This post is part of a blog series about Global Drug Trafficking. Find part one, “Discover the Trade” here.
This week, we will discuss the cultivation of the coca plant (cocaine) and the opium poppy (heroin). As designer drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstacy are not cultivated (only organic drugs are), we will not discuss them until the next Global Drug Trafficking post, which will be on the manufacture.
Cultivation of the Coca Plant for Cocaine
Coca (Erothroxylum Coca) is a plant native to western South America. It has always played a big role in Andean culture, where it is used to treat height sickness. People either chew on the leaves of the bush or use them for tea. The bush is mainly cultivated in Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and northwestern Argentina. The bush is cultivated often on the lower altitude slopes of the Andes, or on the highlands, depending on the species grown.
Seeds of the coca plant are sown between December and January in shadowy plots. When the plants are between 40 to 60 cm (1.5 to 2 feet) in height, they are moved to final planting holes, or, if the ground is level, in furrows.
The plants grow best in hot, humid locations, such as the clearings of forests. However, the best leaves are cultivated in drier areas, on hillsides. Once the bush is one and a half years of age, people start to collect the leaves, but only the fresh growth is harvested (the leaves are ready when they break on being bent). The first and must abundant harvest is in March, after the rainy season. The second harvest is at the end of June and the third in October or November. The bush can produce new leaves for over forty years.
The green leaves are spread in thin layers on coarse, woolen clots. They are dried in the sun and afterwards packed in sacks, which are kept dry to preserve the quality of the leaves.
In 2009, the global area under coca cultivation is approximately 158,800 hectares (ha). This is a decrease of 5% since 2008, a change mainly due to a significant decrease in Colombia (due to eradication) whereas the cultivation Peru and Bolivia has increased. Since 2000, the area under cultivation of coca has declined by 28%. Colombia represents about 43% of total coca cultivation, with Peru contribution 38% and Bolivia 19%.
Cultivation of the Opium Poppy for Opiates (mainly Heroin)
The illegal cultivation of the opium poppy (Papaver Somniferum) mainly takes place in Southwest Asia (Iran, Pakistan and especially Afghanistan) and in the highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand). This area is popularly known as the “Golden Triangle”. Notably, opium poppies are also cultivated in some South American countries.
The opium poppy thrives in warm climates with low humidity. It needs only a small amount of water before and during the early stages of growth. The plant can be grown in a variety of soils, but it grows best in sandy loam soil, which is easily cultivated. Rainy, cloudy weather during growth will reduce the quantity and quality of the narcotic content.
The opium is harvested from each opium pod by making vertical incisions with specially designed homemade knives. The pod remains on the stem of the plant and after the harvest is collected, the pods dry. Once dry, the largest and most productive pods are cut from the stem. The seeds are then removed and dried in the sun after which they are stored for the next year’s planting.
An average farming family can cultivate and harvest about one acre of poppy plants per year. Most of the more fertile fields van support cultivation for ten years or more without fertilization or insecticides before the soil is depleted.
The global area used for opium poppy cultivation declined by 15% to 181,400 ha in 2009 (or by 27% since 2007). Afghanistan, most notably, produces 89% of the world’s total opium. Other large contributors are Myanmar, Latin America (particularly Mexico and Colombia), although the amounts produced are tiny compared to the amounts produced by Afghanistan. It is predicted that the downward trend of opium cultivation will continue in the next years.
Cultivating Opium Poppies as a Hobby
Worldwide, opium poppies are kept in gardens and in pots on balconies. They have gorgeous flowers, and are not harmful in such small quantities. However, the USA does not discriminate between the poppy and the opium itself. Therefore, if you grow poppies, you’re liable to be charged with a felony for possession of Level II narcotics – whether you have one or one hundred poppies in your garden. Although likely you will be apprehended, it has happened – this article reports an author’s apprehension for writing a book on the cultivation of poppies in gardens and was kept in jail for three days along with his wife, and could have been jailed for ten years.
Personally, I find this extreme nonsense. A professor (who studied opium poppies for over 25 years) in the aforementioned article says the following, with which I full-heartedly agree:
“They can make somebody high, but I don’t see it as a threat to public health. To grow enough to become an addict would take an acre’s-worth of plants and I don’t think most drug addicts are dedicated enough to become farmers.”
What do you think?