It is a well known fact what happens to our bodies physically and our minds mentally if we abuse the drug heroin, which is made from the opium poppy, but something that is less frequently discussed is how the byproduct of this simple plant is transformed into one of the most addictive drugs known to humankind. Furthermore, not seriously discussed much is how this specific drug is able to to be transported all the way from distant opium poppy cultivation fields straight into North America. The abuse of this highly addictive drug heroin, whether it is by ingestion, injection or inhalation, is something deadly serious and something that needs to be discussed for anybody even thinking of cultivating poppies for this purpose.
Opium Poppy Cultivation
Heroin itself is extracted from raw opium gum, which is produced solely from the opium poppy plant, even though there are a variety of other species of poppies that exist. The Oriental, California, and Flanders species of poppy are specific types of, poppy pod plants that are grown within North America. The Poppy, both the 'opium producing' and 'non opium producing' varieties, can be found in a vast variety of climates throughout the world. Opium poppy pods has been cultivated in many regions of Asia for many decades and more currently cultivating poppies can also be found in Latin America. About 60% of the entire world's opium is grown and cultivated in the remotest parts of Southeast Asia, especially in parts of Thailand, Burma, & Laos. Other primary opium poppy cultivation growers include Mexico, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, & Colombia.
The dominating producers of opium poppy in the world are the hill tribe residents of Southeast Asia. They dwell under very primitive environments and don't have available running water nor easily accessible electricity. Because of their extremely impoverished situation, opium is their main source of currency, and it is sold and traded just to cover their basic necessities like clothing, food, & daily utensils. Opium is also used locally as an altenative for modern medicines since very few medical supplies are available in these extremely remote areas.
Preparing the Land for Cultivating Poppies
These Southeast Asian hill tribe opium poppy growers utilize a technique called 'slash and burn' cultivating methods to prepare the opium poppy fields for planting and growing. As soon as all the trees have been completely cut down and the surrounding vegetation cleared and burned, the opium farmers take full handfuls of opium poppy seeds and disperse them throughout the field. Opium poppy flowers need approximately 3 months to fully mature and the opium farmer will need to weed the fields once or twice during that time period. When the plants are fully mature, the farmers will begin to harvest the opium gum using simple tools, made from whatever can be found nearby.
Just before reaching maturity, the opium poppy plant will produce a flower. Soon after about a week, the poppy's petals will begin to drop off, leaving behind a poppy pod capsule. Raw opium gum is harvested from this poppy pod capsule. The surface of the capsule is cut, or 'scored', with a knife containing 3 or 4 small blades, and the opium gum oozes out through each of the cuts that have been made in the opium poppy pod. The day after, the opium farmer scrapes the gum off the capsules with a flat tool called a scraper. Each individual poppy pod capsule is usually scored in this manner 3 to 5 times, or until the scoring produces no more gum. Opium poppy cultivation fields contain thousands of opium poppy pod capsules, so harvesting is very labor intensive job. Once the opium gum is collected, the farmer will lay it out to dry for a few days, then wraps it in large leaf or plastic. The opium gum is stored until a trader or buyer arrives at the village. The opium gum has a long shelf life and can actually increase in value as time goes by. After the opium poppy cultivation process is complete, the capsules are severed from the stem, laid out to dry, then forced open so that the seeds found inside the poppy pod may be used for the following year's crop.
Refining Raw Opium
Refining raw opium poppy into the drug heroin is an exhausting multiple step process. Once the opium gum is delivered to a refinery, it is converted into morphine, which is an intermediate product. This transformation is achieved basically through chemical processes and requires several basic steps. Boiling water is used to liquify the opium gum, approximately 55-gallon drums are used for boiling vessels, and burlap sacks are used to filter and strain liquids. After drying, the morphine produced from this initial step of the process is pressed into individual bricks. The alteration of morphine bricks into heroin is also essentially a chemical process. The primary chemical used is acetic anhydride, along with ethyl alcohol, sodium carbonate, acetone, charcoal, ether, and chloroform. The 2 most frequently produced heroin varieties are smoking heroin and injectable heroin.
Converting Opium to Heroin
The refining process, after cultivating poppies, has been perfected to the point where heroin purity levels are commonly found to be far above 90%. However, as the heroin makes its way to North America, it needs to pass through many middlemen. To maximize individual profit, substances that make the heroin less pure are added at each stop. These dilutants are usually white and powdery, similar to the heroin, and include other things such as powdered milk, caffeine, & baking soda. By the time the heroin gets to the end user, it is often only about 40% pure, and very little is known by anyone involved in the production or trafficking of the drug about the components of the remaining questionable 60%.
Heroin enters the country in various ways and through various methods. Often it is hidden in luggage, shipping containers on cargo ships, and even by courier companies. More recently, drug smugglers have been forced to be more imaginative since trafficking laws are getting more strict, and customs officials & law enforcement officers are creating new ways to detect drugs. Newer smuggling methods are apparently limited only by a drug trafficker's own imagination. Human couriers may swallow small plastic bags of heroin, travel across the border, and the wait for the bags to clear through their intestines. Other bags of heroin are also put in the gas tanks and even the tires of cars and driven across country borders, or even mixed in with garbage that ends up in refuse containers. Sometimes the heroin is placed inside figurines or even in furniture. In one extreme example, a border patrol unit in Texas found about $5 million worth of narcotics stuffed in human body parts such as legs, arms, and intestines, that had been stolen from a hospital. The traffickers claimed that this was a way to mask the drugs' scent from drug-sniffing dogs, but obviously it was unsuccessful.
Hopefully, you will have a better understanding of the long process of events involved in poppy cultivation by which a product from an apparently innocent flower, the opium poppy, becomes heroin sold on North America streets. The drug goes through many different hands and changes form considerable times, and there is really no way for a buyer to truly know how it has been modified or how it was smuggled across the border. With the strong help of law enforcement, various governments, and government agencies, we continue to advance our understanding of the problem.