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Drugs, Documents and Daily Newspapers: Notes on Research into Istanbul’s Interwar Opiate Trade

By Mitch Bacci

In this essay, Multi-Country Research Fellow, Mitch Bacci, discusses the first phase of his research project that was carried out in Turkey in 2021. Mitch is a PhD candidate at Harvard's joint History and Middle Eastern Studies program.

With the support of the CAORC Multi-Country Research Fellowship, I spent the spring and summer of 2021 in Istanbul conducting doctoral dissertation research. My dissertation investigates how the opiate trade produced informal circuits of profit and power that transformed the borders and political systems of the Eastern Mediterranean between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, I study smuggling as a mode of grassroots resistance to state power in a diverse array of contexts spanning the modernizing schemes of the late Ottoman Empire, the extractive programs of European colonial authorities, and the nascent nation building projects of regional elites. My fellowship supported research in Turkey as an affiliate at the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT).

My research in Istanbul drew on a variety of sources from state archives, libraries, and the city's myriad sahaflar (second-hand book sellers). I began my work by examining the formation of anti-trafficking laws through the state decrees, police reports, and court cases from the Ottoman and Turkish Republican Archives. I then juxtaposed these official sources with newspapers, memoirs, and films from the Atatürk Library's extensive collection of periodicals (many digitized and free to download!) as well as sahaflar in Beyoğlu and Kadıköy. This approach allowed me to reconstruct the legal framework with which late Ottoman and early Republican officials attempted to control the opiate trade with varying degrees of success. It also helped me reexamine state documents with an eye for the official exclusions, biases, and distortions that have traditionally silenced and stigmatized subtle acts of resistance.

Ottoman Archives,

This work offered crucial insights into Turkey's burgeoning interwar narcotics industry. From previous published histories and state documents, I was aware of early Republican Turkey's important role as cultivator, refiner, and exporter of opiates. In the early 1930s, Turkey became nexus of the global opiate trade as regulatory pressure in Europe encouraged producers to establish themselves in Istanbul. Manufacturers in the city alone refined approximately twelve tons of heroin and morphine annually during this period. However, as I sat in the cool basement of the Atatürk Library flipping through Cumhuriyet, Akşam, and other daily newspapers, I discovered that narcotics were also a major domestic public health concern in interwar Turkey. These substances were not only smuggled abroad, but consumed in cafes, bars, and casinos throughout Istanbul. In response, Turkish public health experts and civil society groups raised concerns of what they saw as an epidemic of "heroinmania," films titled The White Devil and Smugglers dominated local cinema, and public intellectuals called for the young republic to mobilize against these "insanity inducing substances" as it had against foreign forces in country's recent War of Independence (1919-1923).

“Heroin Smugglers: The gang in custody does business with the entire world!” Cumhuriyet, September 7, 1933

My research in Istanbul also helped me contextualize the opiate trade within Turkey's broader social, political, and economic history. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Turkish State transformed the local opiate industry from a loosely regulated market to a centralized government monopoly. The Narcotic Substances Monopoly (Uyuşturucu Maddeler İnhisarı), which began work in 1933, represented a response to international and domestic public health concerns as well as statist reforms aimed at consolidating private and foreign owed industries under government control. It designated the state as the sole legal exporter of opiates and created new boundaries between the formal and informal economy that turned traders into traffickers. However, this process was neither sudden nor seamless. Numerous articles in the interwar press demonstrate how Istanbul's opiate traders adeptly evaded, negotiated, and manipulated these boundaries. Merchants resisted state consolidation and economic marginalization by taking advantage of gaps in the legal to system, leveraging social capital, and even strategically informing on themselves and others for profit. For example, Marco Theodorides was a member of the local Rum (Istanbul Greek) community with 27 years of experience in the opiate trade when the monopoly took effect in 1933. Perhaps drawing on this experience, he responded to state consolidation of the industry by substituting his heroin exports for a "rudimentary morphine-based substance that,” according to Cumhuriyet, “possessed the qualities of heroin and with a slight chemical alteration became heroin, but was not exactly heroin.” As a result, when he was arrested and charged with heroin trafficking later that year, he successfully argued that he had “absolutely no connection to the production of heroin” and was exonerated of the charge.

A box of opium from Turkey’s Narcotics Monopoly, Afyon Türkiye’de ve Dünya’da, 1935

Beyond his use of creative chemistry to avoid conviction, Theodorides' case also

illustrates an important ethno-religious dimension of this history. Minority merchants had long played prominent roles in Eastern Mediterranean trade and Istanbul's opiate industry was dominated by Greek, Armenian, and Sephardi traders. Amid the atmosphere of heightened xenophobia and nationalist rhetoric that pervaded interwar Turkey, the Narcotics Monopoly helped the Turkish State consolidate wealth along ethno-religious lines. Following the wartime deportation and displacement of minorities, this policy represented part of a wide-ranging effort by the late Ottoman and early Turkish State to create a national economy (Milli İktisat) by appropriating minority wealth and consolidating it in the hands of Muslim-Turkish citizens. In this context, the subtle strategies that minority merchants employed were not only a means to protect their livelihoods, but also an attempt to resist exclusion from the emerging national economy and the increasingly homogenous Turkish Republic.

Marco and associates in transport from court to jail while awaiting the verdict in their case, Cumhuriyet September 13, 1933

While the effectiveness of such strategies was limited­—most of these merchants eventually wound up unemployed, imprisoned, or exiled—they illuminate important aspects of interwar Turkish history. They demonstrate that the construction of the national economy was an uneven, prolonged, and fiercely contested process. It involved a diverse array of actors who employed a repertoire of unconventional tactics to navigate the emerging economic and political systems. This process also intertwined with ongoing programs of statism and Turkification, which had an indelible impact on the boundaries between the formal and informal economy as well as the distinctions between traders and traffickers.

The detailed reading of state sources and media that led to this work would not have been possible without the financial and logistical support of CAORC and ARIT. I would also like express my gratitude for the assistance that I received from archivists at the Ottoman and Republican Archives, librarians at the Atatürk Library, and Sahaflar throughout Istanbul.


Mitch Bacci is a PhD candidate at Harvard's joint History and Middle Eastern Studies program. His research focuses on informal political economy, the history of state and institutional formation, and the history of public health and medicine in the late 19th and 20th century Eastern Mediterranean.


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