Drug policy thinkers, researchers, and political figures from around the world mixed with Afghan government officials, treatment and addiction specialists, law enforcement representatives, interested Afghan citizens, and representatives of neighboring countries at a three-day conference in Kabul this week as the Senlis Council formally unveiled a plan to license Afghan opium crops and divert them from the black market to legitimate medicinal markets. Amidst a burst of publicity and news coverage ranging from Kabul TV to the New York Times, the European drug policy think tank kicked off the confab Monday with a press conference calling on the Afghan government, Western governments, and the United Nations to get behind the proposal, which is designed to increase the availability of opioid pain medications in the developing world while dramatically reducing the supply of Afghan opium and heroin in the global black market.
"Based on the findings of the feasibility study, we are recommending a fast track action plan to develop a controlled opium licensing system," Reinert added. "We believe it is possible to do this under the current legal framework in Afghanistan."
Nearly four years after the United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime, the country continues as the unchallenged world leader in opium poppy cultivation, boasting nearly 90% of the global supply. Not only does Afghan opium and its derivative, heroin, supply a drug using population from Pakistan to Picadilly Circus and Teheran to Tashkent, the profits from that trade, estimated in the billions annually, are suspected of enriching the coffers of drug trafficking mafias across Eurasia, Afghan warlords and government officials, and their mortal foes, the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies.
While many of the international figures brought to Kabul for the conference offered hearty endorsements of the plan, initial reaction from Afghan and UN anti-drug fighters was much less positive. Monday morning, before the feasibility study was even released, Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics Habibullah Qaderi dismissed the plan as unworkable given the country's parlous security situation. "As far as the licensing at this moment is concerned, I am saying no," he was quoted as saying in the local press. "I'm not in favor because it jeopardizes the whole of our effort. There would be anarchy in the country now. It would create a lot of problems."
Similarly, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has rejected the proposal, according to a Reuters report. There is already a sufficient supply of opioid pain medications to meet global demand, UNODC said. It also argued that buying farmers' crops in a legitimate market would not be economically viable and that such a scheme would "send the wrong message" to Afghan farmers.
The proposal runs counter to official Afghan drug policy, the position of the firmly prohibitionist UNODC, and the desires of the United Kingdom and the United States, which has committed $700 million to eradicating the poppy crop and developing alternative livelihoods for the hundreds of thousands of Afghan households that depend on the opium economy to put food on the table.
Still, the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai said it would consider the proposal. If initial indications from the top of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics were unenthusiastic, the head of the ministry's Demand Reduction Directorate, Dr. Mohammed Zafar, sounded a bit more open as he addressed the symposium. "Questions arose here about who is going to make the decisions on this, and I must say that the government of Afghanistan has the right to decide whether to legalize these fields or not," he said. "People within the government will be discussing this, and we want to thank the Senlis Council for their efforts."
The scheme may appear shockingly radical -- and it certainly did to many Afghans, who vociferously questioned every aspect of it (look for an extensive look at the fascinating give and take next week) -- but the series of UN Conventions on drugs of course makes space for licensed and controlled opium production for the medicinal market, and there is no reason why Afghanistan could not in theory join the handful of countries that supply that raw material for opioid pain medications.
One sticking point is the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the organization charged with determining the amount of opium needed to supply that legal medicinal market. The INCB says that global supply is adequate to meet demand.
The Senlis Council disagrees and challenged the INCB to prove its contention. Reinert told the gathering that the group's study showed a worldwide shortfall in pain relieving opiates, such as morphine and codeine, particularly in the developing countries. "The International Narcotics Control Board must fully disclose the structure of the existing global opium market to assess needs worldwide," he said.
The Council brought an army of experts to back its proposal, including Raymond Kendall, the honorary secretary general of Interpol, who told the audience that current global drug control strategies were an unmitigated failure. "The UN stated in the 1990s that its goal was to eliminate drug abuse and trafficking by 2008," Kendall noted. "Here we are in 2005, and it is clear that 2008 goal is a total illusion."
It is time to try a new approach, the senior lawman said. "We have to look at Afghanistan and understand that we need to try alternative approaches," he said. "The methods applied so far have not made a significant impact on the situation. We have to look at supply. We continue to apply the same policies, and there is almost an unwillingness to look at alternatives. But I defy anyone to look at this feasibility study and say this is not a serious, valid, and worthwhile document worthy of study."
The feasibility study is now officially on the table. The Afghan government is at least giving it lip service. And the Senlis Council is not wasting any time moving forward. "Today we also announce the launching of phase two of our feasibility study, which will be an important on-the-ground accompaniment to the first installment and will explore several elements of opium licensing," said Reinert. "These recommendations must be pursued as soon as possible; there is a small window of opportunity, the cartels are poised to take control of Afghan opium and this autumn may be too late."
This initial DRCNet report has only touched the surface of what went on at the three-day symposium, which was a full-blown, multi-sided attempt to come to grips with massive drug production in a poverty-stricken, violence-racked nation at the heart of the global drug trade. Look for much more on the conference next week, as well as more reporting from Kabul and, inshallah, the opium fields and markets of Afghanistan.