(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

The process: How Afghan poppies become heroin

The botanical name for opium poppy is 'Papaver somniferum'. According to historians it was Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongol conqueror, who first introduced the plant to Afghanistan.

Poppy is grown mainly by small farmers on small plots in remote regions of Afghanistan. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) conducted a survey in late 2003, interviewing more than 1,000 farmers in different areas. The survey found that the average land holding of poppy-cultivating farmers is just over two hectares, of which they plant about one third with poppy. The survey also showed that four out of five poppy farmers owned their land and made their own decisions about what to plant. However, in the southern provinces, the findings suggested a higher degree of large land holdings controlled by drug lords, who use outside labourers to work their fields.

Poppy flourishes in dry, warm climates on irrigated or rain-fed plots of land. It has higher drought-resistant qualities than most crops, particularly wheat.

The planting cycle is six to seven months and is very labour-intensive at certain periods: as the poppy establishes itself much weeding is required, and labour is again needed during the harvest period. Approximately three months after the poppy seeds are planted, brightly-coloured flowers bloom at the tips of greenish, tubular stems. Normally in Afghanistan these flowers are white and purple, but can also be red. As the petals fall away, they expose a spherical or oval-shaped seed capsule. Inside the pod is an opaque, milky sap. This sap is opium in its natural form.

When the poppy is ready for harvest, in the final weeks of its cycle, the sap is extracted by slitting the capsule vertically in parallel strokes with a special tool fitted with small blades. As the sap oozes out, it turns darker and thicker as it is exposed to the sun, forming a brownish-black gum. A farmer collects the gum with a home-made scraping implement, and normally wraps the subsequent balls, or lumps of opium in plastic.

The custom in Afghanistan is that each capsule is slit six or seven times, over a period of days or weeks, before the internal juices are exhausted. When the opium gum or paste has been collected, the hundreds of seeds remaining in each capsule are processed by farmers for oil. Only a fraction of the seeds from each harvest is needed for subsequent harvests; the remaining seeds are crushed into an edible oil. Farmers in the northeastern province of Badakshan told IRIN that from 10 kg of seed they could process 5 kg of rich oil, which they either sold or used for household consumption. In addition, the dried stalks and empty pods are collected in sheaves and can be used as animal fodder later in the year.

In some cases opium is traded in markets with minimal efforts to hide the transactions, but most opium appears to be purchased directly from the farmers by buyers and dealers. In a range of complex credit agreements based on advance-sale of opium harvests, many farmers are already committed to particular dealers and merchants by the time they accumulate their yield.

Then the opium enters the black market. A merchant or broker buys the packages for transport to a morphine 'refinery'. According to author Alfred W. McCoy in 'The Politics of Heroin', most traffickers do their morphine refining close to the poppy fields, since compact morphine bricks are much easier to smuggle than bundles of pungent, jelly-like opium. At the refinery, which may be little more than a small house or shack equipped with oil drums, the opium is mixed with lime in boiling water. A white band of morphine forms on the surface, while a precipitate of organic waste sinks to the bottom. The morphine is drawn off, reheated with ammonia, filtered and boiled again until it is reduced to a brown paste. Poured into moulds and dried in the sun, it is now morphine base. Morphine base can be smoked in a pipe or is ready for further processing into heroin.

The first to process heroin was C.R. Wright, an English researcher who unwittingly synthesised heroin (diacetylmorphine) in 1874, when he boiled morphine and a common chemical, acetic anhydride, for some hours. The modern technique entails a complicated series of steps in a well-organised 'laboratory'. The final product is a fluffy, white powder known in the trade as 'number four heroin'.

Up to the end of the 1980s, virtually all heroin sold on the streets was heavily diluted and was rarely more than 10 percent pure. Purity has risen sharply since the mid 1990s, routinely hitting 50 to 60 percent, as dealers have tried to expand their market beyond those addicts who inject heroin into their veins with hypodermic needles. Higher purity means consumption methods can include inhalation and smoking - methods which avoid the threat of AIDS through use of intravenous needles.

On average every 10 mt of raw opium reduces to 1 mt of heroin. According to UNODC statistics, in 2003 approximately 3,600 mt of heroin on the world market originated from Afghanistan, representing 75 percent of global consumption. A quarter of a million Afghan farming families, cultivating an estimated 80,000 hectares in 28 provinces, contributed to the production.

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