Poppies, opium, and heroin

Production in Colombia and Mexico
Jorge Hernández Tinajero, Guillermo Andrés Ospina & Martin Jelsma
Transnational Institute (TNI)
February 2018

poppies opium heroinPoppy cultivation in Mexico and Colombia is part of a local economy geared almost exclusively toward the illegal market abroad: it is driven by demand for heroin, primarily in the United States. North America, including Canada, is currently experiencing a major humanitarian crisis related to this use and the opioids circulating on this market. To understand the dynamics of this market and to evaluate whether political responses to the phenomenon are appropriate and effective, we present this report on opium poppy cultivation in Mexico and Colombia, which, together with Guatemala, are the poppy-producing countries of Latin America.

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While it was not possible to include Guatemala in this study, we attempt to provide some relevant information about this Central American country. Because the U.S. government tends to look to producing countries to explain the causes of the emergency situation in its country, it is important to consider the problem from broader and more inclusive perspectives.


  • Poppy cultivation in Mexico, and, to a lesser extent, Colombia and Guatemala, expanded during the last decade, following the trend in the illegal heroin market in the United States, although official data from drug control organisations are not very reliable, lack clarity with regard to the methodologies used (especially in the case of Colombia), and have often demonstrated contradictions and incoherencies.
  • Poppy cultivation and opium extraction were adopted decades ago by farming communities in the mountains of Mexico and Colombia, and the practice persists despite its illegality and constant efforts at eradication. It is a complementary activity in the family farming economy, providing a source of income that is alternated with food production, manufacturing and local trade to sustain economies that are, in many cases, precarious.
  • Government policies for the control of illicit drug crops in Mexico and Colombia have consisted exclusively of forced eradication, whether manual, by police and military forces, or through aerial spraying with chemicals. In both cases, these strategies are ineffective and counterproductive as they cause the displacement of cultivation to other, more remote areas and harm the affected communities.
  • The U.S. government should recognize the underlying causes of its opiates/opioid crisis which involves an unprecedented number of heroin and fentanyl overdoses. These causes are internal and not the result of the growing flow of heroin from Latin America. In fact, the United States should assume a certain amount of responsibility for the fact that structural failures in public health and control of the pharmaceutical industry have stimulated illegal drug production in Latin America to satisfy growing demand. In no way can farmers in Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala be blamed for the dramatic increase in opioid overdose deaths.
  • Nor can farmers that grow poppies be criminalized for cultivating the plant for subsistence: few real options exist for substituting poppies with alternative crops due to the high price opium currently commands in the market, which is a result of increased demand. Meanwhile, the areas where crops exist are isolated, with little infrastructure and virtually no state presence or assistance. In the case of Colombia, the National Comprehensive Program for the Voluntary Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS) created in the context of the peace process never included poppy growers, and to date has focused exclusively on coca crops.
  • The often-mentioned option of redirecting illicit opium production to legal, medicinal uses seems interesting. However, it poses a series of obstacles and dilemmas that are not easy to overcome in the short term. Most importantly, the high prices paid to producers in the current illicit market would be difficult to match with an economic, competitive programme for licit production of medicines. The conversion of illicit production into licit production would not only depreciate farmers’ product, but would also be unviable in the international pharmaceutical industry. Meanwhile, demand for heroin for the illegal market, which would compete with production for licit purposes, would continue. Hence, it is difficult to argue that this would provide an economical solution to the scarcity of opiates for medicinal ends, or significantly reduce the illegal heroin market. Even so, the option deserves further study as a short-term alternative for certain communities that currently depend on illicit cultivation, given the absence of other viable options for alternative development and the inefficiency and deleterious consequences of forced eradication.