Admit it: You've always wondered how they make heroin from poppies

About three-quarters of the way through his compelling, near-encyclopedic and highly critical book, Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid tells the story of farmer Julaluddin Khan, who plants poppy on his 18-acre farm. Rashid talks to Khan in 2003, which is the  sixth time he decided to plant poppy in the previous decade. The main reason? 

"The crop provided a support system for farmers that the state could not match."

The story is notable because the 400-page book (along with another 75 pages of footnotes, bibliography and an index) pretty much steers clear of the drug situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, he concentrates on US military blunders and political cowardice, which, in his eyes, have helped sow chaos and violence throughout the region. (The book's subtitle underlines his not-so-subtle argument: "The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." However, there's a lot of blame to go around in Pakistan and Afghanistan.) 

Rashid, a journalist from Pakistan, has covered these countries for decades and the book provides a rare window into the region. 

But we're interested in Mr. Khan and growing poppies and turning it into heroin. Here, Rashid provides telling insight. 

Before winter set in, Khan would meticulously hoe his soil to uproot weeds, sprinkle fertilizer, and repair irrigation channels before sowing poppy seeds saved from the previous year's crop. A few weeks later thin shoots appeared and grew into cabbagelike plants, which soon sprouted bright red flowers. The flowers bloomed like a seas of red until their petals fell away to reveal a hardened capsule, which was lanced with thin homemade blades. Kahn squeezed each capsule with his fingers until a milky white viscous substance oozed out. The liquid solidified into a brown gum, which was scraped off with a trowel. This operation would be repeated every few days until the plant stopped yielding gum. The crop had taken just four months to mature and needed no excessive water or care.

The raw opium would be slapped into a cake and kept wet in plastic bags until the local drug dealer arrived. It would then be sent to makeshift laboratories in the mountains where, with the help of a few readily available precursor chemicals, the dark brown paste would be turned into a fine white powder--herion. Ten kilograms of opium paste produces one kilogram of heroin. For Khan it was the cheapest and fastest cash crop to grow, giving a good return, and could be stored for several years if prices dropped. 

Here is another piece stories on growing opium in Afghanistan.