Pubdate: Mon, 24 Jul 2006
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2006 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: David Fickling
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Senior Conservative MPs are urging David Cameron to push for the 
licensing of legal opium farming in Afghanistan as he pays a surprise 
visit to the country today, Guardian Unlimited has learned.

Opposition whip Tobias Ellwood said that the lives of British troops 
in the south of the country were being endangered because of the 
coalition's insistence on eradicating opium crops, which are often 
the sole means of livelihood for impoverished families in the region.

Six British soldiers have died in Helmand province over the past six 
weeks, most in the former opium market town of Sangin where they are 
fighting a fierce insurgency of Taliban warlords who have gained the 
support of local farmers.

"The poppy crops are the elephant in the room of the Afghan problem. 
We're in complete denial of the power that the crops have on the 
nation as a whole, and the tactics of eradication are simply not 
working," Mr Ellwood told Guardian Unlimited.

"Last year we spent 600m on eradication and all that resulted was the 
biggest-ever export of opium from the country."

He said that opium farming should be licensed so that the harvest 
could be sold legally on the open market, bringing in income for 
Afghan farmers and helping to plug a global shortage of opiate-based medicines.

The plan would also limit the supply of opium to the black market, 
where it finds its way into Britain as heroin, he said.

Mr Ellwood said the plan had the support of several Conservative MPs 
and senior military figures in Afghanistan. He will meet 
international development secretary Hilary Benn to discuss the issue 
later this week.

Last week Lieutenant General David Richards, the head of the 
International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said that 
eradicating poppies would have to take a back seat to development 
work and infrastructure improvements in Helmand province, where Nato 
forces are taking charge of security from the American military.

Conservative leader David Cameron is paying a surprise visit to 
troops in the south of Afghanistan today. He arrived in the southern 
capital of Kandahar early this morning promising that he would be 
"listening, learning and showing our support for what is being done".

Mr Cameron has previously supported more liberal drugs policies, 
calling for heroin addicts to be prescribed diamorphine - the medical 
name for the drug - to "stabilise" them and wean them off their addictions.

Last October the Conservative leader called for media restraint after 
revelations that he had been intimately involved in attempts to get a 
close relative off their heroin addiction.

One NGO worker who has travelled extensively in Helmand province on 
drugs issues said that poor families were being driven into the arms 
of the Taliban because of the failure of reconstruction efforts in 
the south of the country.

"The better-off farmers pay local commanders bribes so they don't 
have to eradicate, but the others have their main source of income 
cut off," said the worker, who did not wish to be named because of 
the danger of being identified in southern Afghanistan.

"Then the Taliban come to their villages and say, 'We will pay your 
son to work for us and give him weapons and food'.

"If you look at the timing of the eradication programmes and the 
flare-ups of the violence, often it happens in the same week."

The worker said that on recent visits to Helmand's capital Lashkar 
Gar there had been Taliban members walking down the streets carrying 
weapons in broad daylight, and locals said that Arab fighters - 
possibly connected to al-Qaida - had been spotted less than nine 
miles south of the town.

"We're pouring gas on the flames of the violence with this 
eradication campaign. By alienating the locals we're playing into a 
sophisticated political plan on the part of al-Qaida and the Taliban 
to destabilise southern Afghanistan. The political naivety of the 
international community in doing this is mind-boggling," the worker said.

Jorrit Kamminga, the head of policy research at the drug policy 
think-tank the Senlis Council, said that a similar programme to 
license opium had wiped out the illegal drug market in Turkey in the 
early 1970s, despite fierce opposition from the US Drug Enforcement 

"In the 1960s and early 1970s Turkey was producing most of the 
world's heroin, but eradication efforts failed and the government 
came up with the idea of licensing. Turkey is now the main supplier 
of legal opiates to the US," he said.

The world market in opiates is regulated by the International 
Narcotics Control Board, a UN-backed organisation that sets quotas 
for the quantity of opium that can be legally grown and issues 
licences to certain countries where it is manufactured.

Mr Kamminga said the system failed to account for a global shortage 
of painkilling drugs that had been acknowledged by the World Health 

"Seven developed countries use 80% of the world's morphine, and 
developing countries with growing numbers of Aids and cancer cases 
simply don't have access to these medicines. Even developed countries 
such as Italy have shortages. We could use Afghan morphine for those 
countries that desperately need it," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman