153. Memorandum From the Counselor to the President (Laird), the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Ash), Secretary of Health Education and Welfare Weinberger, and Secretary of the Treasury Shultz to President Nixon1 2



The Problem

There is an increasingly serious worldwide shortage of medicinal derivatives of opium (codeine and morphine). This shortage makes it necessary to reexamine the U.S. policy to attack heroin abuse by reducing licit opium cultivation.


Issues to be resolved

How can the U.S. satisfy its immediate need for more medicinal opium derivatives this winter?
What approach to opium cultivation internationally will ensure adequate supplies while minimizing diversion of opium to heroin production?
Should we authorize domestic test plantings of opium straw this winter?

Summary of Recommended Decisions

That to assure sufficient medicinal opiate supplies and preclude any health emergency this winter, you agree to accept the Congressionally revised opium stockpile bill which would permit release of approximately 45% of the existing stockpile.
To ensure better control of essential licit opium production that we urge the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs and opium producing nations to shift from cultivating opium gum to opium straw in satisfying legitimate medicinal opium requirements.
That we test the feasibility of domestic straw production.

These recommendations are discussed together with the problem and other possible options at Tab “A”.


Agency Views

Agriculture (Secretary Butz), Justice (DEA Administrator Bartels), and the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (Director DuPont) concur in our recommendations.

General Scowcroft and Ambassador Handley disagree with recommendations two and three. They advise deferring any decisions on these issues until after the biennial Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting this February, arguing that there is not yet conclusive evidence that a long-term, worldwide shortage exists and that the CND machinery was established by the U.N. to address just such issues as supply shortfalls (Tab “B”). Our position is that sufficient evidence of a potentially severe medical shortage already exists and we should not go into the CND meeting prepared to listen neutrally to what others think. Rather, we should know what we want before the meeting and use it as a forum to generate international support for a new sensible worldwide opium control policy.

General Scowcroft and Ambassador Handley are also concerned that a decision now to test straw would be interpreted as inexorable movement toward U.S. domestic opium production (Tab “C”). We disagree and recommend domestic testing now to, ensure that we do not have to be dependent upon a sole import source when our stockpile runs out.

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I. Opium Stockpile Release

In June, 1971, you identified an international goal of eradication of opium worldwide, concomitant with the development of adequate synthetic substances to replace needed analgesics and antitussives.

Unfortunately, fully suitable synthetics have not yet been discovered and continued cultivation will be required for the foreseeable future.

Additional raw opium must be put into the manufacturing pipeline by mid-January to prevent shortages during this winter’s flu season.

The national stockpile is our only available source.

A stockpile release bill providing for release of the entire opium stockpile passed the Senate. The House Armed Services Committee revised the Senate bill to permit release of only about 45 per cent of the opium stockpile.

We expect that the House version will be approved by Congress this week.


That to assure sufficient medicinal opiate supplies and preclude any health emergency this winter, you agree to accept the revised bill which retains approximately 55 per cent of the total opium stockpile.

Agree Disagree
Secretary Weinberger Director DuPont None
Secretary Shultz Administrator Bartels
Secretary Butz General Scowcroft
Counsellor Laird Ambassador Handley
Director Ash


Approve ____________

Disapprove ____________

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II. Solving the Opium Shortage

A worldwide shortage of medicinal opiates now exists. Domestic inventories are now about three months demand, compared with “normal” inventories of over twelve months. Projected crude opium imports for 1974 are significantly under anticipated requirements.

Worldwide, countries seeking to increase their share of Indian crude opium are creating unstable market conditions. India (the sole opium producer for export) is besieged by requests to increase acreage substantially above levels which it feels are controllable. Australia is undertaking cultivation of poppy straw for internal needs and possible export. Several Eastern and Western European nations are substantially increasing cultivation of poppy straw.

Medicinal demand for opiates in the U.S. is expanding at about 15 per cent per year. India has not expanded production sufficiently to meet worldwide demand.

Without our strategic stockpile, domestic supplies would be insufficient in 1974. The stockpile could be exhausted within three years at expected rates of depletion.

Despite major public and private research efforts, no suitable substitutes now exist. Prospects remain bleak for wholly synthetic opiates. Only opium meets our medicinal requirement.

To meet the shortfall and assure adequate medicinal supplies two cultivation options are feasible.

Option One - Use poppy straw (the capsule plus the stem) instead of opium gum.

Codeine and morphine can be manufactured from either poppy straw or opium gum. In the straw process the dried plant is collected and used “as is” in the manufacturing process. Manual incision of the poppy seed pod and hand collection of its dried sap (opium gum) is not necessary.

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Advantages - Given a continuing requirement for medicinal opiates, reliance on straw rather than gum would make it easier to prevent diversion to heroin. Diversion occurs when farmers “hold back” a portion of their gum from government buyers to sell (at much higher prices) to traffickers who refine the gum into heroin. Traffickers cannot make heroin from straw. By prohibiting the easily detected incision of the poppy seed pod, a ban on gum could be enforced fairly easily.

Opium straw is now harvested mechanically for internal consumption in a dozen Eastern and Western European countries. Even India this year (for the first time) harvested a portion of its crop as a straw, in part to reduce diversion problems.

Under conditions of a worldwide shortage, there will be increasing pressure on Turkey and the five other non-opium exporting nations permitted by treaty to produce for the international market to get back into the business. It would be far better for these nations to produce controllable straw rather than divertable gum.

Disadvantages - The transition to straw production would be difficult to manipulate, particularly since India would probably not readily give up the traditional labor intensive gum mode of production.

A U.S. led effort now to move the world to straw might provide an excuse for Turkey and other governments not now growing opium to renew cultivation.

Option Two - Continued reliance upon gum opium from lanced poppies.

Advantages - Gum opium cultivation is available now (India is the world’s only exporter). India could possibly be encouraged to expand or more intensively exploit gum cultivation to meet worldwide supply shortfalls for two or three years.

Quiet expansion of gum production by India to meet at least the next two to three years needs might be accomplished without upsetting the Turks or forcing the U.S. to acknowledge [Page 6] a serious worldwide shortage.

Disadvantages - Gum control mechanisms are inherently unreliable.

Because of weather and other uncertainties, India might not be able to satisfy all of our opium requirements. There then would be increased pressure on Turkey or other countries to proceed with cultivation of gum for export.

Option Three - Wait until after February Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting to determine U.S. position on future cultivation options.

Advantages - Permits us to assess the true nature of supply and demand situation before committing ourselves internationally to a new position and may provide political advantage in pursuing alternative options (see detailed arguments in support of option three at Tab “C”).

Disadvantages - Since the CND (the international body which regulates opium) meets only biennially, we would lose the opportunity to take a leadership role in shaping a responsible worldwide response to the opium shortage. Only the CND has the prestige likely to induce India and other producers to move to straw. By the next (1976) meeting our stockpile cushion could be largely exhausted, the international traffickers may have turned India into another Turkey, and several nations (including Turkey) may have already returned to uncontrolled gum production.

Recommendation - Option One

Little new information is likely to surface at the CND meeting. A new U.S. position is needed now, not in 1976, if we really expect to be able to steer the world away from opium gum.

Agree Disagree (support Option 3)
Secretary Weinberger Counsellor Laird
Secretary Shultz Director DuPont General Scowcroft
Secretary Butz Administrator Bartels Ambassador Handley
Director Ash
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Comment (CIA view)

While it does not wish to take a position on U.S. opium policy, the CIA (Director Colby) can state that the potential for diversion of licit opium for heroin production would certainly be reduced if the poppy growing countries could be persuaded to convert to the straw method without prior incision of the seed capsules.


Option One
Option Two
Option Three

III. Testing the feasibility of domestic straw cultivation.

As the world comes to accept the continuing long term need for medicinal opiates and moves toward straw, the U.S. needs more information concerning straw cultivation and manufacturing techniques.

Because opium is an essential commodity which is now 100 per cent imported from a nation (India) with which we have sometimes had foreign policy differences, it is vitally important that the U.S. be able to initiate domestic production on very short notice. If India knew we had the capacity to grow opium quickly ourselves, the chances of future “blackmail” would be diminished and our leverage for inducing the Indians to shift from gum to straw would be enhanced.

Cultivation of a carefully controlled fifty acre opium straw test plot this year would permit U.S. drug manufacturers to do the feasibility testing necessary to permit us to initiate domestic straw production immediately should that prove necessary in the future.

The drug companies have also requested permission to plant an additional fifty acres of a new experimental poppy straw (papaver bracteatum) which does not produce gum (even if incised), but which might prove to be an acceptable alternative source for codeine and morphine.

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While planting can be delayed until as late as March, preliminary field work and a test extraction plant (to study the technology of manufacturing opium into usable drugs) should begin this January. Deferring a decision to proceed until after February will entail delaying most of this research for one full crop year. Such a delay risks impairing our ability to be able to meet a shortage after the stockpile runs out.

Delaying until after February would, however, obviate the need for explaining the tests at the upcoming Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting which might be desirable if we are not prepared to advocate a pro-straw policy at that session.


Intensive USDA feasibility studies of domestic straw cultivation, should begin this winter, to include test plantings of the opium poppy and papaver bracteatum, a strain very difficult to convert into heroin.

Agree Disagree (Favor deferring decision until after February CND meeting)
Secretary Weinberger General Scowcroft
Secretary Shultz Ambassador Handley
Secretary Butz
Director Ash
Counsellor Laird
Director DuPont
Administrator Bartels

Approve ___________
Disapprove ___________

  1. Source: Ford Library, Parsons Files, Box 23, Opium, January 1975–August 1976. Secret. Sent for action. Attached but not published at Tab B, undated and unsigned, is a detailed account of the NSC staff position. Attached but not published at Tab C, undated and unsigned, is a detailed account of the Department of State views. On December 26 Kehrli wrote to Laird, Ash, Weinberger, and Shultz, indicating that all three recommendations were approved. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, P850150–2524)
  2. The memorandum outlined options and made recommendations for action to alleviate a growing shortage of licit opium.