Neat fields of white poppy flowers dot the landscape along the roads outside of the city of Afyonkarahisar in western Turkey. The city and surrounding Afyon province are both named after the opium poppy that has grown here for millennia.
“It is like bread to us,” said Recep Koç, a farmer from Ismailkoy, a village 20 miles from the provisional capital. “The most valuable thing here is the hashhash,” he added, using the local word for all things having to do with the poppy plant.
The poppies that provide farmers in this province with most of their income have a notorious reputation for the milky extract they produce: opium.
In Afyon, however, the hashhash has been synonymous with tradition and financial stability for millennia. The seeds, which contain none of the narcotic alkaloids, are sold piecemeal, and turned into oil and paste for use in cooking, exported for producing paint and fed to the livestock.
As heroin became an urban menace in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, the Nixon administration applied heavy pressure on the Turkish government to eradicate the poppy plant. The move, at the time, was deeply resented within Turkey, but has resulted in a poppy-culling program frequently suggested as a potential model for Afghanistan, the largest producer of illicit opium.
Today, the Turkish Grain Board (TMO), the agency responsible for maintaining and exporting the narcotic elements of the plant, distributes applications for poppy licenses. Farmers who receive a license plant poppy seeds in October.
Inspectors from various enforcement agencies make repeat visits to measure how much has been planted and, after consulting with in-house agricultural experts, determine how much is expected to be grown in each harvest. The farmers are allowed to keep the seed, but must surrender the poppy heads to the government to be weighed and processed into poppy straw.
According to one TMO official, who wished to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the topic, quotas have been reduced in recent years because the country’s sole alkaloid processing plant, located in the Afyon town of Bolvadin, has been unable to process all the poppy straw produced each year.
In 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, the TMO paid 27.85 million lira (about $18.4 million) in exchange for 11,876 tons of poppy heads from Afyonkarahisar province. Overall, the agency bought some 43.4 million lira, or $47.79 million, worth of poppy heads that year.
Farmers from a variety of villages in Afyon confirmed that the price they receive for poppy seed oil is roughly double what the government pays for the plant’s alkaloid-filled heads. This method requires large-scale industrial facilities to extract the narcotic substances, so farmers are never dealing with any significant quantity of opium.
In contrast to India’s licensed poppy program, Turkey’s poppy straw system enables the government to check whether any significant amount of poppy heads have been “lanced” for opium production. While the system is not foolproof, local officials, farmers, and international observers claim that only the smallest scale diversion can go undetected.
The TMO official said the agency had only a handful of farmers violate the strict annual quotas – usually because of stray seeds that grow outside a farmer’s approved allotment.
Vladic Ravich is a freelance journalist who focuses on Turkey and the Caucasus.