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Opium, Morphine & Heroin News Archive

So What WAS in the News?

Substance abuse, whether legal or illegal, is so widespread in modern society that there are many stories about it in the news everyday.

This page contains stories about opium, morphine and heroinwhich were, originally, placed on the Substance Abuse News page but which can no longer be called 'News'.

In addition to items specifically about this substance there are many items related to substance use and misuse in general. These general items can be found in the 'All Substances News Archive'.

Please go to the 'Phantastica' page to access stories related to specific substances.

UNODC Annual Afghanistan Opium Survey is Published
13th January 2012

But only serves to show how unreliable the data is.

Read more in today's blog

Report Published into Anthrax-infected Heroin Deaths
8th January 2012

The body responsible for dealing with the 2009/10 outbreak of anthrax from infected heroin has issued its report.

Read more in today's blog

Saffron is Suggested as Alternative Crop to Opium.
7th October 2011

As the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan passes, it has been suggested that opium poppy farmers might grow crocus for saffron instead.

Read more in today's blog.

Collateral Damage from the 'War on Drugs'
21st July 2011

Al Jazeera English produced a documentary entitled 'Freedom from Pain' showing how the 'war on drugs' is preventing innocent people in pain from receiving medication. More on my blog.

UNODC Publishes 2010 Afghanistan Opium Survey
22nd January 2011

Something rather strange happened to the opium industry in Afghanistan in 2010 according to the final version of the 'Afghanistan Opium Survey 2010' published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Previous information had suggested that 2010 would be a bad year for opium due to the presence of a virulent plant disease. And, as expected, opium production fell dramatically. In spite of the area under cultivation remaining unchanged, at 123,000 hectares, from 2009, the estimated dry opium weight resulting fell from 6,900 tonnes to 3,600 tonnes a decrease of 48%. This takes output levels back to the sort of figures not seen since the early years of the century. So, nature has achieved something which all the human efforts to suppress output have failed to do.

Because opium, for all its illegal status, operates much like any other market, it should be no surprise that the reduction in output from farms in Afghanistan resulted in an increase in prices. UNODC reports that, on average, farm gate prices for dry opium rose 164% to $169/kg. There were, however, significant regional variations with prices in the north-east only rising 21% against the 192% in the southern region which includes Hilmand province, again, at US$350 million total farm-gate value, the largest producer in the country.

This increase in price per kilo meant that farmers earned a total of US$605 million from opium sales, 38% up from the US$438 million earned in 2009 from a much higher output tonnage. During 2009, wheat prices fell (though they are now increasing) so that the combined effect was that a farmer was six times better off using land for poppies rather than wheat.

None of this is unexpected. Where something strange seems to have happened is with the estimated export value of opium. UNODC, whilst acknowledging that surveying the trade after the opium leaves the farm is much less certain, estimates that traders made a total of US$1.2 billion in 2010, a 48% decrease from 2009. That's a US$1.1 billion drop in income that, coupled with the US$ 167 million increase in product cost means that the 'middle men' of the industry, generally believed to be the major source of funding for anti-government activities, saw their income fall from US$1.86 billion to US$0.60 billion.

It has been known that, for some years, production of opium has exceeded world demand though there seems to be no consensus on where the surplus stocks are held. It may be, therefore, that in order to sell their opium, traders in Afghanistan have had to match the price at which the stocks were sold in previous years.

It will be interesting to see if this fall in income has a noticeable effect on the anti-government forces or whether the idea that the opium trade finances the war will be shown to be an over-simplification.

One encouraging thought is that, once again, it appears that the demand for heroin is finite and thus, consumer prices have not risen in line with falling supply in the way that other commodities, whether copper, oil, gas or foodstuffs move.

UNODC Afghan Poppy Survey - Lower Yield, More Money
10th October 2010

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has published its 2010 'Afghanistan Opium Survey - Summary Findings'. It finds that the area under cultivation of Papaver somniferum remained unchanged from 2009 at 123,000 hectares but, due mostly to a fungal infection arising late in the season and causing premature drying of the opium latex, total outturn fell from 6,900 tonnes to 3,600 tonnes.

In a very clear example of the workings of supply and demand, however, the survey believes that total farm-gate income rose from US$438 million to US$604 million as a result of a 164% increase in the per kg price.

This had the net effect of increasing income per hectare by 36% to US$4,900 per ha. At the same time wheat prices fell so that income per hectare was only US$770 increasing the financial incentive for farmers to grow opium.

Largely as a result of the change in US policy in relation to providing military assistance to eradication teams, the total area of poppy plants destroyed fell again to an insignificant 2,316 ha.

The survey simply provides figures without editorialising them. Though the press release accompanying the survey talks of 'good news' in terms of the number of poppy-free provinces remaining stable no other conclusions are drawn. That may be because the obvious conclusions from the survey are that attempts to limit production of illegal drugs simply increase the income of all those involved in the trade and that people who really know how wars work, the US military hierarchy, have demonstrated their understanding that the 'war on drugs' is unwinnable by refusing to waste military assets on eradication.

The survey is available to download. (Right click to save.)

Post Release Deaths Amongst Ex-offenders
Added 8th September 2010

Two recent publications have, again, noted the greatly increased risk of death from heroin overdose of persons released from prison in the period immediately following that release.

In June 2009, the World Health Organisation published 'Prevention of acute drug-related mortality in prison populations during the immediate post-release period' (opens new window), which conducts a literature review on the subject and suggests ways in which mortality of recently released offenders can be reduced.

In the September issue, 'Addiction' includes a review entitled 'Meta-analysis of drug-related deaths soon after release from prison', which concludes that prisoners are three to eight times more likely to die in the first two weeks after release than in weeks three to twelve. By focussing on the first twelve weeks after release rather than making a comparison with the general population, this review shows that short-term intervention immediately post-release could have a substantial effect.

The abstract of the Addiction article is available to non-subscribers.   

Fungus 'Hits Afghan Opium Poppies'

The BBC says that Antonio Maria Costa, outgoing head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, has told it that a fungus is attacking this year's opium poppies in Afghanistan and may reduce yield by as much as 25%.

The story contains very little detail. The fungus concerned is not named but it may be Fusarium oxysporum, the fungus that, in the 1960s, the USA used as a biological weapon against Erythroxylum coca plants being grown in Hawaii. Deliberate deployment of the fungus was stopped by President Clinton because he feared it could be seen as a breach of international treaties and lead to other countries developing and deploying biological weapons.

In the early years of the 21st century there were a number of reports of fungii being trialled, or used, against opium crops in Asia. At this time, there is no suggestion that the Afghan problem has been deliberately created.

Costa told the BBC that UNODC believes the farm gate price of opium has risen by 50% as a result of the poor crop. One year's crop failure, however, is unlikely to impact the supply of heroin since someone, usually assumed to be the Taliban, is holding large stocks from previous years' over-production. An increase in prices would boost the income from selling those stocks.

Heroin on the NHS?

Speaking at the 2010 annual conference of the UK's Royal College of Nursing, Peter Carter, the RCN general secretary, said heroin should be available to addicts on the NHS. Three very small trials, involving 127 addicts in total, had shown that crime was substantially reduced if users didn't need to steal to score. As part of the trial, users were also offered a range of support services which helped them bring their lifestyles under control.

Given the pressure on public spending in the UK, Mr Carter pointed out that the trials indicated that there could be a net saving to the NHS by reducing the incidence of needle based infections and, generally, improving the health of addicts.

Aside from one or two objections from those who think solving substance abuse problems is simply about locking people up so they can't get substances. the reaction to Mr Carter's remarks has been favourable, though muted. That may be because, in the final stages of the UK's general election campaign, none of the three main parties wants this subject on the agenda.

The leaders of both the Conservative and Liberal/Democrat parties have, in the past, endorsed action to reduce the harshness of the Misuse of Drugs Act but would rather that does not become prominent in the campaign.

The current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has shown an arrogant disregard for scientific advice on drugs policy. This contempt for other opinions has got him into trouble and, thus, he has no wish to remind people of it by commenting on more expert advice that the current situation increases both harms and costs.

Anthrax Update

16th April 2010. The death toll in Scotland as a result of anthrax infected heroin has reached twelve with the latest victim coming from Lanarkshire. A total of 35 people are now known to have been infected.

See below for previous stories on this outbreak.

Health Protection Scotland has established a separate website with full information on the outbreak. (opens new window)

UNODC Publishes Afghanistan Opium Survey

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has published its annual survey of projected opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

The 'Afghanistan Opium Survey, 2010 - Winter Rapid Assessment' (click on the title to visit the UNODC site in a new window) confirms that the area under cultivation in 2009 was, as projected, 123,000 hectares and estimates that the 2010 figure will be broadly similar. The principal reason given for the end to the downward trend seen in recent years is that the price of other crops, notably, wheat has fallen much faster than the fall in opium prices so there is no longer the incentive to switch away from growing poppies.

It is, however, suggested that poorer climate conditions, notably a drier winter, may result in lower yields. The report notes that 71% of village headmen gave economic factors as the main reason for growing poppy (39% - the price of opium, 32% relieving poverty). In non-growing provinces, 61% of headmen said the government ban on poppy cultivation was responsible for the decision to plant other crops but this falls to 39% in provinces where poppy is grown. These tend to be those areas where government control is more uncertain.

Whereas Hilmand Province was thought to have cultivated over 100,000 hectares of the 157,000 hectares total in 2008, the assessment for 2009 is that Hilmand accounted for only 70,000 of the 123,000 hectare total. This fall from 64% of the total in 2008 to 56% in 2009 may seem like a success for anti-cultivation measures but it means that the area cultivated in provinces other than Hilmand fell only 4,000 hectares from 57,000 to 53,000.

There is a danger in over studying the survey results because much of the information is obtained by accepting the statements provided by village headman and, as UNODC, itself, notes, there are major difference between villages included  in the sample each time which makes year on year comparisons susceptible to error.

Anthrax Outbreak Reaches England with Fatal Result

The outbreak of anthrax related to heroin users in Scotland, see following story, has now moved beyond Scotland's borders with the death of a Blackpool man and the first report of a heroin user in London being diagnosed with anthrax. There has also been one death in Germany.

The possibility is that this is not a single batch which has been adulterated but that heroin is being produced in a place where anthrax spores are regularly present.

Anthrax Deaths Due to Contaminated Heroin

A total of twenty-one heroin users in Scotland have been confirmed to be suffering from anthrax. Ten have died. The latest case, in Dumfries and Galloway, suggests that, as feared, the contaminated heroin is available across a much larger area of Scotland than first thought.

At this stage, it is impossible to say how or why anthrax came to be in the heroin used by these people nor it is clear how many others may be at risk.

A number of organisations involved in the treatment and welfare of injecting drug users have called on the Scottish government to take urgent action to allow users access to safe supplies. To date, the response has been that users should seek treatment but it has been suggested that it can take many months to get onto the existing treatment programmes. 

Early Results Positive for Injectable Heroin Trial

The UK National Treatment Agency for Substance Abuse has released preliminary results from its two year trial of ways to reduce the crime committed by long-term heroin addicts.

In four clinics in three cities, a total of 150 addicts have been part of the pilot scheme. These addicts have failed to respond to treatment efforts to end their addiction and all reported being involved in crime to fund their habit.

The subjects were divided into three groups; one received oral methadone, the normal means of treating heroin addiction, one received injected methadone and the third received injected heroin. In all cases, the substances were administered in the clinics so that they could not be sold on and the researchers were able to keep precise records of doses.

According to a presentation given at a conference on 15th September 2009, all three groups showed a reduction in the use of street drugs with those having injectable heroin showing the greatest reduction. In this last group, the reduction of self-reported street crime was described as 'dramatic'. As well as this reduction, the addicts' health and wellbeing have, generally, improved. Those behind the trial are calling for it to be expanded so that further data can be accumulated to see if a national scheme would be beneficial. The press release from King's College is here.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, press attention has talked about 'shooting galleries' and focussed on the £15,000 per subject cost of the trial completely ignoring the savings to society from the reduction in crime and the fact that costs for a small trial are not an indicator of costs, per patient, for a larger scheme.

Idealists have called for an end to the trial on the basis that addicts should only be helped by the state to end their addiction not to manage it to reduce the harm done to themselves and society at large.

UNODC Releases 2009 Afghan Opium Survey Results

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, has published a summary of its annual survey of opium production in Afghanistan. As is traditional with such reports, the Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, tries to paint a picture of successful intervention substantially reducing production but it doesn't take long to see that the situation is very different.

The main point of the report, which is expected to be picked up by most of the media, is that opium cultivation has fallen by 22% and, with nearly all that reduction in Helmand province where NATO troops have been most active, the reduction in Helmand amounts to one third. The opening paragraph of the Times' report, for example, reads, 'Aggressive military operations against drug traffickers in Afghanistan have helped to reduce opium cultivation in Helmand province by one-third this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports today'.  

The UNODC then points out, however, that production of opium is only down 10% because improved extraction methods have increased the yield per hectare. Yield per hectare increased 15% in 2009 from 2008 and Afghanistan yields are more than five times those in South-East Asia.

The Executive Director states that the fall in production is the result of 'an effective mix of sticks and carrots: strong leadership by the governor; a more aggressive counter-narcotics offensive; terms of trade that are more favourable to legal crops; and the successful introduction of "food zones" to promote licit farming'.

The report, however, notes that opium prices are the lowest they have been in 10 years and someone, and UNODC has no idea who this 'someone' or several 'someones' is, is holding around two years worth of opium in stock because production has exceeded demand for a number of years. Even the '22%' reduction which will be claimed for 2009 still gives a yield of 6,900 tonnes against a market demand of 5,000 tonnes.

It's worth noting that demand for heroin has remained almost unchanged for a number of years in spite of the excess production and falling prices. The prohibitionist argument that there is a huge unfulfilled desire for heroin which would lead to an explosion in its use if legal looks increasingly unlikely.

UNODC does not believe that these stocks are being held by commercially motivated organisations since, it says, such people would have sought to unload their stocks when prices fell. As well as ignoring the issue of market demand, this position leads UNODC into one of the internal inconsistencies which have become such a part of its reports. After claiming that 'a more aggressive counter-narcotics offensive' is one reason for the decline in output it says that opium stocks may be in the hands of 'people who are not motivated solely by commercial interests' because 'it is a means of payment easily transported'. One suspects that the many organisations around the world whose job is to intercept the movement of illegal substances will be pleased to learn of the UNODC's opinion of their effectiveness.

Overall, opium is now thought to be worth $438m at the farm-gate and now accounts for only 4% of Afghanistan GDP, down from 12%. Much of the difference is due to higher prices for cereal crops.

The summary is available to download from the UNODC website (opens new window).

Canadian Court to Rule on Supervised Injection Facility

In the latest move in a long-running saga the British Columbia Court of Appeals will rule on whether a facility to supervise injection drug users is lawful.

Previous courts have ruled that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes the facility constitutional but the Canadian Government argues that, under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), drug injection is an illegal activity and the government can not be forced to assist citizens to break the law.

The Supreme Court has ordered the government to rewrite sections of the CDSA to make it constitutional but the government is appealing that ruling.

The Insite facility operates in Vancouver which is estimated to have 12,000 injection drug users, 30% of whom are HIV positive and 90% of whom have hepatitis C

Huge (?) Opium Seizure in Afghanistan

On the 18th February, 2009 the UK Ministry of Defence issued a press release about a series of operations in Afghanistan which, it said, had led to 'the capture of four narcotics factories containing drugs, chemicals and equipment with a UK street value of £50m.'

Further details in the release showed that a total of 1,260kg of opium had been seized. Taking a very high 'street value' and allowing for the substantial 'cutting' that occurs before heroin is sold, it is possible that this material was worth, at the very most, £15m so the £50m claim is highly suspect.

But, even that exaggerated claim was nothing to what the mainstream media made of the story. The Daily Mail, cited the £50m value without qualification thus giving the impression that this was its value to the Taliban. It also turned the MOD's 1,260kg into 'tonnes of raw opium'.

The Daily Telegraph headline read 'British forces in Afghanistan seize £50m of heroin' and even the BBC made the same mistake with 'Raids seize £50m of Afghan heroin' though it did, at least, make clear, in the first paragraph that the £50m was 'street value'.

All the media went along with Defence Secretary John Hutton's claim that the seizures in Helmand province would 'starve the Taleban of funding'.

In fact, the purchase price to the Taliban of the 1,260kg seized, based on UN estimates, would have been something under $150,000 or less than 1.5% of annual purchases. Hardly enough to 'starve the Taleban of funding'.

The misrepresentation of the facts of this matter was so great that, in a week which saw the Daily Mail run the headline 'How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer', Dr. Ben Goldacre used his 'Bad Science' column in the Guardian to discuss it.

You can also read a fuller account of the media coverage at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation blog. 

2009 Opium Crop Expected to Fall

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has released it 2009 winter assessment of the likely poppy crop in Afghanistan.

Following the 19% reduction in area under cultivation in 2008, UNODC expects to see further falls in 2009. It suggests that the main reasons for the decrease in opium production are the high price of wheat and the 20% fall in the price of opium resulting from several years of oversupply.

UNODC believes the reduction is fragile and changed circumstances could lead to a return to opium growing.

Clearly, the current economic climate may see wheat prices fall reducing the incentive to grow this crop and, if production falls below demand, there will come a time when opium prices recover.

The fact that an abundance of supply and lower prices have not resulted in increased consumption adds to the possibility that there is a finite demand for heroin in the world. As I've said before, if a problem is finite its solution is feasible.

Of the 157,000 hectares of opium poppies grown in 2008, over 100,000 were in Hilmand Province.