Opium originated in the Mediterranean region and was first brought to the east by Arab traders around the seventh
century AD. It came to Thailand when hilltribes migrated south from Yunnan, where opium growing had been encouraged to
stop British control of the trade in the 19th century.
Though opium consumption in Siam from the late 19th century
was controlled by a royal monopoly and was a useful source of income, it was never approved of. In 1959 poppy
cultivation was made illegal, but by 1967 Thailand was still producing 145 tons due to the corrupting influence of the
Intensified Western efforts to stop the drug epidemic resulted in the cash crop substitute program, and by 1995
annual opium production in Thailand was estimated to be only 17 tons. However, the cost of the opium eradication
program has been high. Opium addicts have turned to heroin and HIV has followed the use of the needle. Toxic pollution
from heavy use of pesticides has been widespread. Worse is the fact that opium production is virtually out of control
beyond Thailand's borders.
The Thai government remains determined to prevent large-scale opium production within its borders, and the Third
Army destroys plantations annually. The 1959 law covers not just opium, however, but all narcotics. Penalties for possession of just small amounts of heroin are very heavy - a fact which foreigners ignore at their
The main cultivators of the opium poppy are the Hmong, Yao,
Lahu and Lisu. The plant likes altitudes above 850 meters near limestone ridges or below cliffs. Fields
are cleared early in the hot season (March) and burnt. Then a fast-growing crop like corn is planted. The poppy is sown
in September and plants thinned out in November.
Vegetables are grown to add minerals to the soil as well as supplement the diet. They also help to hide the opium
The vegetables are cleared and the plants begin to flower in January. When the petals drop off the pods, farmers
slit them in a way that causes the resin to ooze out and congeal on surface. The sticky congealed opium is scraped off
a day later.
The cash from the sale of opium is still important for hilltribe cultivators, who traditionally have used the drug
themselves mainly for medicinal purposes.
Addiction, however, has been a curse that eventually leads to dire poverty.