A survey on the factors preventing opium use by poppy growing peasants in Turkey




Author: Alâeddin AKÇASU
Pages: 13 to 17
Creation Date: 1976/01/01

A survey on the factors preventing opium use by poppy growing peasants in Turkey

Alâeddin AKÇASU
Department of Pharmacology, Cerrahpasa Faculty of Medicine, University of lstanbul

Poppy is known to have been grown in Asia Minor for more than 5000 years, yet, if one should compare Turkey with other Middle Eastern countries, it seems most interesting to observe that in the opium poppy growing area there appears to be no appreciable use of, or addiction to, opium.

Usually, it is believed that the strict code of the Islamic religion plays an important part in preventing people from using opium, but it appears this is not the case. The fact is that in other Islamic countries, opium use is a great social problem; on the other hand, wine drinkers by far outnumber opium users despite the religious code prohibiting wine drinking in Turkey. Finally, one should not disregard the possibility that opium users could go unnoticed, since the very low educational level of our peasants might very well enable addicts to go undetected, as long as no abstinence syndrome occurs.

Most likely, a more plausible cause does exist, and it is our opinion that the roots of so strong a belief would grow from a deep "traditional culture" which has succeeded, through the ages, in creating the proper psychological state, leading to an almost total abstention from opium use, except for immediate medical reasons.

Such an idea led us to undertake a field survey of villagers whose major occupation was poppy growing. A survey, dealing with such a controversial question, at a time when external opinion deeply questions poppy growing in our country, is no easy task and requires meticulous preparation. As a result of endless exploitation by the ruling government through the centuries, villagers, traditionally reluctant to accept outsiders in general, are even more reluctant to discuss opium.

Fortunately, our institute has on its permanent staff a laboratory technician of a well established poppy growing family from one of the villages located in our research area. This proved to be a valuable asset, and in order to obtain reliable results he was directed to approach villagers as one of them talking and discussing the opium problem with them, in a friendly way. Questions were then asked while chatting on different current subjects of the day. Before starting the survey he recruited some of his friends living in this area and trained them to question the villagers.

The questionnaire was prepared according to local cultural background. Therefore one might think that the order of the questions is unreasonable. It is obvious that there are differences between logic used by scientists and logic obeyed by the peasants.

The survey was conducted in 35 villages of the 5 provinces (Alyon, Denizli, Isparta, Küitahya and Usak) illustrated on the map as a shaded area. It is interesting to note that the name of the first province is the Turkish word for opium.

The shaded area indicates the provinces where the survey was conducted.

Full size image: 37 kB, The shaded area indicates the provinces where the survey was conducted.

During the course of the survey 961 randomly selected persons from different age groups were questioned; the majority of them were men.

When preparing the questionnaire we wished to create the impression amongst poppy growing peasants that in our opinion the production of food was the purpose of growing poppies in that particular area. Questions relating to the use of opium were scattered among the other questions on purpose. The peasants were asked the questions orally, and the answers were recorded by ourselves. Special attention was paid to establishing a confidential dialogue between the peasant and the interviewer.


The survey was carried out in August 1974, * in 25 villages where poppy growing was the major occupation of the population. The total population of the surveyed area is estimated to be approximately 80,000. 10 of the 961 persons questioned were women. The age distribution of the people questioned was as follows:

* Editor's Note

On 16 September 1974 the Government of Turkey informed the United Nations that it had decided to authorize the poppy cultivation on condition that the poppies should not be lanced. Therefore no opium is produced in Turkey any more and the poppies are grown only for the production of "poppy straw."



Per cent

4 0.4
95 9.9
234 24.3
287 29.8
184 19.1
132 13.7
25 2.6

The age distribution indicates that the life expectancy of the peasants seems to be longer than that for people in other rural areas of Turkey. This might be due to the poppy seed oil consumption. Poppy seed oil contains mainly polyunsaturated fatty acids. This point could be investigated from a geriatric point of view.

Of the people under investigation 95 per cent were married and had children, only 1.1 per cent were unmarried. Of the subjects 95 per cent worked in their own fields and of those 20 per cent were growing poppies in other fields as well. That means that some fields are not large enough to make a living. Of these people 76 per cent depended entirely on their fields for their living. Of all peasants questioned, 96.1 per cent were familiar with poppies. In this area 85.5 per cent used poppy seeds, leaves and poppy seed oil as a food-stuff. Different types of biscuits were prepared with grilled and ground poppy seeds, with which sugar was mixed. Fresh poppy leaves before flowering were consumed as green salad. Almost all villagers depended completely on poppy seed oil and did not consume any other type of oil, which strongly indicates that the very purpose of poppy cultivation was to produce poppy seed oil for food.

Forty per cent of the peasants first saw opium when they were younger than 5 years old; when asked when they had first seen opium the answer was as far back as they could remember; 56.9 per cent said between their 6th and 10th year of age, while a very low percentage had seen opium after the age of 11.

Growing poppies in the surveyed area was 96 per cent traditional.

The use of opium for medical purposes by villagers is as follows: 8.3 per cent against cough; 3.5 per cent against diarrhoea; 4.5 per cent in the case of abdominal pain; 13 per cent in cases of common cold; 2.6 per cent against toothache; 0.6 per cent in veterinary medecine.

Questions relating to opium addiction in the villages yielded only a low 0.3 per cent positive reply. These answers were then analyzed according to the description of the addicts, the village they lived in and their age. Such a detailed questioning revealed that most of the 0.3 per cent positive answers referred in fact to the same subject. It was therefore concluded that the actual number of opium addicts among the villagers is negligible.

Interestingly, almost all parents teach their children that opium is dangerous to their lives and should not be eaten. The age at which they learn that such use is dangerous is extremely interesting: over 90 per cent of opium growing people have learned it before the age of 10.

Despite the fact that opium is abundantly available in the surroundings, a reported accidental use of only 3 per cent is very significant. We now think that this level is probably lower, since proper evaluation was handicapped by the fact that peasants usually all referred to the same instances of intoxication. It would appear proper to state that on a yearly basis, the intoxication rate from misuse of analgesics and tranquillizers, in more advanced centres such as Istanbul is by far superior to opium intoxication in rural poppy growing areas.

Living conditions of the rural Turkish families would appear to form an ideal setting for accidental opium intoxication, and one wonders why such instances are not frequent. Homes with 1 or 2 rooms can house a whole family, with numerous children playing carelessly around, well able to reach the opium stored in the house. This fact does seem to indicate that all members of the family are indeed very well aware and informed of the dangers of opium.

One of the most important aspects of rural life is the fact that living in a Turkish village depends largely on one's relations with fellow villagers. For this reason we included a question to learn of the attitude of fellow villagers towards opium users. Of the answers to that particular question, 99 per cent were negative. In almost all villages the use of opium for other than medical purposes was discredited. Since opium users are discredited by fellow villagers, life thus becomes unbearable for them in such surroundings, and they are forced to leave for other places. This is a strong social pressure forcing people to abstain from opium use.

When asked whether they liked the odour of opium or not, 39.5 per cent answered yes, whereas 56.5 per cent of the population specifically noted that they disliked it.

Women are usually actively involved in harvesting opium. Since there is no one at home to take care of the children, all of them, even the newly born babies are carried to the poppy fields. For their own protection they are then taught and ordered not to eat or lick opium. In somes villages teaching is accompanied by a rather effective demonstration of the bitterness of opium. While harvesting the sticky milk of the poppy, parents will rub their sticky fingers over the mouths of the children, comparing the bitter stuff to strong hot pepper, thereby brain-washing the child against any further use of opium, except perhaps for medication.


From these answers the following conclusions can be reached:

  1. The peasants living in poppy growing areas are well aware of the dangers of opium when it is consumed.

  2. This information is passed on to children even before they develop any logic of their own.

  3. There are great social pressures awaiting any villager who intends to misuse opium.

  4. These factors all contribute to create the traditional cultural barrier amongst leading poppy growers to restrain from misusing opium.