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Golden Triangle Opium Cultivation and Processing

A comprehensive article from the DEA archives exploring (in great detail) the entire process of black-market opium production in the Golden Triangle area of Southeast Asia. Covers everything from an historical primer and good geographical information on the triangle, all the way to opium cooking techniques and the conversion process used to turn the raw opium into morphine, and eventually heroin for the street. Packed full of information and with a full glossary, it makes for one helluva read.

Reprinted from the web archive of the DEA article of the same name (2001)

Opium Poppy Cultivation and Heroin Processing in Southeast Asia

cover photograph of poppies

March 2001
















The source of opium is the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, one of the few species of Papaver that produces opium. Through centuries of cultivation and breeding the poppy for its opium, a species of the plant evolved that is now known as somniferum. The genus, Papaver, is the Greek word for “poppy.” The species, somniferum, is Latin for “sleep-inducing.”

The psychological effects of opium may have been known to the ancient Sumerians (circa 4000 B.C.) whose symbol for the poppy was hul (joy) and gil (plant). The plant was known in Europe at least 4,000 years ago, as evidenced by fossil remains of poppy seed cake and poppy pods found in the Swiss lake dwellings of the Neolithic Age. Opium was probably consumed by the ancient Egyptians and was known to the Greeks as well. References to the poppy are found in Homer’s works The Iliad and The Odyssey. Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.), the Father of Medicine, recommended drinking the juice of the white poppy mixed with the seed of nettle.

The opium poppy probably reached China about the 7th century A.D. through the efforts of Arab traders who advocated its use for medicinal purposes. In Chinese literature, however, there are earlier references to its use. The noted Chinese surgeon Hua To of the Three Kingdoms (220-264 A.D.) used opium preparations and Cannabis indica for his patients to swallow before undergoing major surgery.

The beginning of widespread opium use in China has been associated by some historians with the introduction of tobacco into that country by the Dutch from Java in the 17th century. The Chinese were reported to mix opium with tobacco. The practice was adopted throughout the area and eventually resulted in increased opium smoking, both with and without tobacco.

In 1803, the German pharmacist F. W. Serturner isolated and described the principal alkaloid in opium, which he named morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. The invention of the syringe and the discovery of other alkaloids of opium soon followed: codeine in 1832 and papaverine in 1848. By the 1850s, the medicinal use of pure alkaloids, rather than crude opium preparations, was common in Europe.

In the United States, opium preparations became widely available in the 19th century and morphine was used extensively as a painkiller for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. The inevitable result was opium addiction, contemporarily called “the army disease” or “soldier’s disease.” These opium and morphine abuse problems prompted a scientific search for potent, but nonaddictive, painkillers. In the 1870s, chemists developed an opium-based and supposedly nonaddictive substitute for morphine. The Bayer Pharmaceutical Company of Germany was the first to produce the new drug in large quantities under the brand name Heroin. This product was obtained by the acetylation of morphine. Soon thereafter studies showed heroin to have narcotic and addictive properties far exceeding those of morphine. Although heroin has been used in the United Kingdom in the treatment of the terminally ill, its “medical value” is a subject of intense controversy.


The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is an annual plant, i.e., the plant matures one time, and does not regenerate itself. New seed must be planted each season. From a small seed, it grows, flowers, and bears fruit (a pod) only once. The entire growth cycle for most varieties of this plant takes about 120 days. The tiny seeds (like the seeds on a poppy seed roll) germinate quickly in warm air and sufficient soil moisture. In less than 6 weeks, the young plant emerges from the soil, grows a set of four leaves, and resembles a small cabbage in appearance. The lobed, dentate (jagged-edged) leaves are glaucous green with a dull gray or blue tint.

Basic Parts of the Opium Poppy Plant (Papaver Somniferum)Within 2 months, the plant will grow from 1 to 2 feet in height, with one primary, long, smooth stem. The upper portion of this stem is without leaves and is called the “peduncle.” One or more secondary stems, called “tillers,” may grow from the main stem of the plant. Single poppy plants in Southeast Asia often have more than one tiller.

The main stem of a fully matured Papaver somniferum ranges between 2 and 5 feet in height. The green leaves are oblong, toothed and lobed and vary between 4 to 15 inches in length at maturity. The matured leaves have no commercial value except for use as animal fodder.

As the plant grows tall, the main stem and each tiller terminate in a flower bud. During the development of the bud, the peduncle portion of the stem elongates and forms a distinctive “hook” that causes the bud to be turned upside down. As the flower develops, the peduncle straightens and the buds point upward. A day or two after the buds first point upward, the two outer segments of the bud, called “sepals,” fall away, exposing the flower petals. At first, the exposed flower blossom is crushed and crinkled, but the petals soon expand and become smooth in the sun. Poppy flowers have four petals. The petals may be single or double and are either white, pink, reddish purple, crimson red, or variegated.

Opium poppies generally flower after about 90 days of growth and continue to flower for 2 to 3 weeks. The petals eventually drop to reveal a small, round, green pod which continues to develop. These pods (also called seed pods, capsules, bulbs, or poppy heads) are either oblate, elongated, or globular and mature to about the size of a chicken egg. The oblate-shaped pods are more common in Southeast Asia.

Only the pod portion of the plant can produce opium alkaloids. The skin of the poppy pod encloses the wall of the pod ovary. The ovary wall consists of three layers: the outer, middle and inner layers. The plant’s latex (raw opium gum) is produced within the ovary wall and drains into the middle layer through a system of vessels and tubes within the pod. The cells of the middle layer secrete more than 95 percent of the plant’s opium when the pod is scored and harvested.

Farmers harvest the opium from each pod while it remains on the plant by making vertical incisions with a specially designed homemade knife. After the opium is collected, the pods are allowed to dry on the stem. Once dry, the largest and most productive pods are cut from the stem, and the seeds are removed and dried in the sun before storing for the following year’s planting. An alternative method of collecting planting seeds is to collect them from intentionally unscored pods, because scoring may diminish the quality of the seeds. Aside from being used as planting seed, poppy seed may also be pressed to produce cooking oil. Poppy seed oil may also be used in the manufacture of paints and perfumes. Poppy seed oil is straw yellow in color, odorless, and has a pleasant, almond-like taste.


The opium poppy thrives in temperate, warm climates with low humidity, and requires only a moderate amount of water before and during the early stages of growth.

The opium poppy plant can be grown in a variety of soils—clay, sandy loam, sandy, and sandy clay—but it grows best in a sandy loam soil. This type of soil has good moisture-retentive and nutrient-retentive properties, is easily cultivated, and has a favorable structure for root development. Clay soil types are hard and difficult to pulverize into a good soil texture. The roots of a young poppy plant cannot readily penetrate clay soils, and growth is inhibited. Sand soil, by contrast, does not retain sufficient water or nutrients for proper growth of the plant.

Excessive moisture or extremely arid conditions will affect the poppy plant’s growth adversely thus reducing the alkaloid content. Poppy plants can become waterlogged and die after a heavy rainfall in poorly drained soil. Heavy rainfall in the second and third months of growth can leach alkaloids from the plant and spoil the harvest. Dull, rainy, or cloudy weather during this growth stage may reduce both the quantity and the quality of the alkaloid content.

Major Opium Poppy Growing Provinces in Southeast AsiaThe major legal opium production areas in the world today are in government-regulated opium farms in India, Turkey, and Tasmania (Australia). The major illegal growing areas are in Southwest Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) and in the highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand) —popularly known as the “Golden Triangle.” Opium poppy is also grown in Colombia, Mexico, and Lebanon.

Opium poppies containing small amounts of opium alkaloids were, at one time, widely grown as an ornamental plant and for seeds in the United States. The possession of this plant was declared illegal by the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942.

The highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia, at elevations of 800 meters or more above sea level, are prime poppy-growing areas. Generally speaking, these poppy-farming areas do not require irrigation, fertilizer, or insecticides for successful opium yields. Most of the opium poppies of Southeast Asia are found in Burma, specifically in the Wa and Kokang areas which are in the northeastern quadrant of the Shan State of Burma. Laos is the second-largest illicit opium producing country in Southeast Asia and third-largest in the world behind Afghanistan and Burma. In Laos poppy is cultivated extensively in Houaphan and Xiangkhoang Provinces, in addition to the six northern provinces of Bokeo, Louangnamtha, Louangphabang, Oudomxai, Phongsali, and Xaignabouli. Poppy is also grown in many of the remote, mountainous areas of northern Thailand, particularly in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Nan, and Tak Provinces. Successful eradication programs together with highland programs of agricultural development and crop substitution in Northern Thailand have reduced poppy cultivation to minimal levels.

Lai Chau Province, situated between China and Laos, is a major opium poppy cultivation area in Vietnam, as is Nghe An Province, in the areas bordering Laos. In China, small crops of opium poppies are cultivated by ethnic minority groups in the mountainous frontier regions of Yunnan Province, particularly along the border area with Burma’s Kokang area in the Shan State.

It is noteworthy that the dominant ethnic groups of Mainland Southeast Asia are not poppy cultivators. The Burmans and Shan of Burma, the Lao of Laos, the Thai of Thailand, the Han Chinese of Yunnan, China, and the Vietnamese of Vietnam are lowlanders and do not traditionally cultivate opium poppies. Rather, it is the ethnic minority highlander groups, such as the Wa, Pa-O, Palaung, Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, and Akha who grow poppies in the highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia.

A typical household of Mainland Southeast Asian highlanders averages between five and 10 persons, including two to five adults. Such a household of poppy farmers can cultivate and harvest about 1 acre of opium poppy per year. Most of the more fertile fields can support opium poppy cultivation for 10 years or more without fertilization or insecticides before the soil is depleted and new fields must be cleared.


Land Areas Standard Units of Measurement

Land Areas Standard Units of Measurement graphic

U.S. football field
4,459 sq. meters
0.533 hectare
1.11 acres
2.79 rai
8 mu

In choosing a field to grow opium poppies, soil quality, access to sunlight, and acidity are critical factors, so experienced poppy farmers choose their fields carefully. In Mainland Southeast Asia, westerly orientations are typically preferred to optimize sun exposure. Most fields are on mountain slopes at elevations of 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) or more above sea level. Slope gradients of between 20 to 40 degrees are considered best for drainage of rainwater.

In Mainland Southeast Asia, virgin land is prepared by cutting and piling all brush, vines, and small trees in the field during March, at the end of the dry season. After allowing the brush to dry in the hot sun for several days, the field is set afire. This method, called “slash-and-burn” or “swidden” agriculture, is commonly practiced by dry field farmers–both highland and lowland–throughout Mainland Southeast Asia in order to ready the land for a variety of field crops, including opium poppy. The ash in the burnt fields is a natural source of nutrients for the soil.

Before the rainy season in April, thousands of highland poppy fields all over the region are set ablaze. A fog-like yellow haze hangs over the area for weeks, reducing visibility for hundreds of miles. In the mountains, the density of haze can block out the sun and sting the eyes. Nearby provincial airports are occasionally closed due to poor visibility caused by burning fields.

Photograph of the dry season in Mainland Southeast Asia
  Dry season in Mainland Southeast Asia

A typical highlander family will plant an area of 2 or 3 rai in opium poppy (2.53 rai is equivalent to 1 acre compared to the smaller size mu which is the standard land measurement used in China). In areas where drug financiers are active, larger plots are cultivated.

 sq. metershectareacresraimu
rai (lai) 1,6000.1600.3971.002.40



Toward the end of the rainy season in August or September, highland farmers in Mainland Southeast Asia prepare fields selected for opium poppy planting. By this time, the ash resulting from the burn-off of the previous dry season has settled into the soil, providing additional nutrients, especially potash. The soil is turned with long-handled hoes after it is softened by the rains. The farmers then break up the large clumps of soil. Weeds and stones are tossed aside and the ground is leveled off.

Traditionally, most highland and upland farmers in Mainland Southeast Asia do not use fertilizer, but in recent years poppy farmers have started using both natural and chemical fertilizers to increase yields. Chicken manure, human feces, or the region’s abundant natural supply of bat droppings are often mixed into the planting soil before the poppy seed is planted. The planting is usually completed by the end of October.

The opium poppy seed can be sown several ways: broadcast or tossed by hand; or fix-dropped by hand into shallow holes dug with a dibble stick, which is used to poke holes in the soil. About 1 kilogram of opium poppy seed is needed to sow 1 acre of land. Approximately 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of seed are used for each hectare (equivalant to 2.46 acres). The seeds may be white, yellow, coffee-colored, gray, black, or blue. Seed color is not related to the color of the flower petals. Beans, cabbages, cotton, parsley, spinach, squash, or tobacco are usually planted with opium poppy. These crops neither help nor hinder the cultivation of the opium poppy, but are planted solely for personal consumption or as a cash crop.

Rainy Season - Cold Season timesIn the highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia, it is also common practice to plant maize and opium poppies in the same fields each year. The maize keeps down excessive weeds and provides feed for the farmer’s pigs and ponies. It is grown from April to August. After harvesting the maize, with the stalks still standing in the fields, the ground is weeded and pulverized. Just before the end of the rainy season, in successive sowings throughout September and October, the poppy seed is broadcast among the maize stalks. These stalks protect young opium poppy plants from heavy rains.

Photograph of a field of poppiesThe opium poppy plants form leaves in the first growth stage, called the “cabbage” or “lettuce” stage. After a month of growth, when the opium poppy is about a foot high, some of the weaker plants are removed (called “thinning”) to allow the other plants more room to grow. The optimum spacing between plants is between 20 and 40 centimeters, or about 8 to 12 plants per square meter. Some researchers in Northern Thailand have reported as many as 18 plants per square meter, but such crowding is believed to hinder plant growth.

During the first 2 months, the opium poppies may be damaged or stunted by nature because of the lack of adequate sunshine, excessive rainfall, insects, worms, hailstones, early frost, or trampling by animals. The third month of growth does not require as much care as the first 2 months. Between 3 and 4 months after planting—from late December to early February, the opium poppies are in full bloom. Mature plants range between 3 and 5 feet in height. Most opium poppy varieties in Southeast Asia produce three to five mature pods per plant.

A typical opium poppy field has 250,000 poppy plants per hectare, with a range of 300,000 to 500,000 opium-producing pods. The actual opium yield will depend largely on weather conditions and the precautions taken by individual farmers to safeguard the crop. The farmer and his family generally move into the field for the final 2 weeks, setting up a small field hut on the edge of the opium poppy field.


The scoring of the pods (also called lancing, incising, or tapping) begins about 2 weeks after the flower petals fall from the pods. The farmer may examine the pod and the tiny crown portion on the top of the pod very carefully before scoring. The grayish-green pod will become a dark green color as it matures and it will swell in size. Another indication of the pod’s readiness for tapping is if the points of the pod’s crown are standing straight out or are curved upward. If the crown’s points turn downward, the pod may not yet be fully matured. Not all the plants in a field will be ready for scoring at the same time. Each pod can be tapped from two to four times.

Drawing of scraping opium gum from the podA set of three or four small blades of iron, glass, or glass splinters bound tightly together on a wooden handle is used to score two or three sides of the pod in a vertical direction. If the blades cut too deep into the wall of the pod, the opium (latex) will drain into the interior of the pod, rather than to the surface, where it can be collected. If the incisions are too shallow, the flow will be too slow and the opium will coagulate over the incisions and block the flow. A depth of about 1 millimeter is desired for the incision. Using a blade-tool designed to cut to that depth, scoring ideally starts in late afternoon so the white latex-like raw opium, which has a 60 percent water content, can ooze out and slowly dry on the surface of the pod overnight. If the scoring begins too early in the afternoon, the sun will cause the opium to dry and block the flow. The opium oxidizes, darkens, and thickens in the cool night air. Early the next morning, the sticky opium gum is scraped from the surface of the pods with a short-handled, crescent-shaped, flat, iron blade 3 to 4 inches wide. The opium gum is collected in a container which hangs from the farmer’s neck or waist.

Opium harvesters work their way backwards across the field to minimize brushing up against scored (wet) pods, so as not to spill the sticky ooze inadvertently. The lower, mature pods are usually scored before the taller pods. The pods will continue to secrete opium for several days. Farmers will return to these plants—sometimes up to three or four times—to gather additional opium until the gum content is depleted totally.

Mature Pod - If the points of the pod's crown are standing straight out or are curved upward, the pod is ready to be scored.In Mainland Southeast Asia, the opium yield from a single pod varies greatly, ranging from 10 to 100 milligrams of opium gum per pod. (Opium gum yield per capsule correlates very closely with capsule volume.) The average yield of raw opium gum per pod is about 80 milligrams. The dried opium yield ranges between 8 and 20 kilograms per hectare in this region.

As the farmers gather the opium, the larger or more productive pods are sometimes tagged with colored string or yarn. These pods will later be cut from their stems, cut open, dried in the sun and their seeds will be used for the following year’s planting. An acre of poppy will produce at least 20 kilograms of seed, but only a portion is collected for future planting.

Photograph of opium harvesters working their way backwards across the fieldThe wet opium gum collected from the pods contains a relatively high amount of water and needs to be dried for several days. High-quality raw opium will be brown (rather than black) in color and will retain its sticky texture. It will contain no more than 15 percent water. Experienced opium traders can determine quickly if the opium has been mixed with tree sap, sand, or other such materials.

Raw opium in Burma, Laos, and Thailand is usually sun-dried, weighed in a standard 1.6-kilogram quantity (called a viss in Burma; a choi in Laos and Thailand), wrapped in a banana leaf or plastic, and then stored until ready to sell, trade, or smoke. Some opium smoking is common among many adult opium poppy farmers to ward off hunger and cold. Heavy addiction generally is limited to older, male farmers and is used as an analgesic for chronic pain. Based on studies in Thailand, the average yearly consumption of cooked opium per smoker is estimated to be 1.6 kilograms.

A typical opium poppy farmer household in Southeast Asia will collect 2 to 5 choi or viss (3 to 9 kilograms) of opium from a year’s harvest of a one-acre field, although yields can vary widely due to a number of variables, such as weather and less than ideal field selection. That opium will be dried, wrapped, and placed on a shelf by February or March. If the opium has been properly dried, it can be stored indefinitely. Excessive moisture and heat can cause the opium to deteriorate slightly but, once dried, opium is relatively stable. In fact, as opium dries and becomes less pliable, its value increases, due to the decrease in water weight per kilogram.


Cooking Opium
Photograph of cooking opium
Raw opium is placed in boiling water and cooked in large cooking vats or 55-gallon drums. After a short time, the opium alkaloids dissolve. The solution is then strained through cheesecloth to remove impurities such as twigs and plant scrapings. Then the liquid is reheated until the water has evaporated and a thick paste remains.
Before opium is smoked, it is usually cooked. Uncooked opium contains moisture, vegetable matter, and other impurities which detract from a smooth-smoking product. The raw opium which is collected from the pod is placed in an open pot of boiling water where the sticky glob of opium alkaloids quickly dissolves. The soil, twigs, and plant scrapings remain undissolved. The solution is strained through cheesecloth to remove these impurities. The clear brown liquid, sometimes called “liquid opium,” is actually opium in solution. This liquid then is reheated over a low flame until the water turns to steam. When the water has evaporated, a thick paste remains. This paste is called “prepared opium,” “cooked opium,” or “smoking opium” and it is dried in the sun until it has a putty-like consistency. The net weight of the cooked opium is generally about 20 percent less than than the original raw opium.

Cooked opium is suitable for smoking or eating by opium users. Traditionally, there is only one group of opium poppy farmers, the Hmong, who often do not cook their opium before smoking. Most other ethnic groups, including Chinese opium addicts, prefer smoking cooked opium.

Opium, either raw or cooked, will not degrade, or otherwise spoil, for an indefinite period of time, as long as it remains relatively dry and cool. These are the normal conditions in the highlands of Mainland Southeast Asia. There are cases of opium being stored on a shelf for 10 years without deterioration.

If the opium is to be sold to traders for use in morphine or heroin laboratories, it is not necessary to cook it first. The laboratory operators generally use 55-gallon oil drums or huge cooking vats to cook the raw opium in water before beginning the morphine extraction process.


Raw or cooked opium contains more than 35 different alkaloids, including morphine, codeine, and thebaine. In Mainland Southeast Asia, the morphine alkaloid alone accounts for approximately 10 percent of the total weight of opium. Heroin manufacturers must first extract the morphine from the opium, before converting the morphine to heroin. The extraction is a simple process, requiring only a few chemicals and a supply of water. Morphine sometimes is extracted from opium in small clandestine laboratories, which are typically set up near the opium poppy fields. Since the morphine base is about one-tenth the weight and volume of raw opium, it is desirable to reduce the opium to morphine before transporting the product from the field to a heroin laboratory.

The process of extracting morphine from opium involves dissolving opium in boiling water, adding lime (calcium oxide), or slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), or limestone (calcium carbonate) to precipitate non-morphine alkaloids, and then pouring off the morphine in solution. Ammonium chloride is then added to the solution to precipitate morphine from the solution. The chemicals used to process opium to morphine have a number of legitimate purposes and are widely available on the open market. An empty oil drum, some cooking pots, and filter cloths or filter paper are needed.

The following is a step-by-step description of morphine extraction in a typical Mainland Southeast Asian laboratory

An empty 55-gallon oil drum is placed on bricks about a foot above the ground and a fire is built under the drum. Thirty gallons of water are added to the drum and brought to a boil. Ten to 15 kilograms of raw opium are added to the boiling water.

With stirring, the raw opium eventually dissolves in the boiling water, while soil, leaves, twigs, and other non-soluble materials float in the solution. Most of these materials are scooped out of the clear, dark brown “liquid opium” solution.

Slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) or, more often, a readily available chemical fertilizer with a high content of lime, is added to the solution. Lime will convert water- insoluble morphine alkaloid into water-soluble calcium morphenate. (Other opium alkaloids do not react with lime to form water-soluble calcium salts, as does morphine.) Codeine is an opium alkaloid that is slightly water-soluble and some codeine will be carried over with the calcium morphenate in the liquid. Otherwise, for the most part, the other alkaloids will become a part of the “sludge.”

As the solution cools, the morphine solution is scooped from the drum and poured through a filter. Cloth rice sacks are often used as filters and can then be squeezed in a press to remove most of the solution from the wet sacks. Liquid saponated cresol (“lysol”) is commonly added to the solution to facilitate filtering. The morphine-rich solution is then poured into large cooking pots and reheated but, this time, not boiled.

Ammonium chloride (a powder) is added to the heated calcium morphenate solution to adjust the alkalinity to a pH of 8 to 9, and the solution is then allowed to cool. Within 1 or 2 hours, morphine base precipitates (“crashes”) out of the solution and settles to the bottom of the cooking pot.

The solution is then poured off through cloth filters. Any solid morphine base chunks in the solution will remain on the cloth. The morphine base is removed from both the cooking pot and from the filter cloths, wrapped and squeezed in cloth, and then dried in the sun. When dry, the crude morphine base is a coffee-colored coarse powder. This form of morphine is commonly known by the Chinese term pi-tzu in Mainland Southeast Asia.

If morphine base is to be stored or transported to another location, it may be pressed into blocks. Crude morphine base is generally 50 percent to 70 percent morphine, and is an intermediate product in the heroin process. (This morphine base is generally not used by addicts.)

This crude morphine base may be further purified (and changed to morphine hydrochloride) by dissolution in hot water and hydrochloric acid, then adding activated charcoal, reheating, and filtering. The solution is filtered several times before being allowed to cool. As the solution cools, morphine hydrochloride precipitates out of the solution and settles to the bottom. The precipitate is trapped (or “captured”) by filtration.

If the morphine hydrochloride is to be stored or transported to another location, it may be pressed into bricks. Morphine hydrochloride (often tainted with codeine hydrochloride) is usually pressed into brick-sized blocks in a press and wrapped in paper or cloth. The most common block size is 2 inches by 4 inches by 5 inches, and weighs about 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms). It takes a full day to extract morphine from opium.

Prepared (cooked) opium prior to the morphine extraction stage


Ten kilograms of opium are added to 30 gallons of hot water and dissolved.

Solid impurities are scooped off.

Non-morphine alkaloids of opium precipitate to the bottom of the barrel.

Morphine solution is scooped into other containers.

Approximately 13 kilograms of opium (from approximately one hectare of opium poppies) are needed to produce each morphine block of this size. The morphine blocks are then bundled and packed for transport to heroin laboratories by human couriers or by pack animals. Pack mules are able to carry 100-kilogram payloads over 200 miles of rugged mountain trails in less than three weeks.


The conversion of morphine to heroin base is a relatively simple and inexpensive procedure. The necessary chemicals for conversion to heroin are commonly available as industrial chemicals. The equipment is very basic and quite portable. Heroin conversion laboratories are generally located in isolated, rural areas due to the telltale odors of the laboratory’s chemicals. Acetic anhydride, in particular, is a key chemical with a very pungent odor resembling vinegar. Thai-speakers in the Golden Triangle Area commonly refer to acetic anhydride as nam-som (vinegar).

As described in the preceding paragraphs, the chemicals used to isolate morphine from opium (known as extraction) include calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) and ammonium chloride. The precursor chemical normally used in the conversion of morphine to heroin (known as acetylation) is acetic anhydride. Chemical reagents used in the conversion process include sodium carbonate and activated charcoal. Chemical solvents needed are chloroform, ethyl alcohol (ethanol), and ethyl ether. Other chemicals may be substituted for these preferred chemicals, but most or all of these preferred chemicals are readily available from smugglers and suppliers.

Laboratory equipment includes large Chinese cooking woks, measuring cups, funnels, filter paper, litmus paper, and enamel (or stainless steel) pots. Only the most sophisticated heroin laboratories use glass flasks, propane gas ovens, vacuum pumps, autoclaves, electric blenders, venting hoods, centrifuges, reflux condensers, electric drying ovens, and elaborate exhaust systems. It is common to find portable, gasoline-powered generators at clandestine heroin conversion laboratories. Generators are used to power various electrical devices.

Heroin synthesis from morphine (either morphine base or morphine hydrochloride) is a two-step process that requires between 4 and 6 hours to complete. Heroin base is the intermediate product. Typically, morphine hydrochloride bricks are pulverized and the dried powder is then placed in an enamel pot. Acetic anhydride is added, which then reacts with the morphine to form heroin acetate. (This acetylation process will work either with morphine hydrochloride or morphine base.) The pot lid is tied or clamped on, using a damp towel for a gasket. The pot is carefully heated for about 2 hours, below boiling, at a constant temperature of 85° Celsius (185° Fahrenheit). It is never allowed to boil or to become so hot as to vent fumes into the room. The mixture is agitated by tilting and rotation until all of the morphine has dissolved. When cooking is completed, the pot is cooled and opened. During this step, morphine and the anhydride become chemically bonded, creating an impure form of diacetylmorphine (heroin).

Water is added to the thick, soupy mixture and the mixture is stirred as the heroin dissolves in the solution. Sodium carbonate (a crystalline powder) is dissolved in hot water and then added slowly to the heroin solution until effervescence stops. This precipitates heroin base, which is then filtered and dried by heating in a steam bath. For each kilogram of morphine, 685 grams to 937 grams of crude heroin base is formed, depending on the quanity of morphine.

The tan-colored heroin base (about 70 percent pure heroin) may be dried, packed, and transported to a heroin-refining laboratory, or it may be purified further before conversion to heroin hydrochloride (a water-soluble salt form of heroin) at the same site.

Mainland Southeast Asian heroin base is an intermediate product that can be further converted to either “smoking heroin” (heroin no. 3) or “injectable heroin” (heroin no. 4).


Conversion process of Southeast Asian heroin no. 3Process of acetylation of morphineHEROIN NO. 3 (SMOKING HEROIN)

To make heroin no. 3, the crude base is mixed with hydrochloric acid, resulting in heroin hydrochloride (HCl). Adulterants, including caffeine, are added after this conversion. For each kilogram of crude heroin base, about one kilogram of caffeine is used. Various “flavorings” such as quinine hydrochloride or strychnine hydrochloride are sometimes added to heroin no. 3. Next, the wet paste mix is stirred to dryness over a steam bath.

The resulting dry heroin no. 3 will be in the form of coarse lumps. The lumps are crushed and passed through a mesh sieve, and the grains (pieces) are then packaged for sale.

The entire process takes about 8 hours and requires only minimal skill. While extra attention to stirring is required to assure dryness, one person can prepare 1-kilogram of heroin no. 3 during this time.



Conversion process of heroin base to Southeast Asian heroin no. 4The reaction of morphine with acetic anhydride produces heroin acetate. To the heroin acetate mixture in the pot, water is added and mixed by stirring. A small amount of chloroform is added. The mixture is stirred and then allowed to stand for 20 minutes. Doing so dissolves highly colored impurities and a red, greasy liquid is formed at the bottom of the container. The water layer is carefully poured off and saved in a clean pot, leaving the red grease in the pot.

In a clean pot, activated charcoal is stirred into the aqueous solution and is filtered to remove solid impurities. The decolorizing effects of the charcoal, combined with the chloroform treatment, will leave a light yellow solution. The use of charcoal is repeated one or more times, until the solution is colorless.

Sodium carbonate (a crystalline powder) is dissolved in hot water and then added slowly to the heroin solution until effervescence stops. This precipitates the heroin base, which is then filtered and dried by heating on a steam bath. The heroin base is heated until dried. The powder should be very white at this stage. If not white, the base is redissolved in diluted acid, treated repeatedly with activated charcoal, re-precipitated, and dried. The ultimate purity and color of the resulting heroin HCl will depend largely on the quality of the heroin base.

The heroin base is then dissolved in ethyl ether. Conversion to the hydrochloride salt is achieved by adding hydrochloric acid in ethanol to the heroin mixture. The heroin then precipitates.

Heroin (quantities trafficked)
Metric System
U.S. Equivalent
 gram (gm.)0.001 kgs.002 ozs
 unit0.700 kgs1.54 lbs
 kilogram (kg.)1,000.0 gms2.2046 lbs
 ounce (oz.)28.35 gms0.0625 lbs
 pound (lb.)453.59 gms16.0 ozs

The mixture becomes nearly solid after an hour. At this point, it is filtered and the solids are collected on clean filter paper. Batches of between 5 and 10 kilograms (occasionally as much as 20 kilograms) are commonly made at one time. The paper is wrapped around the crystals and placed on wooden trays, usually over lime rock, to dry.

When the white crystals of pure heroin HCl are dry, the powder is compressed into bricks in a hydraulic heroin press. These machine-compressed bricks, often bear a “999” logo impression on one side. Mainland Southeast Asian heroin bricks are not adulterated with any type of substance. This high-purity, odorless heroin, ranges from 85 to 95 percent purity. The standard-sized bricks, called “units” (700-gram) or “half-units” (350 grams), are then placed in plastic bags and heat-sealed, ready for sale to heroin brokers and wholesalers. Each full unit measures 5½-inches long, 4-inches wide, and 2-inches deep. A standard briefcase, measuring 14 inches by 20 inches, and 5 inches deep, can easily hold 18 units (12.6 kilograms) of Mainland Southeast Asian heroin, stacked in two layers. A standard 1.8 cubic foot microwave oven can hold approximately 42 units (29.4 kilograms) of Mainland Southeast Asian heroin.

Although highly soluble in water, heroin HCl is very stable, and can be stored in a relatively cool, dry, and dark area for an indefinite period of time.


Double UOGlobe (Double Lion) heroin logo of Southeast AsiaThe Golden Triangle Area of Mainland Southeast Asia is ideally suited for the cultivation of opium poppy. Although the poppy plant will grow remarkably well in this climate, soil, and humidity with little to no effort, farmers in this region, nonetheless, expend a considerable amount of time and effort caring for their crop. Poppy farmers typically spend 6 months of the year in their poppy fields, nurturing and safeguarding their family’s primary cash crop. In contrast, the synthesis of heroin from opium takes only a day or two. But heroin chemists or, more precisely, heroin “cooks,” in Mainland Southeast Asia must possess a higher level of knowledge and skills than the poppy farmers who produce the opium. In addition, the owners and operators of such heroin laboratories must provide an elaborate support system of cash, armed protection, chemicals, equipment, transportation, and access to reliable wholesale heroin buyers.


acetic acid, glacial
Also known as ethanoic acid or vinegar acid. Glacial acetic acid is the pure compound, as distinguished from the usual water solutions known as acetic acid. A clear, colorless liquid with a pungent odor. Miscible with water, alcohol, glycerin, and ether. Highly concentrated, produces burns on the skin. Chronic exposure may cause erosion of dental enamel, bronchitis, eye irritation. Excellent solvent for many organic compounds. Widely used in commercial organic synthesis. Normally contained in 5-pound bottles (corrosive liquid). In illicit heroin production, can be used in place of ammonium chloride or ammonia solutions as a reagent to adjust alkalinity in the precipitation of morphine from an opium solution.
acetic anhydride
Also known as acetic oxide; acetyl oxide. A colorless liquid with a strong, vinegar-like odor. Fumes in moist air, and its vapor is extremely irritating to eyes, nose, and throat. Not readily miscible with water, forming a separate layer on the bottom, but will form acetic acid eventually . Soluble in chloroform or ether. Readily combustible (fire hazard). Normally contained in various sizes of glass or plastic bottles, 5-gallon glass carboys, and 55-gallon metal drums lined with stainless steel or polyethylene. Used in the textile, leather tanning, pharmaceutical (particularly aspirin), and photography industries. Under strict government regulation in some countries. Manufactured in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. In illicit heroin production, acetic anhydride is the most commonly used acetylating agent in the acetylation of morphine. A key precursor chemical and reagent in heroin synthesis.
The key chemical process in converting morphine base to heroin. Can be accomplished using either acetyl chloride or acetic anhydride. Acetyl chloride is flammable, irritating to the eyes, reacts violently with water or alcohol, and requires careful handling in laboratory processes. For these reasons, processors of heroin do not favor acetylation using acetyl chloride. Although acetic anhydride is corrosive and requires care in handling, it is less hazardous to the user than acetyl chloride and hence is the key chemical used in processing of heroin.
Substance added to heroin after the heroin conversion process is completed. Adulterants are pharmacologically active. Quinine and procaine are typical adulterants added to heroin.
alcohol (ethyl alcohol)
An anhydrous alcohol, also known as ethanol, grain alcohol, fermentation alcohol, “drinking alcohol,” anhydrous alcohol, ethyl hydroxide, and methyl carbinol. A clear, colorless, volatile, flammable liquid with a pleasant, sweet odor. Absorbs water rapidly from air. Miscible with water. Must be stored in tightly closed container, cool, and away from flame. Most ethyl alcohol is used in alcoholic beverages in suitable dilutions. Shipped in metal or plastic containers, such as 55-gallon drums, gerry cans, etc. Some drums may be lined with phenolic resin. In illicit heroin production, used as a solvent during purification of heroin base and in the conversion of heroin base to heroin hydrochloride.
Any of various physiologically active, nitrogen-containing organic bases derived from plants. Common alkaloids include atropine, caffeine, cocaine, codeine, mescaline, morphine, narcotine, nicotine, noscapine, papaverine, quinine, strychnine, and thebaine.
ammonium chloride
Also known as ammonium muriate, sal ammoniac, salmiac. Colorless, odorless crystals or crystalline chunks; may also be a white, granular powder. Tendency to cake. Soluble in ethanol; near-insoluble in acetone or ether. Cooling, saline taste. Major industrial uses are in manufacture of dry cell batteries; dyes; fertilizers; washing powders; etc. Medical use as an expectorant. Normally packaged in barrels or multiwall paper or polyethylene sacks. In illicit heroin production, ammonium chloride can be used as a reagent to adjust alkalinity in the precipitation of morphine (as crude morphine base) from an opium solution.
brown sugar heroin
A common name for heroin (any source) which has the appearance of light brown, granulated sugar. Commonly produced in Southwest Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran). Used in contrast with the white, fluffy powder or crystal form of heroin, such as Southeast Asian “China White” heroin. Like white heroin, brown sugar heroin may be injected, snorted, or smoked.
White masses of long crystals. A bitter, white alkaloid found in coffee, tea, and cola nuts. Caffeine is generally used in combined forms, such as caffeine monohydrate, caffeine acetate, or other compounds. In addition to its use as a stimulant and diuretic, crystalline caffeine is commonly used as an diluent in heroin hydrochloride, or as a necessary ingredient in “smoking heroin” (e.g., Southeast Asian heroin no. 3). Also used as a preferred diluent in Southeast Asian methamphetamine tablets.
calcium hydroxide See “lime, slaked.”
carbon, activated See “charcoal, activated.”
A Hindi-Bengali term for cooked opium (“smoking opium”). Term used in India and some parts of Burma. Term used in some historical reports on Southeast Asian opium.
charcoal, activated
A fine, black carbonaceous powder prepared commercially from wood and vegetables. Also known as “activated carbon” or “animal black.” Highly adsorptive. Used in medicine as an antidote and in treatment of diarrhea. Used in laboratories for clarifying, deodorizing, decolorizing, and filtering various chemicals. Marketed under trade names as Norit, Carboraffin, Ultracarbon, Opocarbyl, etc. In illicit heroin production, used as a reagent in the purification of heroin.
China White
Southeast Asian heroin no. 4 in white powder form. Term is used by English-speaking westerners to contrast the white powder form with the light brown, granular form of heroin (see “brown sugar heroin”). May be injected, snorted, or smoked. The term “China White” also has been used in recent years as an alternate name for fentanyl, a synthetically-produced compound with heroin-like properties.
Also known as trichloromethane. A clear, colorless, heavy, and very volatile liquid with a characteristic sweet odor. It is an irritant to the skin and eyes and may also be a carcinogenic. Not miscible with water, forming a separate layer on the bottom. Miscible with alcohol. Shipped in bottles, tins, or drums; stainless steel for very high-purity products. Used in industry as a solvent for fats, oils, rubber, alkaloids, waxes, and resins. Used extensively as a solvent in the rubber industry; used to make the refrigerant Fluorocarbon-22. In illicit heroin production, it can be used as a solvent in the synthesis of heroin.
choi (joi)
A standard unit of weight used in Mainland Southeast Asia for opium (only). Equivalent to 1.60 kilograms (3.528 pounds).
conversion (heroin conversion)
A chemical conversion process wherein heroin base is converted into a soluble salt form of heroin, generally heroin hydrochloride.
A chemical diluent is an ingredient used to reduce the concentration of an active material. Another common definition of diluent is a substance added to finished product (such as heroin) to increase bulk. In this sense, there is no clear distinction between a diluent and an extender. In heroin manufacture, “diluents” refer to extenders. Typical diluents for heroin are mannitol, sucrose, lactose, and starch.
ether (ethyl ether)
Also known as diethyl ether; ethyl oxide; diethyl oxide; sulfuric ether; anesthetic ether; or simply ether. A colorless, mobile, very volatile and highly flammable liquid. Characteristic, sweetish, pungent odor, more agreeable than chloroform. Ether vapors are heavier than air. Tends to form explosive peroxides under the influence of the air and light. When shaken under absolutely dry conditions, ether can generate enough static electricity to start a fire. Shipped in cans, drums, barrels, and tank cars. Not miscible with water, forming a separate layer on the surface. In addition to its well-known use as an anesthetic, ether is used as a solvent in fats, waxes, dyes, perfumes, oils, resins, etc. In illicit heroin production, ether is used as a solvent in the conversion of heroin base to heroin hydrochloride.
ethyl alcohol See “alcohol.”
ethyl ether See “ether.”
Golden Triangle
Area of Mainland Southeast Asia comprising the Shan Plateau and Kachin Hills of northeastern Burma, the highlands of northwestern Laos, and the highlands of northern Thailand. Term was popularized by Western journalists in the 1970s to designate one of the principal source areas in the world for illicit opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin. The region’s poppy cultivation area also includes northern Vietnam and the adjacent areas of southern China.
A standard unit of weight in the metric system equal to one-thousandth of a kilogram. 28.350 grams equal one ounce.
Northern Thai-Shan term used with land areas. See rai and lai (Lao).
A metric unit of area equal to 2.471 acres (10,000 square meters). Also equivalent to 6.25 rai.
Also known as diacetylmorphine. A highly addictive synthetic narcotic derived from morphine.
heroin base (Southeast Asia)
Diacetylmorphine. Also known as “crude heroin.” Actually, heroin base is morphine base that has undergone acetylation. Formed as a precipitate (solid) by adding soda ash (sodium carbonate) to an acetylated morphine solution. Sometimes called Southeast Asian heroin no. 2. Not readily soluble in water, and therefore not injectable in this form. This form of heroin can be smoked. However, heroin base generally is considered an intermediate form of heroin that may be further refined to either no. 3 or no. 4 heroin.
heroin hydrochloride
A chemical salt form of heroin, usually powder or crystal, that is water soluble and therefore suitable for injection. Sometimes called Southeast Asian heroin no. 4. Formed when heroin base is treated with hydrochloric acid. This type of heroin is most commonly used by heroin users who inject the drug.
heroin no. 3
A smokeable form of Southeast Asian heroin. Not as highly refined as no. 4. Color ranges from purple to tan to off-white. Although considered a smoking heroin, it may also be injected intravenously. Caffeine is a necessary component of heroin no. 3. In contrast, strychnine or quinine are adulterants, which are sometimes added to heroin no. 3, allegedly to modify the taste of the product.
heroin no. 4
An injectable form of Southeast Asian heroin. Also known as heroin hydrochloride or China White. Highly refined heroin produced in Southeast Asia. Usually a fine white powder, flakes, or crystals. May be smoked or snorted. Diluents, such as lactose, are not normally added until the heroin is diluted (or “cut” or “whacked”) for street sales.
highlander (Mainland Southeast Asia)
A hill dweller. Hill tribesmen are a typical example of highlanders in Mainland Southeast Asia. However, some hill tribesmen have migrated into the lowlands, and are now permanent dwellers in lowland communities. Conversely, some members of ethnic groups (such as Yunnanese Chinese , or “Haw”) who are generally lowland dwellers have settled permanently in highland areas in Mainland Southeast Asia.
hill tribe (Mainland Southeast Asia)
Any one of numerous ethnic groups which share a distinct culture, language, and social structure and who are regarded, as a group, to be hill dwellers or montagnards (French). The Hmong (Miao), the Iu Mien (Yao), Lahu (Musoe), inter alia, are hill tribe groups in Mainland Southeast Asia.
hydrochloric acid
A solution of hydrogen chloride gas (HCl) in water. Also known as muriatic acid

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