Pubdate: Mon, 04 Jun 2007
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2007 Southam Inc.
Bookmark: (Senlis Council)


At home, the red European wild poppy is a symbol of Canada's military 
heritage. But the Canadian soldiers of today are trudging through 
fields of opium poppies every day in Afghanistan, and for them, the 
potent tall-stalked plant has become a contemporary symbol of the 
frustrations of nation-building in a failed state.

Illicit poppy production is simultaneously a hard-to-replace source 
of income for thousands of small Afghan farmers and a valuable source 
of revenue for the enemies of NATO and the legitimate Afghan 
government. Over 90% of the world's illegal raw opium is thought to 
come from Afghanistan. Ultimately, its by-products go on to wreak 
havoc in cities around the world.

Consistent with the thinking that gave us Washington's failed "war on 
drugs," the preferred U.S. policy is to "eradicate" Afghan poppy 
fields through aerial spraying, which practically means driving the 
opium trade underground and hitting the small grow-ops hardest.

Other NATO partners such as Germany credibly argue that crippling 
Afghanistan's underground economy is only going to destabilize the 
country, and thereby strengthen Taliban rebels.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Karzai is caught in a difficult bind, 
since many of the regional power-brokers on whom he depends have a 
hand in heroin smuggling. While he has warned that the illicit drug 
trade may "destroy" Afghanistan, the President is reluctant to 
consent to a program of aerial spraying that will destroy the 
livelihoods of impoverished farmers.

For now, NATO troops' formal rules of engagement have them turning a 
blind eye to poppy production while the Afghan government's own 
eradication teams, working with American training and equipment, try 
to reduce the opium supply. Mr. Karzai has agreed to allow the United 
States to begin spraying if the Afghans don't get the job done by 
next spring. It is an approach guaranteed to fail: Similar 
U.S.-funded scorched-earth drug-eradication projects in Columbia and 
other Latin American countries have all been complete debacles in 
recent decades.

Given this, it's worth taking a look at a course of action being 
promoted in Canada by the Senlis Council, a liberal-minded, 
self-described "international drug policy think-tank." In recent 
years, its members' close attention to Afghanistan's drug trade has 
encouraged them to speak out on broader issues concerning the war there.

We are philosophically opposed to some favoured Senlis policies, like 
safe-injection sites for heroin addicts, and we admittedly can't see 
much logic behind its recent urgings that Canadian development aid 
for Afghanistan should match military spending there 
dollar-for-dollar. (The stick and the carrot should be as big as they 
need to be to get the job done, whatever their respective sizes.) But 
the organization's Canadian president, Norine MacDonald, knows 
Afghanistan intimately, sensibly opposes a Stephane Dion-style 
scheduled military withdrawal and has a tempting answer for the opium 
paradox that both drug warriors and harm reductionists could get 
behind in principle.

The basic idea is simple: Opium is medicine, so why destroy it? In an 
age of rising global prosperity and life expectancies, the medical 
demand for opioids such as codeine and morphine is rising all the 
time, and indeed is outstripping supply according to UN measures. Yet 
there are no legal arrangements for Afghan farmers to produce 
licensed opium legally for the international pharmaceutical market.

Nothing in international, Afghan or Islamic law stands in the way, 
and a similar program of pharmacization has already brought thousands 
of Turkish farmers in from the black market. The only thing missing 
in Afghanistan is the bridge between lawful authority and the areas 
in which poppies are now being grown illegally -- which is to say, 
the problem is that the war hasn't yet been won.

That's hardly a trivial hurdle to overcome, but there is a 
chicken-and-egg dynamic here: Isn't it just possible that NATO would 
find it easier to win hearts and minds in the lawless parts of 
Afghanistan if farmers there knew that NATO progress meant a big 
stake in a legal opium trade -- instead of the status quo, whereby 
government busybodies are trying to get everybody to burn their 
dollars-a-bushel poppies and grow pennies-a-bushel onions instead?

The real risk of a licensing regime is that it might end up being 
carelessly policed and prone to bribery, enabling some of the "legal" 
harvest to find its way into the illicit drug trade. But as the 
Council points out, that's where the entire harvest is ending up now.

Stephane Dion has come out in favour of looking at the Senlis plan, 
but when he notices that it implies seeing the war through to the 
end, as Ms. MacDonald has emphasized, he is likely to get cold feet. 
It's the Conservatives, the party of victory, that ought to give it 
the consideration it deserves. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake