William Gervase Clarence-Smith explores the networks Ottoman opium created, as well as the Turkish response to an emerging anti-narcotics order.

Researching opium imports into Japanese-ruled Taiwan from 1895, I discovered that the Anatolian variety could be found all over the Far East, despite many authors stating that it was exclusively destined for Western pharmaceutical manufacturers. An Ōsaka company, Nakamura Goshi Kaisha, set up a branch in Istanbul in 1892, dispatching tobacco and opium to Japan and its colonies.

From 1907, the Ottoman Empire and Persia became the two main global beneficiaries of Britain’s decision to restrict India’s cultivation and exports of opium, following the overwhelming electoral victory of the Liberal Party in 1906. I would like to know more about exporters of Anatolian opium in the 1910s and 1920s, especially the Armenian firms that were prominent in the business, both before and after the First World War.

The Ottomans refused to sign, arguing that the opium business was an internal matter

The first inter-state international conference on the control of narcotic substances, convened at The Hague in 1912, drew up a legally binding Convention to restrict and eventually abolish the trade in opium for non-medical purposes. However, the Ottoman Empire refused to attend or sign, arguing that the opium business was an internal matter. The drug provided a livelihood for numerous peasants, as well as much needed revenue for the state, and an opportunity to develop the pharmaceutical industry. Under considerable pressure, Istanbul agreed to name a delegate to the third opium conference in The Hague in 1914, but he refused to sign the Convention or its additional protocol.


After the First World War, all signatories of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 adhered to the International Opium Convention of 1912, and this was a condition of becoming a member of the newly founded League of Nations. It was thus no surprise that the defeated Ottoman Empire, on signing the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, agreed to adhere to the Convention. However, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) declared the treaty null and void, and stripped the Sèvres delegates of their nationality.

When the Treaty of Lausanne was agreed in 1923, article 100, section 9, contained a commitment to adhere to the Opium Convention of 1912, together with the protocol of 1914. However, Turkey did not fulfil this solemn promise, and thus remained free of any obligation to limit the area planted in opium poppies in Central Anatolia, or to progressively restrict exports of opium, as well as its derivatives, morphine and heroin. By this stage, Turkey was exporting an average of some 500 tons of raw opium a year, worth about 15 million lira in revenue to the Turkish government. It remains unclear how Turkey was able to evade its treaty obligations regarding narcotics, or what was the fate of the country’s commitment to stand by all the other international agreements listed in article 100 of the Lausanne treaty.

The Turkish delegates neither attended the conference, nor signed the final act.

Turkey did sign up for the international opium conference of 1924-1925, held in Geneva, and went so far as to appoint two delegates. However, they neither attended the conference, nor signed the final act, which formed the new International Opium Convention of 1925.

It was not until Turkey successfully sought to enter the League of Nations in 1930-1932, in the context of an international press campaign against its increasingly prominent role in the global drugs trade, that Atatürk promised that Turkey would adhere to the Conventions of 1912, 1925, and 1931. Signature and ratification then occurred simultaneously on the 15th September 1933. Turkey enacted laws to set up a government opium monopoly in that same year, and to limit cultivation, processing, and exports. That said, enforcing this legislation proved to be quite another matter.


John A. DeNovo, American Interests and Policies in the Middle East, 1900-1939 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1963).

Ryan Gingeras, Heroin, Organized Crime, and the Making of Modern Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Alfredo Gomes Dias, Portugal, Macau, e a internacionalização da questão do ópio, 1909-1925 (Macau: Livros do Oriente, 2004).

G. Graham Dixon, The Truth about Indian Opium (London: India Office, 1922)

Steffen Rimner, Opium’s Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt to Global Drug Control, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Jan Schmidt, From Anatolia to Indonesia: Opium Trade and the Dutch Community of Izmir, 1820-1940 (Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul, 1998)

‘Treaty of Peace with Turkey signed at Lausanne, July 24, 1923,’ in Lawrence Martin, comp., The Treaties of Peace 1919-1923,Volume II (New York, NY: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1924).

United Nations Treaty Collection, ‘International Opium Convention, The Hague, 23 January 1912,’ https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetailsIV.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=VI-2&chapter=6&Temp=mtdsg4&clang=_en (consulted 16 May 2021)

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