At Heroin's Source, Hope Rises For a Way to Cut Opium Crops

Chopping Poppies

Until December 1991, nobody outside its walls knew very much at all about the Institute of Genetics, Plants, and Experimental Biology of the Academy of Sciences of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

For good reason. Behind the bureaucratic nomenclature hid a military germ-warfare lab.

After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody knew much about the institute either: It was just another in the archipelago of crumbling scientific research centers for which nobody had much use any more and there were no longer any funds.

Until one of the scientists there decided to break his silence. As his colleagues searched for biological agents that might destroy the Kansas wheat crop, he explained to a visiting United Nations antidrug official, they had come across a fungus that destroyed opium poppies. Would he be interested?

'Extraordinary' discovery

"We've been looking for something like this for years and years," exults the official, Cherif Kouidri, head of the laboratory at the Vienna-based UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP). "It is extraordinary that we should stumble upon this."

The Soviet scientists, Dr. Kouidri explains, had been on the lookout for blighted plants of any description so as to isolate the agent responsible for eventual use as a biological weapon. Somebody had brought in some sorry-looking poppies from Russia, and the lab identified the microscopic fungus on them as pleospora papaveracea.

The scientists subsequently found the same fungus in Uzbekistan and tested it on 42 other local crops to make sure it didn't have any ill effects on them. It didn't.

Now the UNDCP is about to launch a three-year project with the institute to "confirm the story," as Kouidri puts it: to go over all the experiments again, to check the effect on the poppies' morphine production, and to see if the fungus occurs elsewhere in the region, such as neighboring Afghanistan.

"It would hearten all of us if we were to find that it was indigenous to Afghanistan," smiles Kouidri, thus making it safe to use in the country that provides the raw material - opium - for 95 percent of the heroin in Europe, and ranks second only to Burma (Myanmar) in world production.

New drug routes

Antidrug officials are paying increasing attention to Uzbekistan and neighboring Central Asian republics such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. First, because smugglers appear to be driving new routes from Afghanistan to Europe through these lightly policed countries. Secondly, they provide ideal conditions themselves for cultivating the opium poppy.

Traditionally, smugglers have carried opium and heroin through Iran into Turkey, then through the Balkans to Europe. But as Iran cracks down on drug smuggling, more and more traders are exploring alternative northern routes, UN officials say.

Following the same paths that Silk Road merchant caravans once plied, and that modern-day oil and gas engineers are now surveying for their pipelines, the smugglers run heroin through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, across the Caspian Sea into the Caucasus, and thence into Eastern Europe.

Law enforcement is patchy in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, enticing both smugglers and poppy farmers. At the moment, opium poppies are cultivated only on a small scale in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where poppy tea is a traditional herbal remedy. But if the Islamic authorities in Afghanistan move to eradicate poppy cultivation as they have promised, officials worry about what they call "the balloon effect."

This means that if opium production is suppressed in one region, it moves to another where it is less controlled. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are next door to Afghanistan, offer ideal climatic and soil conditions, have people familiar with opium, and have police spread thinly through the region.

"There is a very high risk that unless preventive measures are taken in the region, as soon as the business is suppressed in Afghanistan it will pop up again in these countries," warns Joern Kristensen, a UNDCP official.

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