Editorial: It's Time to Get Real About Opium in Afghanistan

David Borden, Executive Director, 7/28/06

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David Borden
I wouldn't say that many countries are truly rational about drug policy yet, but some of them have more people, in more prominent positions, who have gotten there. When they do, it tends to transcend traditional political boundaries -- for example, Conservative party leader David Cameron in Great Britain, who suggested legalization during the run-up to his selection for the post, and others in his party who asked him this week to support a licensing scheme for Afghan opium as opposed to the current regime of total prohibition and sporadic and ineffective eradication efforts.

What some of the Tories are saying is that it's unrealistic to think we can be effective against an industry that makes up 50% of the struggling nation's economy, that when eradication efforts happen, they drive farmers into the Taliban's corner and seem correlated with outbreaks of violence, that instituting a legal opium crop (which could be used and is actually somewhat needed for the legal medical market) would reduce the illicit market and deal a blow to evil-doers by bringing the money above-board and reducing their access to it.

Given the substantial threats existing to security and the role movements operating from Afghanistan have played in some of them, I vote for realism. These Brits are right -- trying to pull the plug on Afghanistan's opium trade is a truly insane idea -- we would only find out how insane if we were actually to succeed. The war against drugs is a war that cannot be won -- too many people are determined to take them and are willing to pay the money that it takes to get them.

In that sense, the bad guys will always have more resources to work with then the good guys. In a larger sense, the lines dividing the bad guys from the good guys are more than a little blurred, when the enemy apparently include destitute third-world farmers who only want to save their families from starving, and ordinary American and European citizens who only want to be left alone to indulge in their pastimes in private.

Cameron, of course, is from the other side of the aisle as current British prime minister Tony Blair, and even if the Conservatives were in power, they doubtless don't all support his views about legalization. Doing something about it is even harder still than that. And of course the Afghans get to have some say in what happens in their country too, and they are not all on board even with the moderate proposal of licensing for the medical supply. (Our editor Phil Smith found that out when he attended last September's conference in Kabul on the idea.)

Still, you have to start somewhere, and a the top political leaders in a nation that is the US's closest ally seems as good a place as any. A desperate country like Afghanistan that urgently needs stability and to reduce criminality also would seem a worthy place, even more so in light of our own related interests there. It's time to get real about opium in Afghanistan.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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