Feature: Questions and Answers, Give and Take -- Afghans Take on the Senlis Council and Its Licensing Proposal 10/7/05

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The Senlis Council's proposal to license some portion of the Afghan opium crop and divert it from the black market to the legitimate medicinal market naturally excited great interest among Afghans, who flooded into the Hotel Intercontinental's ballroom in large numbers last week. But for the Afghans, curiosity and intrigue with the Senlis Council proposal came mixed with a healthy dose of worry and skepticism, and even some expressions of hostility toward meddling foreigners.

While Afghanistan has barely begun its experiment with Western-style parliamentary democracy, it was clear from the tough questioning around the Senlis Council's proposal that the spirit of skeptical democratic inquiry is alive and well in the war-weary Central Asian country. The role of Afghan women in the give and take was worth noting. They may still wear burqas and veils, but if their participation at the Senlis symposium is any indication, that doesn't mean they consider themselves second-class citizens.

Herewith some excerpts from the give and take:

Question: Why wouldn't every farmer want to grow opium under your proposal? Wouldn't this turn our country into a giant opium plantation?

Senlis symposium
Senlis Council head Emmanuel Reinert: It is not our intention to turn Afghanistan into a monocrop economy. Instead, a licensing system will allow Afghanistan to diversify the economy and build a sustainable farming system.

Question: Won't this proposal just result in more opium going to the black market?

Honorary head of INTERPOL Raymond Kendall: No one should think you can realistically prevent leakage, but on the other hand, right now 100% of the crop goes into the illicit market. Anything we can do to reduce that 100% will be an improvement.

Question: Why do you want to do this instead of helping Afghanistan by eradicating this bad plant?

Reinert: The licensing system would complement other responses to the drug crisis in Afghanistan, not replace them. In Turkey, France, and India, where there are licensed poppy fields, they understand that opium can be used for good.

Kendall: What we need is a much more flexible approach. Eradication and cultivation can be done at the same time. Let us be realistic. Right now, all of the cultivation is going to organized crime. Does any one realistically believe that in this moment in these conditions, that eradication is possible? It is not possible; maybe in 10 years it will be possible. We need to give the feasibility study a chance, and we also need to ask: What are the real needs for opioid pain medications? People in Afghanistan don't have access to these drugs.

Colombian drug policy expert Francisco Thoumi: The fact is, you can have legal cultivation that is not in contradiction to anti-drug policies. In Peru and Colombia, while there is illegal coca destined for the drug traffic, there is also a significant amount of coca grown legally for traditional uses.

Question: Why are you doing this? Our government said in the newspapers this morning that they will reject this idea.

Reinert: As a matter of fact, we just released the feasibility study today, and I have to wonder how they got through 700 pages and to the conclusions about what we found. Also, I don't think you want to say it was rejected, but that the government said it was too early.

Question: Senlis is making this effort to legalize opium. What is the guarantee that our youth will not use the drugs?

Dr. Mohammed Zafar, head of demand reduction for the Ministry of
Counter-Narcotics: The Afghan government has its own policies and strategies to reduce drug use, but we have not been able to make guarantees. The government has to decide what to do, and each decision reached will have to reflect the benefits to the people.

Question: What is the government doing about drugs? We had more treatment beds under the Taliban than now.

Zafar: We are doing the best we can. We hope to expand the treatment capability.

Question: Drug treatment doesn't work. Please don't work on legalizing the poppy. Tell Senlis not to work on this.

Zafar: We think we can help some people with treatment.

Question (from Minister of Women's Affairs Habiba Sorabi): We don't want this licensed opium. It has never been accepted by the people of Afghanistan, and thanks to God, God does not allow this; it is forbidden in Islam. We should clean our lands and ask God almighty to forgive us for what we have done. His excellency President Karzai is emphasizing poppy eradication and it should be eradicated at any cost. A licensing system would be misused, and we thank the US for explaining this matter and working on eliminating the poppy. We got rid of terrorists and the Taliban, and now we face another challenge -- getting rid of the poppy. We want the international community to help us with this. We caution Karzai to be careful about this, and we agree with his narcotics fight.

Reinert: That wasn't a question. Thank you for your frank comments.

Question: How would this licensing work?

Reinert: Licensing already exists in a number of countries, each of which has its own system. There are some international requirements. For example, you would have to set up a national opium agency that would issue licenses to certain entities, whether it is individual farmers, groups of farmers, state farms, or whatever. It is up to each country to decide. In India, for instance, the government issues licenses to individual farmers, but it would be up to the Afghan government to decide how it would be done here. This will require local community involvement and control, but in order for a licensing plan to be successful, you have to have the central government in Kabul involved.

Question: Won't this just confuse farmers? We are telling them that it is bad to grow opium, but now you want to tell them they can grow it with a license?

Kendall: Human nature being what it is, the conditions to persuade farmers not to grow opium do not exist here. We hear a lot of talk about eradication, but that is eradication, not persuasion.

Reinert: You also have to understand that there is a clear difference between illegal opium and licensed opium.

Question: A large number of farmers are benefiting from illicit cultivation. How many would benefit from licensed cultivation?

Reinert: It is too early to say how many farmers would benefit, but we believe that shifting even a small part of the production to licensed production, we will begin to break the vicious cycle of the illegal economy and disrupt the illegal trade in Afghanistan. We don't necessarily intend that all farmers in the trade will be licensed.

Kendall: You have to remember that it is not the farmers who reap the big benefits. It is traffickers and people like that who really benefit from illegal opium.

Question: What is the benefit from licensed opium production?

Kendall: It would move farmers from an illegal activity to a legal activity, and that's a big benefit.

Reinert: Any licensing system will have to have farmers at the center and the licenses must be organized around the needs of Afghan farmers and contribute to the development of the country. This proposal would give the Afghan people the opportunity to reorganize this illegal production and to divert it from the traffickers and the mafia. Also, if you compare illegal production and a licensed system, you can see that while the price for illegal opium averages about $113 per kilogram, the farmers have to pay bribes and other costs, so the net gain for them is much lower. While licensed prices might be lower than the illicit price, the farmers could also benefit from the profits made in transforming opium into morphine. And there are not only financial incentives, but also the chance for farmers to work in a legal environment and be part of the reconstruction of their country.

Question: In Europe, they are trying to outlaw cigarettes. Why do you want us Afghans to legalize opium?

Reinert: This is not about legalizing opium. We are talking about licensed production for the medicinal market, not about legalizing opium.

As the excerpts above make abundantly clear, the spirit of skeptical inquiry is alive and well in Afghanistan. They also make clear that the Senlis Council and local proponents of the licensing plan still have a major selling job ahead of them.

-- END --
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Issue #406 -- 10/7/05

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items

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Feature: Prohibition and Terror -- The Afghan Connection | Feature: Afghan Opium Farmers Caught in the Squeeze | Feature: Afghan Opium Conundrum -- What to do with Warlords, Politicians Involved in the Drug Trade? | Feature: Questions and Answers, Give and Take -- Afghans Take on the Senlis Council and Its Licensing Proposal | Editorial: The Consequences of Prohibition (was "What is It About Opium?") | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Latin America: Bolivian Coca Leader and Presidential Contender Evo Morales Visits European Parliament as Elections Thrown Into Doubt | Latin America: US Fumigation Plane Shot Down in Colombia | Web Scan: New CJPF Newsletter, Meth Conference Audio & Powerpoint Online, Meth Commentary from Cascade | Weekly: This Week in History | Partnering: DRCNet Seeking Fellowship Application Collaborators | Contest: New DRCNet T-Shirt Designs | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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