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Is the Bush Administration Getting Nervous About Afghan Opium Licensing Schemes?

When the European drug policy and defense think-tank the Senlis Council in late 2005 unveiled its proposal to deal with illicit Afghan opium by licensing growers and diverting production to the global legal medicinal market for opioid pain medications, just about nobody thought the idea had a chance of going anywhere. Since then, as opium production there has continued to increase—Afghanistan now accounts for 90% of the global illicit opium supply—and Taliban insurgents have gathered strength, the licensing scheme has picked up support from politicians in Canada, England, and Italy, but still remains a long-shot. This week, as I will report in the Chronicle on Friday, the licensing notion gained new support, as the British Medical Association is suggesting that Afghan opium be used to produce medicinal diamorphine (heroin) for use in the National Health Service. The licensing idea also made it to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post last week, when columnist Anne Applebaum wrote a piece, "Ending an Opium War; Poppies and Afghan Recovery Can Both Bloom, arguing that the US should do in Afghanistan now what it did so successfully in Turkey under President Nixon. Then, faced with an influx of Turkish heroin (the stuff of the infamous French Connection), the US worked with the Turkish government and farmers to regulate poppy production. Now, Turkey is the main supplier of medicinal narcotics to the US. The current US administration, however, is adamantly opposed to any such effort in Afghanistan. Instead, drug war extremists in Washington are pushing the Afghans to make stronger efforts to eradicate the poppy crop and are even trying to push herbicidal eradication down the throat of the Karzai government. That idea has little support in Afghanistan or even among our NATO allies. Both groups fear a sustained attack on the country's economic mainstay will lead to political upheaval and end up benefiting the Taliban, a not unreasonable worry. But it seems like the Bush administration is starting to worry that the licensing scheme is gaining too much ground. Or, at least, it has bestirred itself to attack the notion. In a letter from James O'Gara, the drug czars deputy for supply reduction in today's Washington Post, the administration tried to fight back:
The Wrong Plan for Afghanistan's Opium Anne Applebaum's proposal to foster legal Afghan opium ["Ending an Opium War; Poppies and Afghan Recovery Can Both Bloom," op-ed, Jan. 16] is based on a misdiagnosis of the problem. First, there is no licit demand for Afghanistan's enormous supply of opium, currently more than 90 percent of the world's illicit market and almost double the world's entire licit production requirement. The United Nations reports a current global oversupply of opium-based products from existing licit producers. Pouring vastly more legal opium into the world system would cause prices to plummet, making the illicit trade that much more attractive to farmers. Second, Afghanistan produces opium because some regions remain under attack and lack security, to say nothing of the controls that are a prerequisite for any legal trade in narcotics. In the absence of such institutional controls, the distinction between legal and illicit opium is meaningless. Afghanistan needs peace, a flourishing economy and the rule of law. Each of these conditions is undone by narcotics production. Nowhere in the world do narco-warlords willingly relinquish their stranglehold on poor opium farmers, and nowhere in the world do such farmers become rich. The opium trade must be broken, not fostered, before it undoes the rest of Afghanistan.
O'Gara first claims there is no global need for more opioid pain relievers, citing the International Narcotics Control Board. That claim is debatable. In its proposal, the Senlis Council begged to differ, citing serious undersupplies, especially in the underdeveloped world. Second, O'Gara suggests that opium is being grown in Afghanistan only because of a lack of security and an effective national state. But the US government's insistence on attacking the poppy crop is precisely what contributes greatly to continued insecurity and political conflict within the country. Does he really think an all-out assault on the poppies is going to bring peace and tranquility? Whether the idea of licensing Afghan opium production is a good idea is open for debate. It is certainly as reasonable a response to the problem as heavy-handed repression efforts, and is much less likely to incite peasant resistance and support for the Taliban. But what is really interesting about all this is the fact that the drug czar's office feels a need to attack supporters of the idea. That suggests the idea is getting enough traction to pose a threat to the drug war as usual. We'll be staying tuned to this debate.
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Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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