Government-Controlled Opium Production Is Way of Life in TurkeyBy Dorian Jones
Afyon, Turkey
01 July 2008

Preliminary information from Turkey indicates opium production will be up this year. But all of the harvest will be raised under a unique government sponsored program that lets farmers grow the crop legally. The drugs are then processed for medical use and sold through a U.N. agency that regulates sales. As Dorian Jones reports, the success of the program in Turkey has some wondering if the lessons could be applied in other countries, like Afghanistan, where illegal drug production has exploded.

White haired with a mischievous smile, and a deep tan from decades of work in the fields tending his beloved opium poppies, Mohamet Dogan, 60, chats with pride as fellow farmers congratulate him on his rich poppy crop. The consensus is, it is going to be a good opium year, and they should know. All the farmers here have been growing the raw material to make opium for more than 30 years. And as Dogan explains, for all of them, opium is more than just a cash crop.

"It is product that we cannot give up, it is part of our life," He said. "My father, my grandfather and his grandfather have all grown the opium poppy. I started as a child. I grew in the opium fields; it is part of my blood."

Poppy flower
The farmers are here to meet with the government inspector, Ilyas Mert. Not much gets past Mert - he too is an opium veteran devoting 30 years of his life to its control.

Mert carefully checks that Dogan is only growing opium within his state-allocated land. He also ensures opium has not been illegally extracted from the poppies. Careful calculations are made on how much opium Dogan's fields will yield, any discrepancy with what is actually delivered will immediately result in an investigation, with the sanction of a long jail sentence and a ban for life from cultivating opium poppies legally.

With Mert satisfied he quickly leaves to visit the next opium farmer. It is a busy time for him. The past few weeks before harvest are when opium poppies start producing a sweet milk substance, which is used to make heroin. Mert is on his way to Dogan's brother Ali. He says nearly everyone here is involved in some way with opium production.

The name of the main city here is called Afyon which means opium. He says opium is in every part of life here, but everything is strictly controlled. He says the key to this success is working with the local people. Everyone realizes that opium production can only succeed if there is no leakage. Trust is crucial.

Winning that trust both at home and abroad has been a long battle. Thirty years ago, Washington accused Ankara of having lax controls and claimed that 80 percent of heroin on U.S. streets came from Turkey. The government, under intense pressure, banned all opium production. About one million people were affected by the decision. Opium farmer Ali Dogan remembers those hard days.

"It was a terrible time," Ali said. "We lost not only income, but our culture, our cuisine, everything depends on it. There was great unhappiness, hunger and anger. He says, we never want to go back to those times. That is why farmers all work together to make the new policy work. Of course every farmer would like to grow more, but why risk being banned for life."

After intense pressure from people like Ali and his brother Mohamet, the government lifted the ban after three years. Along with new stringent controls a radical method of processing the poppy was introduced.

A short drive from Ali's field is the world's biggest opium factory. Working around the clock it processes half the worlds legally cultivated opium poppies. Leading a tour of the facility is the head of Turkey's opium production Ali Gevenkiris.

Gevenkiris watches carefully as thousands of opium buds or capsules, are shoveled into a huge processor. This machine cuts out the traditional way of collecting opium in which the farmer cuts the bud to collect the white opium paste. Such cut buds are easily spotted and anyone today who tries to collect opium that way faces 20 years in jail. Gevenkiris says the stringent controls along with this special process make it almost impossible to cultivate opium illegally.

But could such success be repeated in places like Afghanistan? Gevenkiris voices caution.

If production is legalized in Afghanistan the world market will be flooded with opium, he says, which would cause a collapse in prices.

For the Turkish state the stringent controls are expensive, costing around $6 million a year, which is a lot, considering the country only earns $30 million from worldwide sales. In fact, the government's opium production program only breaks even, but with a nearly million people dependent on opium cultivation, for cash and their cultural identity, the Turkish state believes it is money well spent.

voa news