Afghan opium


in Bombs and rockets, Canada, Politics

The Senlis Council, an international policy think tank, has developed an alternative plan for dealing with Afghanistan’s record crop of opium poppies. Their Poppy for Medicine Project aims to address the global shortage in medicinal opiates (such as morphine) while also providing a sustainable basis for the Afghan economy. Providing poppies for legal medicinal purposes will offer an income alternative that does not fuel the illicit drugs trade. Romesh Bhattacharji, India’s former narcotics commissioner, has offered his support for the plan, citing the high incidence of cancer in the developing world and the lack of access to pain killers.

This year, Afghan opium exports were worth about $60 billion at street prices in purchasing countries; that is 6.6 times the total gross domestic product of Afghanistan. No wonder coalition forces have been having such a hopeless time trying to eradicate this production. Within Afghanistan, the trade is worth about $3.1 billion, though less than a quarter of that accrues to farmers. Village level schemes of the kind Senlis is proposing could increase that proportion, while decreasing the share that goes to organized crime, smugglers, and insurgent groups.

The idea that NATO troops can win hearts and minds in Afghanistan while simultaneously destroying the opium crop that is the basis for much of the economy has always been foolish. While I was in Oxford, the reality of this situation was privately acknowledged by a number of British military officers. If Afghanistan is to be in any way prosperous or secure by the time western forces eventually withdraw, a bit more intelligent engagement and a bit less dogmatism would be in order.

[Update: 28 August 2007] Here is a similar argument.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan August 27, 2007 at 11:07 am

From the Senlis FAQ:

“Just six wealthy countries (the United States, France, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia) use more than 80% of the world’s supplies of morphine medicines; the developing countries that account for more than 80% of the world’s population use just 5%. One of the main reasons for this discrepancy is affordability. For example, in Latin America, although different poppy-based medicines are available, their extremely high prices compared to average monthly incomes, severely limits their actual accessibility and subsequent use.”

. August 27, 2007 at 1:30 pm

Insecurity is also said to lead to farmers planting poppies, as fighting can prevent them from getting perishable crops to market.

A senior Western diplomat said: “The great thing about opium is that it lasts for 20 to 30 years – it’s money in the bank.”

“So if you’re not sure you can get your onions or carrots to market as they may go off because it’s too insecure to move, then you grow opium and put it under your bed – it’s a currency.”


. August 27, 2007 at 4:34 pm

The United Nations says Afghanistan’s illegal opium production has reached record highs this year, despite a massive anti-narcotics campaign in the war-torn country. A new U.N survey reveals that Afghanistan now produces 93 percent of the world’s opium.

According to the report production rose 34 percent this year.

The United Nations estimates 3.3 million of Afghanistan 25 million people are involved in the drug trade, which represents about one-third of the country’s total gross domestic product.


Antonia August 28, 2007 at 9:12 am

Those who do not realize how irreplaceable opium is in the Afghani economy should read

Litty August 28, 2007 at 12:04 pm

As long as heroin is worth more than medical opiates, it seems likely that some of the crop will be directed in that way.

That said, if the objective is to stabilize Afghanistan – rather than reduce the global heroin supply – plans like this one may be valuable.

Neal August 29, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Litty, one thing to remember is that the poppy farmers only see a tiny fraction of the street price of heroin. Most of the money goes to the smuggling chain.

Even if the poppy was to go the way of the dodo or smallpox, heroin would simply be replaced by synthetic opioids like fentanyl (often known as china white on the street), which is much more potent. The reality is that a reduction in the global supply of heroin is more likely under the proposed scheme than under the current policy, which has failed spectacularly for five continuous years.

. August 30, 2007 at 9:58 am


A bumper crop
Aug 29th 2007

AFGHANISTAN’S opium crop is set to hit a new high this year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In its annual Afghanistan Opium Survey, published on Monday August 27th, it estimates that production will soar to 8,200 tonnes in 2007, a third more than in 2006. The whole country’s share of global production has edged up to 93%. Prevention is a Sisyphean task; while the area from which opium poppies were eradicated increased by a quarter to 19,000 hectares, there are still 193,000 hectares under cultivation.

Maddie August 30, 2007 at 5:38 pm

I think this was first suggested two years ago, when the poppy situation wasn’t quite as out of control as it is now. I was also a proponent of it, but having spoken to my uncle, who was UN Country Rep in Afghanistan, I don’t think it’s even remotely feasible.

On another note, here’s an interesting article with some polling to see what Canadians support, and some counter-arguments to the above scheme.

Milan August 30, 2007 at 6:25 pm


Why do you think it is unfeasible?

. September 10, 2007 at 4:51 pm

Drugs Banned, Many of World’s Poor Suffer in Pain

“Like millions of others in the world’s poorest countries, she is destined to die in pain. She cannot get the drug she needs — one that is cheap, effective, perfectly legal for medical uses under treaties signed by virtually every country, made in large quantities, and has been around since Hippocrates praised its source, the opium poppy. She cannot get morphine.

That is not merely because of her poverty, or that of Sierra Leone. Narcotics incite fear: doctors fear addicting patients, and law enforcement officials fear drug crime. Often, the government elite who can afford medicine for themselves are indifferent to the sufferings of the poor.
The World Health Organization estimates that 4.8 million people a year with moderate to severe cancer pain receive no appropriate treatment.

Nor do another 1.4 million with late-stage AIDS. For other causes of lingering pain — burns, car accidents, gunshots, diabetic nerve damage, sickle-cell disease and so on — it issues no estimates but believes that millions go untreated.

Figures gathered by the International Narcotics Control Board, a United Nations agency, make it clear: citizens of rich nations suffer less. Six countries — the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Britain and Australia — consume 79 percent of the world’s morphine, according to a 2005 estimate. The poor and middle-income countries where 80 percent of the world’s people live consumed only about 6 percent.”

Milan November 12, 2007 at 6:33 pm

The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below.

November 12, 2007 5:57 AM

The poppy is bitterly ironic this Remembrance Day. Borrowed from John McRae’s classic In Flanders’ Fields, the poppy has shifted from a symbolic meaning to the central subject of an ongoing conflict. As international intervention in Afghanistan continues, opium production has reached record-breaking heights, with this single country now producing 90% of the world’s total supply (utterly dwarfing global licit supply). Meanwhile, the world suffers a global opiate shortage(pdf), Canada’s heroin maintenance project is threatened by politics, and the National Review of Medicine suggests that prescription opiates are far more dangerous than the “usual suspects”.

. April 8, 2008 at 12:59 pm

The state of NATO
A ray of light in the dark defile

Indeed, a recent report overseen by General James Jones, formerly NATO’s supreme military commander, declares: “Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.” Failure, the report says, will “put in grave jeopardy NATO’s future as a credible, cohesive and relevant military alliance”.

Anon April 15, 2008 at 10:12 am

Why can’t we stop drugs getting into prisons?
By Simon Cox

Prisons are among the most secure places in the country, yet they are awash with illegal drugs. How do these get in?

. October 6, 2008 at 4:49 pm

How To Win Afghanistan’s Opium War
The best way to deprive the Taliban of drug profits? The United States should buy Afghanistan’s poppy crop instead of trying to eradicate it.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, Oct. 6, 2008, at 1:31 PM ET

I used to know Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Kabul, and I have no reason to doubt that he was quoted correctly in the leaked cable from the deputy French ambassador to Afghanistan that has since appeared in the Parisian press. I think that he is right in saying that while there cannot be a straightforward “military victory” for the Taliban and other fundamentalist and criminal forces, nonetheless there is a chance that a combination of these forces can make the country ungovernable by the NATO alliance. He may also be correct in his assertion that an increase of troops in the country might have unwelcome and unintended consequences, in that “it would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets” for the enemy.

. February 14, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Obama’s men in Afghanistan
Misconceptions in the new administration could set back progress in the fight against the opium economy


From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

February 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST

Earlier this month, the United Nations released a report predicting a decline in opium cultivation in Afghanistan for the second year in a row. Because Afghan heroin funds the insurgency, corrupts the government and interferes with legitimate agricultural programs, this was good news for everyone. Four years ago, farmers grew poppies in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Three years ago there were six poppy-free provinces; two years ago, there were 13; last year, there were 18; and experts predict that 22 of the 34 will likely be poppy-free this year. Nationwide, poppy cultivation was down 19 per cent last year, and it will likely fall even more this year, prompting the top UN diplomat in Afghanistan to say a few days ago, “This year could be a turning point” in the war against Afghan heroin.

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