Opium: From China to Afghanistan

Heroin is one of the world’s most addictive and profitable drugs, with world consumption currently valued at 340 tons annually.[1] Conversely, prescription opiates are an invaluable painkiller for many patients. People have been trying to balance opiates’ medical properties with their addictive nature for thousands of years. Ancient Sumerians, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans, for example, realized the potential for opium and used it as a medicine. In 16th century India, Moghul elephants were fed opium to calm them before battle. While these episodes uncover the age of human interaction with opium, the complex exchange of opium between the East and West reveals a much more deeply-rooted ongoing system of exploitation and addiction.

In the 18th century, Western traders sold massive quantities of opium to China. At one point, 1 in 30 people were addicted to opium. In response to the growing number of addicts, the Chinese Emperor prohibited the drug and closed China to foreign trade.  In order to cope with the trade imbalance, British and American merchants sold opium from India to Chinese smugglers who brought it into the empire. This black market of opium drained the Chinese treasury of its silver. In 1838, opium smokers spent 100 million silver traels on opium; the government’s total revenue was 40 million traels.

This increasing tension finally precipitated in warfare. In 1838, the Emperor confiscated thousands of chests of opium from foreign stocks. The British quickly retaliated with force and the First Opium War began (1839-1842). The British eventually won the war, and the Treaty of Nanking forced China to financially compensate Britain, open four ports, and ceded Hong Kong to the British. This treaty eviscerated the Chinese economy, and millions emigrated, which is part of the reason so many Chinese people worked the US transcontinental railroad. In 1887, the Chinese yuan lost half of its value compared to the US dollar. This political and economic upheaval caused many uprisings in China at the turn of the century.[2]

During WWII, the OSS, a precursor to the CIA, supported anti-leftist groups who produced and sold illegal drugs. Later, during the Cold War and Vietnam War, the anti-communist groups funded by the CIA were also involved in drug sales. Western involvement caused a huge upsurge in world opium production. The Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailanad, and Myanmar meet, is currently one of the world’s largest producers of opium.

opium-fields-11-1024x682Poppy plant ready for harvest in Afghanistan. [3] 

We are facing a similar problem today in Afghanistan. 90% of the world’s opium is sourced from Afghanistan. In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Army adopted a “scorched earth” policy to destroy all agricultural resources in an effort to gain control over the rural areas of Afghanistan. With their agricultural production and irrigation system in ruins, farmers turned to poppy. Poppy did not require much irrigation or fertilization, and traders would pick poppy up directly from farms, minimizing transportation costs. There was also a growing demand for opiates in the world because of suppressed production in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. None of the infrastructure was rebuilt following the Soviet withdrawal in the 1990s, so opium production continued to flourish in Afghanistan under the Taliban. [4] Today, Afghan farmers earn only 43 cents per kilogram for wheat, but they can earn up to 203 cents per kg for opium. [5]


The influx of weapons from the US during the Cold War aggravated the economic and social instability. The United States military provided weapons to the mujahedeen, an army of Islamist guerillas to fight the Soviets.[6] The withdrawal of Soviet troops left a huge amount of weapons in the country and an economy dependent on opiates. The Terrorist groups like Taliban, and high government officials earned considerable amounts of money from trafficking poppy.

The trafficking of opium continues to finance many terrorist groups. In 2011, the Taliban earned $700 million from the opium trade, according to the UNODC. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014 may cause an upsurge in opium production.[7] Law enforcement officials fear opium’s role in the Afghan economy – “This country is on its way to becoming the world’s first true narco-state.”[8]

Opium TradeUNODC World Drug Report 2010 [9]

Opium’s black market is valued at over $30 billion annually. [10] Opium from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Golden Triangle, and Colombia are transported throughout the world. Russia, Iran, Europe, Pakistan, and the USA have the highest per capita heroin consumption.[11]

Economists have estimated that illicit drug use cost the US economy more than $193 billion in 2007.[12] While the economic cost of addiction can be measured through crime, health, and labor production costs, the social and ethical considerations of Western powers’ financing narcotic producers are incalculable. Although the actions taken in Afghanistan are not the direct form of exploitation observed in 19th century China, they nevertheless represent the unintentional consequences of international involvement. The war on drugs might never be over, but acting with foresight in countries like Afghanistan and China is a necessary step.


[1] UNODC Opium Survey, 2010

[2] Hall of Opium Museum, Chang Rai, Thailand.

[3] http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2012/10/14066.html

[4] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/afghanistan-pakistan/opium-brides/why-eradication-wont-solve-afghanistans-poppy-problem/

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/world/asia/afghanistan-opium-production-increases-for-3rd-year.html

[6] http://www.npr.org/2010/12/07/131884473/Afghanistan-After-The-Soviet-Withdrawal

[7] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/15/us-afhganistan-opium-idUSBRE93E0OR20130415

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/world/asia/afghanistan-opium-production-increases-for-3rd-year.html

[9] UNODC Opium Survey, 2010

[10] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/15/us-afhganistan-opium-idUSBRE93E0OR20130415

[11] http://www.examiner.com/article/who-uses-most-of-the-world-s-heroin


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