The drug trade in Asia

The drug trade in Asia

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Updated versions of the articles published in the “Encyclopedia of Modern Asia”
Volume 2, in Levinson D., Christensen K. (Ed.), 2002, Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, Chicago, Scribners, 3600 p.

 Drug Trade

An updated version of the article of Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy published in the “Encyclopedia of Modern Asia” (pp. 302, 304, in Levinson D., Christensen K. (Ed.),2002, Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, Chicago, Scribners, 3600 p.)

Drug trade

Asia has a long history of dealing with psychoactive substances. Many of them have existed from time immemorial all over the continent. Various places established traditional uses for some drugs and even integrated them into social codes. However, today’s drug trade in Asia threatens the health and safety of its population as well as the stability of its countries. The drug trade is shaped and spurred by mercantilism and grows on the fertile and complex terrain of poverty and armed conflicts. In fact a direct relation between drug production, poverty, and war appears to exist. Thus drug production and trafficking can be perceived as the outcomes of economic as well as political events.


The first stage in the Asia commerce in drugs was probably the opium trade along the numerous and far-reaching precursors of the Silk Road and the early Chinese maritime trade that reached Africa by the first century BCE. However, the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum L., most likely a European plant, was spread throughout Asia mainly by the Arab traders who transmitted it to the Indians in the seventh century and to the Chinese a century later. It is questionable whether the Arabs themselves actually introduced the opium poppy into these areas, since early Indian traders or Buddhist pilgrims may have done it, but Arab traders undoubtedly were the main contributors to its commercial spread as a cash crop.

The next stage in the opium commerce was taken by European maritime colonial powers, who used it to balance their trade in spices and tea with Southeast Asia and China: first by the Venetians (in the fourteenth century), then by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the sixteenth century, and finally by the British from the seventeenth century and on. Through their powerful East India Company (founded 1600), the British brought to China opium originating in the poppy fields of India, where it had long been produced the Mughal rulers. This led, in the mid-nineteenth century, to China’s two Opium Wars, first with the British and second with a British-French coalition. The treaty of Nanjing (1842), which ended the first war, gave Hong Kong to the British; it went on to become the world’s heroin hub. China, confronted with exploding opium consumption, eventually fostered local poppy production as a way to balance its growing trade deficit.

After the southern migration of some opium poppy growers from Yunnan, pressured by imperial political repression and, later, by the enforcement of communist prohibition, opium production spread from China into Southeast Asia, which became the Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos, Thailand), a precursor to the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan). Opium was integrated as a trade commodity, but it needed improvements to increase its global marketability. Consequently, after heroin was synthesized from opium in 1898, producers were able to transform opium into heroin, a product with a greater efficacy that was easier to trade then the bulky opium.

The Twentieth Century

Opium poppy cultivation expanded to almost everywhere in Asia, from Turkey in the Near East to Japan in the Far East, along the succession of mountain ranges that stretch across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China, as well as in Russia and the Central Asia republics. Nonetheless, the opium poppy is of course not the only psychoactive plant thriving in Asia. Cannabis sativa L., consumed as either marijuana or hashish, is prevalent as well. In fact Lebanon, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Cambodia are among the most internationally renowned producers and exporters of cannabis. Kazakhstan for its part boasts the world’s largest area of wild cannabis.

In Asia the production, trade, and consumption of opiates always have combined national and international issues and stakes. In fact the spread of drug trafficking in Asia and elsewhere is linked to its international prohibition. The 1955 Persian prohibition stimulated production in Afghanistan and Pakistan and affected even the distant Golden Triangle. In another example, Turkey began a long legal and power struggle with the United States in the early 1960s. In Turkey, poppies were grown legally for pharmaceutical purposes, and a large quantity of illicit opium was smuggled to France, where it was processed into heroin and subsequently shipped to the U.S. drug market. The United States pressured Turkey to instigate a national prohibition against opium production, which, after many setbacks, Turkey instituted in 1972. The 1960s were bounded by two significant events that shaped the way all narcotic phenomena were addressed. In 1961 the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs reinforced the previous multilateral agreements that had followed the 1909 Shanghai convention. The main international concern then was heroin. In 1971 the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs”, setting up the “carrot and stick” system that conditioned U.S. financial aid on drug eradication and thus favoring a bilateral, biased approach over the multilateral approach of the United Nations. Turkey’s compliance in 1972 had deep repercussions in Asia trade, spurring the Golden Crescent’s production and further linking Asia’s various poppy-growing areas.

These pressures on the drug trade were nevertheless counteracted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which played a significant role in the drug trade in both Southeast Asia and Southwest Asia. Its anti-Communist covert operations benefited from the participation of some drug-related combat units who, to finance their own struggle, were directly involved in drug production and trade. Considering the involvement of different groups in the drug trade (for example, the Hmong in Laos, the Nationalist Chinese [Guomindang] in northern Burma, and the Islamic mujahideen resistance [the party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, notably] in Afghanistan), their backing by the CIA implied that the agency condoned the use of such proceeds and considerably increased opiate production in Asia. Hence the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent remain the world’s two major opium production areas. The Golden Triangle led world production until 1991 (U.S. Department estimates), with Burma ranking at the top. After that date the Golden Crescent took the lead, with Afghanistan breaking previous records in 1999. (In 2000 the Taliban government forbade opium poppy cultivation, and production plunged.) Opium production in these two areas can be attributed to the protracted civil wars that have plagued Burma since 1948 and Afghanistan since 1979. The atmosphere of conflict during the Cold War also contributed. In the late twentieth century Thailand, Iran, and Pakistan, former important opium producers, coped with growing narcotics trafficking and, even more disrupting, local epidemics of narcotic addiction. Conservative estimates in Iran and Pakistan show 2 million opiate addicts in each country, and the number continues to grow. Afghanistan, mainly a producer, is likely to become an important consumer, as indicated by the spillover in Central Asia. In fact Iran, previously the primary trading route, has succeeded in partially diverting Afghan smuggling toward Central Asia.

Thailand, Burma’s neighbor, faces the same problems and has reoriented trading routes toward China, Laos, and Vietnam. Thailand is now emerging as a pioneer in new drug consumption patterns as amphetamine-type stimulants overtake heroin in the kingdom, with Burma massively producing such synthetic drug in its Shan state.

Drug production and trade in Asia thus evolve and adapt to the market, be it opium, heroin, amphetamines, or ecstasy. These types of trade and consumption, ancient phenomena, have benefited from world globalization and conflicts. Rooted in poverty, the drug trade quickly grows on the ruins of development and its related political conflicts. Wars have proven to nurture the drug trade, and drug profits prolong wars.

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

“Golden Crescent”

An updated version of the article of Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy published in the “Encyclopedia of Modern Asia” (p. 441, in Levinson D., Christensen K. (Ed.),2002, Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, Chicago, Scribners, 3600 p.)
Golden Crescent

The Golden Crescent is the name given to Asia’s principal area of illicit opium production, located at the crossroads of Central, South, and Western Asia. This space overlaps three nations, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, whose mountainous peripheries define the crescent. In 1991, Afghanistan became he world’s primary opium producer, with a yield of 1,782 metric tons (U.S. State Department estimates), surpassing Burma, formerly the world leader in opium production. The Golden Crescent has a much longer history of opium production than does Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, even thought the Golden Crescent emerged as a modern-day opium-producing entity only in the 1970s, after the Golden Triangle did so in the 1950s.

The distribution of opium in the Golden Crescent was a by-product of early commerce along the Silk Road and of Arab maritime trade. Indeed, places such as Kunduz and Kabul in Afghanistan, Peshawar in Pakistan, and the Makran coast of Pakistan served as commercial relays for merchants who undoubtedly traded in opium as early as the first century of the Common Era.

From at least the seventeenth century, the area’s main opium-producing state was Persia (later Iran), until the Shah banned all production and consumption in 1955. Only as late as 1979, however, did opiate production really emerge with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During the 1970s, Afghanistan produced a mere 90 to 270 tons of opium per year, almost the same yield as neighboring Pakistan, before the latter achieved 720-metric-ton crop in 1979. If Persia’s prohibition of opium trade had earlier contributed to Golden Triangle opium production, the 1978 drought that affected Southeast Asia contributed, in turn, to the growth of the Golden Crescent, as shown by the doubling of Afghanistan’s opium output in 1983.

Although Pakistan has almost stopped production, it still has a huge addicted population that relies on Afghanistan’s opiates. Afghanistan doubled its production again in 1999, reaching a stunning 4,123 metric tons of dry opium. Afghanistan thus emerged as the world’s leading producer of opiates before suddenly and dramatically reducing this production by 85 percent in 2001, when it was banned by the Taliban rulers. At the close of 2001, with the Taliban forced from power, opium poppy growing reappeared. In 2002, according to the field and satellite surveys of the United Nations, Afghanistan reached a production of 3400 metric tons.

The evolution of opium production in the Golden Crescent was clearly the outcome of the protracted twenty-year Afghan conflict. Afghanistan’s current socioeconomic situation makes opium production one of the country’s only available economic means of access to land, labor, and credit. Along with the Golden Triangle, the Golden Crescent (with Afghanistan as its preeminent producer) remains the world’s main areas for the production of illicit opiates. Short-term trends show great irregularities of production, while long-term trends indicate continuing strength in the region’s illicit opiates industry.

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

“Golden Triangle”

An updated version of the article of Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy published in the “Encyclopedia of Modern Asia” (pp. 442-443, in Levinson D., Christensen K. (Ed.),2002, Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, Chicago, Scribners, 3600 p.)

Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is one of Asia’s two main illicit opium-producing areas. It is an area of around 350,000 square kilometers that overlaps the mountains of three countries of mainland Southeast Asia: Burma (Myanmar), Laos, and Thailand. Along with Afghanistan in the Golden Crescent (together with Iran and Pakistan), it has been one of the most important opium-producing area of Asia and of the world since the 1950s.

The term first appeared in 1971, referring to the shape of Burma, Laos, and Thailand when taken together. The gold of the triangle is most probably that which the first opium merchants of the region used in exchange for the crops. Although the opium production that exists in the Golden Triangle is frequently and erroneously thought to be an old traditional activity, in fact, opium production is an altogether recent phenomenon. It is only at the end of the nineteenth century that the poppy-growing tribal populations began their southernmost forced migration from China toward the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia. There they scattered and settled, having brought with them the practice and techniques of farming the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.).

As World War II drew to a close, this area was producing less than eighty tons of opium per annum. All that changed when China clamped down on opium production and addiction, spurring Southeast Asia to take over production. The sudden suppression of opium production in Iran in 1955 further reinforced the transfer toward Southeast Asia.

Later, due mainly to the internal protracted Burmese conflicts and ethnic and communist rebellions, the Golden Triangle’s opium production literally exploded, exceeding 3,000 tons in 1989, with Burma alone producing more than 2,500 tons in 1996 (U.S. State Department estimates). The narcotics trade linked a marginal and isolated Southeast Asian region with principal cities in the Western world. The United States became the main destination of the Golden Triangle’s heroin, the so-called China White, or heroin No 4, renowned for its 98 percent purity.

At the end of the twentieth century, the Golden Triangle was clearly dominated by Burmese production (800 metric tons in 2002, according to the United Nations), Thailand had suppressed almost all its poppies, and Laos as still fighting the battle. But a new scourge had arrived in the region: an explosion in methamphetamine production in Burma and a large population of addicts in Thailand.

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

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).