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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 9 - The French Connection



When Arthur Watson, the former chairman of IBM World Trade Corporation, became ambassador to France, in May, 1970, President Nixon told him, "Your job is to clean up the heroin problem in France.... That is the most important priority today." Thus Watson left for Paris,- taking along a copy of the book The French Connection. He was accompanied by Thomas P. Murphy, a former writer for Fortune and general aide-de-camp to Watson, who was to serve as drug coordinator for the embassy in France. On his arrival in Paris, Watson quickly discovered that the French were wholly indifferent to heroin addiction, which they considered "the American disease." Although American intelligence estimated that the vast preponderance of heroin reaching the United States passed through Marseilles, where "labs" converted morphine base into heroin, the Police Judiciale drug force, which was charged with policing all illicit drugs in France, had only thirty-two members, who were doing mainly administrative work. Watson believed that in order for any real action to be taken by French officials, heroin would have to be hyped into a French problem. Stories were therefore ingeniously planted in French newspapers about French heroin addicts. (Watson himself went on walking tours through the place de la Republique and suspicious bars on the boulevard Saint-Michiel, looking for addicts.) The United States Information Service, at Watson's request, had a gory American drug-addiction film adapted to a French version and put on French television. The embassy even imported a priest from New York to lecture on drug abuse. "The public-relations hype really worked," Murphy later told me. "Heroin went in French polls from being a nonexistent problem to being the number-one problem perceived by the French public."

 Although the press campaign led to a doubling of the drug force in France and more cooperation from French officials, Washington was demanding more concrete results. Ambassador Watson received telegram after telegram from the State Department and the White House asking when a "major lab Marseilles would be seized."

Watson gradually learned that the highly prized labs were in reality "no more than dirty kitchens" where trays of morphine base were cooked with acetic anhydride until heroin precipitated out. Virtually any house in France, or in the world, with running water could have a lab. Bureau of Narcotics agents in France were also doubtful of the value of seizing labs, since the operation could be moved to another kitchen in a matter of days. Nevertheless, President Nixon wanted labs seized, congressmen and American journalists persistently asked to be taken on tours of the seized labs, and Watson was determined, with or without the French police, to seize as many "dirty kitchens" as he could. 

A strong believer in the magic of technology, the ambassador ordered the science attache at the embassy, Dr. Edgar Piret, to devote his full time and resources to the problem of detecting labs. Almost every week, the ambassador, piloting his own propjet plane, would fly Dr. Piret to Marseilles, where they would lunch with French police in a restaurant at the harbor (shown, coincidentally, in the opening sequence of the film of The French Connection) and discuss the modus operandi of the mysterious labs. Finally Dr. Piret came up with the idea for "sniffing out" the acetic anhydrides used in manufacturing heroin. A California firm, Varian Associates, which had developed a technique in Vietnam for chemically detecting the presence of drugs in urine, was given the contract for the "heroin sniffer," while Dr. Piret worked out the anticipated wind plumes and frequency of the fumes. Then, in 1971, the sniffer, concealed in a brand-new Volkswagen camper with a snorkel mounted on its roof, rolled into Marseilles. An American agent drove this not entirely inconspicuous sniffer through the streets, while another agent inside charted all the beep signals on a street map. Unfortunately, the signals given out by the acetic acid being sought were indistinguishable from the odor frequency of salad dressing, and when the map was analyzed, Watson found that they had inadvertently detected all the restaurants and salad-dressing concentrations in Marseilles-but no labs. To the great amusement of the French officials, the sniffer departed, and Dr. Piret was sent back to the drawing board.

Dr. Piret's next foray was into the sewers of Marseilles. Since the excess water used in the production of heroin eventually finds its way into the sew-age system and contains telltale traces of the materials used in the process, Dr. Piret reasoned that a system of scientifically sampling the sewage might identify the elusive labs. "It was like Les Miserables; they had men wading in the sewers looking for clues," Paul Knight, a high-ranking Bureau of Narcotics official recalled. Since no budget was provided to the embassy for such underground projects, Watson, willing to try anything in his quest for the labs, obtained financing from "secret and unorthodox channels," which were presumed by some former narcotics officials to mean the CIA. Though monitoring the sewers failed to pinpoint the labs (because of a plethora of effluents and a certain difficulty in keeping agents in the sewers undetected), it helped convince French officials of American determination to seize labs. With the help of informers who seemed to materialize magically, the French raided a half dozen lab-kitchens in short order-thus satisfying Washington, or at least touring congressmen.

Thomas Murphy explained: 

We knew we were dealing with a chain of finite length stretching from Afyon to Harlem: we first thought we could sever the link between Afyon and Marseilles by suppressing the poppy, but that proved hopeless, as there was an infinite amount of opium available elsewhere or in the pipeline. We next thought we could sever the link in Marseilles by closing the labs, but we found that the labs were portable. Then we realized that the real weak link was the couriers in the smuggling rings. 

By resorting to more or less standard police procedures and recruiting informers in those rings, "the Paris task force was able to hamstring, though not eliminate, the heroin traffickers in France."



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