The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

Heroin: The History of a "Miracle Drug"

Heroin, a relatively recent arrival on the drug scene, was regarded, like morphine before it, and opium before morphine, as a "miracle drug" that had the ability to "kill all pain and anger and bring relief to every sorrow." A single dose sends the average user into a deep, euphoric reverie. Repeated use, however, creates an intense physical craving in the human body chemistry and changes the average person into a slavish addict whose entire existence revolves around his daily dosage. Sudden withdrawal can produce vomiting, violent convulsions, or fatal respiratory failure. An overdose cripples the body's central nervous system, plunges the victim into a, deep coma, and usually produces death within a matter of minutes. Heroin addiction destroys man's normal social instincts, including sexual desire, and turns the addict into a lone predator who willingly resorts to any crime-burglary, armed robbery, armed assault, prostitution, or shoplifting-for money to maintain his habit. The average addict spends $8,000 a year on heroin, and experts believe that New York State's addicts alone steal
at least half a billion dollars annually to maintain their habits. (6)

Heroin is a chemically bonded synthesis of acetic anhydride, a common industrial acid, and morphine, a natural organic pain killer extracted from the opium poppy. Morphine is the key ingredient. Its unique pharmaceutical properties are what make heroin so potent a pain killer and such a dangerously addicting narcotic. The acidic bond simply fortifies the morphine, making it at least ten times more powerful than ordinary medical morphine and strengthening its addictive characteristics. Although almost every hospital in the world uses some form of morphine as a post-operative pain killer, modern medicine knows little more about its mysterious soothing properties than did the ancients who discovered opium.

Scholars believe that man first discovered the opium poppy growing wild in mountains bordering the eastern Mediterranean sometime in the Neolithic Age. Ancient medical chronicles show that raw opium was . highly regarded by early physicians hundreds of years before the coming of Christ. It was known to Hippocrates in Greece and in Roman times to the great physician Galen. From its original home in the eastern Mediterranean region, opium spread westward through Europe in the Neolithic Age and eastward toward India and China in the early centuries of the first millennium after Christ. Down through the ages, opium continued to merit the admiration of physicians and gained in popularity; in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, for example, opium-based medicines were among the most popular drugstore remedies for such ordinary ailments as headaches and the common cold.

Although physicians had used various forms of opium for three or four thousand years, it was not until 1805 that medical science finally extracted pure morphine from raw opium. Orally taken, morphine soon became an important medical anesthetic, but it was not until 1858 that two American doctors first experimented with the use of the hypodermic needle to inject morphine directly into the bloodstream. (7) These discoveries were important medical breakthroughs, and they greatly improved the quality of medical treatment in the nineteenth century.

However, widespread use of morphine and opium-based medicines such as codeine soon produced a serious drug addiction problem. In 1821 the English writer Thomas De Quincey first drew attention to the problem of post-treatment addiction when he published an essay entitled, Confessions of an English OpiumEater. De Quincey had become addicted during his student days at Oxford University, and remained an addict for the rest of his life. Finally recognizing the seriousness of the addiction problem, medical science devoted considerable pharmacological research to finding a nonaddicting pain killer-a search that eventually led to the discovery and popularization of heroin. In 1874 an English researcher, C. R. Wright, synthesized heroin, or diacetylmorphine, for the first time when he boiled morphine and acetic anhydride over a stove for several hours. After biological testing on dogs showed that diacetylmorphine induced "great prostration, fear, sleepiness speedily following the administration and a slight tendency to vomiting," the English researcher wisely decided to discontinue his experiments. (8) Less than twenty years later, however, German scientists who tested diacetylmorphine concluded that it was an excellent treatment for such respiratory ailments as bronchitis, chronic coughing, asthma, and tuberculosis. Most importantly, these scientists claimed that diacetylmorphine was the ideal nonaddicting substitute for morphine and codeine. Encouraged by these results, the Bayer chemical cartel of Elberfeld, Germany, decided to manufacture diacetylmorphine and dreamed up the brand name "heroin" for its massmarketing campaign. Bayer wanted all the world to know about its new pain reliever, and in 1898 it launched an aggressive international advertising campaign in a dozen different languages.(9)

Hailed as a "miracle drug" by medical experts around the globe, heroin was widely prescribed as a nonaddicting cure-all for whatever ails you, and soon became one of the most popular patent medicines on the market. The drug's popularity encouraged imitators, and a Saint Louis pharmaceutical company offered a "Sample Box Free to Physicians" of its "Dissolve on the Tongue Antikamnia & Heroin Tablets." (11) And in 1906 the American Medical Association (AMA) approved heroin for general use and advised that it be used "in place of morphine in various painful infections." (12)

Unrestricted distribution by physicians and pharmacies created an enormous drug abuse problem; in 1924 federal narcotics officials estimated that there were 200,000 addicts in the United States, (13) and the deputy police commissioner of New York reported that 94 percent of all drug addicts arrested for various crimes were heroin users.(14) The growing dimensions of heroin addiction finally convinced authorities that heroin's liabilities outweighed its medical merits, and in 1924 both houses of Congress unanimously passed legislation outlawing the import or manufacture of heroin.(15)

After a quarter century of monumental heroin abuse, the international medical community finally recognized the dangers of unrestricted heroin use, and the League of Nations began to regulate and reduce the legal manufacture of heroin. The Geneva Convention of 1925 imposed a set of strict regulations on the manufacture and export of heroin, and the Limitation Convention of 1931 stipulated that manufacturers could only produce enough heroin to meet legitimate "medical and scientific needs." As a result of these treaties, the world's total legal heroin production plummeted from its peak of nine thousand kilograms (I kilo = 2.2 pounds) in 1926 to little more than one thousand kilos in 1931. (16)

However, the sharp decline in legal pharmaceutical output by no means put an end to widespread heroin addiction. Aggressive criminal syndicates shifted the center of world heroin production from legitimate pharmaceutical factories in Europe to clandestine laboratories in Shanghai and Tientsin, China. (17) Owned and operated by a powerful Chinese secret society, these laboratories started to supply vast quantities of illicit heroin to corrupt Chinese warlords, European criminal syndicates, and American mafiosi like Lucky Luciano. In Marseille, France, fledgling Corsican criminal syndicates opened up smaller laboratories and began producing for European markets and export to the United States.(18)

While law enforcement efforts failed to stem the flow of illicit heroin into the United States during the 1930s, the outbreak of World War II seriously disrupted international drug traffic. Wartime border security measures and a shortage of ordinary commercial shipping made it nearly impossible for traffickers to smuggle heroin into the United States. Distributors augmented dwindling supplies by "cutting" (adulterating) heroin with increasingly greater proportions of sugar or quinine; while most packets of heroin sold in the United States were 28 percent pure in 1938, only three years later they were less than 3 percent pure. As a result of all this, many American addicts were forced to undergo involuntary withdrawal from their habits, and by the end of World War 11 the American addict population had dropped to less than twenty thousand." (18) In fact, as the war drew to a close, there was every reason to believe that the scourge of heroin had finally been purged from the United States. Heroin supplies were nonexistent, international criminal syndicates were in disarray, and the addict population was reduced to manageable proportions for the first time in half a century.

But the disappearance of heroin addiction from the American scene was not to be. Within several years, in large part thanks to the nature of U.S. foreign policy after World War II, the drug syndicates were back in business, the poppy fields in Southeast Asia started to expand and heroin refineries multiplied both in Marseille and Hong Kong.(19) How did we come to inflict this heroin plague on ourselves?

The answer lies in the history of America's cold war crusade. World War II shattered the world order much of the globe had known for almost a century. Advancing and retreating armies surged across the face of three continents, leaving in their wake a legacy of crumbling empires, devastated national economies, and shattered social orders. In Europe the defeat of Fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, France, and eastern Europe released workers from years of police state repression. A wave of grass roots militance swept through European labor movements, and trade unions launched a series of spectacular strikes to achieve their economic and political goals. Bled white by six years of costly warfare, both the victor and vanquished nations of Europe lacked the means and the will to hold on to their Asian colonial empires. Within a few years after the end of World War II, vigorous national liberation movements swept through Asia from India to Indonesia as indigenous groups rose up against their colonial masters.

America's nascent cold war crusaders viewed these events with undisguised horror Conservative Republican and Democratic leaders alike felt that the United States should be rewarded for its wartime sacrifices. These men wanted to inherit the world as it had been and had little interest in seeing it changed. Henry Luce, founder of the Time-Life empire, argued that America was the rightful heir to Great Britain's international primacy and heralded the postwar era as "The American Century." To justify their "entanglement in foreign adventures," America's cold warriors embraced a militantly anti-Communist ideology. In their minds the entire world was locked in a Manichaean struggle between "godless communism" and "the free world." The Soviet Union was determined to conquer the world, and its leader, Joseph Stalin, was the new Hitler. European labor movements and Asian nationalist struggles were pawns of "international communism," and as such had to be subverted or destroyed. There could be no compromise with this monolithic evil: negotiations were "appeasement" and neutralism was "im moral." In this desperate struggle to save "Western civilization," any ally was welcome and any means was justified. The military dictatorship on Taiwan became "free China"; the police state in South Vietnam was "free Vietnam"; a collection of military dictatorships stretching from Pakistan to Argentina was "the free world." The CIA became the vanguard of America's anti-Communist crusade, and it dispatched small numbers of well-financed agents to every corner of the globe to mold local political situations in a fashion compatible with American interests. Practicing a ruthless form of clandestine realpolitik, its agents made alliances with any local group willing and able to stem the flow of "Communist aggression." Although these alliances represent only a small fraction of CIA postwar operations, they have nevertheless had a profound impact on the international heroin trade,

The cold war was waged in many parts of the world, but Europe was the most important battleground in the 1940s and 1950s. Determined to restrict Soviet influence in western Europe, American clandestine operatives intervened in the internal politics of Germany, Italy, and France. In Sicily, the forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), formed an alliance with the Sicilian Mafia to limit the political gains of the Italian Communist party on this impoverished island. In France the Mediterranean port city of Marseille became a major battleground between the CIA and the French Communist party durin the late 1940s. To tip the balance of power in its favor, the CIA recruited Corsican gangsters to battle Communist strikers and backed leading figures in the city's Corsican underworld who were at odds with the local Communists. Ironically, both the Sicilian Mafia and the Corsican underworld played a key role in the growth of Europe's postwar heroin traffic and were to provide most of the heroin smuggled into the United States for the next two decades.

However, the mid-1960s marked the peak of the European heroin industry, and shortly thereafter it went into a sudden decline. In the early 1960s the Italian government launched a crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia, and in 1967 the Turkish government announced that it would begin phasing out cultivation of opium poppies on the Anatolian plateau in order to deprive Marseille's illicit heroin laboratories of their most important source of raw material. Unwilling to abandon their profitable narcotics racket, the American Mafia and Corsican syndicates shifted their sources of supply to Southeast Asia, where surplus opium production and systematic government corruption created an ideal climate for large-scale heroin production.

And once again American foreign policy played a role in creating these favorable conditions. During the early 1950s the CIA had backed the formation of a Nationalist Chinese guerrilla army in Burma, which still controls almost a third of the world's illicit opium supply, and in Laos the CIA created a Meo mercenary army whose commander manufactured heroin for sale to Americans GIs in South Vietnam. The State Department provided unconditional support for corrupt governments openly engaged in the drug traffic. In late 1969 new heroin laboratories sprang up in the tri-border area where Burma, Thailand, and Laos converge, and unprecedented quantities of heroin started flooding into the United States. Fueled by these seemingly limitless supplies of heroin, America's total number of addicts skyrocketed.

Unlike some national intelligence agencies, the CIA did not dabble in the drug traffic to finance its clandestine operations. Nor was its culpability the work of a few corrupt agents, eager to share in the enormous profits. The CIA's role in the heroin traffic was simply an inadvertent but inevitable consequence of its cold war tactics.