Analyzing the Illicit and Licit Opium and Cocaine Markets, US Government Protection and Distribution, and the Correlation Between GDP, Smuggling Routes, Drug laws, and Addiction

As stated countries that are the primary sources of lethal drugs are generally poor, addiction there is not very prevalent, drugs there are cheap, and they only become valuable when they reach rich countries. Of course, drugs are smuggled to the richest countries because buyers there are willing to pay this most. This section will discuss the correlations between GDP, drug smuggling routes, drug laws, usage, and addiction with a focus on cocaine and opiates.

Cocaine and opium (and its derivatives like heroin) are among the most problematic and profitable illicit drugs on the market right now. Most coca plants are grown in Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia where they are processed into cocaine, and most poppy plants are grown in the “Golden Triangle” and the “Golden Crescent.”

The Golden Triangle is located in South East Asia just east of India and it spans Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The Golden Crescent is located just west of India and it stretches across Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, so India is essentially surrounded by poppy plants. Opium is grown in India as well, but most there is grown legally and sold to large pharmaceutical companies. Because of India’s poverty, drug laws, and its proximity to illicit opiate routes, there was a population of about four million addicts in the country in 2003 according to a survey conducted by India’s Narcotics Control Bureau. There were also about 250 million tobacco smokers in India in 1997 according to WHO estimates.

For over a decade, Afghanistan has been the primary source of the world’s opium, and Columbia has been the primary source of the world’s cocaine for the past few years. The Taliban originally restricted growth of poppy plants in Afghanistan when in power in the 1990s to decrease the supply and increase the demand and the price of the product. (Oil fields are burned generally for the same reason.) They also imposed savage penalties, such as decapitation, for those found growing it who didn’t receive permission from the Taliban to do so.

The Taliban was successful in their efforts and Afghanistan began contributing very little to the opium market. But after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, opium production resumed at its previous levels and by 2007 Afghanistan was producing 92% of the world’s opium supply.1 This occurred partly because the economy was destroyed by US coalition violence and so farmers had to refocus their efforts on the most lucrative crops that they could grow. The US-backed Karzai administration put in charge was also in part responsible for the resurgence of poppy farming, and some platoons of the US army also facilitated the distribution of the drug via black markets and continue to do so. According to Lieutenant Colonel, John A. Glaze:

Afghan government officials are now believed to be involved in at least 70 percent of opium trafficking, and experts estimate that at least 13 former or present provincial governors are directly involved in the drug trade. Furthermore, up to 25 percent of the 249 elected members of parliament are also suspected of being involved in the drug trade…In some cases these warlords are the same individuals who cooperated with the United States in ousting the Taliban in 2001.”2

Hamid Karzai became President of Afghanistan on December 7th 2004 after the first elections were held since the US invasion and the fall of the Taliban. He declared a “jihad on poppy” the same month to conceal his administration’s role in the trade. Karzai pardoned five border patrol officers caught with 124 kilograms of heroin and granted early release for many others according to a State Department cable from August 2009 published by WikiLeaks.3 The CIA and British intelligence agency MI6 also gave Karzai tens of millions of dollars of “ghost money” that was unaccounted for to buy influence and access to his administration.4 The money was dropped off directly at his office in backpacks, suitcases, and shopping bags. Karzai ambiguously called the funding “multi-purpose assistance” used to the aid the wounded in conflict but the money likely went to warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum, Kabul Banks, cartels, and corrupt officials connected with the Taliban.

Neighboring Iran does not grow nearly as many poppy plants as Afghanistan, but it does consume and distribute large amounts of processed opiates. Most poor countries that grow addictive drugs like Afghanistan do little of the processing and cutting, which is left to other countries to increase profits. In 2007, for example, only 11% of the world’s heroin seizures were made in Afghanistan while 28% were made in Iran. Opium growers rarely process their own product because it is fairly complicated and not feasible for the average farmer. Opium is also far less dangerous and addictive than heroin.

Columbia has been the leader in coca plant cultivation for several years in part because coca plants evolved in the Andes mountains. In 2010 30% of the world’s seized cocaine had its origins in Columbia and cocaine money still fuels many sectors of its economy. Much like cocaine use, opiate use is highest in rich countries that don’t produce them. Some Afghans use opium fairly regularly, but they have fewer addicts than most countries, and it is understandable why some like to use it because their day-to-day lives are made extremely difficult from the constant warfare. Afghanistan also had a per capita GDP of $906 in 2012,5 making it one of the poorest countries in the world The magnitude of the difficulties the Afghan people have endured over the past few decades is unfathomable.

Residents of highly industrialized, rich countries with powerful governments usually have to buy drugs surreptitiously. But drugs are not taboo in most regions of Afghanistan or Columbia. In Afghanistan there are many hash shops that openly sell hash and hash oil and markets where opium is sold like any other legitimate product as opium is a vital part of Afghanistan’s economy. It is cheap there and the distribution is usually less bloody than it is in bordering countries where some more violent people move it to wealthier countries. Afghans aren’t forced to consume propaganda about drugs with duplicitous agendas or told how to feel about drugs as Americans are, and drugs are not expensive, so they can experiment and make their own decisions about what is right for them. Afghanistan and Columbia are hardly immune to addiction and drug violence, but drugs are treated more as personal problems than social epidemics there. If drugs were the real evil, then Columbia and Afghanistan would have the greatest number of addicts and deaths from drugs but this is not the case. If drugs remained openly available in Columbia and Afghanistan and they did not have so much internal strife and poverty, then addiction would be even less prevalent there.

Drugs are just inanimate chemicals. They are made up of the same baser elements as everything else in the world. But we give them power they do not deserve. Physical addiction is very real and it can be very powerful, but it is not so mystical anymore. We know the science behind addiction and we can treat it. But governments have no intention of treating every addiction, and they will never achieve this by waging the bloody drug war.

Much of the opium grown in Afghanistan is smuggled into Pakistan, which grows far less of it. Pakistan is wealthier than Afghanistan in terms of GDP, but a significant portion of its population lives in poverty as well. Its GDP per capita was $2,906 in 2012. Most of the opiates from Pakistan are smuggled into Iran, which has about the same per capita GDP.

Most of the unprocessed cocaine “paste” and cocaine made in Bolivia is smuggled into Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.6 Bolivia is a fairly poor country with a per capita GDP of $4,592. In 2007 the cost of cocaine there was only $9 per gram on average or $1300 per kilogram.7 When cocaine reaches Argentina it is worth far more because Argentina is a richer country with a per capita GDP of $18,205 in 2012, which is why much more cocaine is smuggled into the country and use is higher. In 2007 Argentina had an annual prevalence of cocaine use of 2.67% while Bolivia and Peru, two of the three major coca growers had an annual prevalence of 1.31% and 0.66% respectively.8 Uruguay had a 4% annual prevalence of cocaine use, in part, because it is wealthier and it relies on other countries for cocaine. Cocaine was $13.20 per gram there on average in 2007.9 Cocaine that isn’t consumed in Argentina is shipped out of the Trelew area to West Africa around Senegal, and cocaine that isn’t consumed in Brazil is shipped out to Nigeria and South Africa.10

In 2007 Peruvian cocaine cost just $1.30 per gram ($1 for paste) or $851 per kilogram. Much of it was smuggled into Brazil, Panama, and some was shipped directly to the US-Mexico border near Tijuana. Mexico is far less poor than the rest of Central America, although a large percentage of the population (44.2% in 201011) is impoverished. In 2012 Mexico’s GDP was $1.629 trillion, 11th in the world and they had a per capita GDP of $15,113, despite their large impoverished population.12 The Mexican government has a stranglehold on the drug markets and cartels there, which is partly why its GDP is so high but common Mexicans have so little. Billionaire parasites like Carlos Slim also make windfalls of cash monopolizing on public services there. Cocaine can also be much more expensive in Mexico because it shares a border with America. In 2007 a kilogram of cocaine cost $12,500 on average in Mexico.

Much of the cocaine that ends up in Brazil is shipped out of the densely populated metropolis of São Paulo, which has the second highest GDP per capita of all Brazilian cities. Cocaine in Brazil is also shipped further north to areas with greater wealth. Little of it is shipped through Colombia because they make their own. Much of Colombia’s cocaine is smuggled to Venezuela where per capita GDP ($11,889 in 2007) is higher than all three of the primary cocaine producing countries. From there it is shipped through the Caribbean to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Southern Mexico, Asia, and Australia.

Puerto Rico’s per capita GDP is greater than that of Cuba and the Dominican Republic combined, so much more coke is shipped there. When coke reaches these Caribbean countries it is either consumed or smuggled further north, usually to America. Florida was the most common point of entry for cocaine from the Caribbean in the 1980s, but today most Caribbean smugglers go to the East Coast where demand and wealth are greater. Some also go further to Canada while some veer to France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.

France and the United Kingdom are among the richest countries in the world, and they have very strict drug laws, but large drug markets. France had a GDP of $2.582 trillion and a per capita GDP of $41,018 in 2010 while the United Kingdom had a GDP of $2.247 trillion and a per capita GDP of $36,120. This clearly dictates the prices of cocaine there, which were $60.40 to $140.80 per gram or $48,289.70 to $68,410.50 per kilogram in 2009.13

Like America France and the United Kingdom have senseless, completely arbitrary classes for drugs ostensibly based on lawmakers’ very limited understanding of the effects of these drugs and the drugs apparent ability to prevent people from working. These countries also have very strict penalties for drug possession, including life in prison. In France, according to the Decree Law of February 22 1990, cannabis is a “list 1” drug along with heroin, cocaine, methadone, and opium. This means the government considers these drugs equally dangerous and that possession of any them is punished with the most severe sentence possible.

Even more confusing is this laws classification of amphetamines (some of which have more addiction potential than heroin) as class 3 drugs and THC, the primary cannabinoid in cannabis, as a class 4 substance. THC’s lower classification was likely driven by Western conceptions about traditional medicine. For the state to consider a substance “medicinal,” it usually has to be an isolated, singular compound packed in a pill. The same distinction is made in America. Anything else is considered “homeopathic” or a “recreational drug.” Possession of synthetic cannabis or extracted cannabis compounds is usually punished less severely. This is because synthetic cannabis is made mostly by large corporations, which governments can tax. But pharmaceutical companies, the DEA, the FDA, and other large institutions in America do not profit if everyone is allowed to grow their own medicine, (unless they seize it) and this is the primary reason they currently oppose it.

In the UK, the still effective Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 defines heroin, crack, ecstasy, LSD, and mushrooms as class “A” drugs. But these drugs are all very different and were likely grouped together due to their popularity there, giving feds and cops an excuse to seize them. As a result of the nonsensical drug laws in France and United Kingdom, as well as their wealth and the social taboos surrounding drugs, drug prices are high and addiction is prevalent.

As stated much of the cocaine that is smuggled into Mexico is then smuggled into the US via Texas, California, and Arizona. When it reaches these states, it becomes much more valuable, but it is does not usually reach its peak price so close to Mexico. These states are ideal locations to introduce drugs into the US because they are very large and it would be nearly impossible to secure every inch of their borders with Mexico. Of course, increasing border security is not the solution anyway.

California is an especially ideal location because there is a high demand for drugs there due to its population density, enormous economic diversity, (especially in Los Angeles) and more liberal social expectations. Drugs are not as taboo in California and the laws reflect that, which has reduced much of the harm created by the drug war, but many prisons in California are holding more prisoners than their capacity because federal drug enforcement agencies continue to arrest cannabis smokers, despite the local laws. The distribution of medicinal cannabis is legal under state law, but not federal law, which gives distributors registered with the state protection from state and local police but not from federal agencies. Many Californians use cannabis, but they do not use abuse harder drugs at the same rates that residents of other states do, and the availability of cannabis is likely part of the cause for this.

The US is one of the most lucrative places on Earth to sell drugs due to its wealth. There is also an enormous demand for drugs there created by corporate state induced poverty, alienation, shameless capitalism, racial tension, police brutality, depression, other social and mental issues, poor education, unemployment, homelessness, and very strict drug laws. The IMF estimated America had a GDP of a $15.6097 trillion in 2012 and a per capita GDP of $49,601. The price of a gram of cocaine in 2007 in America ranged from a low of $20 to a high of $350, and cocaine addiction is most prevalent in America.

A 2007 UNODC report estimated there were 120,000 users of cocaine in Central America, (about 3 tenths of one percent of the population) 170,000 in the Caribbean, (about four tenths of the one percent of the population) 2,250,000 in South America, (about 6 tenths of 1 percent of the population – relatively higher because South America is wealthier than Central America) and 6,870,000 (a little over 2% of the population) in North America. A greater percentage of cocaine users in North America were also estimated to be younger than those in South and Central America, and more were long-time users of the drug. Western and Central Europe also had 3,870,000 cocaine users in 2007.


5.5 Analyzing the Licit Opium Market and the Most Abused Substance on Earth


Opium is a very unique drug because it has so many derivatives with very disparate potencies and it has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, yet opiates are also the most widely abused illicit drugs on Earth. Most people who enter drug treatment are addicted to opiates. The UNODC estimated that there were 12 to 21 million opiate addicts worldwide in 2011.14 Understanding opium, the licit and illicit opium trade, and the differences between the two is fundamental in order to understand the entire war on drugs.

Opioids are far more accepted for medicinal use than cannabis, despite the fact that they are more addictive and potentially lethal. An opioid is a chemical that binds to opioid receptors in the body. An opiate is one type of opioid that is made by poppy plants. There are also endogenous opioid peptides which are produced by our bodies, (often during exercise and after fatigue) as well as semi-synthetic opioids, which are derived from natural opiates, and fully synthetic opioids, which do not occur in nature.

There are four types of endogenous opioid peptides: endorphins, enkephalins, dynorphins, and endomorphins. Natural opiates are alkaloids present in poppy resin or “raw opium,” which is the dried latex that oozes from the cut head (immature seed pod) of the poppy plant. The opiates in raw opium are morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Cut immature seed pods of poppy plants also contain other alkaloids that do not bind to opioid receptors like papaverine, noscapine, and 25 others that are not believed to have much pharmacological value.

Morphine and codeine are the most prevalent opiates in raw opium resin and the most commonly prescribed. Raw opium usually consists of about 8-17% morphine and 0.7-5% codeine.15 (However, some poppy plants are bred to produce more or less of each depending on what they are being grown for.) Morphine and codeine can be fairly easily extracted from raw opium. In fact, morphine was the first medicinal alkaloid isolated from a plant16 and it radically changed our understanding of medicine and science.

Natural opiates, such as morphine and codeine, can be transformed into semi-synthetic opiates, such as diacetylmorphine (heroin), hydrocodone, dihydrocodeine, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, oxycodone, and many others by changing their chemical structure. Because less codeine is produced by poppy plants than morphine, instead of isolating it from raw opium, it is more often created from morphine through methylation, which involves replacing the -OH group of the morphine molecule with -OCH3.

Heroin is usually synthesized from morphine with acetyl hydride, which acetylizes morphine’s hydroxyl groups. This chemical reaction replaces the -OH groups of the morphine molecules with OCOCH3. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl, pethidine, methadone, tramadol and dextropropoxyphene are not made from opiates, but with different chemicals in laboratories.

Heroin is less soluble in water than morphine, which is why it is not as effective if taken orally and is generally injected. Once heroin is in the bloodstream it can easily pass the blood brain barrier, which prevents water soluble molecules from entering. Heroin is more powerful than morphine, but its effects do not last as long, which makes it more addictive. As heroin is processed by the body, its acetyl groups are removed, reforming morphine.

The way that morphine and all opioids work as analgesics is by fitting perfectly into the active site on pain receptors. They can do this because of their unique shape. The benzene group of morphine, for example, fits against a level section of the opioid receptor protein while the bent carbon group of atoms fits into an indentation beside it, which allows the positively charged nitrogen atom to attach to the negatively charged group on the receptor. This locks the molecules together.

Because raw opium only contains about 8-17% morphine and 0.7-5% codeine on average, it is only roughly one tenth as potent as pure morphine. This means morphine is about ten times more powerful and addictive than average raw opium. Heroin, on the hand, is about two to three more powerful than pure morphine when injected intravenously. Many of the synthetic opioids are even more potent and addictive. Fentanyl, for example, is 75 to 125 times more potent than morphine. Sufentanil is 500 to 1,000 times more potent than morphine, and Etorphine is 1,000 to 3,000 times more potent than morphine and is mainly used as an elephant tranquilizer. (This drug is not intended for human consumption.)

Heroin was first synthesized from morphine in 1874 and it was marketed as a “safe, non-addictive cure” for morphine addiction. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a large percentage of the population discovered this was a lie when heroin abuse became a widespread problem. Corporations that sold heroin like Bayer, which sells Tylenol and many other household drugs today, profited for many years from addictions to their dope.

Opiates were restricted in the UK in 1868 with the Pharmacy Act, which required those interested in opium to obtain a prescription while general, over the counter sales of products containing more than 1% opium were made illegal. The British government had no qualms about selling opium to China without restriction, resulting in an epidemic of addictions there, but when the state realized British citizens were using it in greater numbers, they sought to control it. British officials didn’t want working Brits to become dope addicts because they needed them for their labor. Heroin was considered an “unprofitable diversion” from work by the British government, and an international ban was instituted during World War One when the addiction spread to soldiers because it was widely prescribed for pain management. It was even called the “soldiers disease” at this time.

Today, most of the world’s licit opium is made by India and Turkey. Of course, big pharmaceutical companies will not buy opium from Afghan or Pakistani farmers because of its legal status. They do not want to associate with people who are often labeled as “terrorists.” They also don’t want the well of drug war money to run dry, much less help the common people of the Middle East.

170,000 families in India have licenses to grow opium in small plots, and because family members often help in the farming, at least one million people are estimated to be involved in the trade.17 Because most are very poor and pharmaceutical companies pay them so little for their product, the government has to raise the price periodically in order to deter farmers from diverting their harvest to the black market.

In 2003 the government of India set the base price for a kilogram of opium at 630 rupees, which was equal to just $13.50 in US currency according to 2003 exchange rates. Recent estimates of illicit Afghan opium prices were $500 per kilogram on average in Afghanistan and up to $35,000 in the US.18 These are immense differences.

In the year 2000, the government of India set a licit opium harvest target of 1200 metric tons. 870 tons were allocated for export, 130 tons were reserved for domestic use, and 200 tons were stockpiled. This was far less than the amount of opium produced for the illicit market. In the same year, Afghanistan alone produced 3000 tons for the illicit market and had the potential to produce over 8000 tons in 2007.19 The need for licit opiates greatly exceeds the supply, especially in poor countries. According the International Narcotics Control Board, 80% of the world has a shortage of medicinal morphine (though this need could be more safely filled with cannabis as an alternative.) In David Mansfield’s analysis on opium poppy cultivation in India and Turkey he explains:

The consumption of morphine is highly concentrated with the 20 countries with the highest per capita gross national product accounting for approximately 75% of global morphine consumption. This differs markedly with the consumption of morphine in the developing world. Indeed, the INCB reports that several states and territories that have provided estimates did not plan for any medical or scientific need for morphine. Furthermore, many states continue to report very low levels of morphine consumption.”

Therefore, both licit and illicit consumption of opiates is highest in the richest countries. Some people in poorer countries self-medicate with raw opium and they pay the price as a result due to the laws. Some of the world’s largest producers of opium do not have enough for the people in their own hospitals because it is so much more profitable to export. Poor farmers and other common people end up suffering and starving the most, so that rich people can feel literally numb.

According to a DEA pamphlet on opium production published in 1993, one hectare of land (10,000 square meters) usually only produces about 8-15 kilograms of dry opium, so Indian poppy farmers with only one hectare of land could make just $116-217.50 per year in the licit market. However, farmers who divert it to the illicit market even locally in India could make that much money per kilo.

Large pharmaceutical companies in France, England, Australia, Japan, and Germany have increased their licit opium production in recent years. Johnson and Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson Matthey, and Mayne have poppy fields in Tasmania, Australia. Sanofi Aventis has poppy fields in France and Shionogi Pharmaceutical has poppy fields in Japan. MacFarlane Smith also has poppy fields in the United Kingdom.20 Due to their greater resources and understanding of agronomy they can afford to make their own opium for about the same price as they pay Indian and Turkish farmers without having to pay for the shipping costs. However, despite this Turkey and India remain the world’s main suppliers of licit opium due to the “80/20 rule” created in 1981, which stipulates that “at least 80% of licit opium imported into the United States must come from India or Turkey.” No more than 20% can come from Australia, Hungary, Poland, France and the former Yugoslavia. This was not likely done to stimulate the economy of Turkey or India but rather to ensure opium prices remained low. But now that large pharmaceutical companies have discovered how to produce opium themselves even more cheaply than poor farmers can, they want to have this rule abolished.

One idea that has been suggested as a solution to reduce the flow of illicit drugs and improve the economy of Afghanistan and Pakistan is to legalize medicinal production of opium there and encourage pharmaceutical companies (or just individuals in need) to buy opium from Afghan and Pakistani farmers. But as stated, these corporations would never do this because they are buying opium from India for $13.50 a kilo and producing their own for about the same cost. The governments of Canada, the US, Britain, France, and other rich counties are also opposed to the legalization of opium in Afghanistan for same reasons. They lie about why they do not believe legalization would be right there, arguing that poppy production would increase and that it would be mostly diverted to illegal markets, but that is already the case. It is unlikely that legalizing and regulating the exportation of opium in Afghanistan would increase illicit sales locally. In fact, illicit demand locally would drop since more Afghans would seek doctors instead of dealers for pain management. Afghanistan could also fill the worldwide shortage of medicinal opiates in the process. However, drug laws need to change globally all at once (or more ideally all governments fall at once). If only one country legalizes production, it’s going to be far more profitable to divert it to rich countries where it’s illegal.

If opium became legal in Afghanistan or pharmaceutical companies paid Indian or Turkish farmers a decent amount for their licit opium, these companies would make less money, prices would increase for health insurance companies, and the government may lose money on subsidies. Therefore, these institutions do not want such ideas to even be considered. But we (the vast majority of humanity that is moral and does not have incredible wealth) have no reason to want this to continue, and we can change these terrible realities as long as we have the will and the knowledge to know how.

1 UNODC: 2007 Annual Poppy Survey in Afghanistan. Pg. 9. <<www.unoduc.orrg/pdf/research/AFG07_ExSum_web.pdf>>

2 John A Glaze, Opium and Afghanistan: “Reassessing U.S. Counter Narcotics Strategy.”) Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. October 2007. Pg. 6. Journal.

5 CIA World Factbook, 2012

6 CIA: Major Narco Trafficking Routes and Crop Areas, 2000. Graphic.

7 UNODC: World Drug Report 2007, Pg. 230. Print.

REDLA: Proceedings from the Meeting of the Red Latinoamericano de Investigadores Sobre Drogas. June 2008. Pg 55. <<>&gt;

UNODC: World Drug Report 2007, Pg. 230. Print.

10 CIA: Major Narco Trafficking Routes and Crop Areas, 2000. Graphic.

11 CONEVAL: 2009 Fact Sheet. US Embassy in Mexico City. Online Publication.

12 International Monetary Fund, 2012. Print.

13 UNODC: World Drug Report 2009. Print.

14 UNODC: World Drug Report 2011 Pg. 46. New York. Print.

15 Miller, M. Peter, PHD: “Principles of Addiction: Comprehensive Addictive Behaviors and Disorders.” Academic Press. Pg. 168. Print.

16 Luch, Andreas: Molecular, Clinical and Environmental Toxicology, 2009. Pg. 20. Print.

18 UNODC: World Drug Report, 2007. Print.

19 UNODC: Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007. Print.

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