Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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Poppy Power

This month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Afghanistan that could pave the way for a new and more open-minded approach to counter-narcotics strategies worldwide. In fact, the resolution calls on the participants at a conference of donors, to take place in London at the end of January, “to take into consideration the proposal of licensed production of opium for medical purposes, as already granted to a number of countries.”

This proposal was originally made by the Senlis Council, an independent organization based in Paris, during a workshop in Kabul last September. The text introduced by the European Liberal Democrats, with the support of virtually all political groups in the European Parliament, is revolutionary, not only because it goes against conventional thinking, but also because it raises the issue above the stagnant reality of the “war on drugs.” In Afghanistan, that so-called war has essentially been based on eradication campaigns and alternative livelihood projects, which have achieved only scant results. The European Parliament’s new stance may, I hope, mark the beginning of a radical policy shift by all actors involved in rebuilding Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, despite concerted efforts at eradication and crop substitution, Afghanistan produced 87% of the world’s opium in 2005 – roughly 4.1 tons – generating $2.7 billion of illegal revenue, which amounts to roughly 52% of the country’s GDP. The 2005 Afghanistan Opium Survey, released last November, estimates that the total value of this opium, once turned into heroin and distributed around the world, could reach more than $40 billion.

Moreover, in recent years, factories and laboratories for processing opium into heroin have been sprouting in Afghanistan, producing 420 tons of heroin last year alone. The increase in domestic heroin production has provided a massive boost to the local retail market, giving rise to concerns about HIV/AIDS spreading in a country with poor infrastructure and nonexistent health services.

In addition, the itineraries used by the export convoys are no longer limited to the infamous “golden route” through Pakistan and Iran, but have multiplied, employing exit points in former Soviet Republics such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. This is helping to promote further instability in already volatile political contexts.

International counter-narcotics policy is currently driven by pressure for rapid and visible results. But eradication and alternative livelihood projects mainly affect the lowest end of the value-added chain, the farmers, with no real impact on those higher up, such as large landowners and local traffickers, not to mention the extremely powerful drug lords and the international cartels and mafias. Most landless farmers find it difficult to switch to different crops, being caught up as they are in the illegal opium-denominated market, which forces them to live at the mercy of the drug traffickers, who provide them with access to credit and market outlets.

The result of this was laid out in a report by the European Union’s Election Observation Mission that I presented in Kabul last December: Afghanistan risks becoming a “rentier” state with easy access to resources that lubricate corruption throughout its entire political system, finance illegal armed groups, and fuel regional destabilization. Illicit Afghan networks, replicating well-known methods that organized crime has applied successfully for decades in other parts of the world, are mobile and resourceful, and can plug into a range of legal economic activities to sustain themselves.

This might lead Afghanistan into a situation of no return: becoming a narco-state that drifts away from any form of rule of law and disengages itself from the fragile social contract with its own citizens that it has started to establish. As New York University’s Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghan society, has put it: “Afghanistan cannot be stabilized while the most dynamic sector of its economy is illegal, nor if more than half of its economy is destroyed.”

So what should be done?

Because of the serious threat that the illegal drug economy poses to stability and democracy in Afghanistan, we must start thinking in terms of regulated poppy growing for medical purposes, in particular for painkillers, with the active participation of donor countries and the UN itself. Indeed, the UN estimates that just six countries prescribe 78% of the total legal production of opiates, implying shortages of opium-based painkillers in many of the UN’s 185 other member states. Hence the potential legal demand is huge.

Moreover, the UN also estimates that there are 45 million people living with HIV/AIDS in countries where health systems are either absent or very poor, and that over the next 20 years there will be some 10 million new cases of cancer in the developing world. These estimates, together with poor countries’ additional needs when natural catastrophes strike, imply that the potential legal demand for medicinal opiates is even higher.

An increase in production of “medical” opium would address its lack of availability worldwide. It would also provide Afghan peasants, who have been growing poppy despite forced eradication of the plant and incentives to change crops, with an option that is regulated by law and that, in time, could have an impact on the heroin trade.

Governments, international organizations and individuals that participate in the London conference must not dismiss the call made by the European Parliament, for it offers a far more workable strategy to promote Afghanistan’s future than the current counter-narcotics policies permit.

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