Opium was introduced to Laos from two directions. Opium cultivation and use was known among tribal peoples such as the Hmong and Mien, who brought the poppy’s seeds with them as they migrated south into Laos during the nineteenth century. Because the best parcels of arable land in Laos were already occupied by the lowland Lao and Tai Leu, the tribal immigrants were forced to live at high elevations. But the newly arrived minorities soon made an important discovery: opium poppies used up less of the soil’s nutrients than other crops, reducing the frequency with which farmers had to perform the labour-intensive slash-and-burn technique. Growing opium and trading it for rice made their lives easier. By the early twentieth century, the government of French Indochina began encouraging the migration of Vietnamese and Chinese to Vientiane and the cities of southern Laos, primarily to stimulate trade, and opium addicts among these immigrants created a demand for the drug. Despite these subsequent developments, it is doubtful that the small amounts of opium grown in the hills of northern Laos ever reached the opium dens of the south. Indeed, the French opium monopoly, Opium Régie, suppressed cultivation of the poppy among the tribes of northern Laos in order to tax and control the supply of opium to the licensed dens of Indochina.
By the beginning of World War II, taxes on the sale of opium throughout French Indochina made up fifteen percent of the colonial government’s revenues. When global war disrupted the traditional maritime route of opium into Indochina, Opium Régie turned to the Hmong farmers. Past French attempts to deal with the Hmong on the issue of opium had been disastrous, leading to Hmong uprisings in the provinces of Hoa Phan and Xieng Khuang. Their fear of provoking the obstinate Hmong led the French to select tribal leaders to act as brokers. The result was an eight hundred percent increase in Hmong opium production within four years. By the close of World War II, a weakened France had lost control of much of Laos to the Viet Minh and their protégés, the fledgling Pathet Lao. A rivalry formed between two powerful Hmong opium brokers and they took opposing sides, one supporting the colonialist French, the other the communists. The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 put them out of the picture for good, but the Americans were soon to fill the vacuum.
America’s efforts at combating the spread of communism in Southeast Asia created what has been termed a “Cold War opium boom”. US involvement in the civil war in Vietnam escalated during the 1950s, leading to all-out intervention and the commitment of American troops in the 1960s. In Laos, a similar situation was occurring, but with a crucial difference. Instead of sending troops into “neutral” Laos, the US sought by unconventional means to preserve the illusion of non-intervention; CIA operatives trained the Hmong guerrillas who had previously sided with the French, using their cash crop to fund their operations. A Byzantine alliance between the Royal Lao Government, opium warlords and the CIA was formed. Utilizing its own fleet of “Air America” aircraft, the CIA coordinated the collection of opium, which was transported to refineries in the Golden Triangle, the resulting heroin eventually finding its way to markets all over the globe. By the war’s end, the production of opium in the Golden Triangle, which overlaps into Myanmar and Thailand, had reached epic proportions.
Opium eradication programmes in Thailand have had much success in curtailing cultivation of the opium poppy there, and although Myanmar and Laos continue to grow opium, most experts agree that the once lucrative poppy crop has been largely replaced by the production of methamphetamine, which is in high demand in Bangkok and other urban centres in the region.