Opium

After tea, the drug most often associated with Asia is OPIUM. Opium is prepared from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), which grows well in the alkaline limestone soil of Turkey and Iran, east through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the northern mountainous areas of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, and Laos. The area forms a crescent, thus the name GOLDEN CRESCENT. The mountainous areas of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos are known as the Golden Triangle.

Medical historians have been able to document that Arabian physicians of Asia Minor extracted raw opium from the seed pods of the poppy and used it to treat pain and diarrhea before A.D. 1000.

As part of a government-instituted program, students give samples of their urine to an official to test for narcotic drugs at Yothinburanat School in Bangkok, Thailand, March 4, 1998. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Arabian traders began exporting opium to India and China about that time, and it also appeared in trade shipments to Europe. Although accurate documentation is scarce, some observers claim that opium use spread faster in precolonial and colonial India, than in China. A British royal commission investigated Indian opium use in 1895 and claimed that the people of India had not suffered detrimental effects from the taking of opium. The situation was different in China. The British traded Indian-grown opium for Chinese tea and porcelain. This led to an increasing supply of opium in China, associated with an increasing use of opium for recreational purposes. During the nineteenth century a raging epidemic of opium smoking in China led to a situation of great concern to the Chinese government. In an attempt to cut the supply of opium, the Chinese government tried to close its ports to British trade. This resulted in the Opium wars (1839— 1842), but Britain won the war and the right to continue trading opium to China.

The different responses of India and China to the availability of opium might be explained, to some degree, by the way this drug was introduced to the population. In India, opium was introduced as a medicinal plant, to be taken by mouth and swallowed. In contrast, in China during the 1500s, Portuguese sailors had just introduced New World tobacco smoking as a form of a recreational drug use. Many Chinese, who had just picked up tobacco smoking, substituted opium for tobacco. Thus opium was not only introduced as a nonmedicinal recreational drug, but it was also introduced in a different route of administration. Drugs inhaled through the lungs seem to produce faster and more severe dependence than those ingested through the gastrointestinal tract.

Effective government control of opium smoking in China did not become possible until late in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Britain, the United States, and other world powers signed international agreements to help curb worldwide supply and distribution networks. They cooperated because opium abuse spread and started to affect these countries directly. In 1930, the League of Nations Commission of Inquiry into the Control of Opium Smoking in the Far East reported that opium use had not been prohibited in any Asian country except the Philippines. By 1950, this situation had changed dramatically. Many Asian countries placed high priority on narcotic-control policies. Harsh penalties, including the death penalty, had been reinstated for drug trafficking and possession of opium and derivatives, like Morphine and Heroin.

Despite these government actions, opium and its derivatives are still used widely in regions where they are grown. In 1990, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos supplied about 56 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States. By 1999, Latin America supplied most of the heroin to the United States, accounting for 82 percent of the heroin seized in the U.S. The Southeast Asian opium crop, which was on the rise in the early 1990s, suffered a sharp decline due to adverse weather in the later 1990s. China has moved to contain opium trafficking. In 1998, China began a ''Drug Free Communities'' program to eliminate drug trafficking and abuse as well as drug-related crime.

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