The opium poppy flourishes all over the world, from the war-torn districts of Helmand to the sleepy fields of Hampshire. But these vastly different cultivation sites are linked to vastly different trades. In the UK, opium poppies are grown to produce vital pain-relieving drugs for the legal medical market, while in Afghanistan, the same plants are grown to produce heroin, a risky, illegal drug, the market for which enriches and empowers organized crime groups, enabling them to corrupt, kidnap and kill with impunity.
But is it possible to move from this scenario to one more resembling the first? That’s the question asked recently by the governor of the biggest opium-producing state in Mexico – a state which, unsurprisingly, also happens to be one of the most violent. The opium poppies grown in Guerrero state supply approximately half the heroin consumed in the United States. And given that the US is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that has led to more than 28,000 overdose deaths, there’s plenty of demand to ensure supply continues.
Guerrero is so intertwined with the illicit heroin trade that, according to one estimate, at least 1,287 communities in the state are economically dependent on opium poppy cultivation. Contrary to the stereotypes about the kinds of people involved in illicit drug markets, these communities are driven by need, not greed – legal means of survival are few and far between. As the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Mexico has said: “It is not the drug production that generates underdevelopment; it is the lack of development that generates the opium cultivation.”
Leaving aside the issue of whether it’s actually possible (it’s not), simply eradicating the opium poppies in Guerrero is likely to have dire economic consequences for its citizens. Hence the proposal mooted by the state’s governor – to allow these communities to produce opium for the legal medical market – may be a more sustainable solution to the local problem. If the farmers supplied a licensed and regulated trade, instead of a violent, criminal one, then it could go some way towards disempowering the cartels that are currently making huge profits from their harvests – that is, provided action is also taken to address the illicit demand for opioids used non-medically.
This type of transition is not without precedent. As described in a new short briefing paper by Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Turkey has successfully navigated such a shift. In 1967, when the country ratified the UN convention which is the foundation of the prohibitionist global drug control system, Turkey was permitted to claim the status of a “traditional opium producing country”, which meant it could continue to cultivate opium poppies (an activity that would otherwise be banned under the convention), as long as production was strictly licensed and for medical purposes only.
However, it was a rocky road on the way to effective regulation. In the early stages of the new system’s implementation, the authorities struggled to stem the diversion of legally produced opium to the illegal heroin market. By the end of the decade, Turkey was supplying 80% of the heroin used in the US. To get a handle on the problem, a ban on all opium production was introduced in 1972. The ban lasted just two years, by which time the ministry of agriculture had taken the necessary steps to properly license and monitor the growing operations.
This resulted in somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 small-scale farmers becoming licensed to cultivate opium poppies, and in 2005 it was estimated that around 600,000 people earned a living from the trade, generating an export income of over $60 million. The licensing system offered Turkish communities an alternative buyer for their opium, helping to reduce illicit production and diversion of legal supplies to such an extent that they are no longer a major concern for the country.
But while this was a pragmatic solution to Turkey’s localized illicit opium problem, it caused a problem for countries like Mexico and Afghanistan, where criminal groups simply picked up the slack and capitalized on an opening in the market. This is an example of the ‘balloon effect’, which describes how enforcement, rather than eliminating the drug problem, often merely displaces it to new locations – like air moving around in a squeezed balloon. So although moving opium production from the wrong to the right side of the law may have localized benefits for a state like Guerrero, globally, the harm caused by illicit heroin production is likely to persist unless demand for the drug is met some other way, or is significantly reduced through prevention measures – something that has not proved possible in the past.
Differences between Mexico’s current situation and Turkey’s several decades ago may also mean that what worked in the past may not work now. In the 1970s, there was a worldwide shortage of opium for the medical market (in part because of the temporary ban Turkey introduced), which meant there was a great deal of demand to be met. In contrast, it has been argued that today there is insufficient global demand to warrant an increase in supply from places like Mexico (although prohibitionist policies and rhetoric have played a part in this, making many poor countries unduly wary of opioid-based medications and thereby leaving the vast majority of the world’s population without adequate access to vital pain-relieving drugs). There are also doubts over whether some Mexican states have the infrastructure and institutions needed to legally regulate opium production. In Guerrero, the rule of law is reportedly “weak”, and in its remote rural regions in particular, state support is almost non-existent. As a result, there is a risk that illicit opium production may simply continue alongside any new licit production systems that are established.
Nevertheless, this is an important and timely debate to be having. At the UN in April, the president of Mexico, Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto, called for effective legal regulation of drug markets to replace the failed policies of the so-called ‘war on drugs’. Recent developments in Canada, too, raise broader questions about how to deal with illicit opium production and the heroin market it supplies. There, the government has committed to allowing the prescription of pharmaceutical-grade heroin to long-term dependent users, a controversial-sounding form of treatment that is supported by a substantial body of research from similar successful initiatives in other countries. Such legal, regulated provision of the drug to individuals who would otherwise patronize the illicit market, may, in the long term, be the only way to bring about the reductions in the scale of the heroin trade needed to meaningfully improve security and stability in some of the most fragile nations on Earth. Because as the history of drug policy shows, where demand exists, supply will always find a way – that’s why who controls it could make all the difference.
This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organization with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.