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This proposal was originally made by the Senlis Council, an independent organization based in Paris, during a workshop in Kabul last September.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.