A Solution for Afghanistan’s Opium Crisis?


A recent report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC 2014) has found that illicit opium production in Afghanistan not only persists, but has actually increased, with more hectares of land being used to grow the crop. For nearly 14 years, the Afghan government, with the help of the international community and aid agencies, has worked to eradicate opium production entirely. This recent UNODC report has shown that not only have these efforts been unsuccessful, but that the eradication programs may have actually pushed farmers to increase their outputs.

The report showcases the negative trends of the Afghan opium industry, in which 13 years of consolidated effort to eradicate opium crops, with millions of dollars spent, have been a failure. Compared to the other difficulties the country faces, from an active insurgency to widespread corruption and nepotism, the opium problem was understood to be relatively manageable. Yet the government and international community have not been able to deal with it.

So what is the way forward then for this growing problem, that for some marks Afghanistan as a narco-state? The answer lies in transforming Afghanistan’s illicit opium production into a legal industry, as has been done in many states before that now produce opium for medical purposes.

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In fact, the idea of transforming Afghan opium into a source for the opiates industry has been discussed in the past. It should now be given serious consideration. The negative externalities of the conflict in Afghanistan have allowed the illicit opium industry to thrive – regions with the highest concentration of production correlate with the most insecure provinces. The implications reach far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Transforming production into a legal industry would represent a real and lasting policy solution that would not only take control of the issue, but could also serve as a source of much-needed revenue for the government.

Afghanistan, Myanmar, Mexico, and Columbia account for nearly all of opium’s underground production, with Afghanistan alone representing roughly 90 percent of output. Based on the UNODC 2014 report, the farm-gate value for cultivating the crop for Afghan farmers stands at $850 million, compared to $400 million in 2009 (UNODC 2010). Of course, given that the industry is valued at $60 billion a year, the vast majority of money is still being made outside the country.

The Golden Crescent refers to parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the countries most affected by the illicit trade. Two major corridors – The Balkan Route and The Northern Route – are used to transport Afghan opium to international markets. The Balkan Route sees opium move to Iran via Pakistan, before traveling west through Turkey and Greece, ultimately reaching Western Europe. The Northern Route mainly moves opium through northern Afghanistan into Central Asian for the Russian market. Clearly, as a member of the international community, Afghanistan has an obligation to prevent illicit narcotics produced inside its territory from creating problems for its neighbors.

Transforming Afghanistan’s illicit production of opium into a licit industry for possible medical use would not be an easy task. But the risks of staying on the current course are even greater. Opium is a central ingredient in medicines such as painkillers, and is used in treatments for a wide variety of illnesses. The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) introduced the “Poppy for Medicine” initiative in 2007, which called for Afghanistan to be transformed into a global producer of opiates for medical purposes. This alternative solution was intended to address Afghanistan’s continued reliance on the illegal drug trade, as well as to assist in the shortage in supply of opiate-based medicines as reported by the World Health Organization.

Under the ICOS plan, the Poppy for Medicine program for Afghanistan would, “Link the country’s two most valuable resources – poppy cultivation and strong local village control systems – to secure the controlled cultivation of poppy for the local production of morphine. The resulting economic benefits would provide farming communities with access to the strategic economic assets necessary to end their reliance on poppy cultivation.”

Locating the production process in Afghanistan would also provide for the creation of industry and much-needed jobs, which would in turn allow for greater economic profits to remain inside the country. These economic incentives could be a driving factor for both the government of Afghanistan and its international partners, as well as for the thousands of Afghan farmers who are dependent on the crop.

Australia and France are said to account for nearly half of the world’s production of medical opiates, with strict control on pricing and supply. In 2010, the World Health Organization reported that six developed countries accounted for almost 80 percent of the consumption of opium-based medicines, while developing countries accounted for just 6 percent. The International Narcotics Control Board found that 80 percent of the world’s population face a shortage of opium-based medicines.

Afghanistan could help resolve this global supply problem and become a valued source of affordable medicine. As the ICOS has found, “Afghanistan could supply this market with medical morphine at a price at least 55 percent lower than the market average.” The initiative would have Afghanistan and its people helping to alleviate a global problem – a significant change from the many years of negativity associated with the country.

A recent policy brief published by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has argued against Afghanistan entering the legal opium market. According to the USIP brief, Afghanistan would not be able to compete internationally and there would be a high risk of “leakage,” namely opium finding its way back into the illegal drug trade. The report claims that Afghan farmers would not be incentivized to switch to legal production, since the profits from any legal licensing could not match those that could be earned from the illegal sale of opium. This is in stark contrast with the finding from the ICOS, which in its 2007 report found that Afghan farmers could see a potential 4000 percent price mark-up between the illegal farm-gate price and the finished medical product.

In the 1970s, Turkey was a major source of illicit opium for the drug trade. In just four years, and with the help of an American-led initiative, Turkey was able to transform its illegal opium trade into a viable and profitable legal industry. The Turkish government instituted a program that offered to license farmers’ crops for medical purposes, resulting in Turkey becoming a leader in the opiates-based medical field. There is no reason why Afghanistan should not pursue a similar path.

The idea of using Afghanistan’s opium output for medical purposes warrants serious consideration. For their own part, Afghans need to take on more responsibility in addressing this problem and create alternative policies designed to move Afghanistan away from “narco-state” status. Transforming its opium industry from an international drug problem into a viable licit drug export commodity for international markets is one approach, and a chance for Afghanistan to give back to the international community.

Sohrab Rahmaty has an MA in Political Science from the University of Guelph.

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