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History of Heroin

1.) Dominant Trend: Over the space of some three millennia, opium spread from its home in the eastern Mediterranean to China, creating an extended Asian opium zone. For the first time in recorded history, opium became a recreational drug in the cities of Mughal India.

2.) Implication: The persistent role of opiates as folk medicine and recreational euphoric for nearly 4,000 years raises questions about the chances of effecting its eradication in the near future.

b.) Early European Opium Trade (1640-1773):

1.) Dominant Trend: In this period, there was a shift from a limited trade in opium though intra-Asian networks to an expanding European commerce that stimulated both supply and demand. Working separately, European mercantile companies commercialized both opium cultivation and commerce, making it the basis of a profitable long distance trade in low-weight, high-value goods.

2.) Implication: During this era, opium's extraordinarily profitability, combining the constant demand of a staple with the high price of a luxury, becomes manifest. 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 was still beyond the capacity of the era's maritime technology, but opium had the low weight and high mark-up of luxury goods like cloves or pepper. Compounding its profitability, the Chinese emperor prohibited opium in 1729, thus denying China the opportunity to produce opium and inadvertently conceding British merchants a de facto monopoly over the trade.

c.) European Mercantilism (1773-1858):

1.) Dominant Trend: Under the doctrine of mercantilism, all successful European colonial ventures in Asia involved commercialization of drugs in some form--caffeine, nicotine, or opiates. This 18th century trade transformed these drugs from luxury goods into commodities of mass consumption, making them integral to the economies and lifestyles of both Asian and Atlantic nations. Within the monopolistic logic of mercantilism, the British East India Company achieved the highest profits from its export of Indian opium to China because, from 1773 to 1830, its strong controls over key aspects--production, export, and sales.

2.) Implication: From the late 18th century onward, opium became a major trade commodity. Under the British East India Company (BEIC), centralized controls accelerated the export of Indian opium to China--from 13 tons in 1729 to and 2,558 tons in 1839.

d.) High Imperial Opium Trade (1858-1907):

1.) Dominant Trend: During the latter half of the 19th century, opium became a major global commodity. Across the Asian opium zone, from the Balkans to Manchuria, there was a steady increase of local opium cultivation and consumption. Moreover, in the latter half of the 19th century, the modern pharmaceutical industry made opiates a drug of mass abuse in the cities of the West--Europe, the Americas, and Australia.

2.) Implication: By the early 20th century, opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin, had become a major global commodity equivalent in scale to other drugs such as coffee and tea.

e.) Multilateral Control (1907-1940):

1.) Dominant Trend: Within the Protestant churches of England and America a moral reaction to the excesses of a market-driven expansion of drug abuse inspired a global anti-opium movement in the late 19th Century. For the first time in the modern era, the anti-opium movement, in alliance with the larger temperance crusade, succeeded in winning new laws from the state restricting the individual's control over the body. With the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, the American state, for the first time, imposed the force of law over the right to use or abuse the body as the individual saw fit. Through a complex diplomacy from 1909 to 1925, the League of Nations adopted restrictions on the recreational use of heroin and opium that produced a major drop in legal production.


2.) Implication: The prewar attempt at multilateral controls over narcotics had a mixed result. Although repression did reduce both production and consumption, the high profits inherent in the opiates traffic remained to sustain criminal syndicates which now acted as an unintended market response to limit state control over the drug trade.
Despite all these considerable drawbacks, multilateral controls do have their successes. Through these efforts, the constant, century-long upward trajectory in drug abuse was finally broken, and, for the first time since the 18th century, both use and production began to decline. World opium production dropped from 41,600 tons in 1907 to 16,600 tons in 1934, while licit world heroin production fell sharply from an 20,000 lbs. in 1926 to only 2,200 lbs. in 1931.

f.) War & Transition (1940-1947):

1.) Dominant Trend: During World War II, restrictions on shipping and strict port security produced a marked hiatus in global opium trafficking. Denied illicit opiates from Asia, the United States drew limited supplies of low-grade heroin from Mexico that failed to meet even a fraction of consumer demand. By the end of the war, the US addict population had dropped to an historic low of some twenty thousand. Once smuggling resumed after the war, however, the US addict population resumed the habit.

2.) Implication: Under extreme circumstances, a reduction in drug supply can lead to a sudden, albeit ephemeral, decrease in consumption.


g.) Cold War Opium Expansion (1948-1972):

1.) Dominant Trend: The Cold War brought major changes to the world's illicit opium traffic. The Communist victory in China eliminated the world's major opium market within a decade, removing the globe's major producer and consumer of opiates from the market. Although the Asian opium zone contracted geographically, Cold War geo-politics, combined with illicit market forces, stimulated a steady increase in opium production in the remaining area, which now stretched from Turkey to Thailand.
Supplied by the Asian zone, other markets--particularly in the United States and Iran--expanded their consumption of opiates steadily during this period.

2.) Implication: External intervention in the remote tribal areas along the Asian opium zone contributed to the rise of drug lords and their armies, allowing them to position themselves for a massive expansion of local opium production. By providing arms, logistics, organization, and political protection, external alliances created the preconditions for a later leap in opium production in Burma and Afghanistan.

h.) US Bilateral Suppression (1973-1979):

1.) Dominant Trend: Although repression disrupted the global heroin trade for several years, over the longer term Nixon's drug war stimulated both opium production and heroin consumption. Ignoring these lessons, the Reagan and Bush administrations later pursued parallel policies in Latin America with dismal results. In essence, all three drug wars extended a local law enforcement model into the international arena in a way that failed to reduce either drug production or exports. Stimulated in part by three US drug wars, Asian opium production increased from 1,000 tons in 1970 to 4,000 tons in 1989.


2.) Implication: When law enforcement is applied to such an elaborate commerce, drug syndicates usually react in ways not foreseen by enforcement agencies. Treating this global commodity trade as if it were a localized vice, U.S. drug agencies often apply repression without any awareness of the intricate dynamics of these worldwide marketing systems. For both legal and illicit commodities, a crop failure in one production zone--whether from war, drought, or disease--creates a shortage of supply and raises the price for producers elsewhere, stimulating increased production in the next crop cycle.

i.) Increase in Asian Zone (1979-1989):

1.) Dominant Trend: For the first time in opium's history, highland drug lords began to act as independent entrepreneurs, responding creatively to market opportunities for their product. In Burma, for example, opium production increased exponentially from 550 tons in 1981 to 2,500 in 1989, in large part through the efforts of leading warlords like Khun Sa. Similarly, the emergence of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as the dominant rebel leader in Afghanistan created a parallel figure of power who could control much of the country's opium production, heroin processing, and export.

2.) Implication: The capacity of powerful opium warlords in Burma and Afghanistan to both produce and export has had a growing influence on Western heroin markets--sending vast new supplies of Burmese heroin to America and giving the Sicilian mafia a major new role as brokers for South West Asian heroin to Europe and the United States.

j.) Global Proliferation of Opium (1989-1994):

1.) Dominant Trend: In the early 1990s, heroin recovered its historic preeminence as a leading illicit narcotic and became something of a "world" drug. Expansion of established opium areas in Burma and Afghanistan, combined with introduction of the crop into Central Asia and Latin America, led to a steady increase in world supply. Increased opium harvests have led to a dramatic proliferation of heroin abuse around the globe--a phenomenon so vast that we can speak, without hyperbole, of a "globalization" of heroin consumption. Paralleling the rise of use in established consuming regions, heroin abuse shot upward in new areas of Europe and Asia.

2.) Implication: World opium supply is growing without any apparent restraint. Since all opium produced is always consumed, rising supply is now a powerful force driving a sharp increase in world heroin consumption, creating insatiable demand for the drug, not seen since early 19th Century China, that may, in turn, yield further production increases in Latin America or Central Asia.

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