Drug Production and Trade

Drug Production and Trade

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

In Shepard Krech III, J.R. McNeill, and Carolyn Merchant (Editors)
Encyclopedia of World Environmental History
2003, New York, Routledge, 1344 p.
Volume 1, pp. 347-350.

 (This text has undergone slight revision since its original publication)

Since the first drugs – psychoactive substances that alter states of consciousness or increase metabolic performance – were found in the plant world, humans have interacted with plants from which drugs are derived in countless relationships between plants and society and between nature and culture.

For ages the use of such psychoactive drugs, at first mainly through consumption of parts of certain plants, has been widespread. From so-called primitive people to modern societies, on each continent and in every religion, all kinds of people have resorted to drug-produced stimulations, from the mild ones created by tea and coffee to the more potent ones generated by other natural drugs such as cannabis (marijuana), coca (the source of cocaine), kola, khat (a shrub whose leaves contain a stimulant), opium, and so on, and to chemical or even medicinal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, crack, LSD, ecstasy, Prozac, Valium, etc.

As Jean-Marie Pelt, a French pharmacognosist, writes, “drug sticks to Man like skin to his flesh” (Pelt 1983, 14). Botanist Richard E. Schultes and pharmacochemist Albert Hofmann have shown the great diversity of drug plants and their worldwide use, the tropical regions being by far the richest in natural psychoactive substances. Only the Inuit of Arctic latitudes were known for their ignorance of mind-altering substances.

However, since their early use by primitive societies as entheogens (generating inner divinity), drugs have been perceived as harmful to both individuals and societies. Thus they have been classified, according to their potency and harmfulness, as legal or illegal, often without scientific evidence of their toxicity or addictiveness.

The one hundred-year global prohibition of use of many plants and plant-based drugs has had unintended consequences on their production, trade, and consumption. Criminalization of the drug industry and of drug consumers has had negative socioeconomic, political, and even ecological effects both in the developing world, where most illicit plant-based production occurs, and in the developed world, where the consumption of cannabis, cocaine, and heroin is concentrated. However, the long-accepted dichotomy between a drug-producing South and a drug-consuming North is no longer valid. Indeed, recent trends have shown a fast-growing consumption of heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine-type stimulants in major producing countries but even more so in key transit countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Laos, Central Asia, Russia, China, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Central America, Argentina, Brazil, etc.). The North still represents a huge market for the consumption of illegal drugs, but it is also engaged in illegal production with, among other drugs, cannabis and amphetamine-type stimulants being produced in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

Agricultural Techniques

With most plant-based drug-producing countries being located in the South, most environmental issues are related to traditional slash-and-burn agricultural techniques. Indeed, swiddening, or shifting cultivation, is a common practice among opium producers in the forests of Southeast Asia and among coca growers in the Andes. Living on poor tropical soils, these farmers burn the vegetation to clear fields and to ensure that their crops thrive on the nutrients contained in the ash. Such fields are commonly cultivated for three to four years before being left fallow for seven to ten years; new patches are then cleared. For small-scale production and in low human-density areas, this agricultural technique is ecologically benign. However, with higher population densities and larger opium and coca production, tropical rain forests have been under greater pressure, especially since commercial logging is increasing worldwide (for example, the harvesting of teak in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand).

Also, the coca plant and the opium poppy are mainly grown on the slopes of mountains or hills, which are vulnerable to water erosion. In the tropical areas of the world, the combination of excessive swiddening and heavy rainfall leads to severe soil depletion. To increase production in such contexts, most illegal farmers have resorted to modern agricultural technologies without the counseling to which legal farmers have access. As a result, excessive use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides is harmful to the environment, further polluting the soils of areas that are already ecologically threatened and contaminating lower lands where food crops are grown.

Soil contamination also occurs when chemicals used in drug-processing laboratories are dumped into streams. Cocaine production, for example, leads to huge amounts of ammonia, sulfuric acid, and kerosene being dumped into Amazonian streams. In Asia, heroin refining and production involve acetic anhydride, hydrochloric acid, ammonium chloride, and sodium carbonate, residues of which are dumped into local river systems. Thus the modern illicit drug industry contributes to soil exhaustion and soil pollution and can be said to be detrimental to the environment.

Drug plants, however, have long been cultivated and harvested in traditional ways that are respectful of the environment. The opium poppy, for example, a plant with an ancient record of symbiosis with human societies, has spread around the world through the earliest human migrations and settlements. However, today the opium poppy is targeted for eradication except in countries where its cultivation for the pharmaceutical industry is legal (France for example).

The Opium Poppy

The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum L., is one of the earliest known medical plants and has provided modern medicine with a major pain reliever – morphine. Among the Papaveraceae family, the genus Papaver comprises about 110 species of both annual and perennial herbs whose fruit is a capsule containing numerous seeds and latex tissue. The family is particularly rich in alkaloids. However, Papaver somniferum and Papaver setigerum are the only two species known to contain morphine, whose content defines the potency of opium. Only morphine is retained to process heroin, as other alkaloids – such as thebaine and codeine, which, along with some forty others, provide much of the medical value of opium – are removed during the refining of the drug. Thus Papaver somniferum is cultivated as the main source of both licit morphine and of illicit opium and heroin.


Archeological evidence suggests that the opium poppy first grew in the region located between the western Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Where and when people began to cultivate the poppy and harvest its opium and how the plant spread to the Far East is not known. To date, only cultivated and semi-wild populations – not truly wild populations – have been accounted for. Thus, the opium poppy is a cultivar (an organism originating and persistent under cultivation), and all varieties are closely linked to their relationship with humans. Indeed, they are “known only from pioneer habitat created and maintained by humans either consciously, in the form of cultivated fields, or unconsciously, in the form of ‘waste areas’ or disturbed environments adjacent to or in the near vicinity of these fields” (Merlin 1984, 54).

The opium poppy has provided humans with numerous resources since early times (food, animal fodder, oil, medicinal as well as ritualistic and recreational drugs) and has most likely spread with human societies along early migrational and trading routes, from western to eastern Eurasia, from one pioneer habitat to another. Originally, the relationship between the plant and human societies seems to have been viewed as beneficial, although for the last two centuries it has been perceived as clearly detrimental, enough at least to cause some people to prohibit opium and advocate eradication of the plant.

Consequences of Prohibition

The global prohibition of certain drugs has been progressively enforced since the early twentieth century when, at the instigation of President Theodore Roosevelt, the International Opium Commission was convened in Shanghai in 1909, and the International Opium Convention, confining the use of opiates and cocaine to medicinal purposes, was signed at the Hague Conference on 23 January 1912. This prohibition has created the world’s most lucrative illicit market for some psychoactive substances and encouraged their production and trafficking. Then, in 1969, the administration of President Richard Nixon launched a global war on drugs that has since then been perpetuated by subsequent U.S. administrations.

In broad environmental terms, the production, trafficking, and consumption of illicit psychoactive substances have had harmful ecological, social, economic, and political consequences. As Richard Davenport-Hines puts it, “it is not the supply of a drug that turns a user into a criminal but the illicitness of that supply” and “Criminal sanctions against drug-trafficking may be well intentioned, and may enjoy temporary or localized success; but overall the primary role of these laws is a business incentive” (Davenport-Hines 2001, xiv). To say the least, even though such laws have been enforced for decades now, the world’s illicit drug production is far from having abated. Illicit opium production alone tripled between 1985 and 1996, with Afghanistan and Myanmar being by far the largest producers. Afghanistan’s opium output reached an all-time high in 1999 (4,600 tons of opium) when the Taliban were controlling at least 85% of the country, and is still the world’s biggest harvest under Hamid Karzai’s administration in 2004.

A failed war has been waged globally for decades in Asia against the opium poppy and all its illicit derivatives and even in Latin America against coca plants. Criminalization of the drug economy and militarization of its repression are two effects of prohibition in producing countries as well as in transit countries – such as Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Armed violence is frequent and has detrimental consequences on life conditions, worsening the ecological impact of opium poppy cultivation and heroin refining.

Eradication Agenda

Some eradication techniques – for example, aerial spraying of herbicides over coca fields in Latin America – also directly harm the environment, notably food crops frequently grown close to illegal crops. Moreover, in the war against drugs, new techniques are being developed to eradicate the plants themselves through “natural” ways. For example, in Uzbekistan, in a facility known for germ warfare research where horticultural pathogens such as wheat rust and cereal blight were produced, scientists have developed the deadly strain of a benign fungus well known to opium poppy growers. Pleospora papaveracea could, if used, become a seedborne mycoherbicide specifically aimed at eradicating the opium poppy, spreading naturally on the wind and causing poppies to whither and die. Such a fungus could wipe out opium poppy crops in a few seasons if it were ever tried on a large scale, which nobody seems ready to do because of the environmental (and political) risks.

If the poppy-killer fungus is used, it would not be the first time that a natural agent was spread as a biological weapon, either to protect legal crops or to eradicate illegal ones. Indeed, the Pleospora program was part of a broader program named “Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination” (SCOPE) devised by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP). SCOPE is a worldwide eradication program that targets coca plants as well as opium poppies. It was started to study the potential impact of another fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, which was accidentally discovered in the 1970’s when it destroyed an experimental commercial coca plantation owned by the Coca-Cola company in Hawaii. Then, when the use of the fungus to eradicate cannabis plants in the United States was proposed, scientists concluded that mutation risks were too high to use it.

Psychoactive plants and substances derived from them have always been deeply rooted in most human societies. People have used such plants and their derivatives for many purposes, integrating them into numerous cultures, thus shaping unique and complex relationships between nature and culture. Recently attitudes toward these plants and their derivatives have changed – not because the plants themselves have changed but rather because people’s relationships with them have changed. With the global ban that the increasingly global society has placed upon certain drugs that have played significant roles in societies, some of these plants are now targeted for eradication, sometimes putting the ecological and cultural environment at risk in a struggle between nature and culture.

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy.

Further Reading

Booth, M. (1998). Opium: A history. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Chouvy, P.-A. (2002). Les territoires de l’opium. Conflits et trafics du Triangle d’Or et du Croissant d’Or. Geneva, Switzerland: Olizane.

Davenport-Hines, R. (2001). The pursuit of oblivion: A social history of drugs. London: Phoenix.

Escohotado, A. (1999). A brief history of drugs: From the Stone Age to the stoned age. Rochester, NY: Park Street Press.

Merlin, M. D. (1984). On the trail of the ancient opium poppy. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Pelt J.M., (1983). Drogues et plantes magiques. Paris: Fayard.

Rudgley, R. (1993). Essential substances: A cultural history of intoxicants in society. New York: Kodansha.

Schultes, R. E., Hofmann, A., & Ratsch, C. (2002). Plants of the gods. Rochester, NY: Healing Arts Press.

Tullis, L. (1995). Unintended consequences: Illegal drugs and drug policies in nine countries. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).