Opium Dealers Cheer Ban on Afghan Poppy Cultivation

Reinstating the ban on poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is music to the ears of dealers in Kandahar, one of whom gleefully reacted by telling the press, "We'll be rich!"
On the eve of an international donor conference designed to fund the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the country's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, bowed to international pressure and reinstated the Taliban's year-old ban on the production of opium poppies. But Karzai's edict, announced January 15, goes further than the Taliban ban. The new edict also bans processing, trafficking, and use of opium and its derivatives. It was greeted with applause from both drug warriors and opium dealers.

"The ban on opium production announced this week in Afghanistan represents a very important step in international drug control efforts," the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCCP) told Agence France-Presse.

"We'll be rich," a delighted Kandahar opium trader told the New York Times. Ali Muhammad and a crowd of other traders in the city's booming opium market concurred that the ban was just the thing to stop plunging opium prices. According to the traders, opium prices had fallen by half in recent months, with farmers planting more poppies and middlemen releasing warehoused stocks on the market.

If farmers were allowed to grow the poppies unimpeded, said the traders, prices could fall back to levels seen before the Taliban ban. At the Kandahar market, opium is presently wholesaling for $150 per pound, half as much as it fetched in August, but about five times as much as in the years before the ban, when legally grown opium flooded regional markets.

But at least one wise old trader was skeptical, the Times reported. Hajji Abdul Rahman, a white-bearded veteran, told his fellow traders not to count their money yet. He said he doubted the will of the loose alliance of warlords who run the country to honor the ban. "The people with guns will keep growing it, and big businessmen will benefit the most," he said.

The UNDCCP and other international anti-drug bureaucrats have expressed concern that it may be too late to stop the current crop, planted in the fall for harvest this spring. "There are only two or three months to make this ban meaningful and effective for this year," said UNDCCP. "For the plan to be effective, there needs to be a two-track approach" of suppressing production while providing alternative crops, it said.

There has been little progress on either track. At this point, the new Afghan government can barely pay its employees or provide essential services, let alone wage a war of repression against the country's largest cash crop. Muhammad Akram, head of police for the four provinces surrounding Kandahar, told the Times his understanding was that the ban would be extended in stages, province by province. According to Akram, there is no official word on whether the ban extends to his region, home of half the nation's opium crop.

One opium farmer the Times interviewed, Basher Muhammad, said he would reluctantly destroy his crop if forced to do so. "But the farmers will gather and go to the governor's house and demand compensation," he said. "If we don't grow opium, we can't live."

Philip Smith edits DRCNet's Week Online.
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