20 April 2012

The Opium Plant

Seeds of Terror by Gretchen Peters, 2009, Excerpts

The opium poppy flourishes in warm, dry climates, like the one along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. Opium is a sturdy, drought-resistant crop that has few pests or ailments and doesn’t rot. Its vivid flowers bloom three months after its tiny seeds are planted. When the petals drop off, they expose a green pod containing a thick, milky sap – opium in its purest form.

Farmers harvest the sap as they have for centuries, by scoring the buds with a curved scraping knife and collecting the sticky brown resin that dries on the buds. In rudimentary laboratories, often nothing more than a mud hut with metal mixing drums and a brick stove, raw opium is mixed with lime and boiled in water to make morphine base. Once poured into molds and sun-dried into hard bricks, it is reduced in weight and volume by a factor of 10, making it easier to smuggle.

More elaborate refineries cook the morphine bricks with acetic anhydride and hydrochloric acid to create heroin base, a course granular substance, referred to locally as “brown sugar” for its color and coarse consistency. This low-grade heroin is what gets sold on the streets of Pakistan and Iran. Injectable crystal heroin – highly potent and white in color – is what gets exported to the West.

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson, 1999, Excerpts

There are almost a hundred different kinds of poppies, but only the Papaver somniferum produces opium in sufficient quantity. The opium poppy is an annual belong to the family Papaversales. Within the species are many varieties, distinguished by petal and seed color, and by number of petals. In general, they grow to a height of three to four feet, the stem is cylindrical and solid, and the roots are thick and tapering. The buds droop, but when in flower the pant stands erect, usually has white or purple flowers with four large concave petals, and the capsules are globe shaped, containing a central cavity partially separated by papery dividers and filled with pale yellow seeds. The potency of the opium depends on the growing conditions.

The cultivation of poppies, the collection of the sap and the transformation of the sap into raw opium is long and complicated. The process defied mechanization, changing little through the centuries. At sunrise, harvesters incised the pods vertically, taking care not to cut into the capsule. The next morning the exuded sap was collected, drained and then air dried for about a month. Opium from a single poppy could be harvested several times over a period of days. Opium for export was rolled into small balls. About forty balls fit into each chest. The opium was put on sale at auction in October, almost a year after the seeds were first sown.

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