codeine, it is immediately apparent how effective they are for curbing even the most severe pain. On the doctor’s orders, the patient will finish their medications, and attempt to get back into their normal lives, but they quickly discover that without the drugs, they feel lethargic, and sick, almost like having the flu coupled with aches and pains you didn’t know you had. In extreme cases, even the fabric of your clothes touching your skin can be excruciating. To stop this feeling, these people look for another drug and often end up buying street opiates, such as heroin, or stolen pharmaceuticals. This in turn helps to fuel the illegal opium trade, with an almost unlimited supply of potential new customers. This is obviously not everyone with an opiate addiction’s story, but it is becoming much more common. Even for people that knowingly chose to use opiates without a prescription, the result is almost always the same. Without the support of a wealthy family, the chance of dying from their addiction is incredibly high, and is only getting greater. There is almost no government sponsored treatment options, and the ones that exist only support the patient for around 30 days. It is also quite common for more drugs, such as SubOxone, to be used to try and limit the craving and withdrawals. Unfortunately, SubOxone and other drugs like it are powerful narcotics in their own right, and as such are also extremely addictive. It is undeniable that no one can beat an addiction if they have no interest in beating it, but trading one addiction for another is unproductive and serves only to put more profit in the hands of the companies that sell these drugs. Making this problem harder is the problem inherent in any sort of business, the pursuit of profit over everything else leads these companies to push to make drugs more powerful and more addictive. Because of this, their goals are often directly opposed to those of the public, and the doctors. The doctors are doing the best they can to treat their patients, but the sheer numbers of patients they are required to see, as well as the lack of a diverse set of tools means they will keep prescribing these drugs regardless of the consequences. Every year, it seems, a new, more powerful drug is created and released into the world with little testing of its long term effects. If rather than subsidising drug companies that produce these drugs, we spent the money on treatment for those affected by addiction, we might have a chance of slowing down this epidemic. While not stopping addiction totally, some countries, such as Sweden offer medical grade heroin and clean needles as well as a safe place for the users to use their drugs. The effect of this is a drastic reduction in crime and illness in addicts. Coupled with therapy and support for housing and work, many addicts do recover and go on to lead normal lives. Criminalising drug users and putting them into prisons actually has the opposite effect, but it is the preferred way to handle drug addiction in the United States. This only makes it impossible for an addict (or former addict) to exist in the world without resorting to crime, and often landing back on drugs.Another factor to consider is the apparent hypocrisy of the countries enforcing the laws restricting opium production. The United States has opium and opium derivatives classified under Schedule 1, the most restrictive classification. Schedule 1 drugs are so classified because they are said to have a high potential for abuse, and no accepted medical value. Despite being illegal, the United states allows the production, import, and sale of many opium derivatives, such as Morphine, Hydrocodone, and many others, for the explicit use as a medical treatment for pain. Although 85% of legal opium is grown in Tasmania, much of the products are sold here in the United States. This weakens the argument that other countries, such as Myanmar, should end all production, and allow only United States companies to profit from the sales of opium. In fact, if opium production in Afghanistan were legalised and incorporated many of the current farmers (a la Napa county), the power of the Taliban would be significantly reduced, allowing for greater economic development in these areas, as well a more money for the local government in the form of taxes. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released a report stating the the best course of action to combat the problem of opium around the world is to provide for the development of countries that are major producers of illicit opium, so that the farmers are provided with more opportunities to produce various crops and limit their interaction with extremist groups, which rely on the money from drug sales to fund their activities. The UN has been working with farmers around the world, trying to get them to grow other crops, such as coffee, in Myanmar and Vietnam.This approach has only limited success, since these farmers are reluctant to give up a crop that they know will sell fairly, and they can be relatively certain of the size of the yield. Unfortunately if the global production of opium is reduced, the price will go up, incentivizing these farmers to return to opium growing.The international trade of opium has been illegal for about 100 years, but there are some exceptions. Legally there are only two companies that are allowed to produce opium poppies for sale (GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson), and they are required to grow in two locations, Tasmania, and the Netherlands. These companies use this crop of opium poppies to create narcotic painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet, which are then sold to hospitals and consumers around the world. The legal retail sale of OxyContin is often around $3 billion, and that’s just one name-brand drug. The total global sale of pharmaceutical opioids is estimated to be around $12 billion. This is a huge market for them, and they will continue to produce these drugs as long as they can and will try to sell them to anyone who might even potentially need them. Although they are not actively trying to promote narcotic addiction, they are not worried by it, and often see it as the problem of the governments whose citizens are suffering. We saw the same problem in China during the 1800s, when opium addiction was causing a rift in their society, and it was outlawed, but we live in an interconnected world, and to stop the flow of illicit drugs in any significant quantity would require the cooperation of almost every country. Further complicating the issue is the value pharmaceutical painkillers have as incredibly effective relief for suffering, so the demand for opium will always be there as long as it is easier to use partial products to create the drugs we need, but there are even advances in science that have created strains of yeast that produce morphine as a byproduct of their metabolism. While this is not developed enough to use for medical production, it shows that there are solutions being developed that think outside the box in trying to tackle the problem of global opiate dependence. Hopefully in the future, there will be less of an effort by the United State to control the production of opium, and places like Afghanistan will be able to sell its harvest in the international market. Even if the local government decides to allow legal opium production, the wealth and power of the United States means that they make the ultimate decision on whether to allow it or not. In 2009, the United States voted to keep opium production in Afghanistan illegal, while allowing it in Turkey. In addition to the economic aspects of this issue, we need to focus on the end victims of this trade, those affected by addiction to these drugs. Without a strong support system that is equipped to handle large numbers of addicts, and work against criminalising drug users, it is unlikely that we will make much progress. Since the war on drugs, we have spend billions of dollars only to learn that you that you cannot stop people from using drugs, and in fact, you are likely to keep people on them, while driving the price higher. With most drugs illegal, the traffickers are able to collect greater profits every year, often using this money to keep poor farmers in debt and feeling unsafe.