Source: The Times
Date: 23 November 2006

Smoking opium could make a comeback in Britain

By Stewart Tendler,
Crime Correspondent of The Times

Opium smoking much beloved by Victorian intellectuals could be making a comeback in Britain a national drugs conference was warned yesterday.

International drugs experts believe that traffickers faced with off-loading a record crop of opium poppies in Afghanistan are not bothering to refine opium into heroin but smuggling it direct for sale.

One route is believed to be via France, after French customs seized 36 kilos of opium which was due to be smuggled through the Channel Tunnel to Folkestone in October.

Last year the total seizure of opium in France was a mere two kilos. In Britain, the latest figures for the seizure of all opiate drugs, including other drugs as well as opium, was 30 kilos in 2003.

Opium is a gum produced from the washed sap of the poppy. Until the creation of international controls in the early 20th Century, opium was widely smoked in the Middle and Far East and in Europe where it was used by painters and writers. Forty times less potent than heroin, opium is nonetheless highly addictive. It was widely used in the Far East where Britain went to war twice in the 19th Century to control the trade to China.

A warning that the French seizure is a sign of a potential trend came yesterday from Jean-Luc Lemahieu, chief of the European and Western Asia section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Mr Lemahieu, speaking at a national conference on drug problems organised by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Manchester, said there was evidence that traffickers were going back to "traditional markets" and attempting "re-establish the Victorian habit of opium use". He said the trend was very small but there have been seizures in Britain and the drug markets would have to be watched.

Traffickers are faced with a record Afghanistan harvest of 6,100 tonnes of opium in 2006 equal to 610 tonnes of heroin.

The vast majority is coming from Helmand province where the British army is trying to gain control of the area. Helmand has seen a 121 per cent growth in Opium in one year alone. In 2005 the worldwide figure was 4750 tonnes.

Mr Lemahieu said the price of heroin has been low in Britain for some years but the traffickers may ship more with a greater purity. One result would be increasing overdose deaths. Traffickers could also stockpile drugs along the routes into Europe and may also try to smuggle into China which traditionally had a big opium market.

He also warned the conference that cocaine is starting to replace ecstasy as the drug used by young people in clubs. Mr Lemahieu said: "New users see it as harmless after seeing ecstasy is safe."

Andy sellers, one of the senior officers in the Serious Organised Crime Agency - Britain's version of the FBI - admitted to the conference that the overall picture of heroin and opium problems is poor and the long term future looks bleak.

"My key message is that the threat is increasing, traditional seizures don't make any discernible difference," he said.

The price of heroin has been falling and the only problem for the traffickers is transportation. Mr Sellers said 25 to 35 tonnes of heroin are reaching the United Kingdom each year, worth about £1.26 billion, of which 95 per cent comes from Afghanistan.

But Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister responsible for drug policies, said that there was evidence that drug markets are stabilising. Use of class A drugs is falling according to research.

Asked about any growth in the opium trade Mr Coaker said that work was under way in Afghanistan to cut production and disrupt the supply routes.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the early 19th Century poet who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Xanadu

Thomas de Quincey, an English writer and author of Confessions of an Opium-eater published in 1821.

Edgar Berlioz, the French 19th Century composer.

Edgar Alan Poe, 19th Century American writer of black and gothic stories and poetry.

Jean Cocteau, 20th Century French avant garde writer.

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Confessions of an English Opium Eater