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A selected history of Opium

c.5500 B.C. Intact capsules of opium poppy were found in a religious artifact in a cave site in southern Spain. These have been dated to approximately 5500 B.C. and are the earliest signs that man used opium/poppy. New archeological evidence suggests the plant originated in northwest Africa, France and Spain.

c.3400 B.C. The opium poppy is cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians refer to it as ‘Hul Gil’, (the Joy plant). The Sumerians would soon pass on the plant and its euphoric effects to the Assyrians. The art of opium poppy-culling would continue from the Assyrians to the Babylonians who in turn would pass their knowledge onto the Egyptians.

c.1300 B.C. In the capital city of Thebes, Egyptians begin cultivation of ‘opium thebaicum’. The opium trade flourishes during the reigns of Thutmose IV, Akhenaton and King Tutankhamen. The trade route includes the Phoenicians and Minoans who move and trade the lucrative commodity across the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, Carthage, and Europe.

c.1100 B.C. On the island of Cyprus, the "Peoples of the Sea" craft surgical-quality culling knives to harvest opium, which they cultivate, trade and smoke before the fall of Troy.

c.460 B.C. Hippocrates, "the father of medicine", dismisses the magical attributes of opium but acknowledges its usefulness as a narcotic and styptic in treating internal diseases, diseases of women and epidemics.

330 B.C. Alexander the Great introduces opium to the people of India and Persia.

A.D. 400 ‘Opium thebaicum’, from the Egyptian fields at Thebes, is first introduced to China by Arab traders.

1200 Ancient Indian medical treatises the Shodal Gadanigrah and Sharangdhar Samahita describe the use of opium for diarrhoea and sexual debility. The Dhanvantri Nighantu also describes the medical properties of opium.

1300s Opium disappears for 200 years from European historical record. Opium had become a taboo subject for those in circles of learning during the Holy Inquisition. In the eyes of the Inquisition, anything from the East was linked to the Devil.

1500 The Portuguese, while trading along the East China Sea, initiate the smoking of opium. The effects were instantaneous as they discovered, but it was a practice the Chinese considered barbaric and subversive.

1527 During the height of the Reformation, opium is reintroduced into European medical literature by Paracelsus as laudanum. These black pills, or "stones of immortality", were made of ‘opium thebaicum’, citrus juice and quintessence of gold, and prescribed as painkillers.

1600s Residents of India and Persia begin eating and drinking opium mixtures for recreational use. Portuguese merchants carrying cargoes of Indian opium through Macao direct its trade flow into China.

1606 Ships chartered by Queen Elizabeth I are instructed to purchase the finest Indian opium and transport it back to England.

1620s-1670s From 1637 onwards opium becomes the main commodity of British trade with China.

1680 English apothecary, Thomas Sydenham, introduces ‘Sydenham's Laudanum’, a compound of opium, sherry wine and herbs. His pills along with others of the time become popular remedies for numerous ailments.

1700 The Dutch export shipments of Indian opium to China and the islands of Southeast Asia; the Dutch introduce the practice of smoking opium in a tobacco pipe to the Chinese.

1729 Chinese emperor Yung Cheng issues an edict prohibiting the smoking of opium and its domestic sale, except under licence for use as medicine.

1750 The British East India Company assumes control of Bengal and Bihar, opium-growing districts of India. British shipping dominates the opium trade out of Calcutta to China.

1753 Linnaeus, the “father of botany”, first classifies the poppy, ‘Papaver somniferum’ (sleep-inducing), in his book Genera Plantarum.

1640-1773 In this period, opium enters a proto-modern phase in which its capacity for growth as a major commodity first becomes evident. Significantly, European and Indian merchants play a catalytic role in commercialising and expanding the India-China opium trade. It is during this era that opium's extraordinary profitability becomes manifest. Through its peculiar properties, opium is the ideal trade good of the epoch. As an addictive drug, opium requires a daily dose, giving it the inelastic demand of a basic foodstuff. Long distance sea-trade in bulk foods is beyond the capacity of current maritime technology, but opium has the low weight and high mark-up of a luxury good like cloves or pepper. In the early modern era, opium combines the reliable demand of a basic food with the logistics of a luxury good. Compounding its profitability, the Chinese emperor reacts to the rise of mass addiction by banning opium and thus denying China the opportunity to produce opium locally to undercut the high price of Indian imports.

1773-1793 The British East India Company assumes monopoly over all the opium produced in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and establishes a monopoly on the opium trade. All poppy growers in India are forbidden to sell opium to competitor trading companies.

1796 The import of opium into China becomes a contraband trade. Silver is smuggled out to pay for smuggling opium in. But three years later China's emperor, Kia King, bans opium completely, making trade and poppy cultivation illegal.

1800 The British Levant Company purchases nearly half of all of the opium coming out of Smyrna, Turkey, strictly for importation to Europe and the US.

1803 Friedrich Sertürner of Paderborn, Germany, discovers the active ingredient of opium by dissolving it in acid then neutralising it with ammonia. The result: alkaloids – ‘Principium somniferum’, or morphine. Physicians believe that opium has finally been perfected and tamed. Morphine is lauded as "God's own medicine" for its reliability, long-lasting effects and safety.

1827 E. Merck & Company of Darmstadt, Germany, begins commercial manufacturing of morphine.
1830 The British dependence on opium for medicinal and recreational use reaches an all-time high as 22,000 lbs of opium is imported from India and Turkey. An estimated 3 million Chinese are addicts and fund the predominantly British-dominated opium trade.

18 March 1839 Lin Tse-Hsu, imperial Chinese commissioner in charge of suppressing the opium traffic, orders all foreign traders to surrender their opium. In response, the British send expeditionary warships to the coast of China, beginning The First Opium War.

1840 New Englanders bring 24,000 lbs of opium into the United States. This catches the attention of US customs which promptly puts a duty fee on the import.

1841 The Chinese are defeated by the British in the First Opium War. Along with paying a large indemnity, Hong Kong is ceded to the British.

1843 Dr. Alexander Wood of Edinburgh discovers a new technique of administering morphine - injection with a syringe. He finds the effects of morphine on his patients instantaneous and three times more potent.

1852 The British arrive in lower Burma, importing large quantities of opium from India and selling it through a government-controlled opium monopoly.

1856 The British and French renew their hostilities against China in the Second Opium War. In the aftermath of the struggle, China is forced to pay another indemnity. The importation of opium is legalised. Opium production increases along the highlands of Southeast Asia.

1858 Illicit imports of opium from India to China amount to a staggering 4,810 mt this year, which marks the end of the Second Opium War.

1874 English researcher C.R. Wright first synthesises heroin, or diacetylmorphine, by boiling morphine over a stove. In San Francisco, smoking opium in the city limits is banned and is confined to neighboring Chinatowns and their opium dens.

1878 Britain passes the Opium Act with hopes of reducing opium consumption. Under the new regulation, the selling of opium is restricted to registered Chinese opium smokers and Indian opium eaters while the Burmese are strictly prohibited from smoking opium.

1886 The British acquire Burma's northeast region, the Shan state. Production and smuggling of opium along the lower region of Burma thrives despite British efforts to maintain a strict monopoly on the opium trade.

1890 US Congress, in its earliest law-enforcement legislation on narcotics, imposes a tax on opium and morphine.

1895 Heinrich Dreser, working for The Bayer Company of Elberfeld, Germany, finds that diluting morphine with acetyls produces a drug without the common morphine side effects. Bayer begins production of diacetylmorphine and coins the name “heroin”. Heroin would not be introduced commercially for another three years.

1902 In various medical journals, physicians discuss the side effects of using heroin as a morphine step-down cure. Several physicians would argue that their patients suffered from heroin withdrawal symptoms equal to morphine addiction.

1903 Heroin addiction rises to alarming rates.

1905 US Congress bans opium.

1906 By this time China has an estimated 13.5 million addicts consuming 39,000 mt of opium a year. 27 percent of adult males are addicted - such a level of mass addiction has never been equaled before or since. (The level of addiction is only reduced after the 1948 revolution.) Also in 1906 Chinese production of opium reached 35,000 mt, representing 85 percent of the world supply.

1907 This year the first systematic survey of opium indicates that world production stands at 41,624 mt- over 10 times the 1994 level of estimated illicit opium supply.

1909 The first federal drug prohibition passes in the US, outlawing the importation of opium. It is passed in preparation for the Shanghai Conference, at which the US presses for legislation aimed at suppressing the sale of opium to China.

1910 After 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese are finally successful in convincing the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade.

1923 The US Treasury Department's Narcotics Division (the first federal drug agency) bans all legal narcotics sales. With the prohibition of legal venues to purchase heroin, addicts are forced to buy from illegal street dealers. In the wake of the first federal ban on opium, a thriving black market opens up in New York's Chinatown.

1924 Second Opium Conference: Afghanistan is represented although its production of opium is low, with cultivation only in Badakshan, Herat and Jalalabad provinces.

1930s The majority of illegal heroin smuggled into the US comes from China and is refined in Shanghai and Tietsin.

1932 First year of recorded opium production levels for Afghanistan: 75 mt are produced. In 2004 the estimated level is 4,000 mt, representing a rise of over 5,330 percent.

Early 1940s During World War II, opium trade routes are blocked and the flow of opium from India and Persia is cut off. Fearful of losing their opium monopoly, the French encourage Hmong farmers to expand their opium production in the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Burma, Laos and Thailand).

1945-1947 Burma gains independence from Britain at the end of World War II. Opium cultivation and trade flourishes in the Shan states.

1948-1972 Corsican gangsters dominate the US heroin market through their connection with Mafia drug distributors. After refining the raw Turkish opium in Marseilles laboratories, the heroin is made easily available for purchase by junkies on New York City streets. In China after the 1948 revolution opium dealers are executed, crops destroyed and substituted and the 10 million addicts are given forced treatment. The revolution accounts for the collapse of the world’s largest group of opium consumers, forcing a change in the trade profile globally. It also explains the ascendancy of the Golden Triangle in the 1950s as the major opium producer globally.

1950s US efforts to contain the spread of communism in Asia involves forging alliances with tribes and warlords inhabiting the areas of the Golden Triangle, thus providing accessibility and protection along the southeast border of China. In the struggle against communism the US and France supply drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport. The result: an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the US and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts.

1965-1970 US involvement in Vietnam is blamed for the surge in illegal heroin being smuggled into the States. To aid US allies, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sets up a charter airline, Air America, that is then implicated in the transport of raw opium from Burma and Laos. As well, some of the opium would be transported to Marseilles by Corsican gangsters to be refined into heroin and shipped to the US via the French connection. The number of heroin addicts in the US reaches an estimated 750,000.

1972 Heroin exportation from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle, controlled by Shan warlord Khun Sa, becomes a major source for raw opium in the profitable drugs trade.

1973 Solomon Snyder and Candace Pert discover opiate receptor in the brain. In this year research first reports that opiates work with specific receptor sites in the brain, replacing naturally produced opiate peptides in the brain.

1 July 1973 President Richard Nixon creates the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Justice Department to consolidate virtually all federal powers of drug enforcement in a single agency. Studies at this time also reveal that 34 percent of US troops in Vietnam commonly used heroin during their tour of duty.

Mid-1970s Saigon falls. The heroin epidemic subsides. The search for a new source of raw opium yields Mexico's “Sierra Madre” (Mexican Mud). “Mexican Mud” would temporarily replace "China White" heroin until 1978.

1978 The US and Mexican governments find a means to eliminate the source of raw opium - by spraying poppy fields with Agent Orange. The eradication plan is termed a success as the amount of "Mexican Mud" in the US drug market declines. In response to the decrease in availability of "Mexican Mud", another source of heroin is found in the ‘Golden Crescent’ area - Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan - creating a dramatic upsurge in the production and trade of illegal heroin.

1979-80 Following the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in 1979 the government begins to lose control of provinces. “Warlordism” flourishes and with it opium production as regional commanders search for ways to generate money to purchase weapons. At the same time harsh anti-drug campaigns in Iran, Pakistan and Turkey begin reducing their production levels, allowing Afghan dealers to increase their supply to the global market.

13 September 1984 US State Department officials conclude, after more than a decade of crop substitution programmes for Third World growers of marijuana, coca or opium poppies, that the tactic cannot work without eradication of the plants and criminal enforcement. Poor results are reported from eradication programmes in Burma and Pakistan, Mexico and Peru.

1988 Opium production in Burma increases under the rule of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the Burmese junta regime. The single largest heroin seizure is made in Bangkok. The US suspects that the 2,400-lb shipment of heroin, en route to New York City, originated from the Golden Triangle region, controlled by drug warlord, Khun Sa.

1990 A US Court indicts Khun Sa, leader of the Shan United Army and reputed drug warlord, on heroin trafficking charges. The US Attorney General's office charges Khun Sa with importing 3,500 lbs of heroin into New York City over the course of eighteen months, as well as holding him responsible for the source of the heroin seized in Bangkok.

1992 Colombia's drug lords are said to be introducing a high-grade form of heroin into the US.

1993 The Thai army with support from the DEA launches its operation to destroy thousands of acres of opium poppies from the fields of the Golden Triangle region.

January 1994 Efforts to eradicate opium at its source remains unsuccessful. The Clinton Administration orders a shift in policy away from the anti-drug campaigns of previous administrations. Instead the focus includes "institution building", with the hope of "strengthening democratic governments abroad”.

1995 The Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia is now the leader in opium production, yielding 2,500 mt annually. According to US drug experts, there are new drug trafficking routes from Myanmar (formerly Burma) through Laos, to southern China, Cambodia and Vietnam. At this stage the production levels from Afghanistan, just over 3,000 mt, represents 52 percent of the global production. This represents a dramatic rise from 1980, when the opium produced in Afghanistan represented only 19 percent of the global market.

January 1996 Khun Sa, one of Shan state's most powerful drug warlords, "surrenders" to SLORC. The US is suspicious and fears that this agreement between the ruling junta regime and Khun Sa includes a deal allowing "the opium king" to retain control of his opium trade but in exchange end his 30-year-old revolutionary war against the government.

November 1996 International drug trafficking organizations, including those in China, Colombia, Mexico and Nigeria are said to be "aggressively marketing heroin in the United States and Europe."

1999 Bumper opium crop of 4,600 mt in Afghanistan. The UN Drug Control Programme estimates around 79 percent of world heroin production is of Afghan origin. Production in the Golden Triangle is reduced.

2000 Taliban leader Mullah Omar bans poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in July of this year; the UN Drug Control Programme confirms opium production widely eradicated in Afghanistan, falling to only 6 percent of the previous year’s levels with only 185 mt produced. No ban is decreed for opium trade.

Autumn 2001 War in Afghanistan; heroin floods the Pakistan market. Taliban regime overthrown, allowing farmers again to plan opium as Kabul struggles to assert power in the regions. The Interim Government of Hamid Karzai is sworn in on 22 December.

April 2002 Interim Government in Afghanistan issues decree on eradication and offers compensation of initially US $250 per ‘jerib’ ($1,250 per hectare) which later increases to $300 per ‘jerib’ ($1,750 per hectare). This eradication effort produces few results and in many cases encourages farmer to increase production in hope of attaining more compensation in the following year.

August 2002 The Afghan Transitional Authority issues a new ban on opium cultivation, processing and trafficking following an earlier decree in January 2002.

October 2002 The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announces Afghanistan has regained its position as the world's largest opium producer after the dramatic fall in production in 2000. In 2002 an estimated 3,400 mt of opium is produced, representing approximately 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and involving 1.7 million people in its cultivation and production.

October 2003 US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the DEA launch special task force to curb surge in Net-based sales of narcotics from online pharmacies. Afghanistan’s production level calculated at 3,600 mt for 2003 by UNODC survey teams, and is expected to rise to 4,000 mt in 2004. An estimated 3.5 million heroin and opium users in Iran alone as the neighbouring countries feel the impact of increased demand for consumption and act as transit routes for heroin to the West.

The chronology above is a selected history of opium focusing on historic global developments but concentrating on events in Asia and in particular on Afghanistan in the final stages. With some additional comments, it has been compiled from chronologies and accounts of poppy’s history from Frontline’s ‘The Opium Kings: Opium Through History’ using references from Booth, Martin Opium: A History. London: Simon & Schuster, Ltd., 1996. Latimer, Dean, and Jeff Goldberg with an Introduction by William Burroughs Flowers in the Blood: The Story of Opium. New York: Franklin Watts, 1981. McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991. Musto, David F. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. UNODC ‘The Opium Economy in Afghanistan 2002’.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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