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Heroin: the wonder drug

 Megafon (Norway) 30 August 2019

Today, opium is commonly known as the scourge of communities and the illegitimate cash crop of organisations like the Taliban. To casually dismiss the drug as just that however, ignores an important medicinal, historical and political lesson. Peter Lønningen investigates the 5000 year old origins of opium and how it still bears such a role on the world today (1690 Words) - By Peter Lønningen

Megafon_Heroin the wonder drug

Afghan poppy field. REUTERS/STR New

The plant of joy
The history of opium poppies is, mildly speaking, complicated and difficult but researchers have discovered that the Sumerians, who inhabited the area between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (in what today is known as Iraq), produced opium as early as 3500 years BC. The plant was known as 'Hul Gil', the plant of joy, and was used by magicians in rituals. In order to produce opium, oil from the plant's seed capsules is air-dried. The vegetable oil was later used to provide a quick and merciful death, in addition to being used as both medicine and painkiller.  The Ebers Papyrus, from around 1550 BC, refers to opium as an effective means to stop children from crying.

There are several proofs of Egyptian large-scale production of opium poppies going as far back as year 1300 BC.   They sold the drug to the Phoenicians, who in turn exported opium to Asia through the Mediterranean countries. The drug reached India between AD 700 and 800, where it quickly became a popular aphrodisiac. By the year 1300, opium had reached most of Europe, where the oil was used in anaesthesia contexts, and to cure abdominal pain and infections. But the Spanish inquisition's targeted search for anything nefarious (and as opium came from the East, it was of course an evil drug) caused the drug to go underground, literally speaking, but in the 1500s, the opium product laudanum became a popular analgesic drug.

The opium wars
The earliest descriptions of opiate dependence stems from the 1600s, but that didn't scare many. By the 1800s, opium was again a popular remedy against most things; insomnia, throat itching and bronchi, rashes, diarrhoea, colic, heart disease, and to stop bleedings from the uterus. In the mid-1800s, patients diagnosed with melancholia at Gaustad mental hospital in Oslo were treated with opiates.

Opium played a significant part in the relationship between China and the British Empire. British ships transported opium to China, and the Chinese authorities recognised the drug's negative effects on the country - and not just the drug's addictive nature. The Qing Dynasty Qing believed that the free trade of goods constituted a threat to national security, as open harbours would expose China to foreign powers.

Secondly, it was an economic question: opium trade caused large values to be taken out of China. What the country had left, was about two million opium addicts. In 1729, Emperor Yongzhengh banned all forms of opium trade, but the users were not to be punished.

The ban was in place until 1860. Nevertheless, British traders, particularly, could make good money by transporting and selling opium grown in India to China, but in 1839 the Chinese authorities began to enforce a total ban. That caused the Opium Wars, which China lost. Opium was once again legalised, and by 1906, China had become the world's largest producer of raw opium, and was responsible for nearly 86 percent of the global production.

It was not until after the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) and the Cultural Revolution (about 1966-1976) that the Chinese authorities to some extent got rid of the opium problems. Historically, Mao Zedong is attributed the credit for it. Ten million people were treated for addiction, crops were burned, and dealers had to pay with their lives.

Heroic guinea pigs
By 1806, the German pharmacist Freidrich Sertürner managed to isolate one of opium's alkaloids. He named the drug "morpheum", after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. The drug facilitates the anaesthetic science, but the misuse problem is still big. In 1821, the English author Thomas De Quincey described his life with opium in his book "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", and in Norway, Hans Jæger, in the trilogy "Erotic confessions of a bohemian", wrote about how the surroundings of himself, Christian and Oda Krohg, Edvard Munch and other artists used morphine to cope with adversity.But a drug that was supposed to help cure morphine addiction was on its way. The new treatment was both more potent than morphine - and impossible to get addicted to. In 1898, the drug went on the market under the name 'heroin'.

Heroin itself was not a new invention, but the commercial product was new. The chemist Heinrich Dreser, who was responsible for the testing of new products of the German medicine manufacturer Bayer, tested the drug on rabbits, frogs, himself and other employees. The feedback from the human guinea pigs was that they felt strong, invincible, and heroic. For that reason, the new drug was named heroin.

Cough medicine
At the time, tuberculosis and pneumonia were common diseases, and the most frequent cause of early death. Heroin was marketed as a cough calming treatment, which allowed the patient to sleep and hence recover faster. The wonder medicine also helped to cure bronchitis and colds. Thousands of free samples were sent out, pleasing both morphine addicts and people with a bad cough. Heroin was eventually produced in more and different forms.

Pills, syrups, sucking tablets and cough medicine were exported to more than 20 countries. Unfortunately, towards the end of the 1910s, reports of patients having developed a higher tolerance threshold for the drug started appearing, and many also reported of a dependency not unlike the one caused by morphine. Luckily for Dresser, he could focus on another one of his patents; Aspirin. But that is a completely different story.

In 1923, the U.S. authorities banned all forms of sale and use of narcotics, including heroin. Addicts, who were now no longer able to buy the drug over the counter, therefore had to resort to the black market. In the post-war period, demand was partially met by the Italian mafia, which produced heroin in the destabilised Italy.

This trade allowed the mafia able to build itself up economically. In England, however, the heroin problem was more limited; the government estimated that the number of addicts was approximately 48 people. It is believed that this estimate was way below the actual number, but it is a fact that the problem was not considered as serious in Europe as in other parts of the world. In 1926, the British authorities adopted a law saying that only doctors could prescribe the drug, but it wasn't before 1955, after massive political pressure, that Great Britain introduced a complete ban.

During the 1960s and 1970s, heroin was an important source of income for various rebel groups and nationalists, who fought against the communists. Among these were the mujahedeen groups in Afghanistan. The money the groups made on raw opium and heroin was, among other things, spent on buying weapons from Western manufacturers.

Seizures in Norway
In Norway, however, the deadly substance had not yet arrived. In the 1970s, the Norwegian drug addicts were self-sufficient. Large, qualitative studies show how the youth themselves went abroad (mainly to Denmark and the Netherlands) to buy morphine, and then resold it on the street back home in Norway. Particularly in the park surrounding the Royal Palace in Oslo, where a relatively large community of unemployed and homeless youth had come into being, there was an area where both sale and use of drugs were openly going on. The heroin was then transported out into the districts by middlemen.

In 1976, heroin was seized in Norway for the first time. Customs officials at the airport Fornebu, just outside of Oslo, then found 14.5 kilo heroin that had been smuggled in by two Indonesians. According to police sources, most of those who smuggled heroin to Norway were of Pakistani or Turkish origin, and the trade was organised by family networks. During the 1980s and 1990s, several new groupings entered the market, and particularly Eastern European groups became key players. These groups often had strict hierarchical structures, and findings show that large sums of money were brought out of the country to the networks' contacts.

Finances terrorism
Most of all opium produced originates in Afghanistan. In 1999, the country's opium farmers were responsible for 80 percent of the raw materials produced to make heroin, and 90 percent of all heroin sold in Europe was from the war-torn country. When the Taliban took power in 2000, and banned opium production, the production of raw opium declined from 4600 tonnes in 1999 to 200 tonnes. But after the fall of the Taliban, the production increased again.

Last year, almost 6900 tonnes of raw opium was produced in Afghanistan, something which constitutes a ten percent decrease from 2008. It is expected that the production will continue to decrease. The drug is smuggled out of the country through Tadzhikistan and Iran. Every year, the Iranian authorities seize almost 834 tonnes of heroin. But that is only about a third of the total amount feared passing through the country's borders.

The UN estimates the global demand for heroin to be around 5000 tonnes, and fears that large quantities of heroin is withheld from the market. According to the UN, this industry funds large drug cartels with close ties to the Taliban and other terrorist groups. After the Taliban lost power in 2001, the group has changed its views on opium production. It now taxes farmers who cultivate opium poppies, as that is their only secure source of income. The production takes place in the most troubled areas of the country.

- Opium production used to be a way to finance terrorism. But now we see that the production has become an end in itself. Opium money is addictive, and is often considered more important than ideology, says Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in a press release.

In 2009, Mr. Costa said in an interview with the newspaper The Observer that several banks survived the financial crisis because of inter-bank loans funded by laundered money that originated from the drugs trade and other illegal activities.

In 1994, Switzerland started distributing heroin to addicts who have failed all other treatment. The crime rate has declined with 60 percent, and unemployment among the users has been reduced from 44 to 20 percent. The drug is produced in state laboratories. In Denmark, a similar measure is being tested.

Translated into English by: Iselin Rønningsbakk

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Originally published by Megafon. ©

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