Guatemala, Honduras and Opiates

Blog Post
A photo of Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square)
from my office in Mexico City. The Zocalo (central park)
in Mexico City is located in the Reforma District.
Somewhere around 70% of the heroin that makes its way into the US is grown in Guatemala and Honduras. Most of the rest is grown in Southern Mexico. It was easier for narcotics cartels to establish the cultivation of opium in Guatemala/Honduras because of the vast poverty in those areas. The governments of both Guatemala and Honduras are unwilling to do anything about it because it brings wealth to these poverty-blighted areas. 
To a lesser extent that’s also true regionally in Mexico even though the national government would like to do more. The more they do, the greater poverty in already poor areas – and the greater the political instability.
The challenge for the Trump Administration is to walk a tightrope with Mexico and Central America (not unlike the one faced by previous administrations).  No matter, the drug problem in America won’t be solved until Americans stop buying illegal drugs.
Libertarians agree with the legalization of all street drugs, arguing that it would solve the problems of warehousing people convicted of narcotics-related offenses. The question always comes back to “who will pay”. Addicts currently rely on a generous welfare system to support their maintenance (food stamps, welfare, aid to dependent children, etc.) If you take that away, crime will increase. Libertarians are not fond of the concept of radically expanding the police to protect one group of haves from have-nots.
I’m not proposing a quick fix here. This is only a blog, throwing a few strands of spaghetti against the wall, and watching to see whether any of it will stick.
Manufacturing Heroin
Papaver somniferum is one of the few species of poppy that produces opium. The flowers are colorful and vary in hue. Once they fall away, a green pod remains, which continues to grow. Opium alkaloid is only produced during the terminal ripening process, which lasts about two weeks. 
While the fruit is still on the stem, incisions are made in the sides of the pod. Common practice requires the sap to seep out of the pod overnight for collection each morning for (roughly) the ensuing week.
Raw opium is converted to morphine base through boiling. The raw sap that was collected from the plant pod dissolves in boiling water and any obvious impurities such as plant fibers are scooped from the liquid opium. Quicklime is mixed with water and is then added to the boiling liquid opium. The morphine alkaloid reacts with the lime and impurities precipitate to the bottom of the pot. The liquid is poured through a filter into another container and ammonia is added and the mixture is heated. As it heats, the morphine solidifies and precipitates to the bottom of the pot. The liquid is separated off from the solid and what remains is #1 Heroin or morphine base. 
The next step in the purification process necessary to create a usable narcotic requires acetic acid to combine with the morphine base. The mixture is heated to 85 degrees centigrade for two hours. This process chemically binds the morphine to the acid and creates chemical heroin. 
Water us added to the chemical heroin and since heroin is water-soluble it becomes a solution. Common sodium carbonate is added to the heroin solution and the precipitate is taken from the bottom of the pot. That is #2 Heroin or heroin base.
From heroin base the manufacturer can make #3 Heroin (20 to 30 percent pure), often called brown heroin, Mexican heroin or smoking heroin. It has the general granular consistency and color of (unrefined) brown sugar. To make #3 Heroin, hydrochloric acid and caffeine are mixed with the heroin base and stirred until it dries. It is also referred to as “black tar heroin”, essentially crude #3 Heroin with more impurities in it than is typically found in #3 Heroin. The impurities make the drug more toxic but occasionally add a more potent effect (depending on who made it).
In order to make #4 Heroin from heroin base, hydrochloric acid and ether are added. The process is complex, toxic and hazardous because of explosive fumes. Once the heroin base passes through this process, it’s usually around 90 per cent pure and is referred to as China White. China White (or #4) Heroin is a fine white odorless and colorless powder.
(Excerpted from Appendix 2 – White Powder, a novel by Larry Lambert (re-printed here with the author’s permission)

14 thoughts on “Guatemala, Honduras and Opiates

  1. Thanks. I was wondering how to deal with all my Papaver somniferum. They are quite beautiful, but now I can turn them into a cash crop.

  2. I really have no opinion on the heroin issue.

    It only seems to affect the very lowest segment of society, and is confined to Democrat constituencies mostly. I hang out in Republican haunts, mostly, and this blight does not directly affect me.

    What to do about it, beats me. Arresting everybody involved has been the strategy for the last 75 years or so, and it seems that this approach is not very effective in dealing with heroin addiction. Our prisons are packed with drug related offenders.

    Legalizing it will also lead to misery for many, although it might be effective in eliminating the criminal element from the issue, or if not eliminating it, greatly diminishing it.

    Amsterdam has legal drugs. And the place is a mess. Hardly the poster boy for the legalization crowd.

    What to do: I don't know.

  3. The solution, if it exists, is not one size fits all. Historically "the final solution" has a bad sound. I guess there a many solutions that must be implemented at the same time. Some drugs are based on natural plants like opium, cocaine and marihuana other are more chemical and made in local labs. If you look at the value chain going upstream from the basic raw material control of the land and production is crucial. Taliban managed to reduce the opium production while they where in charge in Afghanistan. At least for a period of time according to some sources. Using their methods to make land owners comply the ban can prove efficient. The best is to make people say "no" and not be willing to purchase or use even if it is for free. If you take everything in between from production of raw materials to the distribution and sales to the end user, a massive punishment like loosing you life if you ever will try do do something will be very efficient according to the Nobel Laureate Gary Becker. If the risk is extremely high to be discovered and punished real hard with no negotiating, like the Taliban used to do, and there is no upside whatsoever you have a success recipe. Given the price elasticity due to the probability to become an addictive it is no solution to make drugs free and available. The drive for profit will make the salesmen do whatever it takes to create as many clients as possible to generate volume number of users. They will give away free samples to begin with and create marketing campaigns to manipulate as many as possible to start. As time goes you will have tough competition but scale of economics will win in the end. Thus it will all summarize in finding the optimum where you will reduce the number of users to a minimum at the lowest cost for the tax payer. The only moral acceptable solution seems then to motivate people to say "no" and reduce the market size and profit to a minimum and find cost effective ways to reduce the raw materials and production to an absolute minimum. The distribution and everything in between must be so risky that noe one find it attractive. And then you are back to what more or less is going on today. The Taliban solution seemed to work according to some sources but it might be difficult to implement it around the world.

  4. The Singapore solution for drug addicts worked. Treat addicts, first conviction for sales is something like 3 years hard time and the second offense is execution. They don't build big prisons to warehouse people for long terms.

  5. It's tough to balance the guarantees in a free society with a war against the thing that so many people want. Look at prohibition.

    I'm not in favor of legalizing, but if you ask me what I'd do if I was king, I honestly don't know.

  6. I agree that addicts should be treated as patients and be given "medical help" so they will stay out of the criminal cycle. When seeing some of the addicts, they are kind of lost for the future and the best is to minimize the damage and pain for the individual, their family and the society. The willingness to look at and try different measures to reduce the problem should be supported. Giving a first chance to get the message and a fair chance to get sober and if you do it more and try to harm other children and youngsters to use drugs you actually give many of them a death penalty. Then it is fair to know that by doing it you get one yourself. That will help on the motivation. Tough but effective. Keeping people in prison seem only to cost a lot of money and creating more crime.

  7. It's amazing that given the time, the vast treasure applied to the issue and the brilliant people involved with the analysis that we haven't found a workable solution (even a broad spectrum solution).

  8. A big problem with heroin is its addictiveness. Any drug can become addictive, but heroin gets converted in the body back to opioids and attaches to the hungry little opioid receptors in the brain that affect feelings of pleasure and pain. Once addicts get feeling good with opioids, their brains crave the drug that so easily gives pleasure.

    Another big problem is the stuff that is used to make heroin, or is laced with heroin to produce bigger and bigger highs, is contributing to an exponential explosion of overdoses and deaths. The exponential curve hit just around the time Obama took office.

    Just sayin'.

    What's the solution? One thing that would help is to weed out and fix the destructive progressive ideology that encourages drugs, has increased youth anxiety, and drives families apart.

    That's not an easy task, but it could happen. I'd start by declaring XYZ Studies departments illegal and throwing those so-called professors into little holding cells with the drug dealers.

  9. The social structure needs to want change to find success. Some always do, but at present, not nearly enough.

  10. It seems to be a drug of hopelessness, not get high and feel great. Perhaps a better economic climate (jobs) will diminish use.

  11. The human body loves opiates. Oxycontin swaps pain relief for addiction. Heroin doesn't relieve pain but it offers euphoria until your body compensates and you are only addicted.

    Being able to buy this stuff the way that you do Aspirin or Tylenol is a bad idea.

    I can't say what a better economic climate will do, but addiction – to whatever – leads to sadness and pain. That's just how it is. Living a moderate life isn't always appealing, but it's the better course.

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