Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Afghanistan and Opium

| December 18, 2005

A RECENT UN report on drugs in Afghanistan points to the success of eradication in decreasing the area under poppy cultivation by 21 percent during the past year. Yet this positive development is fragile and likely unsustainable. Instead of doctrinally clinging to eradication, the international community should explore other means of decreasing Afghanistan's illicit economy, such as converting the still vast opium cultivation into legal production for medical opiates.

The idea of transforming the cultivation for the production of codeine and morphine is promoted by the Senlis Council, a European drug policy think tank. Pointing to the successful implementation of such a scheme in Turkey, where it eliminated the large illegal cultivation of opium, the Senlis advocates ask: Why not Afghanistan?

Licensing production of legitimate drugs would not only shrink the size of Afghanistan's illegal economy, it would also provide a sustainable livelihood for the poor peasants, and generate income for the Afghan state.

Eradication of opium production has been the method of choice for fighting the illegal drug trade thus far, but it is socially explosive since the poor farmers do not have an alternative source of livelihood. Even in the best case of eradication working, this would mean the elimination of 40 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

Licensing is not a perfect solution either. It would be difficult to keep licensed farmers from selling their opium to drug dealers for higher prices. The International Narcotics Control Board that regulates exports of medical opiates, and the narcotics treaties that permit the legal cultivation of opium poppy for domestic medical opiates, require government monopoly of the system in order to keep the opium from falling into the wrong hands. Given the poor security conditions in Afghanistan, the Afghan government would have a hard time enforcing the regulations on farmers.

But these challenges should not keep a pilot program from being attempted. For instance, private contractors could be hired not to spray illicit crops, but to monitor and patrol the areas of legal production. Compliance could also be reinforced by working with traditional Afghan tribal structures. Realistically, some diversion into the illegal market must be expected. However, diversion smaller than the current 100 percent "diversion" into the illegal market is a step in the right direction.

Another challenge is what to do with farmers who are not issued a license. Eradicating opium crops of unlicensed farmers would help deter licensed farmers from diverting their opium into illegal traffic, but it would also generate tensions among groups and tribes that benefit more than others from the licensing scheme. To maintain stability and still reduce illicit cultivation, it would be better to focus on apprehending traffickers and busting the labs, while working toward enhancing state law enforcement capacity and enlarging licensed areas.

How much of the illicit economy could ultimately be absorbed for medicinal uses would also depend on the demand for medical opiates. One of the reasons why the licensing scheme has been successful in Turkey is that the United States guarantees a market for Turkish (as well as Indian) medical opiates. Under the so-called "80-20" rule — up for review in January — the United States agrees to buy at least 80 percent of medical opiates from Turkey and India. Together with Australia, Turkey and India are the world's largest suppliers of legal opiates. Turkey and India would, of course, object to the "80-20 rule" being altered to accommodate Afghanistan. In addition, if they lost their market share, the odds for more of their crops ending up on the illegal market increase.

The INCB contends that there should be a balance between demand and supply and that currently there is no space for Afghanistan's medical opiates. The Senlis Council contends that there is a need in developing countries, where millions suffer from HIV/AIDS and cancers without any pain-relief medications.

Yet under the highly regulated market of medical opiates, bureaucratic barriers to distributing these drugs keep any such arrangement from happening quickly. Between need and demand, there is regulation.

However, a creative design of the US foreign aid bill could combine money ear-marked for counternarcotics efforts and for efforts to fight AIDS to purchase Afghanistan's legal opium for distribution among AIDS patients in the developing world.

Granted there are potential problems, but a licensing system in Afghanistan should be explored. It would provide hope for alleviating poverty in Afghanistan and suffering of others, as well as promise lucrative rewards for pharmaceutical firms.

Vanda Felbab-Brown is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Felbab-Brown, Vanda.“Afghanistan and Opium.” The Boston Globe, December 18, 2005.