Afghanistan’s primary industry, its main export and the chief prop holding up its shaky economy is opium cultivation. For tens of thousands of Afghani opium farmers and their families growing the opium poppy that supplies Europe with an estimated 92% of its heroin is their only means of livlihood. The US supports the government of Afghanistan with billions of dollars while jailing tens of thousands of its own citizens for drug-related offenses. US official drug policy in Afghanistan calls for the complete eradication of the opium poppy. It is a failed policy, but getting out if won’t be easy.

Supposedly under the Taliban opium production was stopped entirely. The Taliban decided the opium production was “un-Islamic”, but many doubt whether they really stopped opium farming or just used its profits to fund Islamic terror groups. The US quandry is that even if its eradication program succeeded, the result would be a devasting blow to the Afghan economy and an even heavier burden on US taxpayers along with unpredictable social upheaval.

On October 24 Rep. Henry Hyde (R. – Ill.) sent an open letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as asking for a change in US Drug Policy in Afghanistan. Instead of pursuing the failed program of eradication of opium farming, Hyde wants the US DEA to go after drug traffickers, the so-called “Drug Lords” who make most of the profit and who control the refining and export of the final product, heroin. So far Rumsfeld hasn’t responded to Hyde’s letter.

Last January a two-day symposium was held in Kabul on the subject of formulating a new drug policy for Afghanistan. The sponsor of the symposium was a European-based think-tank called the Senlis Council. Made up of foreign policy and world health experts, the Senlis Council proposed a solution that may shock some Americans, but which would seem to hold out the promise of a way out of a very sticky situation if adopted.

What Senlis proposes is a program to license the production of opium along the lines of the licensing program already operating in Turkey, but with a few new wrinkles. The idea is that eradication won’t work. The farmers need the cash crop. So the government should license growers and then their crop,instead of ending up in the hands of traffickers who convert it to heroin, can be diverted to legitimate channels and used to produce much-need medicinal opiates, especially morphine.

The Turkish licensing program seems to be working well. It goes back to the 1960s when the US put pressure on the Turks to eradicate opium farming. At the time some  70,000 Turkish farmers and their  families depended on the cash crop of poppies for economic survival and Ankara knew politcal chaos would ensue if an eradication program were carried out. Instead they came up with the licensing idea and the poppies that would have gone to illegal heroin use became medicinal pain-killers.

The new twist Senlis has put on the idea is a global advertising campaign touting the benefits of buying “Afghanistan Humanitarian Morphine” and making the purchase of it a politcally correct act. According to the experts at the Senlis Council we are in the midst of a “World Pain Crisis” especially in the cash-strapped Third World where HIV/AIDS and cancer sufferers can rarely obtain effective pain killers at affordable prices. Currently Afghanistan produces about 4,000 tons of opium, which translates to about 400 tons of morphine, enough to do a lot of good if taken out of criminal channels and made available to doctors.

Of course the Senlis program will have its doubters. If the illegal drug market for poppies dries up the price will escalate rapidly, tempting licensed growers to divert part of the crop. Also, production may go elsewhere. In the 1960s when Turkey began its system of licensed growing it supplied most of Europe’s junkies with smack. The licensing scheme worked and production shifted to Afghanistan. If licensing works there illegal production will no doubt shift again.

Santa Monica’s own think-tank, the Rand Corporation, is developing a simulation of the global market for illegal drugs. When it’s done perhaps this will tell us what the outcomes of various scenarios in Afghanistan might be. But if illegal production left Afghanistan it would probably at least save the US taxpayer a little money.

The International Law governing narcoitcs production is the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The 2005 Afghanistan Counter Narcotcs Law controls such activities there. The experts at Senlis are convinced their licensing scheme came be written to conform with these laws. In the meantime the US House of Representatives has passed HR 5631 which allocates another $700 million for poppy eradication in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007.






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