Let’s buy Afghanistan’s poppies?

The editorial page of Canada’s National Post argues that the west should purchase Afghani opium for production of medical opiates:

Illicit poppy production is simultaneously a hard-to-replace source of income for thousands of small Afghan farmers and a valuable source of revenue for the enemies of NATO and the legitimate Afghan government. Over 90% of the world’s illegal raw opium is thought to come from Afghanistan. Ultimately, its by-products go on to wreak havoc in cities around the world.

Consistent with the thinking that gave us Washington’s failed “war on drugs,” the preferred U.S. policy is to “eradicate” Afghan poppy fields through aerial spraying, which practically means driving the opium trade underground and hitting the small grow-ops hardest.

The basic idea is simple: Opium is medicine, so why destroy it? In an age of rising global prosperity and life expectancies, the medical demand for opioids such as codeine and morphine is rising all the time, and indeed is outstripping supply according to UN measures. Yet there are no legal arrangements for Afghan farmers to produce licensed opium legally for the international pharmaceutical market.

Nothing in international, Afghan or Islamic law stands in the way, and a similar program of pharmacization has already brought thousands of Turkish farmers in from the black market. The only thing missing in Afghanistan is the bridge between lawful authority and the areas in which poppies are now being grown illegally — which is to say, the problem is that the war hasn’t yet been won.

That’s hardly a trivial hurdle to overcome, but there is a chicken-and-egg dynamic here: Isn’t it just possible that NATO would find it easier to win hearts and minds in the lawless parts of Afghanistan if farmers there knew that NATO progress meant a big stake in a legal opium trade — instead of the status quo, whereby government busybodies are trying to get everybody to burn their dollars-a-bushel poppies and grow pennies-a-bushel onions instead?

The real risk of a licensing regime is that it might end up being carelessly policed and prone to bribery, enabling some of the “legal” harvest to find its way into the illicit drug trade. But as the Council points out, that’s where the entire harvest is ending up now.

Stephane Dion has come out in favour of looking at the Senlis plan, but when he notices that it implies seeing the war through to the end, as Ms. MacDonald has emphasized, he is likely to get cold feet. It’s the Conservatives, the party of victory, that ought to give it the consideration it deserves.

Neil McKegany expresses concern about unintended consequences of such a policy:

In agreeing to that deal you would be sending out a powerful message to each and every country in the region that if they wanted a guaranteed income from the West then all they need to do is start farming opium. Far from stemming the drugs trade you could find yourself actually stimulating its growth. Those countries in particular who had already stemmed their opium production on the basis of international pressure might feel mightily irked by such a change in policy and decide themselves that it was no longer in their interests to so assiduously police
their own opium trade.

If you succeeded in persuading a local farmer to sell you his opium crop you would be placing them at enormous risk, because the gangs who currently run drug production are not going to sit around and watch their market disappear. Instead they are going to use whatever force is necessary to ensure that no matter who buys the drugs the money goes into their pockets. Such a policy then would require the capacity of the West not simply to buy the drugs from the farmers at source, but to provide the level of security that those farmers are going to require as a result of their decision to switch the sale of their product.

In the face of the continued failure to reduce the scale of opium production in Afghanistan, then aerial spraying may well come to be seen as the last but now needed option in tackling opium production. There is also a need, however, to show those who are dedicated to opium production that their choices in this respect are going to cost them dearly, whether in seized assets or further military intervention. Putting money into the hands of those who are involved in organised drug production is about as far from that strategy as it is possible to get.

I recently attended an international seminar addressed by some of those who are involved in the Afghan counter-narcotics effort. Sitting next to me was a senior UK police officer who turned and said that part of the problem in tackling drugs production in countries like Afghanistan was the fact that you never knew whether the person you were speaking to was part of the problem or part of the solution: ‘We are expected to share our intelligence but you never know when you take out a group involved in opium production whether you have reduced supply or simply lowered the level of competition in the market.’ In a situation in which it is hard to tell whose side people are on, it is a risky strategy dolling out large amounts of government money.

Finally, The Institute for Peace and War Reporting reports on success in one province:

Muhammad Nazar is busily weeding his cotton fields. Last year at this time, he was engaged in harvesting poppy, but, like many landowners in Balkh province, has had a change of heart.

“The government has restricted poppy cultivation, and religious leaders have told us that growing poppy is haram [prohibited by Islam],” he said. “We should not go against our religion and the constitution.”

As he continued to work, he said, “I hope to get a good harvest, and the government has promised us a good price for cotton.”

Balkh province used to be the third-largest producer of opium poppy, after Helmand and Kandahar. But this year, the counter-narcotics programme has all but rid the province of the illegal crop.

Some farmers, like Nazar, say that they have switched to legitimate farming because of government strictures. But many others give a more pragmatic reason for decision.

“The price of poppy has been going down year by year,” said Noor Gul, a farmer in Charbolak, formerly the centre of Balkh’s poppy cultivation. “We couldn’t afford the expense of growing it, so we decided to plant something else instead.”

Dealers say that the price of opium has been declining due to overproduction. While in past years, a kilo of opium paste would fetch over 130 US dollars on the local market, it is now worth about half that.

Hat tip: dailydose.net and ccsa.ca