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'Indian Connection' Poppies Throw a Curve at U.S. Drug Policy

March 19, 1990|DOUGLAS JEHL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

But the 80% allocation for India and Turkey was misleading. Although both still were traditional poppy-producers, opium farming in Turkey had been all but wiped out during a U.S. crackdown on cocaine in the early 1970s. When the Ankara government did sanction planting again, it turned to a safer method of cultivation that made it more difficult to squeeze opium gum drop-by-drop from poppy plants in the field. Instead, like those in Australia and other upstart producers, Turkish farmers would harvest their crops en masse, leaving it to sophisticated laboratories to extract valuable morphine.

Only in India could peasants continue to use the time-honored methods that allowed field workers to collect the opium gum themselves--and misappropriate it if they found an illegal buyer. U.S. officials now believe that up to 50% of India's poppy-plant gum now is passed through so-called "opium gates"--crude opium labs that operate near the legal growing areas--to the heroin processors. At least three of these were seized last year. The drug-makers' purchases of raw opium on the black market often include markups of as much as 500%.

Even with the constraints imposed by the U.S. regulations, the three American pharmaceutical firms that are licensed to handle opium still have a choice: They can buy mainly from India or mainly from Turkey. Most say that, other considerations aside, they would prefer to buy from Turkey, where there has been no sign of widespread abuse.

But the "other considerations" have proven decisive. The Indian system also produces thebaine, a valuable pharmaceutical ingredient. Turkey's poppy growers do not. And periodic shortages and droughts often have sent Turkish prices soaring far above those of their competitors.

As a result, India has generally become the supplier of choice for Johnson & Johnson International, Penick Corp. and Malinckrodt Inc., which together purchased enough opium last year to manufacture codeine, morphine and other painkillers worth more than $300 million.

The drug manufacturers themselves are split over how rapidly the United States should move to remedy the situation. Johnson & Johnson has a special interest in seeing rapid change: Its Australian subsidiary easily could supply more than the company's own current 20% allotment--and produce all the thebaine that Johnson & Johnson might need, to boot. The two smaller firms, fearful of the giant, have urged a go-slow approach.

But there is no disagreement that India is the sole source of the licensing program's fast-growing heroin problem, and that it is getting worse almost by the week.

Last year, a U.S. State Department report warned of the problem, noting that Indian producers have amassed a 2,000-ton stockpile of opium--enough to satisfy world demand for heroin for at least a year--that has been harvested but not yet sold.

Although there has been no indication that any has found its way to the heroin-makers, its very existence is viewed as a threat by narcotics enforcement officials. Last year, global cultivation of opium soared a record 53%. While Myanmar (formerly Burma), Afghanistan and Laos are the major suppliers of illegal heroin around the world, officials fear that a channeling of India's supplies to the highest bidder could exacerbate the heroin epidemic.

Even so, despite the widespread agreement about the problem, there still is little consensus on how it might be resolved. Although members of Congress recently complained vociferously about the inconsistency in U.S. policy, none of them proposed changing the current regulations.

Indeed, some U.S. officials fear that just reducing the U.S. subsidy for legal opium would force growers to sell their crops to the heroin makers. And while most want India to adopt the more modern--and more pilfer-proof--methods of poppy production that other countries use, they recognize that it might prove too costly.

One alternative--favored by the Administration--is to increase pressure on the Indian government to police the poppy crops more effectively. Levitsky, who heads the State Department's bureau of international narcotics, concedes that U.S. officials in the past had "not had a hard enough go at the problem." He promised lawmakers last month that the Administration would intensify its efforts.

In the meantime, the Indian Connection remains intact.

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