Let Afghanistan Grow the World's Opium Supply

It's easy to think that eliminating opium production in Afghanistan -- which today accounts for 90 percent of global supply, up from 50 percent a decade ago -- would solve a lot of problems, from heroin abuse in Europe and Asia to the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan. I'm not so sure.

The current dilemma for the U.S., NATO and the Karzai government is clear. The best way to reduce opium production in Afghanistan is with an aggressive campaign of aerial fumigation -- but that would cause massive economic dislocation and even starvation in a country where the opium trade accounts for roughly one-third of GDP. The second best, now under way, is manual eradication, but the result this past year was a net increase in opium production nationwide. Either way, these options play very much into the hands of the Taliban, who gain politically wherever farmers fear or witness the destruction of their livelihoods.

But imagine if the entire crop could be eliminated by a natural disaster such as a drought or blight. The United States, NATO and the Karzai government would be blameless -- although no doubt many Afghans would blame the CIA -- a reasonable suspicion given support in some U.S. circles for researching and employing biological warfare in the form of mycoherbicides. The Taliban would suffer doubly, losing both revenue and political advantage. And the United States and NATO could follow up emergency assistance with investment in alternative agriculture and economic development without having to compete with black market opium. Outside Afghanistan, heroin would become scarcer and more expensive; fewer people would start to use; and more addicts would seek treatment. Seems like an ideal scenario, right?

Think again. Within Afghanistan, the principal beneficiaries would be the warlords and other black market entrepreneurs whose stockpiles of opium would shoot up in value. Millions of Afghan peasants would flock to cities ill prepared for them, with all sorts of attendant social problems. And many would eagerly return to their farms next year to start growing opium again, utilizing guerrilla farming methods to escape intensified eradication efforts. But now they'd be competing with poor farmers elsewhere in the world -- in Central Asia, Latin America or even Africa -- attracted by the temporarily high return on opium. This is, after all, a global commodities market like any other.

And outside Afghanistan? Higher heroin prices typically translate into higher rates of crime by addicts working to support their habits. They also invite more cost-effective but dangerous means of consumption, such as switching from smoking to injecting heroin, which translates into higher rates of HIV. And many drug users will simply switch to pharmaceutical opioids or stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. All things considered, wiping out opium in Afghanistan would yield far fewer benefits than is commonly assumed.

So what's the solution?

Some have revived an idea first proposed during the 1970s when southeast Asia supplied most of the world's heroin: Just buy up all the opium in Afghanistan -- which would cost a lot less than is now being spent trying to eradicate it. That might provide a one-year jolt, but over time it would simply become a price support system, inviting farmers inside Afghanistan to save a portion for the black market and others outside Afghanistan to start growing opium. Then there's the Senlis Council's "Poppy for Medicine" proposal, which would license Afghan villages to grow opium and convert it into morphine tablets for domestic and international markets. It's been widely criticized as unworkable -- but the same can be said of current policies.

Or, given that farmers are going to produce opium -- somehow, somewhere -- so long as the global demand for heroin persists, maybe the world is better off, all things considered, with 90 percent of it coming from Afghanistan. Think of international drug control as a global vice control challenge, and the opium growing regions of the country as the equivalent of a "red light" zone. The United States, NATO and the Karzai government could then focus on "regulating" the illicit market and manipulating the participants with the objective of advancing broader political and economic objectives. They might even find ways to tax the illicit trade.

This is one of those proposals that sounds unworkable -- until it's compared with all the others. It surely wouldn't be the first time U.S. or other government officials have gotten their hands dirty dealing with criminal entrepreneurs to advance broader political objectives. And if this particular heresy becomes the new gospel, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for pursuing a new policy in Afghanistan that reconciles the interests of the United States, NATO, the Karzai government and millions of Afghan citizens.

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