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Sea of Poppies

One of the earliest references to opium in Western popular culture appears in 1821, in Thomas De Quincey’s famous “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” De Quincey celebrates the drug as the “panacea…for all human woes,” and speculates that the number of opium-eaters in mandarin London is large. “But who are they? Reader, I am sorry to say, a very numerous class indeed.” De Quincey names philosophers, parliamentarians, Cambridge deans, and poets as members of this privileged group, and concludes that “if one class, comparatively so limited, could furnish so many scores of cases… it was a natural inference, that the entire population of England would furnish a proportionable number.”  

As it turns out, De Quincey was not far off. By the early years of the nineteenth century, opium had transcended class and national boundaries in Europe, and thousands of miles away the drug was gaining momentum in Asia and the Middle East as a Trojan horse for capitalism. At the century’s close, thousands of people around the world were opium addicts, and the drug had staked a seemingly permanent place in global politics.  

In the nearly two centuries since De Quincey’s essay, the vision of opium as creative muse has given way to a new set of morphine mythologies: opium as a bankroll for terrorists; as a key to an international shadow economy; as an engine of chronic poverty. These images are not wrong, but as Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy suggests, they fail to capture the whole picture. Over the past ten years, as American military interests have shifted towards Afghanistan and southwest Asia, opium has been framed as the financial backbone of corrupt leaders and violent insurgents. The drug is indeed linked to these underworlds—a recent True/Slant photo essay highlights Kabul’s poppy-funded “narcotecture”—but the drug’s role in global politics is also far more complicated. Opium production does not exist in a vacuum, and historical precedent and regional context are often forgotten in anti-drug proselytizing. As the war on opium consumes more international attention and federal funding, Chouvy’s book is designed to clear up misconceptions, especially those that translate into multi-billion-dollar policy initiatives. But first, the back-story.

Opium poppies produce more than just opium. The plant’s large bulbs are also used for painkillers, making them a staple of the licit pharmaceutical industry, and more notoriously, a basis for heroin. While opium trafficking originally took hold in China, over the past century it has consolidated in two main regions: the so-called Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos and Thailand) and the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan). From the 1950s until the 1990s, the majority of global production took place in the Golden Triangle, which benefited from mountainous terrain (good for hiding poppies) and chronic political instability (better for promoting trafficking). Drawing on the work of the historian Alfred McCoy, Chouvy notes that in the years following the Cold War, the opium trade was ushered along by the invisible hand of the CIA, which proved willing to partner with groups engaged in trafficking—the KMT in Burma, the Hmong in Laos, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan—so long as they were on the right side of the war against communism. These CIA proxy wars eventually laid the groundwork for the war against drugs (officially launched under Nixon in 1971) and their current, equally ambiguous incarnation: the fight against “narco-terrorism.”  

As communism faded from the national radar, the war against drugs assumed the role of America’s new moral battlefield. By the 1980s, anti-drug policy was comfortably swaddled in military rhetoric, and the American government was busy funneling millions into eradication and counter-narcotics programs around the world—in essence, working cleanup on problems it often helped to create. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Afghanistan, which after years of serving as a stage for Cold War anxieties, rose to the fore of global opium production in the 1990s. In the decades that have followed, Afghanistan has become the global poppy capital—in 2007, it produced 93 percent of the world’s opium—as well as the testing grounds for a new trend in American foreign policy: the convergence of American military aims with the war on drugs.  

As a site of both the war on terror and the war on drugs, Afghanistan serves Chouvy as a test case for investigating the chicken-or-egg questions that riddle anti-drug policy. What comes first, poverty or poppy growth? Do local warlords spur opium production, or do the conditions that first allowed warlords to take power also give way to a drug trade? Is “narco-terrorism”—the notion that terrorists use drugs to fund insurgencies—actually behind violence in Afghanistan? While the book sometimes reads like an extended dissertation, Opium’s insight lies in its reframing of such questions: despite what some politicians would like you to believe, Chouvy argues, these phenomena—violence, poverty, and drugs—can never be understood independently of each other.   

Chouvy posits that opium production is, more often than not, a form of politics by other means—a way for governments or insurgents to make themselves economically competitive. Successful trafficking is also contingent upon a specific set of conditions: the pre-existence of the drug, an ongoing or recently ended conflict, and poverty powerful enough to make farmers consider risking their lives to grow the labor-intensive drug. This final point is significant: farmers rarely elect to grow poppies unless food shortages and extreme poverty compel them to do so. Moreover, while opium is often held up as one of the most profitable crops available to farmers, this argument ignores the drug’s enormous production costs. By pursuing a strategy of eradication (and not addressing the socioeconomic motivations behind opium growth), Chouvy argues, the war on drugs has only made things worse. “Despite its gigantic yet unmeasured global cost (around US $50 billion spent annually by the United States alone in the 2000s), the war on drugs has not only failed to reduce both the surface area dedicated to illicit drug crops and the quantities produced; it has also encouraged their spread worldwide, and done much to contribute to the militarization of many countries and areas of production.”

So far, no strategy has proven successful, but official U.S. policy is slowly moving in more positive directions. One of the biggest shifts came last summer, when Richard Holbrooke reversed the Bush policy of forced eradication in favor of interdiction and alternative development programs—initiatives that enable poor farmers to cultivate products other than opium. Explaining the decision, Holbrooke’s logic parallels Chouvy’s. "The farmers are not our enemy; they're just growing a crop to make a living," Holbrooke said last July. "It's the drug system. So the U.S. policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

While the new stance has helped to win Afghan support, the verdict is still out on how effective alternative development programs really are. Even as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime cited a 36 percent decline in production over the past two years, critics say that interdiction simply forces traffickers to find new routes, and does little to reduce levels of production. Russia has been a particularly vocal opponent of the new approach, complaining that the initiative has led to a surge in heroin use across the country. But with the year’s poppy crop set to bloom—and the UN predicting a stable output—this spring will provide key evidence for whether the strategy can actually reduce opium output and cut off funding for insurgents; in short, proving whether the war on drugs has finally turned a corner. For the moment, the geopolitics of opium bear a striking resemblance to De Quincy’s account of addition: “opium had long ceased to found its empire on spells of pleasure; it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it, that it kept its hold.”

Jessica Loudis is a Brooklyn-based writer who works at Slate, and is an associate editor at Conjunctions.