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Tears of the Poppy

Tears of the Poppy

Opium, Morphine and Heroin


During the past half century the remote and often lawless region where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet has become known and widely romanticised as the ‘Golden Triangle'. Originally a Western designation applied to the region because of its wealth in gems, lumber and, above all, opium, the name has stuck and is today widely accepted. By reputation, by very definition, the area is off the beaten track. The home of drug warlords, arms dealers, insurgent armies and plain, old-fashioned bandits, it is currently the source of around half the world's illicit opiates, as well as a major production centre for amphetamines and other drugs. In recent years opium production in Laos has seen something of an increase, whilst in neighbouring Thailand it has been cut back almost to nothing. Burma, however, remains far and away the largest producer in the Golden Triangle, and illicit Burmese opiates, most notably heroin, continue to poison hundreds of thousands of addicts from the hills of Shan State to the streets of New York.

Opium has been recognised as a narcotic for at least two thousand years. It is thought to have grown wild in the mountains of the eastern Mediterranean from Neolithic times, and was known to both the early Greeks and Romans. It was probably introduced to both China and India by Arab traders about a thousand years ago, and soon came to be widely valued for its medicinal properties. Although it flourished in the cool, nutrient-poor hills of south-west China, it did not become a serious problem until the 18th century when Britain, seeking a way to pay for Chinese tea shipments other than with silver, began exporting opium from India to China on a massive scale. The situation was compounded as both Britain and France established colonies in Southeast Asia during the latter half of the 19th century. In Burma the British first encouraged and then prohibited opium consumption in the Burman heartland, but permitted unrestricted usage in indirectly administered areas such as the Shan States. The French, for their part, encouraged opium cultivation in their Indochinese colonies, making opium a state monopoly. As a consequence opium production, consumption and export boomed in the ‘Golden Triangle' region, as well as in the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan.

From Opium to Heroin

The medicinal properties of opium have long been known and appreciated in many diverse societies. In it's raw state it acts as an antidote for pain, diarrhoea and coughing, and it has been widely used as an anaesthetic. Set against these beneficial qualities, however, opium is addictive and rapidly becomes dangerous when used for recreational rather than medical purposes. This is still more true of the opium derivatives morphine and heroine. Morphine was first refined from raw opium in 1805. Taken orally, it soon became an important medical anaesthetic, but it was not until 1858, when American doctors first injected morphine directly into the human bloodstream, that the full potency of the drug was realised. At about this time the true perils of opiate addiction began to become clear. For almost a century the basic pharmacoepia of Europe and the United States had relied on opium in various solutions to treat common ailments such as headaches and the common cold. As a consequence addiction had become increasingly commonplace, though the subject was not properly discussed until 1821, when the English writer Thomas De Quincey drew society's attention to the problem through his essay Confessions of an English Opium Eater. By the late 19th century Western pharmacologists were sufficiently concerned that they began to search for a non-addictive painkiller which might replace morphine.

At the end of the 19th century scientists working for the Bayer Corporation in Eberfeld, Germany, decided they had made a major breakthrough when they boiled a mixture of morphine and acetic anhydride to distil diacetylmorphine. They tested the new drug and found that it was ‘an excellent treatment for such respiratory ailments as bronchitis, chronic coughing, asthma and tuberculosis'. Diacetylmorphine was a bit of a mouthful for customers to pronounce, however, so they decided to market the new drug under the patented brand name ‘heroin'. Acting, one must hope, in the best of faith, Bayer launched an aggressive advertising campaign in a dozen languages, hailing heroin as a non-addictive patent medicine and cure-all. By 1924 the unrestricted use of heroin had resulted in widespread addiction in the West. It was estimated that there were 200,000 addicts in the United States alone, and that heroin abusers committed no fewer that 94 percent of all drug-related crimes in New York. As soon as the extent of the problem was understood, legislation was passed in the West which caused legal heroin production to plummet from a peak of 9,000 kg in 1926 to just over 1,000 kg in 1931. Yet it was already too late. Criminal syndicates that stood to make a fortune from the illicit manufacture and distribution of heroin shifted the manufacture of the drug from legal pharmaecutical factories in Europe and the United States to clandestine laboratories in the Far East, most notably in Shanghai and Tianjin. A new caste of illicit Chinese heroine technicians was about to inherit the manufacturing side of the heroin business.

The Growth of the Golden Triangle

By 1948, when Burma finally attained independence from Britain, the stage was already set for an explosion of narcotics in the region. Riven by years of fighting during the Second World War, Burma was soon to face another invasion as the defeated remnants of China's Nationalist government, the Kuomintang (KMT), withdrew south across the frontier. In a few short months the KMT had established themselves as a major force in Shan State. Following the assassination of Aung San, as discontent and rebellion spread across Burma, they were joined by a dozen disparate armed groups, communist, separatist and warlord. All had one thing in common—the need to find a source of income to finance their continuing struggle against the Yangon authorities. The most obvious source of finance was smuggling, and in the Golden Triangle opium was both a readily available and highly profitable form of contraband.

During the early years of the Cold War period many of the KMT soldiers became front-line paramilitary forces for the anti-communist Thai and Lao governments. Armed and to some extent protected by the CIA they mounted two unsuccessful counter-invasions of Yunnan, only to be forced back to their mountain fastnesses in Shan State. Here, as anti-communism waned and the bitterness of isolation and defeat crept in, the KMT remnants turned increasingly to the opium business to finance not just their way of life, but life itself. Armed with sophisticated modern weaponry, they soon developed a stranglehold on the trade. Speaking in 1967 General Tuan Shi-wen, commander of the KMT 5th Army, made no bones about where the money came from. "Necessity knows no law", he informed a visiting journalist. "We have to continue to fight the evil of communism. To fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium".

The growing influence of renegade KMT soldiers over the opium business in the Golden Triangle was mirrored by a sustained offensive against drug trafficking and manufacture within China. After the communist seizure of power in 1949, illicit heroin manufacture in Shanghai or Tianjin became all but impossible. It made sense for the heroin technicians to relocate in Hong Kong, or better yet in KMT-controlled sectors of the Golden Triangle itself. By manufacturing heroin in the hills where the opium was grown, costs could be cut appreciably—refined heroin takes up less than 5 percent the space of raw opium and is therefore easier both to transport and to conceal. The trade received another major boost during the First and Second Indochina Wars, as both the French and subsequently the Americans used opium and its derivatives to fund anti-communist armies in Laos and Vietnam, whilst more than half-a-million US troops in Indochina were encouraged both by their miserable circumstances and their communist enemies to use hard drugs. Many US servicemen who were first exposed to heroin in Indochina took their habit home with them, leading to a new epidemic of addiction in the United States. This in turn led to increased demand in Southeast Asia, and especially in the key production areas of Burma's Shan State.

Papaver Somniferum

Opium is the latex-like sap of papaver somniferum—literally ‘the poppy of sleep', a plant which grows best at altitudes of 900 to 2000 metres (3,000 to 7,000 ft) and which prefers a relatively dry climate. It flourishes on well-drained mountain slopes with a western exposure, preferring acidic red earth with a high limestone content. These specifications make the hills of eastern Burma, especially the Wa and Kokang regions of Shan State, an ideal location for opium cultivation. The opium poppy is usually grown on a crop rotation basis, alternating with maize or other foodstuffs. It is sown in October, at the end of the rainy season, and harvested in January-February. Harvesting takes place after the petals have fallen, when the pod is scoured with a sharp, triple-bladed knife, allowing the sap to seep through and oxidise on the pod. The next day the resultant brown gum is scraped off, rolled into balls, and wrapped in banana leaves ready for sale to the buyers—often Yunnanese Chinese, known locally as Haw—who roam through hills. The buyers in turn carry the opium by mule caravan or lorry to clandestine laboratories where expert chemists, usually ethnic Chinese, convert it into heroin and package it for onward distribution throughout Southeast Asia, China, India and the West.

Whilst a favoured cash crop of certain hill tribes—notably, the Hmong, Akha, Mien, Lahu and Lisu—opium production has not greatly benefited these peoples; rather their reward has been government suspicion, widespread addiction and social disruption. Instead, most of the profits from the drug trade accrue to international syndicates and major traffickers. In the 1950s and 1960s the KMT controlled the Golden Triangle drug business. During the 1970s and 1980s they were replaced by private warlords like the notorious Shan-Chinese “freedom fighter” Khun Sa and allies of the Burmese junta like Lo Hsing Han. Today it is the Wa National Army, heavily armed and with an estimated 20,000 troops, that rules the roost. Yet despite these changes, the business remains essentially the same.

At secret locations in eastern Shan State raw opium is collected and boiled in oil drums over wooden fires. At the correct moment lime is added to the mixture, causing waste matter to precipitate and leaving impure morphine suspended near the surface. This is collected, filtered and boiled again, at which time concentrated ammonia is added, causing the morphine to solidify and fall to the bottom. Once dried and packed this morphine weighs around 10 percent of the raw opium from which it was extracted. The next stage of heroin production is much more complex and dangerous, requiring the skills of an experienced chemist. The morphine passes through five separate processes—including that known as No 3 heroin, or brown sugar, which can only be smoked—before No 4 heroin, a fluffy white powder suitable for injecting, is arrived at. It is this last, deadly pure form of the drug which is generally destined for export to the rich countries of the First World. Once it has arrived at its destination this very pure heroin is usually “cut” with some substance such as talcum or milk powder to increase its volume and therefore its street value. Experts have estimated that by the time it reaches an end-user in Europe or the United States the average does of No 4 heroin has been diluted to less than 5 percent pure.

Despite the poisonous nature of this business, the notoriety of the Golden Triangle as a centre of opium production retains an irresistible fascination for many travellers. The best time to see the poppies is in December-January, just before the harvest—but it's better to do so legally in Thailand, and certainly not in Burma. Those who wish to learn more are advised to visit official centres where poppies are still grown for research and medicinal purposes.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley and Pictures From History - © CPA Media