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The delicate, papery petals of the Papaver somniferum, or opium poppy, belie the powerful impact the flowers have had on history. From the British sale of opium to China to the medicinal and social impacts morphine and various opiate drugs have had on societies for centuries, the sticky sap of the opium seed pod has fueled empires, wars, and most recently health epidemics. Opium fields like those in western Turkey were a major source of income for the Ottomans, and today the region is one of the largest sources of medicinal opium grown in the world. But poppy fields in other parts of the world, from Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar are sold and thus fuel armed insurgencies and drug crises. The issue is “simply” that narcotics’ value-to-weight ratio is so high that they ignore the normal issues of transport costs and can be smuggled by anything from a drug mule to a literal mule and still generate massive profits.

And poppies are no longer limited to the Eastern Hemisphere. Following rising use of prescription painkillers in the United States, Mexican drug cartels started taking advantage of the dry, warm microclimates in the country’s northwestern mountains to produce opium poppies and drugs like black-tar heroin, which is then inserted into counterfeit opioid pills. America’s opioid epidemic may be homegrown, but it took these doctored products to make it truly lethal, claiming more than 40,000 lives in 2016 alone.

For more on the North American Drug War, see Chapter 13 of The Accidental Superpower.

 

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