Opium: Legal consequences

Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 2:29 pm

Legal consequences of Opium

Opium poppies are grown and opium legally produced on government-regulated farms in a handful of countries including India, Turkey, and Tasmania in Australia. For most legal commercial production, alkaloids are extracted through a process of milling the “poppy straw.” Rather than going through the entire opium-producing stage, the dried pods (the “poppy straw”) are processed to obtain morphine, codeine, and thebaine and the seeds are sold as well. Unlike traditional illicit opium production, this process may be done with mechanized agricultural equipment.
One major benefit of this extract is for legitimate medicinal use. The DEA estimates that more than 500 tons (455,000 kg) of opium or its equivalent in poppy straw are annually imported into the United States for this purpose. The poppy also has other legitimate uses. For example, mature poppy seeds are used in the food industry such as in cake and bread decorations, and added to some dishes for crunchiness or flavor. (Alkaloids are only found in the ripening pod; mature pods cease to manufacture alkaloids.) Poppy seed can be pressed into cooking oil. Poppy seed oil is also legitimately used in artists’ oil paints and in manufacturing perfumes. Throughout history, opium has also sometimes been used in religious rituals.
The possession of opium poppies was outlawed in the United States in 1942 by the Opium Poppy Control Act. Growing opium poppies is illegal in most countries. However, a number of areas around the world are infamous for their poppy cultivation. The countries of Laos, Burma, and Thailand comprise the Southeast Asian poppy growing area known as the Golden Triangle. The DEA estimates that Southeast Asian poppy fields produced nearly 3 million lb (1.4 million kg) of opium during 2000. Opium poppies are also illegally cultivated in Southwest Asia across a swatch known as the Golden Crescent, an area cutting across Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. According to the U.N. Economic and Social Council Commission on Narcotic Drugs, illicit opium production is also reported in varying amounts in Armenia, Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Italy, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela.
The U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP) reports that Afghanistan had emerged as the leading single source of illicit opium worldwide by 2000. In that year, Afghanistan produced as much as eight million lb (3.6 million kg) of opium, accounting for 70% of the world’s illicit opium and 80% of the heroin reaching Europe. Afghan’s Taliban rulers implemented a ban on opium poppy cultivation in 2001 and indications are that only 165,000 lb (75,000 kg) of opium were produced in Afghanistan that year. However, the UNODCCP reports that cultivation resumed after the fall of the Taliban due both to lawlessness and to farmers seeking to survive an ongoing drought. The main routes for smuggling Afghan opium to Europe and, in some cases, on to the United States are through Tajikistan, central Asia, and Eastern Europe; through Iran and Turkey to the Balkans; and through Pakistan.
In 2000, 430,000 lb (195,000 kg) of illegal opium were seized worldwide. The majority of these seizures (80%) were made by Iran, which seized approximately 364,000 lb (165,000 kg) of opium during that year. Countries with the largest opium seizures in Southeast Asia tended to be those with the largest production.
Efforts to curb poppy cultivation have involved a variety of strategies including drug enforcement, the implementation of various legal frameworks, promoting alternative crops and sources of income, eradication efforts that use pesticides to kill plants, and economic interventions such as setting up rural credit systems. Some approaches focus on reducing drug demand and establishing rehabilitation, prevention, and/or drug abuse programs. In addition to reducing trafficking in drugs, some efforts focus on reducing the sale or trafficking of the chemicals used in the refinement process.
The U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs recommends that drug strategies also address money laundering, advising agencies to develop knowledge in this arena from experts such as the Turkish International Academy against Drugs and Organized Crime (TADOC). Other recommended training involves identifying drug couriers, establishing regional information exchanges on drug traffickers and current methods of operation, and training and equipping investigators to target major crime figures and financiers. Other recommendations emphasize government cooperation in information exchange, law enforcement efforts, and efforts to curb money laundering. Such cooperation would avoid duplication of effort and maximize resources. They also encourage governments to use the media in supporting their initiatives. The commission also encourages forward-looking drug strategies that look toward future trends and seek ways to interrupt smugglers’ use of technology, with special attention given to sea routes and cargo containers.
Each of these strategies faces a number of challenges. Basic supply-and-demand economics impact drug prices. Opium prices fluctuate depending on a number of factors, including the production cycle, weather conditions that help or hinder poppy output, the availability of chemicals required to process the opium, the quality of the drug, and the local supply of opium and heroin. Opium prices saw large declines after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but had recovered by March 2002, according to the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
Opium traders buy the raw opium from farmers. In Southeast Asia, the price for raw opium in 1999-2000 ranged from $150 to $350 per kilogram. The price is marked up as the opium goes through each stage of processing and refinement. For example, the DEA reports that cooked opium is usually marked up approximately 20%. The price is then marked up again as the opium is refined into morphine base, morphine, heroin base, and heroin.
Opium production requires little infrastructure. Efforts to encourage alternative crops commonly find inadequate market infrastructures and transportation systems for handling legitimate crops. Targeting the chemicals necessary for processing the opium can be problematic in that many of the chemicals also have legitimate uses. The opium trade may be one element in on going ethnic conflicts. Additionally, when opium supplies are interrupted in one country, another source tends to take its place. In the late 1970s, the controversial defoliant Agent Orange was used to eliminate Mexican poppy fields. Golden Crescent opium production rapidly increased in response to the decreased Mexican supply.
The 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Drugs called for the eradication of opium in 25 years. A 1998 U.N. General Assembly Special Session called for eradication in 10 years. Instead of leading to the elimination of opium, some observers have argued that such goals are unattainable and sap ever-increasing amounts of resources. Many of these observers argue that the real keys to drug control lie in solving the economic and social problems that underlie drug production such as poverty, inequality, and political turmoil. Some observers contend that answers lie in decriminalization or legalization and a return to the view that addicts should be treated as if they are ill rather than lawbreakers. Other observers suggest that such stringent goals as those put forth by the U.N. are imperative in effectively waging any war on drugs.
Drug control efforts have often attempted to reduce both supply and demand. Strategies have included combinations of a range of legal and economic penalties, technologies, treatments, and educational and prevention efforts. The idea that currently illegal drugs should be legalized, or decriminalized, is also hotly debated. In brief, advocates of legalization or decriminalization contend that low rates of drug interdiction and high rates of use and drug-related crime mean that drug control efforts are not working. Their arguments include assumptions that drug prices would decrease; drug-related crime and corruption would decline, thereby freeing law enforcement resources for other needs; quality could be controlled; revenue would be produced for the government; and drug use would not increase significantly. Opponents of legalization argue that the behavioral, criminal, social, and public health problems that would arise would be considerable. They also point to high rates of legal alcohol and tobacco use as examples of what would happen to use rates if many currently illegal drugs were made legal. They cite evidence including the low rate of opium use in the United States today compared to the widespread use at the turn of the twentieth century in support of this last point.

Legal history

As medical understanding of addiction grew in the late 1800s, so too did the calls for reform of patent medicines and drug use in the United States. Many commentators have also connected the development of U.S. drug laws with growing racial fears. Concerns were raised that opium smoking was spreading beyond Chinese immigrants to the wider population and that blacks and Mexicans were unable to handle the growing drug use among those populations. News stories alleged the seduction of white women in Chinese opium dens and attributed a range of antisocial behaviors to minority users of illegal drugs. This began the current stigmatization of drug abusers as being outside mainstream society and as criminals rather than ill persons.
In 1909, Congressional legislation stopped the importation of smokable opium or opium derivatives except for medicinal purposes. The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 placed further controls on narcotics by addressing drug content, prescriptive, manufacturing, distribution, record-keeping, and taxation requirements. Under this act, only those licensed to do so could possess these drugs and they could only be prescribed for legitimate medical purposes, not for addict maintenance. A 1919 Supreme Court ruling upheld this position, consequently leading to strong narcotics regulations and ultimately to the current war on drugs.
After federal bans on opium, black markets developed to supply the demand. World War II temporarily interrupted opium smuggling routes. After the war, smuggling resumed with the U.S. government becoming involved in struggles in Southeast Asia that are sometimes blamed for fostering opium production and the heroin trade.
The development of synthetic narcotics was also encouraged by war needs. However, drug control efforts were somewhat haphazard. Although as of 1946 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) oversaw potentially addictive synthetic narcotics, non-narcotics drugs and drug abuse were not adequately controlled. The Controlled Substances Act (CS A), Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 attempted to fill this void. It established regulations, including controls on narcotics, which covered a range of drug control activities. The CSA schedule still includes regulations covering opium in the United States.

Federal guidelines, regulations, and penalties

In the United States, the CSA classifies drugs into schedules according to their medical use, potential for abuse, and ability to produce dependence. The CSA places opium derivatives under different schedules. Opium, morphine, and methadone are Schedule II drugs. Schedule II drugs have high abuse potential, some accepted medical use in the United States, and a likelihood of severe psychological or physical dependence if abused. Federal trafficking penalties for a first offense of 2.2 lb (1 kg) or more of a Schedule II substance is 10 years to life (20, if a death is involved) and fines of up to four million dollars for individuals and 10 million dollars for organizations. A second offense carries a minimum 20-year sentence and fines not to exceed eight and 20 million dollars.
Codeine is a Schedule III drug. These drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule I or II drugs, an accepted medical use in the United States, and the likelihood of moderate or low physical dependence if abused. Federal trafficking penalties for a first offense of a Schedule III substance is not more than five years and fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and one million dollars for organizations. A second offense carries a maximum of 30 years to life if a death is involved and fines up to two and 10 million dollars.
Talwin, another opium derivative, is a Schedule IV narcotic. Schedule IV drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs, an accepted medical use in the United States, and the likelihood of limited physical or psychological dependence if abused. Federal trafficking penalties for a first offense of a Schedule El substance is not more than three years and fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and one million dollars for organizations. A second offense carries a maximum of 30 years to life if a death is involved and fines up to two and 10 million dollars.
Non-prescription cough medicines with codeine are Schedule V drugs, which have a low potential for abuse compared to Schedule IV drugs, an accepted medical use in the United States, and the likelihood of limited physical or psychological dependence if abused. Federal trafficking penalties for a first offense of a Schedule V substance is not more than one year and fines of up to $100,000 for individuals and $250,000 for organizations. A second offense carries a maximum of 30 years to life if a death is involved and fines up to two and 10 million dollars.

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