July 11, 2011: Afghanistan is losing its dominant share of the world heroin trade. In the last year, Burma has gone from producing five percent of the world's heroin, to 12 percent. Afghanistan is down to under 80 percent. That should be no surprise, as heroin, and the opium used to produce it, has long been considered a curse in Afghanistan. That's because only about ten percent of the population benefits from the heroin trade, and a higher percentage of Afghans suffer from it. Islamic terrorism (Taliban and similar outfits) is staying alive because of this drug production and smuggling. In a relationship that has been used many times before (Colombia, Burma), the drug gangs pay the religious or political rebels for security services. As long as illegal drug production thrives in Afghanistan, so will the Taliban, and any other group wanting to be free of government control.
In the few years, NATO and the United States have concentrated more of their military efforts against the drug trade. Often, the government tried to interfere with this. That's because the drug gangs bribe government officials, and expect something for their money. The government could not protect the drug producers. So now the gangs are looking for safer areas to operate in, but there really aren't any. The drug gangs need farmers that are willing, or can be coerced, into growing poppy plants and scraping off the opium when the plants mature. It's easier to do this among people you have tribal or ethnic ties with. Thus most of the poppy crops in Afghanistan are found in two provinces (Helmand and Kandahar, where the most pro-Taliban tribes are). But that is changing, and growing tribal unrest in northern Burma, and increased demand for illegal drugs in China, is hurting the Afghan drug gangs. It's all about a plant (the poppy) and the opium it produces.
Opium, produced from the sap of the poppy plant, has been used by humans for thousands of years. But the expense of producing the drug limited its use to medicinal purposes, and as a narcotic for the very few wealthy enough to afford it. That changed with the industrial revolution, which created more efficient production methods (making the drug cheaper) and more money (and more customers).
But before that, there was a sustained Chinese effort to stamp out the opium trade. China was the wealthiest pre-industrial nation in the 15th century, and local opium production found a growing market among wealthy Chinese. Soon, the government realized that drug addiction was disabling a growing number of the most productive people in the empire. By the early 18th century, China began outlawing opium as a recreational drug. Then, a century later, Britain forced China (via the two "Opium Wars") to allow opium imports from British poppy plantations in India. Britain pleaded economic necessity, because China encouraged exports, but restricted imports, and Britain needed something to even the trade balance. When opium is available, there is always a market. Opium is highly addictive, and many Chinese were willing to spend most of their income just to stay high. Sound familiar?
A century ago, China was still a nation full of opium addicts, and about 41,000 tons of opium a year were produced (five times current production), with 95 percent going to China (and, at that point, largely produced there instead of in India). The Chinese Communists outlawed opium when they came to power in 1947, a popular move (even for many of the addicts).
Throughout the industrialized nations, opium had already been outlawed. It was legal until the 19th century, but addiction became a major social problem as more people could afford to get high. The historical experience is quite clear; legalizing opium, and its derivatives (morphine, heroin, codeine, etc) does not work. The problem was made worse in the 19th century, as Western chemists developed ways to concentrate the narcotic effect of opium by refining it into powerful sedatives like heroin, morphine and codeine. These were used as painkillers, and their availability was at first restricted to medicinal uses. The growing chemicals industry was ready to provide what was needed. A ton of heroin is made by refining 7.5 tons of opium (using 260 tons of acetic anhydride, an industrial chemical.) Heroin is a much stronger and addictive drug than opium, and sells for 30-40 times as much as the same weight of opium.
Three decades ago, 2,000 tons of opium were produced a year, nearly all of it for legitimate medicinal products. But illegal production continued in the Golden Triangle (the ancient poppy growing area where the borders of China, Burma and Thailand meet). When the communists shut down opium production in the late 1940s, the Chinese producers moved to Burma and Thailand. The Thais soon shut it down, but Burma, run by a military dictatorship, needed the money, and didn't crack down until the 1990s (partly to destroy the military power of Chinese drug warlords who grew strong off their heroin profits). It then picked up in Pakistan, where it was soon driven across the border to Afghanistan. The Taliban heavily taxed drug production, and even halted production in 2000 because of oversupply (and falling prices.) The Taliban told Western nations that they were suppressing the opium production in return for foreign aid, but they allowed opium production to resume in 2001 when the foreign aid was not forthcoming. Opium has always been all about money.
Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan are suffering a growing opium addiction problem. There is some heroin addiction as well, but only among the wealthy. Opium is cheap (10-20 cents a gram) enough so that even the poor can get hooked (if they can hustle and steal enough money to feed their habit.) Because of religious prohibitions, alcohol is difficult to come by in these countries.
Opium is not explicitly forbidden to Moslems, is easier to conceal, and provides a better high. Even Taliban members use opium. This addiction problem is why most government officials in the region are down on opium, unless they are getting large bribes from the drug gangs. This is the case in Afghanistan, but many officials oppose the drug trade anyway. It's a disease that their own children are vulnerable to. In a way, the drug trade is inherently self-destructive. Despite all the cash it brings to those running it, the drugs eventually devastate the families of those involved in the business. It is, literally, a deal with the devil. The Islamic clergy are particularly down on the opium trade. Even many pro-Taliban clerics, who realize that drug money supports efforts to spread and enforce their conservative religious beliefs, oppose drug use. During the 1990s, the Taliban taxed the drug trade, even as they condemned actually using the drugs. There was quite a bit of tension within the Taliban leadership over the organization's relationship with the drug gangs. That tension has not disappeared. The compromise solution is to allow production within Afghanistan, as long as it is all exported to infidel (non-Moslem) nations. But it doesn't work that way, and the Afghan drug production has created over ten million addicts in Afghanistan and neighboring nations.