Cannabis, Coca, & Poppy:
Nature’s Addictive Plants

Production & Distribution

  • Opium poppy ready for harvesting
  • Dried opium resin in a bag

Harvesting Opium Poppies

The milky fluid that seeps from cuts in the unripe poppy seed pod has, since ancient times, been scraped off and air-dried to produce what is known as opium. The seedpod is first incised with a multi-bladed tool. This lets the opium “gum” ooze out. The semi-dried "gum" is harvested with a curved spatula and then dried in open wooden boxes. The dried opium resin is placed in bags or rolled into balls for sale.

Poppy Scoring and Scraping Tool

Poppy Scoring and Scraping Tools

Women harvesting poppies

Current Legal Production of Opium

Legal growing of opium for medicinal use currently takes place in India, Turkey, and Australia. Two thousand tons of opium are produced annually and this supplies the world with the raw material needed to make medicinal products. Mallinckrodt

Legal opium shipping crate

Legal Opium Shipping Crate

Mallinckrodt, one of the pharmaceutical companies licensed to deal in legal poppy production, uses crates such as this to ship its poppy products around the world.


Heroin Drug Trafficking

Currently, there are three main sources for illegal opium: Burma, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Opium and heroin are ideal trade products–they are in great demand, are very profitable to produce, and the products take up little space. With modern transportation, opium and heroin can be moved from one country to another within days or a few weeks. Opium and heroin have a long and stable shelf life, allowing the products to be stored for long periods of time.

Clandestine heroin laboratory in Afghanistan

Clandestine Heroin Laboratory in Afghanistan

In 2010 groups in Afghanistan produced 90 percent of the world's illicit opium, using clandestine labs well hidden in the country's topography.

Heroin brick mold

Heroin Brick Mold

Morphine is extracted from opium and the morphine base is transported to clandestine heroin laboratories or processed into heroin directly. The heroin powder is distributed either loose in bags or pressed into bricks with a mold. DEA

  • Heroin bag stamps, camel stamp
  • Heroin bag stamps, chicken stamp

Heroin Bag Stamps

Drug Traffickers routinely mark their products with logos or characters as a marketing tool to keep brand loyalty among their customers as well as to remain anonymous if the drugs are seized by law enforcement. These chicken and camel stamps were used by drug traffickers in Afghanistan.

Branded plastic bags for packaging heroin illegally

Branded Plastic Bags Used for Packaging of Illegal Heroin

Many consumers have their favorite brand of the drug.

From the Farm to the Arm

The majority of the world’s heroin is produced using the Southwest Asian Method of processing.

  • Step One

    Raw opium that has been collected from poppy pods is mixed with a calcium solution and hot water in large barrels. It is stirred vigorously and allowed to settle for many hours.

  • Step Two

    The clear liquid on the top contains the morphine and is siphoned out into another container. A binding chemical is added, then returned to the barrel and heated. This chemical binds to the morphine causing it to fall to the bottom of the barrel.

  • Step Three

    The contents of the barrel are stirred and filtered out. The residue is dried in the sun resulting in a brown morphine base.

  • Step Four

    Morphine base is combined with another chemical solution and heated until the solution turns black in color. It is then cooled down, quenched with water and filtered to remove some impurities.

  • Step Five

    In a separate container, sodium carbonate is dissolved in water, then added to the morphine base and stirred to create heroin base.

  • Step Six

    The heroin base is mixed with several more chemical solutions, including charcoal and water, and then stirred. It is filtered multiple times to remove the charcoal, and the resulting residue is dried.

  • Step Seven

    One last chemical is added to the dried heroin base and then filtered.

  • Step Eight

    The final dried product is white heroin hydrochloride, or powdered white heroin.

Colombian method

Colombian Method

A slightly different processing method is used to make heroin in Colombia. Instead of leaving the opium to dry overnight on the pod, the liquid opium is harvested immediately for processing. The frequent rains in that region necessitate immediate removal of the opium from the pod to prevent it from being washed away. The liquid opium is then mixed with hot water and similar steps to those that are outlined in the Southwest method are used.

Drug bust

Attacking Heroin Trafficking

In 2008, DEA seized 13,719 kilograms (30,245 pounds) of heroin in operations around the world.