The buds of millions of poppy flowers are swelling across Afghanistan. In the far southern provinces bordering Iran, the harvest will start later this month. By mid- May the fields around British military camps in Helmand will be ringing to the sound of scythes, rather than gunfire.
And this year’s opium harvest will almost certainly be the largest ever. In the five years since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, land under cultivation for poppy has grown from 8,000 to 165,000 hectares.
The US wants to step up eradication programmes, crop-spraying from the air. But, desperate to win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan and protect British troops, Tony Blair is on the brink of a U-turn that will set him on a collision course with President George Bush.
The Prime Minister has ordered a review of his counter-narcotics strategy – including the possibility of legalising some poppy production – after an extraordinary meeting with a Tory MP on Wednesday, The Independent on Sunday has learnt. Tobias Ellwood, a backbencher elected less than two years ago, has apparently succeeded where ministers and officials have failed in leading Mr Blair to consider a hugely significant switch in policy.
Supporters of the measure say it would not only curb an illegal drugs trade which supplies 80 per cent of the heroin on Britain’s streets, but would hit the Taliban insurgency and help save the lives of British troops. Much of the legally produced drug could be used to alleviate a shortage of opiates for medicinal use in Britain and beyond, they say.
A Downing Street spokesman confirmed last night that Mr Blair is now considering whether to back a pilot project that would allow some farmers to produce and sell their crops legally to drugs companies. His change of heart has surprised the Foreign Office, which recently denied that licit poppy production was being considered. A freedom of information request has revealed that the Government looked carefully at proposals to buy up Afghanistan’s poppy crop as early as 2000, under the Taliban. The removal of that regime – justified to both US and British voters partly in terms of a victory in the “war on drugs” – has made it politically difficult to financially reward poppy farmers.