Pubdate: Sun, 01 Apr 2007
Source: Independent on Sunday (UK)
Copyright: Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Bookmark: (Heroin)


It looks too good - and too neat - to be true. Legalising poppy
growing in Afghanistan seems to solve so many difficult problems at
once. It would divert some of the supply of heroin from Western drug

It would make the war against the resurgent Taliban easier to fight:
one of the factors driving poor Afghan farmers into the arms of the
fundamentalists is the attempt by foreign troops to destroy the crop
that is their main livelihood. It would weaken the criminal warlords
whose control of the illegal drugs trade obstructs the country's
economic development. And if drug companies could buy Afghan opium
they could alleviate the shortages of medical opiates here and in the
developing world.

The reality is more complex.

The Bush administration is strongly opposed to the idea. Partly, no
doubt, this opposition has been driven by the domestic populism of the
"war on drugs". But the US Bureau of International Narcotics recently
set out a number of objections that deserve to be taken seriously. It
seems questionable, for example, that there really is a global
shortage of medical opiates.

There may be short-term supply problems in Britain, but the real
problem in Africa is, as with many medicines, the shortage of money
rather than of drugs.

The likelihood is, therefore, that if Afghan opium were legalised, it
would lead to oversupply of medical opiates.

Already, according to the Bureau, the price of legal opium is much
lower than that of the illicit kind. Buying up the poppy crop would
therefore require "exorbitant subsidies". But it then spoils its
argument by overstatement, suggesting that the plan would lead to
"exponential expansion" of poppy cultivation as farmers rush to "take
advantage of a guaranteed source of income".

Inadvertently, the Bureau has made the case for its

If the price were set correctly, below that of illegal opium, farmers
might prefer lower but more certain and legitimate returns.

Instead of expanding opium production they might have an incentive to
seek other sources of income.

It may be, as President Musharraf of Pakistan has suggested, that the
poppy crop might have to be bought up simply in order to be destroyed.

That might be expensive, but it seems plausible that the benefits
might be worth it. Bringing a significant sector of the Afghan economy
within the law is a more likely route to development than prohibition.
And it is the costs of a long war against drugs and the Taliban that
could be truly "exorbitant". Surely the most sensible policy would be
to set up trials by which a few farmers could be licensed to grow
legal opium and see what happens?

Remarkably, Tony Blair's pragmatism - "what matters is what works" -
seems to have overcome his respect for George Bush. The Prime Minister
has also been admirably non-partisan, responding to a proposal from
Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative backbencher, that licensed
poppy-growing should be tried.

The plan is unlikely to be a "short cut" or a "silver bullet" to
solving the problems of the illegal Afghan drugs trade, as the US
Bureau of International Narcotics points out. Nor will it bring a
quick or easy end to the mission of the International Security
Assistance Force in Afghanistan. But it may help. Mr Blair is to be
congratulated on defying the White House to give it a try.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake