Opium poppy - Production & trade
The cultivation of opium poppies for opium production has been restricted due to its misuse. Opium 'straw' is legally produced in several countries, from which the alkaloids can also be extracted for medicines. These are the stems of the poppy, rather that the fruit capsules, and do not produce raw opium. It is difficult to find accurate figures on the economics of opium poppy production, but the importance of opium straw has been increasing.
|Image: An opium harvester in Indore.|
Today, India is the only country that currently authorises cultivation of raw opium on a large scale and for export. Cultivation in India is confined to a few regions in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Japan also legally cultivate opium but for local medical purposes only and on an extremely limited scale. China, which in the past has produced opium to cover its medical needs, did not produce any opium in 2002. It increasingly meets its medical needs from poppy straw produced for the extraction of alkaloids.
About 40% of today's legally traded opiates come from opium straw grown in Tasmania, but Australian scientists are now opening up the chemical secrets of a special type of poppy named Norman. Since the mid 1990s, scientists have been experimenting with this mutant cultivar. It's unique because it doesn't produce morphine or codeine but accumulates precursors that can be converted into more effective pain killers or treatments for heroine addiction.
CultivationIn India, opium poppies are grown by scattering seeds onto the land. It is a short duration crop and only takes three to four and a half months to harvest. Harvesting of raw opium from the fruit capsules takes place between January to April, a few days after flower petals have fallen and the fruit capsules are turning from green to yellow.
Although opium poppy plants thrive better on well watered land, the percentage of morphine alkaloids in raw opium is higher from poppies grown with less water. In India, the average yield of raw opium is around 30 kg per hectare, but yields as high as 60 kg per hectare have been reported.
ProcessingBefore it is sold as raw opium, the latex is dried so that it loses 30% of its moisture. In India, this is done by putting the opium into metal or earthen pots which are perforated at the base or placed at a tilt to allow any moisture to drain off. It is turned every day to give it a uniform consistency. After drying it is packed into sacks or jars. Most of the world's legal opium production us used to obtain morphine, codeine and noscapine used in medicine.
SeedsWhen grown for seed production for baked products and for processing into vegetable oil, the crop is harvested when the fruit capsules turn yellow-green and the seeds inside rattle. Oil is extracted from the seeds by pressing or by solvent extraction of crushed seed.
Illegal cultivationMany countries continue to grow opium poppies illegally for raw opium, and much of this feeds the illegal trade in heroin. It is illegally cultivated as cash crop in Pakistan. In the early 1990s the US government put pressure on Pakistan to set up sustained opium eradication programmes. This work was focused in the remote valleys of the mountainous North West Frontier Province, where 90% of Pakistan's opium is grown. Check posts were built and police were sent in during the sowing season. Destruction was stepped up by aerial spraying of a herbicide from US supplied aircraft. Spraying also destroyed mustard and wheat, for which the government had to pay compensation.
Operations such as these have often failed to stop poppy growing, and instead have deepened anti-government feeling and sparked protests. Farmers are reluctant to give up the crop, which is perceived to be their most profitable.