Poppies are used to make opiates, most commonly opium and heroin. The opium and heroin trade has historically been a lucrative, global industry. Drug production funds economies across the world. Opium production occurs internationally and can be a vital part of the trade economy for people in rural parts of countries like Mexico.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Mexican poppy cultivation was at an all-time high in 2017. However, a sudden and dramatic shift is occurring in demand, which is presenting a threat to the livelihood of small-town farmers in low-income countries. Experts suspect there are multiple factors that could be affecting demand including:
- The large scale production of heroin flooding the market
- Demand for heroin is decreasing as other drugs become more readily available at lower prices
- Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are increasing in popularity
Fentanyl is a popular opioid in the United States, due to its potency. Fentanyl production doesn’t rely on successful crops or complicated import and export processes. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that, as of 2017, 57% of drug overdose deaths in New York City were related to fentanyl abuse.
An article in the International Journey for Drug Policy says the influx of fentanyl explains the rapid increase in overdose deaths in the eastern and northeastern United States. The prevalence of fentanyl availability and abuse may explain the decrease in demand for imported poppy seeds and opiates derived from them.
Growing Poppies to Survive
Some farmers in Mexico, especially in small, under-resourced communities, have grown poppies for generations and it is their only source of income. Poppies are currently illegal to grow in Mexico, but the farmers take the risk to support themselves and their families.
As of April 2019, the average daily income in Mexico was a little over four dollars a day. Agricultural workers make even less, as their income isn’t daily, but rather dependent on crop yields and selling.
Recently, the Mexican government has started to consider the idea of legalization as a way to reduce drug violence, especially since growing the crop is so entrenched in the communities.
US Opioid Crisis Fuels Crisis for Mexican Farmers
The opioid crisis in the United States continues to present a problem to multiple areas of society. The use of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids is growing, reducing the market for natural opiates, which could be impacting Mexican poppy farmers.
The timeline of increasing fentanyl use roughly correlates to the decrease in demand for poppy-derived drugs:
- 2017: DEA reports poppy production and price at an all-time high
- 2018: CDC reports the highest numbers of fentanyl overdose deaths on record
- 2019: Mexican farmers report poppy sales drop by 1000%
Fentanyl production does not require the use of poppy plants. If opium production continues to decline, so will the worth of poppies on the market. This may force Mexican farmers to migrate or find other work.
Will Opium Poppy Production Rebound?
Opium production has fluctuated before, and other drug plants, such as marijuana, have undergone similar cycles of supply and demand. Whether poppy production will continue to be a viable source of income for Mexican farmers remains to be seen. Many factors will contribute to this, including whether poppy growth legalization. The popularity of other drugs will also continue to impact the demand for poppy-derived opiates as well.
Some poppy farmers are staying in their local areas to wait and see if the demand for poppy plants will resurge. Others have no choice but to migrate so that they can provide for their families.
Ahmad FB, Escobedo LA, Rossen LM, Spencer MR, Warner M, Sutton P. “Provisional drug overdose death counts.” National Center for Health Statistics, 2019. Accessed August 2, 2019.
Colon-Berezin, Cody et al. “Overdose Deaths Involving Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogs — New York City, 2000–2017.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 18, 2019. Accessed August 2, 2019.
Deslandes, Ann. “Could decriminalization of Mexico’s poppy farms reduce drug-cartel violence?” Public Radio International, November 29, 2018. Accessed August 2, 2019.
Drug Enforcement Administration. “2018 National Drug Threat Assessment.” 2018. Accessed August 2, 2019.
Semple, Kirk. “Mexican Opium Prices Plummet, Driving Poppy Farmers to Migrate.” The New York Times, July 7, 2019. Accessed August 2, 2019.
Trading Economics. “Mexico Average Daily Wages.” May 2019. Accessed August 2, 2019.
Zoorob, M. “Fentanyl shock: The changing geography of overdose in the United States.” International Journal for Drug Policy, May 9, 2019. Accessed August 2, 2019.