Poppy Farmers Shouldn't Be the Only Target in the War on Opium

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan fell this year but opium production barely budged, making the rugged mountain nation once again world's largest heroin purveyor, despite national and international efforts to curtail the drug's spread.

Nipping Afghanistan's opium problem in the bud thus far has meant targeting poppy farmers, but the root of the problem lies beyond the fields and within Afghanistan's government, say experts.

The problems are manifold. The heroin industry puts many Afghans at the mercy of narco-traffickers, and Russia and Europe are grappling with skyrocketing heroin use, which has fueled a rise in HIV cases.

In the last few years, the refining of opium into morphine and heroin has shifted within Afghanistan, signaling that organized crime has implanted itself, with opium profits now believed to be fueling the insurgency and international terrorist groups.

The Afghan government and international community have grappled unsuccessfully with the problem, but one think tank suggests that the answer is as simple as allowing poppy farmers to grow the plant legally for sale to pharmaceutical companies, rather than attempting to eradicate the crop.

Cultivation Down but Production Still Going Strong

Harsh winters can wreck a promising harvest. Not so for the Afghanistan opium crop, which after years of drought, flourished with the heavy rainfall and snow last winter and spring. Production fell 2.4 percent to 4,200 tons in 2005 compared to a year before. Despite the slight drop, 87 percent of the world's opium comes from Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2005 Afghan Opium Survey.

The UNODC and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are touting that this remains well below the 1999 peak under the Taliban and that eradication efforts have curtailed overall cultivation. Beginning in October 2004, Afghanistan ordered provincial governors to destroy poppy fields and dispatched national police on a slash and burn mission. The threat of having poppy fields wrecked by drug enforcement authorities convinced farmers not to plant poppies. In return for opting not to plant the crimson-colored cash crop, farmers are promised aid and assistance.

The efforts seemed to have paid off in targeted provinces. Cultivation -- the number of acres planted with poppies -- dropped by 21 percent with the "poppy basket" region of Nangarhar seeing a 96 percent drop in cultivation.

"This year, we saw how well the stick and carrot approach really works," said Antonio Maria Costa, UNODC executive director, at a presentation of the UNODC survey in Russia at the end of September.

Karzai has repeated that he hopes his war-battered country will rid itself entirely of poppies within five to 10 years.

Optimistic, yes. Realistic? Many doubt the country can achieve such lofty goals.

As encouraging as the numbers may be, CARE's Afghanistan Advocacy Coordinator Scott Braunschweig, questions the sustainability of the eradication efforts.

"These are short-term means to obtain a short-term reduction," he said in an e-mail from Kabul.

"The decreases have negatively affected many farmers' livelihoods and potentially weakened state development," said Braunschweig.

In his opinion, tying development assistance to reductions in poppy cultivation undermines long-term, sustainable improvements because inevitably both sides feel like neither is living up to its end of the bargain.

In provinces where poppy cultivation has fallen dramatically, farmers voiced anger and disappointment about promises for roads, irrigation systems and jobs never materializing. A farmer told a CARE employee that if assistance didn't come he would plant poppies again next year, according to a March Afghanistan policy brief by CARE and the Center on International Cooperation.

The United Nations is aware that money and assistance hasn't reached all the farmers and cites security concerns and lack of staffing.

Cautiously Optimistic

The UNODC acknowledges that the recent progress is tenuous considering that opium cultivation has shifted away from the center and the east of the country to the north and west.

"We have to assist those who obey better," said Thomas Pietschmann, a UNODC research officer, saying that it's hard to convince a farmer to grow wheat when he can make 10 times more planting poppies. Pietschmann explained that at first the incentive program didn't work in Pakistan, but that after awhile, the benefits convinced farmers to choose legality over illegality.

Afghanistan ranks among the poorest countries in the world and wiping away a very profitable income source -- the drug trade accounted for 52 percent of its gross domestic product -- doesn't happen overnight.

Even if farmers only reap 3 percent to 4 percent of the $2.7 billion illicit drug money, opium remains their only mode of survival, experts say. Afghans need another cash source for at least two to three years as an alternative crop grows and bears fruit.

Let 'Em Grow It for Medicine

Observing the impasse, the international drug policy think tank Senlis Council believes that licensing opium production would allow Afghans a perfect transition toward legal means of surviving by cutting out the middle man and putting an end to the growing drug mafia controlled state.

"You allow farmers to maintain a livelihood by still letting them grow their cash crop, which then allows them to diversify into roses, wheat and other activities," said Emmanuel Reinert, Senlis' executive director. "If you remove their livelihood, it's a serious way to push them [the farmers] into a criminal network thus re-creating the conditions which led to the Taliban coming to power."

The council, which just wrapped up a three-day symposium in Kabul, proposed that the state control opium production so it can be sold for medicinal purposes. Opium-based morphine and codeine are highly effective painkillers. France, Australia, India and Turkey run successful licensed opium systems, said Reinert, reiterating that his group advocates working with what's available and "turning something bad into something good."

"We're not saying keep growing poppies, we're just saying you can ease the pressure and do something different," he said. In his view a licensing system will bring rule of law to the country and allow Afghanistan to take responsibility for their reconstruction and development.

Fighting the Addiction

Apparently the Afghan government hasn't been swayed. The government welcomed the study but said that it was too early to implement such a plan, blaming insecurity and instability.

"The Senlis proposals are attractive at a superficial level," said Paul Barker, CARE Afghanistan country director via e-mail from Kabul. "A licensing regime for poppy production could only work in a country with a well-functioning judicial and security system."

Not only does Afghanistan lack consistent rule of law, the UNODC also fears that legalizing opium production would send the wrong message to farmers and worsen the problem by giving everyone a reason to grow poppies. Pietschmann added that India has fallen on hard times because legalizing opium production automatically drives prices lower.

The UNODC realizes that it takes more than counter-narcotics efforts to fight drugs.

It has asked that along with the eradication and persuasion campaign, Afghanistan must address corruption within its own government and remove (not just reprimand) corrupt governors. In addition, they advise a zero-tolerance policy toward militias and warlords involved in drugs. Finally, the UNODC recommends Afghanistan must prosecute and extradite drug traffickers.

Afghanistan's government bears the brunt of the dirty work but so does the Western world, according to the United Nations. That means pouring more money, not less, into development, having NATO control Afghanistan's borders and break the drug chain abroad. Snuff out heroin labs, clamp down on illegal drug money bank accounts and dissuade drug users from shooting up.