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Living With Poppies

United States

new internationalist
issue 140 October 1984

Living with poppies
The drug traffic is becoming ever busier. Western governments looking to stem the flood have suddenly focussed on the peasants who grow the stuff from Afghanistan to Colombia.
American reporter Richard Kazis, whose country is the foremost drug-controller,
explains why such peasants are not flattered by the attention.

DRUG traffic in the United States is an 80 billion dollar a year business, bigger than any corporation except Exxon. It is one of the few aspects of the free market economy where the US government would like to intervene and bankrupt a number of hardworking entrepreneurs.

In Third World countries where narcotic crops are grown, illicit drugs are even more central, transforming economies and reshaping political and social relations. In Colombia, marijuana and cocaine production yield more foreign exchange than coffee and cut flowers, the chief legal exports. Jamaica’s marijuana exports are more lucrative than all its other exports combined.

Every step along the way — from the cultivation of poppies or coca in the rugged mountainous areas of Asia and Latin America through the processing into heroin or cocaine to the sale of narcotics on the streets of New York or London or Bangkok— drugs are profitable. A poppy farmer in Pakistan might be paid anywhere between 35 and 100 dollars for a kilogram of opium, far more than he would receive for any other crop. By the time that kilo of opium hits American streets as heroin, it is worth about 20,000 dollars. A Colombian marijuana grower receives between eight and 20 dollars for a kilo of marijuana that later sells for 2,000 dollars. A Peruvian coca grower earns between 1,000 and 10,000 dollars for enough coca leaves to produce a kilo of cocaine that has a street value of 800,000 dollars.

The narcotics trade makes some drug traffickers millionaires overnight. It encourages the corruption of government officials whose state salaries cannot compete with the payments they receive to look the other way. And, for many poor farming villages and families, it helps them maintain themselves above subsistence, to make a decent living in the harsh mountain environments of some of the world’s poorest nations.

The United States government spends about 40 million dollars each year on international programs to encourage drug-producing nations to reduce the acreage of narcotic production and to stem the flow of drugs across their borders. The logic of the international effort is obvious. It is a lot easier to stop drug trafficking at the point of production than the point of consumption. It is easier to find and eradicate a hillside poppy field than a bag of heroin stitched into the lining of a suitcase at a busy airport customs check.

At least that is the argument. But there are powerful obstacles to successful control of drug production and distribution in Third World countries such as Burma. Thailand, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Peru and Bolivia. One is the minuscule financial commitment to international drug control relative to the size of the industry. The US Coast Guard has estimated that a realistic program to stop 75 per cent of Caribbean marijuana from being produced and reaching the US would cost two billion dollars. The cost of breaking up the heroin and cocaine trade - if money alone were the solution — would be astronomical.

Money is only part of the problem.

For any drug interdiction program to work, the national government must be able and willing to enforce the law and to eradicate existing narcotics fields. If the government does not physically destroy the crops production will continue unabated. Yet, in some of the most active drug-producing regions, this is impossible. In Burma, Thailand and Laos - the Golden Triangle which produces about 20 per cent of US heroin - poppy fields are often in remote areas beyond effective control of government. In these areas controlled by tribal warlords or, as in the case of parts of Burma, by anti-government rebels. little can be done to slow the drug traffic.

[image, unknown]
photo by Richard Kazis

It is similar in the Golden Crescent where Pakistan borders Afghanistan. Since the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this area around the Khyber Pass has dramatically increased its poppy production. In a recent eighteen-month period, two tonnes of heroin from the Golden Crescent were seized in the United States - enough to supply half the US addicts for a year. Of course, much more escapes interception. Through the Agency for International Development (AID), the US government has begun to work with Pakistan to fight this phenomenal surge, but Washington has no financial or political leverage with .the Afghanis. Moreover, it is doubtful that the present Afghani government would be able to clamp down on the opium trade even if it wanted to.

In recent years an increasingly important part of US and Western strategies for curtailing drug production has been crop substitution. The US has initiated several projects - in the Upper Huallaga Valley in Peru and the North West Frontier Provinces in Pakistan - to develop and market alternative crops. The Peruvian project is trying to develop a cacao (cocoa beans) cooperative. In Pakistan, winter wheat is being encouraged. The hope is to find labor-intensive, high-yield crops that can be grown on small plots in rough, rocky terrain and that can be marketed easily at decent prices.

Although the programs have only just begun, it is difficult to imagine that crop substitution will play a major role in anti-drug campaigns. It is a matter of economics. As Warren Putnam of AID’s Asia Bureau explains, ‘We cannot substitute crops that will return to the farmers as much as they are already getting from producing opium’. In fact illicit drugs often provide the best hope of escaping a life of extreme poverty. In Latin America, many farmers have recently abandoned legal crops and turned to marijuana and coca production to beat inflation.

As long as the drug traffic remains profitable to so many different players - farmers, local government bureaucrats, hard-currency-strapped Third World governments, and international drug traffickers - the flow of drugs is unlikely to slow. For some of these players in the drug trade drama, there are other ways to make a living. For many Third World peasants struggling to keep their families alive and to hold on to old traditions, the choices are severely limited. Until this changes they will continue to produce coca and opium.

Richard Kazis is a freelance journalist based in Boston.


Money, like drugs, can be refined...

Enforcement agencies in the West have only just begun to trail ‘hot’ money and laundered drug profits as a means of busting major traffickers. The United States, around which the global drugs economy revolves (as with most other commodities), has been hesitant to move into an area where so many business interests meet. But it could not ignore the impact of a billion-dollar cash flow on its banking system -- a Florida senator complained recently that his state was ‘already becoming addicted to drug money,’ most of it from cocaine.

Focussing on money movement by successful traffickers simultaneously exposes the methods used by international financiers in their dirtier manoeuvres — as well as the money-havens they use from Monaco and the Bahamas to Bahrein and Hong Kong.

[image, unknown] Money, like drugs can be refined. Low denomination notes, the currency of the retail and wholesale drugs trade, are converted to large denominations to make physical transport easier. Couriers, who may also carry drugs, take the cash to the selected haven. The biggest Mafia drugs trial in recent history resulted from the discovery of a consignment that went awry— 600,000 dollars worth of morphine base in an unclaimed suitcase on a carousel at Sicily airport in 1979.

The implications, as well as the sums involved, can be far bigger, as a recent Italian court case showed. The seedy underworld of drug trafficking can interlock not only with arms dealing but also with conventional business and even with governments.

Investigating Judge Palermo uncovered a bewildering story centred around trafficker Henri Arsan. Arsan spent most of the Seventies dealing in drugs and arms, forming part of 'the French Connection’ in Marseilles but based mainly in Berlin. He arranged the importation of 700 kilos of morphine base every two months into Italy, where they were processed into heroin in Sicilian laboratories.

One way Arsan worked was to trade arms for the drugs he wanted, acting as a link in a chain which replenished the battlefields of the Middle East — the Judge uncovered a particular link with the Syrian Intelligence service, including President Assad’s brother. But Arsan was not above dealing with governments more openly. He once acted as intermediary between Polish and South Yemeni leaders — the Poles wanted to sell 56 tonnes of arms without the Russians knowing about the operation.

The sums of drug money are so large they are bound to carry this kind of power with them. North America and Europe are estimated to consume annually at least eight tonnes of heroin and 50 tonnes of cocaine between them. Heroin wholesales at a minimum of 30,000 dollars per kilo in Europe and 150,000 in North America: cocaine fetches at least 30,000 dollars per kilo.

Predictably the US characterises itself as a ‘victim’ country suffering from an alien plague emanating from the producer nations. Given that there is great demand in the West for drugs, that the bulk of the profits return there and that Third World economies are often grossly distorted by the trade, the American posture of injured innocence seems hardly appropriate. The answer can only be found in the metropolis itself.

Roger Lewis


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New Internationalist issue 140 magazine cover This article is from the October 1984 issue of New Internationalist.
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