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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

32 The Coughing Crisis


I have ordered the Central Intelligence Agency, early in this Administration, to mobilize its full resources to fight the international drug trade. 

-President Richard M. Nixon, September 18, 1972 (in remarks before the International Narcotics Control Conference in Washington, D.C.)


 The Turkish poppy flower produced not only the opium base for illicit heroin but also the codeine base for medical preparations. When a State Department official warned the Ad Hoc Committee on Narcotics Control that the White House plan for eradicating the world's poppies might have "dire unforeseen consequences," a White House aide retorted cuttingly, "If we can't foresee the consequences, why presume they will be 'dire."' He then went on to ridicule "bureaucratic overcautiousness" and demand immediate action. Four years later, the United States faced a massive coughing and painkilling crisis. The inventories of codeine, which provide more than a half billion doses of cough suppressant and analgesic medicine each year, had fallen so precariously low that the government was forced to release its strategic stockpiles of codeine base. The licensed manufacturers of codeine medicines warned that unless the shortage was soon alleviated, they would have to cut production drastically. They warned that by the end of 1974, they would have less than one month's supply on hand, and the situation would be critical. 

The problem was that codeine could be obtained only from the poppy plant, and the Nixon administration, by eradicating the Turkish supply, had inadvertently diminished the world's supply of this crucial base medicine. (India, the only other licit exporter of opium for codeine, doubled the price and reduced exports in 1972.) The antiheroin crusaders in the White House had expected a synthetic substitute for codeine to be developed after ordering the surgeon general and HEW to create such a drug. Despite some frantic efforts, government and industry scientists were unable to produce a synthetic equivalent on demand. With no substitute for codeine even on the horizon, the White House came under increased pressure from the American Medical Association and from drug manufacturers to increase the world's supply of opium. Finally, in 1974, as the coughing crisis loomed larger, the Office of Management and Budget, which was now superintending drug policy for the White House, decided to reverse the policy of annihilating the world's poppy supplies and seek new sources of opium for the drug industry. At the same time, however, political interests dictated that the prohibition on opium growing in Turkey, which was in the conditioned popular imagination the single greatest victory of the Nixon administration in its war against heroin, be maintained.

To solve this dilemma, OMB directed the State Department to encourage India to increase by 50 percent its production of poppies. The idea was that Indian opium did not have the connotations in the press and with Congress that Turkish opium had, and, because of the relative remoteness of India and the fact that it consumed most of its own opium, an illicit supply might never reach the American market. India, however, was experiencing increased problems with opium eating and drug addiction, and was reluctant to plant more poppy acreage to please the United States.

At this point OMB more or less designed its own poppy for American production-the Papaver bracteatum. This strain of poppy was originally discovered in northern Iran by scientists working for the Department of Agriculture. It had the advantage of producing  high-quality thebaine, which can be converted to codeine but not, without difficulty, to heroin. Thebaine, nevertheless, was a white gummy substance similar to opium. Unfortunately, thebaine yielded drugs known as the Bentley compounds, which, although difficult to isolate, are ten thousand times as powerful as heroin. Some government scientists, fearing that the Bentley compounds would replace heroin, suggested growing the bracteatum on Air Force bases, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by dogs. (One White House aide suggested that the Bentley compounds "would kill off half the heroin addicts, but then we might have a real problem with those that survive.") Finally, it was decided to grow the bracteatum experimentally at a Department of Agriculture field station in Flagstaff, Arizona (where poppies had already been planted as a "signature" for satellites and U2s). Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, a leading processor of opium, also announced its interest in growing bracteatum in Arizona. 

The attempt to induce India to increase its opium production and the announced plans to grow poppies in the United States fatally weakened the American position in Turkey. William Handley, the former ambassador to Turkey who had replaced Nelson Gross as senior advisor to the secretary of state for narcotics-related matters, argued that it would prove impossible to maintain the ban in Turkey if "we planted poppies ourselves and encouraged every country but Turkey to go into the opium business." He held that the policy of banning opium in a single country, Turkey, was ultimately untenable. He was unable, however, to garner support from the narcotics agencies for his position. The Drug Enforcement Administration, which succeeded the BNDD in 1973, took the position that Turkish opium would eventually be replaced by other drugs, and that the best way to undermine the profitability of opium would be for America to produce its own poppies. The Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention, which managed the federal methadone and treatment programs, argued that the drug problem could be solved only by reducing demand through treatment, and that therefore the Turkish opium question was irrelevant. Handley took his case to the cabinet committee, presided over by Melvin Laird, and lost. He promptly resigned. Less than six months later, on July 1, 1974, Turkey announced that it was resuming opium production to relieve the world shortage. Angry Congressmen immediately threatened to cut off military aid to Turkey (which grants the United States twenty-five common defense" bases, mainly monitoring Soviet missiles), and suddenly the eastern flank of the NATO alliance was being thrown into jeopardy by the politics of the poppy.

Eventually, administration officials were able to brief congressional leaders on the fact that Turkey produced only 7 percent of the world's opium, and they claimed now that they had never really believed that the suppression of opium in Turkey would end the supply of heroin to addicts in the United States. As Walter Minnick, the former staff coordinator of the Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 4, 1975: 

The dilemma we now face is that the demand for medicinal opiates around the world continues to skyrocket, inducing ever larger quantities of gum opium to be cultivated, primarily in India. The more opium produced, the larger the stock available for diversion into illicit criminal channels.... This will be true whether the opium gum is produced in India, Turkey, the Golden Triangle, or anywhere else. 

The Nixon administration's "poppy war" had thus not only contributed to the codeine crisis but had stimulated production in other areas of the world. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out in a telegram to the State Department in 1973, when he was ambassador to India and the White House was attempting to change the hoary system of Indian poppy cultivation to alleviate the codeine shortage, it was not always possible for the White House to dictate morality with favorable results.



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