When Nixon began his War on Drugs in 1971, he based it on three legs: treatment and rehabilitation for users, increased domestic law enforcement, and suppression of illegal drugs at their source. Of these, source suppression was the least effective, most pernicious, and the most strongly supported even today.
Five drugs were of major concern at that time. Of those five, three – marijuana, heroin, and cocaine – were imported; and each of them seemed to come from a single geographical source. Heroin came from Turkey, cocaine from Colombia, and marijuana from Mexico. Each of these drugs was produced from a plant growing in that area. The idea was that if the plants could be destroyed or greatly reduced in number, then the related drug would either be removed from the American markets or become so scarce with a price so high that buyers would be unable to purchase it.
Amphetamines and barbiturates were treated differently. These were synthetic drugs, manufactured by highly regulated American pharmaceutical companies and distributed by prescription. The government did not consider foreign sources to be a problem with these drugs.
Nixon’s first move predated his War on Drugs. In 1969 he instituted Operation Intercept, stopping and searching each person and vehicle entering the U.S. from Mexico. Delays immediately arose, with even the simplest border crossing taking over 24 hours. Complaints led to cancellation of the program after only two weeks. During that time, not a single shipment of marijuana was detected, but the supply on American streets continued to grow. The smugglers merely moved a few miles away from the entry points and crossed the largely unpatrolled border.
The first application of the War on Drugs was more successful. Turkey, except for a brief period during WWII, had always been the major source of opium and opiates in America. Nixon reached an agreement with the Turkish government so that Turkish farmers were paid a bonus to destroy their opium and were given seeds, equipment, and training to grow different crops. The government arranged to transport these to market; and the farmers were paid a supplement to make up for the lower prices of their new crops. Turkish opium disappeared for all practical purposes.
But the American heroin market never lost a sale. The tribes in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia immediately stepped in. They not only supplied the heroin labs in France that had traditionally converted Turkish opium into heroin smuggled through America’s east coast, they also set up their own, new routes across the Pacific Ocean into California and through Mexico. Mexican farmers, whom the American government set up in opium growing when the U. S. lost access to Turkey for medical opium during WWII, continued producing heroin for Americans as well.
The attempt to excise the cancer of Turkish opium had only caused it to metastasize. In the 1980s, the Afghan tribesmen financed their resistance to the Russian invasion by growing opium. When the Soviet Union withdrew and American aid to these nationalist fighters stopped, they became aligned with the Islamic fundamentalists and rapidly increased their opium production. By 2000, Afghanistan was producing over 90% of the world’s illegal opium.
Additionally, the Andean cocaine traffickers decided to diversify their business in the late 1980s. They started growing opium poppies along with the coca bushes and requiring their cocaine purchasers to become heroin distributors as well. Anyone wanting to buy 10 kilos of cocaine was forced to buy one kilo of heroin as part of the deal. This kind of tying arrangement appears in any unregulated monopoly market. For the first time, American heroin distributors had a choice of suppliers. They could get Afghani heroin shipped through Central Asia, Golden Triangle product coming in through the West Coast, black tar heroin grown and processed in Mexico, or the new Andean dope as well. The market was becoming competitive, and as the twenty-first century opened, prices fell and purity increased.
The prospect of suppressing opium is even more futile than this brief sketch has suggested. Poppies will grow in almost any arable land outside the polar regions. Legal poppies for medicinal opium are now grown in Australia, India, Turkey, France, Spain, and at least two of the eastern European republics. Canada is about to begin legal culture of a high theobaine, low morphine poppy for medicinal use.
In prehistoric eras, opium was found in China, the Indian sub-continent, Greece, and central Europe. People in the Fens district of England grew poppies in kitchen gardens for use in a steeped tonic.
The United States has its own history as a source of opium. Thomas Jefferson grew poppies as part of his diversified farming operation. During the Civil War, the Union blockade cut the Confederate States off from their usual sources of opium. They met their army’s demands for medical opiates by growing their own.
In 1872, the Massachusetts State Board of Health complained that opium growers in Vermont and New Hampshire were flooding Boston with several hundred pounds of their surplus product. They also noted some opium from commercial growers in Florida and Louisiana coming into the state, while the center of the opium industry was in California and Arizona. An Arizona farmer, they said, could produce 1200 pounds of opium a year from only ten acres. The opium poppy became the state flower of California.
The poppy seems to be a plant that can grow anywhere in the world, and hopes of suppressing it are futile.
In the next installment, we will examine attempts to suppress coca and marijuana and take a look at suppression of the synthetics, amphetamines and MDMA. We will also draw some conclusions about the idea of source suppression itself.