Opium and Heroin production in Burma
National and International Consequences
Burma, long the worlld's largest opium exporter, now faces rapidly rising domestic narcotics use. Unprecedented international attention focusing on Burma's political and domestic issues has opened the country's widespread political instability to the scrutiny of the world. This has accentuated worldwide concerns not onlz about Burma's opiate production, but has also its increased opiate consumption.
Despite cast logging operations, mineral exploitation, and tourism promotion in recent years, Burma's economy is still weak. Ironically, opium trade stands as one of the country's few economic successes, and worldwide attention has focused on ways that this "success" might be turned back.
Opiate use in Burma has exacted heavy social costs that area much less known to the outside world than are the country's opiate-production figures and Golden Triangle politics. Mainly because the countr's leaders find the high level of usage embarrassing, no serious study of usage has ever been conducted. Not even a much heralded UNDCP-funded study now underway offers hope of shedding much light on this topic. Nonetheless, despite the discomfort this exercise may cause Burmese Buddhists, assessing domestic usage is necessary. The purpose of this chapter is to assess some of the social costs that usage is causing Burma.
Estimating the impact of the opium trade requires an assessment of production, sales volume, pricing, and the number of users. Although even vague estimates of such factors are highly problematic, to ascertain, an effort must be made to derive at least some indication of the economic impact. This should provide a means by which the magnitude of the social impact of narcotics problems can be measured.
The Quality of Opium
The fact that all opium is not created equally complicates the assessment of opium economics. The nature of the opium itself varies since the alkaloids of opiu, occur in different proportions according to soil, climate, rainfall, and the strain of poppy. These alkaloids may be divided into two categories: phenanthrene alkaloids (morphine, codeine, thebaine) and benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (narcotine, papaverine, narceine). Only thie former include the strong analgesics that are controlled internationally (United Nations, 1967: 43). Since the natural product varies widely and the production of morphine and heroin employs a batch process capable of much variation , heroin samples inevitably differ.
Heroin is made after morphine is first produced. The latex of the poppy is scraped off incised unripe poppy capsules and then treated with lime and water to produce morphine in solution. To this, ammonium chloride is added, causing the precipitation of a morphine base. The morphine base is then processed into diacetyl morphine, which, according to the four-level classification of heroin, is called No.1 heroin. Following the neutralization of this mixture with sodium carbonate, crude heroin base (No. 2 heroin) precipitates. This is then purified to produce heroin hydrochloride (No. 3 heroin). Following the addition of ether, No. 4 heroin results. No. 3 heroin, as made in Southeast Asia, is brownish white, hard and granular. Twenty-five percent of all heroin is heroin hydrochloride. Many chemists in Burma add approximately 40 percent caffeine to this form. No. 4 is a nearly odorless, fine white powder and is over 90 percent heroin. It is used mainly by injection. Opium alkaloids can also be extracted from poppy straw, but it appears that this is not done in Burma.
When opium is refined into heroin, much of opium's medical value is lost, Although morphine (deacetylmorphine) remains in heroin, other opium alkaloids such as codeine (a cough suppressant), papaverine (a muscle relaxant), and narceine (an atispasmodic) are lost.
Dilutants and adulterants are often added to No. 3 heroin, which was first prepared as a smoking heroin. Dilutants, which do not have pharmacological activity, increase the bulk and, in turn, the seller's profit. A common dilutant in Southeast Asia is sugar. Conversely, adulterants are substances with pharmacological activity. Some, such as quinine, conceal the lack of heroin hydrochloride. Others, such as barbital and caffeine, are added to make the heroin more suitable for smoking. Another substance found in small quantities in heroin is strychnine, the physiological results of which are uncertain. Most No. 3 heroin is brown, but one particular kind, "red chicken," is dyed red and includes barbiral. Sometimes, adulterants and dilutants can cause serious side effects.
Because of such variations, it is difficult to determine the amount of opium used to produce a given amount of heroin. Although great variations occur among samples from various areas and different years, a rule of thumb is that 10 kilograms of opium yield 1 kilogram of heroin.
A sample of crude opium from the Shan States was tested in 1959 and found to contain an average of 11 percent morphine and 2.8 percent thebaine (Falck and Nordal, 1963: 2). Compared to opium produced elsewhere, this is rather high. Indian opium, by contrast, has only 7.4 percent morphine. Opium in Europe has higher concentrations; morphine content in samples from Yugoslavia have been measured as high as 14.7 percent and from France as high as 20 percent.
Furthermore, once the opium is processed into morphine (although the morphine content is a fixed biogenetic and chemical quality), moisture content affects estimates. The moisture content of opium, which can range from 25 to 46 percent, is an important variable. The previously listed figures, however, are for dried (anhydrous) opium (United Nations, 1967: 12, 32-33). Not all production calculation has been done in terms of dried opium, which is part of the reason why opium estimates vary so astonishingly.