Opium: Blessing and burden
Opium is one of the world’s oldest medicines and has been cultivated for at least 5000 years as an effective painkiller.
Today opium and heroin are associated with addiction and crime. Opium has been cultivated on a large scale in the Golden Triangle to finance wars, including CIA clandestine activities in Indochina and ethnic conflicts in Burma. This has resulted in severe social disruption and the destruction of local traditions.
A traditional opium pipe consists of along stem of bamboo ending in a small metal bowl or head. There is a tiny hole on the top of the bowl where the pre-heated ball of opium is placed. The opium is then held over a flame and the vapours inhaled. The smoker usually falls asleep for a short time and feels very relaxed. Regular smoking can quickly lead to addiction.
Opium has been an important medicine that cured stomach disorders and infections and acted as a general painkiller. This is still the case in areas where there are no health facilities. Opium has also been used as an aphrodisiac or love potion and in ritual contexts such as shamanic seances. In addition, opium has functioned as money in remote areas of the Golden Triangle.
Opium is the "perfect" cash crop. It is easy to grow, requires little technology, becomes more valuable when stored and buyers come to the village. Opium is an essential part of the local economies of the hill tribes but is also produced on a large scale by a collusion of politicians, soldiers and businessmen. Enormous profits are made but little trickles back into the villages.
Ten kilos of opium is needed to produce one kilo of morphine that can be further refined into heroin. In 1997 Burma was the world’s largest producer of illicit opium (59%), followed by Afghanistan (31%), Laos (5%) and Pakistan (4%) with lesser amounts from Thailand and Southern China. A large portion of this found its way to European and American cities in the form of heroin.
Many farmers who grow opium become addicted themselves, reducing the output of families and causing spiralling poverty. More young people are becoming heroin addicts due to rapid social change, unemployment and war. In the Shan State of Burma, especially, heroin use and the spread of HIV/AIDS from shared needles are approaching epidemic proportions.
For the majority of farmers in the Golden Triangle, opium is both a blessing and a burden. Opium provides income but also results in debilitating addiction. There is a need for crop alternatives but without infrastructure, healthcare, access to markets and other improvements, opium production is likely to continue. Successful reduction of opium production in Thailand was mainly a result of a general development.