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Perspectives

May 22, 2009
West should buy, not eradicate, Afghanistan’s poppy crops

Opium poppies in Afghanistan.

More than 90 percent of the world’s opium comes out of Afghanistan, where poppy crops blanket the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul.

The U.S. and its allies have led efforts to eradicate poppy crops, with hopes that they can cut off drug money going to the Taliban. But some poor Afghan farmers have become dependent on income from narcotics.

Jonathan Power of the World Policy Blog argues that rather than eradicating poppy crops, which runs the risk of driving desperate farmers into the willing arms of the Taliban, the West should buy crops.

Legalizing Poppy Growing in Afghanistan

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine who lived 460-357 B.C., concluded that diseases were naturally caused and were cured by natural remedies. Opium, he wrote, was one of the latter. But he was also of the opinion that it should be used sparingly and under control.

If only our governments today could take such a sanguine and informed view of the use of opiates in medicine today.

No one needs a more enlightened attitude than the Western forces now operating in Afghanistan where they are committed to destroying the peasants’ main source of income.

The tough, no-nonsense eradication program has done as much as Western military action to push country people into the Taliban camp. The West has long been shooting itself in the foot.

Both the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf and the wise senior statesman and former finance minister Sartaj Aziz, who probably knows more about the economics of agriculture in Pakistan than anyone else, have told me that it would be more sensible for Western governments to help buy the poppy crop. This would solve two problems in one blow. First, it would help deal with the world-wide shortage of medical opiates which, according to the World Health Organization, are causing a “global pain crisis.” In Africa hundreds of thousands of people are dying in agony for lack of pain relief. Second, it would prevent the opium farmers of Afghanistan being driven into the arms of the Taliban.

There are many practical problems with the idea of buying up the crop. If the price were set too high, it might encourage even more farmers to grow opium poppies. If it were not high enough, they would go on selling at least some on the black market. Nevertheless, they would probably rather sell their crop legally than to the mafia.

How would the Muslim world react to buying up the crop? Before the U.S. invasion the Taliban with their rigorous, fundamentalist, view point were against the growing of poppies and that effectively ended poppy growing. But after the invasion they turned 180 degrees and encouraged it, mainly for the purpose of providing revenue to buy military equipment.

To read more, see the original post.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ChuckHolton under a Creative Commons license.

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17 comments

#17

[…] Jason Motlagh on Afghanistan – C-SPAN Video Library [Seeds of Terror] – C-SPAN Video Library West should buy, not eradicate, Afghanistan’s poppy crops | Worldfocus Jonathan Power: Legalizing Poppy Growing in Afghanistan | worldpolicy.org Opium poppy – […]

#16

reminds me of the fact that legalizing marijuana could save our economy:

http://www.change.org/ideas/116/view_blog/bill_to_tax_regulate_marijuana_introduced_in_california

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=2735017&page=1

what are the US’s motives?

excerpts from US military documents and the London Times:

Full-spectrum dominance means the ability of U.S. forces, operating alone or with allies, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the range of military operations.
http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=45289

The label full spectrum dominance implies
that US forces are able to conduct prompt,
sustained, and synchronized operations with
combinations of forces tailored to specific
situations and with access to and freedom to
operate in all domains – space, sea, land, air,
and information. Additionally, given the global
nature of our interests and obligations, the
United States must maintain its overseas
presence forces and the ability to rapidly
project power worldwide in order to achieve
full spectrum dominance.
http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/doctrine/genesis_and_evolution/source_materials/joint_vision_2020.pdf

But America has rejected the desire by 160 other countries to have United Nations talks about banning an arms race in space, an extravagantly unilateral approach whose appeal you might have thought would have been tarnished by its experience in Iraq.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/bronwen_maddox/article605583.ece

#15

As someone, who suffers with a chronic pain problem, I support the new, Afghan poppies for medicine ideas. I’ve noticed, most U.S. doctors, push anti inflammatory meds, which almost put me in the ER recently! Opiates, taken as directed, are probably a much safer drug. The u.s.’s, lobbied controlled, hooligan, government will probably resist, the new, Afghan, drugs for meds idea.

#14

If the government hasn’t looked into the practicality of directing Afganistan’s opium production to medicinal usage, then it should. It shouldn’t worry about interfering with other countries doing this. The worse thing would be a lowering of the price of medicinal pain medication, which should help the poor at the least.

#13

07/22/2009 :: 07:12:38 AM
Jake Says:

Good point.

It sounds like Tasmania has a responsible hand on the poppy business. This industry needs to be in the hands of people that aren’t going to work both sides of the legal fence all for the money. This means serious regulation.

God I love spellcheck.

#12

People that are condemning this idea are not taking into account the attempts to eradicate any crop have NEVER worked and attempts to eliminate demand for opiates only worked when the users were murdered en mass in china. Any attempt to argue this away as ineffective is an attempt to mislead the people. This is the very best and most humanitarian idea I have contemplated myself and am proud to hear put forward … finally. Debasing the cash flow of the narcotics trafficers IS the most effective way to nip them in the bud. Reducing supply of heroine and black tar opiate will reduce the number of people coming into contact with these substances. Yes, in the short term the price will rise and there would be some profit taking on that effect. In the long term it will dry up the fundraising efforts of the taliban their narcotic distributors and the arms merchants trading them guns for opiates.

#11

When I hear the poppy growers say that they make more money by growing drugs than anything else I have no sympathy. I could increase my income by 1000 times if I chose to sell illegal drugs for a living. These poppy growers have never cared who gets hurt by the drugs they sell which makes them the same as all illegal drug dealers everywhere in the world. Law abiding citizens obey the law. Illegal drug dealers don’t obey laws and/or regulations. I think it’s a mistake to put those in the illegal drug world on the honor system.

I also wonder how much opium is needed to for medicinal purposes around the world and what happens when the poppy growing far exceeds the need for medicine?

#10

This will never happen for two reasons; (1) Turkey and (2) Tasmania (Australia). Currently, these are the worlds to primary and exclusive producers and sellers of medicinal opium. Both countries have an economic stake in ensuring that Afghanistan does not encroach on the profitability of their oligarchy over poppy markets. Is there any real wonder why both Turkey and Australia’s militaries are participating and are big supporters of poppy eradication? They are not going to easily allow Afghanistan to enter the legal poppy market without some serious protections to their domestic opium markets. Here is a quote directly from the Tasmania Government website: “The poppy industry in Tasmania is now firmly established, with many farmers realising its value both as a cash crop and as part of their cropping rotations.” Check it out: http://www.iris.tas.gov.au/resource_industry/agriculture/supply/other_crops

#9

Envoy Richard Holbrooke announced a change in U.S. plans today – no more eradication, more money for alternate crops and drug interdiction. The G-8 ministers were pleased.

#8

low-morphine-poppy-seed by planes; hybridizing in high-morphine-poppy-crop;
further effects by singling the crops; etc.

The new concept below, which in the medium term is effective as well as environmentally,
economically, and socially tolerated. This could be part of a comprehensive “smart strategy”,
which Mr. William A.Byrd (Worldbank), one of the best connoisseurs of the drug economy in Afghanistan, has recently pursued.

Responding to Afghanistan’s Opium,Economy Challenge:
Lessons and Policy Implications from a Development Perspective -William A. Byrd, Worldbank-
http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/IW3P/IB/2008/03/04/000158349_20080304082230/Rendered/PDF/wps4545.pdf

The core of the new approach is to oust the rich morphine poppies (20.000 ppm/morphin)by morphine poor grades(200 ppm/morphin) in Afghanistan. Moreover, these crops are the basis for an economy of oil plants, which are very well integrated in the existing economic and social structures of the country.
Another effect is, that we are able to bring the benefit of legal agriculture in line with the
benefit of the illicit agriculture.

Basis of this new strategy are the following facts:

– Rich-morphine and low-morphine poppy crop are descended from the species
“Papaver somniferum”, and are able to hybridize each other and are both indistinguishable
until the stadium of blossoms.
– Poppy seeds can be easily distributed because of the low volume / weight, from the air widely.

#7

You seem to have missed the fairly obvious point that the money from legalized poppies would still be going back to the Taliban. Thus, we would be helping the enemy by allowing thier crops to grow unmolested. The farmers are simply caught in the middle here. They have no money for seed for legitimate crops and no way to get such crops to commerce centers. The solutions to these problems are to eradicate the Taliban, and provide the neccesary seeds for legitimate crops, and the infrastructure to get them to market.

#6

As suggested by Jane, saffron cultivation is an excellent idea! The local population understands the value of saffron and the competitive pricing of this product will definitely lead to greater consumption in South Asia and the Middle East.

Is there a (hidden) disadvantage to this idea?

#5

“The end does not justify the means” is the moral high ground that continues to be tested at all levels daily. The Afghan poppy buying program is undergoing the same litmus test. Obviously we need tactical and the proverbial strategic sets of responses to this problem. History is littered with clear indisputable examples of the effects of rampant poppy cultivation on the local population (ignoring the world wide effects of such trade in this reply).

A country that is a few hundred years behind its neighbors in terms of development will remain unable to bootstrap itself out of continuing dependency on international charity. There are formidable experts on the subject in the UN and the US owing to direct experience in Latin America (LA). Without suggesting yet another conference on the subject, we should try a multi-pronged effort (under the guidance of these experts) on the solution despite the fact that the culvitation is largely regional. Ignoring the political track of these attempts one must conclude that the multinational efforts in LA do not have the ROI that a corporation would be proud to advertise. Also, in a back-handed way let us accept the fact that an “Agent Orange” solution is not a panacea. Why is there is so little commitment on education in Afghanistan? Where are the infrastructures and institutions that demonstrate commitment? Again, the responses are understandable (corruption, security, etc.) in the current climate but nothing substantial has been done all these years in areas where the local population is unable to make the educated commitment to improve their own welfare.

#4

WE SHOULD ALLOW FARMERS TO GROWN CROPS AND PAY THE DIFFERANCE BETWEEN WHAT THEY GET FOR THE GOOD CROPS AND WHAT THEY WOOULF GET IF IF THEY GREW OPIUM CROPS. PLANT CORN, ETC. AND PAY THE DIFFERANCE BETWEEN THE TWO. GET IT? wE ALL WIN

#3

It’s true that eradication is not working, but instead of incurring these enormous costs, use SAFFRON as a substitutable crop for poppies. This article outlines the pros of such a program:
http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2009/04/05/red-gold-solution-afghanistan-s-opium-addiction

#2

If we buy most of Afghanistan’s opium crop for one year, then destroy the portion that would normally end up with junkies, wouldn’t that cause havoc for organized crime? Wouldn’t it force junkies to come clean or go cold turkey?

#1

I thought a stake had been driven through this nonsensical idea. The logic against it is fairly self-evident. Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan takes place in areas that are largely outside of the writ of government control, or else in areas where central authority is so heavily dependent on local powers who are involved in the drug trade that curtailing cultivation is unwise. (This is evident by the fact that much of Afghanistan’s north and east have become poppy free due to successful government intervention.)

Thus, in the absence of effective coercive techniques (aerial spraying, which could possibly work, is political unfeasible, see Schweich’s NYT essay) the only way to collect poppy crops would be to offer prices near the market rate for illicit opium. That was about $70/kg in 2008. Now, not only would buying up the opium crop at this price provide an incentive to plant more opium (as legal opium would carry much lower costs of production and risks), not only would it seriously undermine anti-poppy progress in the rest of the country where farmers have been persuaded with great difficulty, through a mix of incentives and coercion, to abandon poppy cultivation, but it would also ignite a vicious cycle of rising poppy prices.

Think about it. The world market for illicit opiates, which runs in the hundreds of billions of dollars and derives nearly 90% of its supply from Afghanistan, needs opium and has the resources to pay for it. If the supply of illicit opium is reduced through a poppy buying program, then the price for illicit opium will increase–consider that, in the year following the Taliban’s rather successful ban of opium production in the 2001 harvest, opium prices shot up to $300/kg in 2002 (these are all UNODC figures.)

Even in the south, opium production currently occupies only a fraction of arable land, something like 10%. There’s plenty of room to grow more poppy, and if we start buying poppy at market rates, both prices and poppy cultivation will keep increasing.

The problem of poppy cultivation is a problem of governance. Until the government of Afghanistan establishes its writ of law in these areas–both by pushing back the insurgency and reducing the endemic involvement in the narcotics trade within its own ranks–then the market for illicit opium will dictate illicit cultivation. Period.

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