Licensing Afghan opium is a road-map to stability

Poppy fields in Afghanistan help feed familiesPoppy fields in Afghanistan help feed familiesA recent study shows how licensing legal opium production in Afghanistan would increase security and stability. Licensing would move poppy crops away from the illegal drug trade and into the legal economy. Such a plan would provide Afghan farmers with a legitimate income and create a stable tax base for the government.
“Opium licensing is a road-map to stability,” says Emmanuel Reinert, Director of The Senlis Council, a European think-tank which produced the study after analyzing the Afghan opium trade. “The current drug policy in Afghanistan has completely failed to control opium production and has undermined development and security efforts.”

Global shortage of pain medicines

Legal Afghani opium could be used to meet the global need for pain-relief medicines such as morphine and codeine. According to both the World Health Organization and the International Narcotics Control Board, there is a severe global shortage of essential pain relief medications, particularly in the developing world.

Developing countries are home to 80% of the world’s population, but they consume just 6% of the medical opioids. In these poor countries, including Afghanistan, most people with cancer, AIDS and other painful conditions have little or no access to legal pain relief medications, and so they live and die in agony.

Meeting the global need for pain medications would require 10,000 tons of opium a year – more than twice Afghanistan’s current production.

“The United States wants Afghanistan to destroy its potentially merciful crop,” wrote the New York Times in a 2005 editorial. “But why not bolster the country’s stability and end both the pain and the trafficking problems, by licensing Afghanistan with the International Narcotics Control Board to sell its opium legally?”

The successful Turkish model

A successful opium licensing system was implemented in Turkey in the 1970s. At the time, Turkey was one of the main producers of opium for the illegal drug trade.

“The Turkish Government at the time realised that forced crop eradication was not a realistic option,” says Reinert. “They worked together with the United States to implement a licensing system and negotiated preferential trade agreements between the US and Turkey. Today the US still buys opium for medicine from Turkey.”

Today about 100,000 Turkish farmers hold licenses to grow poppy, and about 600,000 Turks make a livelihood out of the opium-industry.

Opium licensing programs have also been operating successfully for decades in Australia, France and India. In India about 130,000 farmers legally cultivate poppy each year.

Eradication efforts bring harm

As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, Canadian forces have been put at risk through the policy of eradicating of poppy fields. Poppy eradication contributes to instability and public insecurity by removing the livelihoods of rural communities.

The Canadian government is known to fund poppy eradication efforts. Canadian and British troops do not carry out eradication, but instead provide security for the Afghan labourers and militiamen who have been hired to burn and plough up poppy crops.

Yet despite eradication efforts, illegal opium production still accounts for at least half of Afghanistan’s economic base. Right now, all of the opium produced in Afghanistan is turned into illegal products, which are sold on streets around the world.

On September 5, 2006, the New York Times described areas of the Afghan province of Helmand as “the epicentre of a Taliban resurgence and an explosion in drug cultivation that has claimed the lives of 106 US and NATO soldiers this year and doubled American casualty rates countrywide.”

Because farmers aren’t the ones who make the biggest portion of profits in the illegal drug trade, purchasing the Afghan poppy crop at competitive rates would be relatively affordable. According to the New York Times, “even if we paid exactly what the drug lords do, the entire Afghani crop would cost only about $600 million.”

The Senlis Council commissioned and coordinated the study with experts from major international universities and institutions: The Universities of Toronto, Calgary, Lisbon, Ghent, Wageningen, Kabul and the British Institute of International and Comparative Law all participated in the Report.

New York Times editorial

Opium licensing study

Senlis Council