THIS is a story about greed, the CIA, rhubarb and humanity's desire to dream, even if it costs everything. And it is about a bright red poppy whose 'drowsy syrup' has made drug lords rich and nations sleep. In 1773 the British-run East India Company 'reorganised its operations'. To cover its financial losses the company would introduce a new policy, the members of the board decided, sitting around their polished table in London. Opium would become a colonial monopoly, and it would become big business. Their problem was that Europeans were thirsty for tea and hungry for rhubarb (extraordinarily important in the 18th and 19th centuries as a laxative: there was a belief in China that if the Europeans were deprived of the purple fruit, they would die of constipation). And they were clamouring for porcelain and silk and all the rich exotica of the East. But - with the exception of a minor interest in silver - the Chinese were not interested in anything European. Their only collective craving was for a visit to a heaven-on-earth which momentarily denied how hard everyday life was. At the time - when opium use in Europe was acceptable, even artistically trendy, and British children were growing up on cod-liver oil and cherry-flavoured opiates - it did not seem too outrageous or callous an economic decision. But the infamous colonial policy of growing flowers in India, and shipping their soporific sap to China - together with the later policy decisions by governments in North America and Asia - has been one of the strongest and most insidious influences on Asian history. In just more than two centuries it has led directly to millions of deaths, millions of dodgy dollars, the taking of Hong Kong and - perhaps - eventually to the Chinese Revolution. The East India Company's push was not the first sighting of opium in Southeast Asia, by any means. The drug - which originated in Asia Minor - had been imported to the Far East since at least the ninth century by Arab traders, who swapped deathly dreams for silks and spices. Alcohol was explicitly forbidden under Islam, but the Prophet was less clear about opiates. These Muslims therefore decided opium use was permissible. However, some Southeast Asians decided it was not, with a law passed in Siam in 1366 banning the drug. Other governments - in Burma in the 16th century and China in 1729 - tried to prohibit the use of opium. Owners of illegal supplies were given up to 100 strokes of the bamboo cane - but it was only ever a half-hearted law: until 1796 opium imports into China were allowed, and even liable to excise duty. The irony of the opium monopoly, and the later opium wars - in which the British sent naval forces to Canton to force China to accept their drugs - is that China already had its home-grown product. Yunnan was known for more than ham. It had the hot climate and 12 hours of sunshine required to grow the papaver somniferum flowers as a cash crop. But the richer Chinese connoisseurs disdained Chinese opium in favour of the Indian-grown illegal imports. It was the poorer people who kept the Chinese opium farmers in business. Through the 19th century the Yunnan poppy fields gradually spread out across the province. By 1868 a French explorer observed that so many bees had died from opium poisoning that beeswax was no longer traded in the area. The human demand was insatiable. As French writer Andre Malraux observed, 'opium teaches only one thing, which is that aside from physical suffering there is nothing real' and that feeling was addictive. With the rise in regional demand, Asian poppy cultivation began to move slowly up from Yunnan into the nearby gullies of the Golden Triangle mountains. They had the climate, and their location - hidden, but close to many countries - meant Shan and other traders could slip quietly into all the surrounding areas to sell their goods to anyone who would buy. By the 1870s opium had become a terrible problem among the poorer Burmese. 'Opium has become the scourge of this country,' the Arakan commissioner Colonel Sladen noted. Meanwhile, back in Europe, scientists were undertaking a series of experiments that would make the so-called 'Golden Triangle' - 225,000 square kilometres of plateaux, peaks and jungle between Laos, Burma and Thailand - from a petty five-per cent supplier of opium into the notorious centre of the drug world. Opium (from the Greek opos, meaning juice) is the bitter sap of the poppy pods, and is usually smoked, drunk or eaten. Morphine (in the 19th century a 'woman's drug') is refined opium, more than five times stronger, its popularity greatly accelerated by the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1853. And heroin, a semi-synthetic substance, is the greatest and worst of all. It was first created in a laboratory in the 1870s, but it was shelved, and the white killer gold was only rediscovered in 1898 - by a chemist in Germany's Bayer Company. Ironically it was first thought to be a cure for morphine addiction, as well as a remedy for tuberculosis, laryngitis and coughs. The discovery of heroin was to frame not only the pattern of Asian drug use, but the pattern of Asian politics and later - thanks to that hypodermic needle - the pattern of Asian Aids. In his book Opium, Martin Booth shows persuasively how the Golden Triangle only became prominent in the world's drug trade in the late 1950s. As the communists became strong in Southeast Asia, the American CIA bargained for strongholds in the mountains. And if the price of power was the support of the local drug barons - and a boost to the international trade in heroin - then so be it. Since 1959, Booth argues, the CIA operated with the Hmong guerillas in Laos. In order to retain Hmong loyalty the CIA had to transport Hmong opium. 'The CIA used opium as a political lever to sweeten and buy off would-be opponents, to purchase loyalty and to bribe influential local leaders. The type of behaviour they condemned and denounced other governments for allowing, they were doing themselves in Southeast Asia.' Today the world turnover in drugs exceeds US$750 billion (about HK$6 trillion) a year - giving governments (like the junta in Burma), drug lords and criminal organisations extraordinary power. And giving those individuals who are addicted to the drugs extraordinary powerlessness.