Afghan opium: License to kill
By Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy
Editor's note: More than 60 delegations, mostly countries but also some
multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, meet in London for two days this
week to tackle development issues for Afghanistan. One of the more
controversial topics to be tabled is how to deal with Afghanistan's opium
fields, which last year produced about 4,200 tonnes of raw opium.
In June 1906, Charles Henry Brent, the first Protestant Episcopal Church bishop
of the Philippines and a staunch opponent of the
opium trade, wrote to president Theodore Roosevelt to ask for the United States
to call an international conference to enforce anti-opium measures in China.
The conference was held in Shanghai in 1909. One hundred years after Bishop
Brent's letter, the global prohibition of opium and
certain other drugs has largely failed, in spite of, or maybe because of, more
than 30 years of the "war on drugs" launched in 1971 by the administration of
US president Richard Nixon.
This is what was stressed at a conference on "Drug Production and State
Stability" recently held in Paris, when Alfred McCoy, professor of history at
the University of Wisconsin and author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity
in the Global Drug Trade, explained that, "after fighting five drug
wars in 30 years at a cost of US$150 billion, Washington has presided over a
[fivefold] increase" in the world illicit-opium supply, from 1,000 tonnes in
1970 to between 5,000 and 6,000 tonnes in the mid-2000s.
This was exemplified in late 2005 when the United Nations Office on Drugs and
Crime (UNODC) confirmed that Afghanistan was still and by far the world's first
producing country of illicit opium, despite alternative development efforts,
eradication measures, and widely lauded achievements in democracy and
state-building in the country.
Clearly, as has now been stated by many observers and analysts, the danger for
Afghanistan is that a hastened suppression or eradication program will, in the
absence of alternative livelihoods being widely promoted, damage the fragile
rural economy, prove counterproductive in the mid-term, and impede sustainable
solutions to the Afghan crisis.
Indeed, in a 2004 interview, Doris Buddenberg, the head of UNODC in
Afghanistan, said, "Eradication usually does not bring about a sustainable
reduction of poppy crop - it is a one-time, short-term effort. Also eradication
usually pushes the prices up. As we have seen from the Taliban period, the
one-year ban on opium-poppy cultivation increased prices enormously the
following year and it became extremely attractive for farmers to cultivate
However, in December 2005, only a few weeks after having lauded "the largest
decrease [of opium-poppy cultivation] ever recorded in a single year in any
country", Buddenberg said there were "signs cultivation may increase next year
in many areas, in part because of pressure on farmers to grow opium poppies and
their own concerns about making a living", thus without clearly acknowledging
that the so-called "success" in reducing opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan
in 2004-05 had already been and was still to be largely counterproductive.
In such a context, where both interdiction and development have failed to solve
the "opium problem" in Afghanistan, because interdiction without development
amounts to further deteriorating the livelihoods of opium farmers, and
alternative development is far from having been implemented with adequate
economic means and political determination, a rather new, but unrealistic,
proposal has emerged: the licensing of Afghan opium for production of
Described as "a truly winning solution" by many, the proposal of the Senlis
Council, an "international drug-policy think-tank" based in Paris, consists of
licensing Afghan opium for the production of legal medicines such as morphine
and codeine as a way to respond to the urgent need to significantly reduce
Afghanistan's illegal opium production and trade, but also as a way to overcome
the "significant global shortage of opium-based medicines such as morphine and
codeine", a problem "felt most acutely in the developing world".
This proposal, however, is based on false or inexact premises, on at least two
levels: regarding the world market on the one hand, and national and local
opium-farming communities on the other hand.
Supply and demand of opioid analgesics
According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which is in
charge of examining on a regular basis issues affecting the supply of and
demand for opiates used for medical purposes, the supply of such opiates has
for years been "at levels well in excess of global demand".
In fact, as stocks continue to be more than sufficient to cover global demand
for one year, the INCB even recommends reducing the production of opiate raw
materials. Nevertheless, the INCB stresses that "the low consumption of opioid
analgesics for the treatment of moderate to severe pain, especially in
developing countries, continues to be a matter of great concern".
"In 2003, six countries together accounted for 79% of global consumption of
morphine" while "developing countries, which represent about 80% of the world's
population, accounted for only about 6%" of its global consumption. Thus, for
the INCB, the urgency is more "to raise awareness of the necessity to assess
the actual medical needs for opiates" in the world than to increase the
production of legal medical morphine in countries such as Afghanistan.
This is easily understandable when one knows that most governments in the world
did not respond to the INCB questionnaire on their medical needs and that
information about half of the needs of the world's population was insufficient.
However, simply raising levels of morphine production, whether by licensing
opium production in Afghanistan or by increasing the yields of current
producers, is unlikely to increase the medical consumption of morphine and
codeine in the world.
The recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) that morphine and
codeine be used as analgesics are too often impeded by obstacles that are not,
or not only, supply-related: concerns about drug addiction and drug diversion,
restrictive national laws, insufficient import or manufacture, but also
deficiencies in national health-care delivery systems, insufficient training,
Of course, the demand for modern analgesics is also related to the importance
of conventional or allopathic medicine with regard to local traditions and
beliefs. In China for example, according to WHO, traditional herbal
preparations account for 30-50% of the total medicinal consumption, while in
Africa up to 80% of the population uses traditional medicine for primary health
Thus, obviously, the world's medical consumption of opiates is far from being
directly dependent on supply and demand, and price contingencies, as was
actually hinted by the Senlis Council itself when it stressed that "in 2002,
77% of the world's morphine was consumed by seven rich countries: [the] US, the
UK, Italy, Australia, France, Spain and Japan", but that, according to official
figures, "even in these countries only 24% of moderate to severe pain-relief
need was being met".
The fact that medical consumption of opiates is low even in rich
morphine-producing countries clearly shows that the consumption of opiate-based
painkillers is determined by factors more complex than only those of the
Indian licit vs Afghan illicit opium production
As far as Afghanistan and its opium farmers are concerned now, the licensing of
the illicit opium supply is very unlikely to help develop them economically.
First, it is important to understand that while legal opium-poppy cultivation
is undertaken for pharmaceutical use by 12 countries (Australia, China, the
Czech Republic, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Slovakia, Spain, Macedonia,
Turkey and the United Kingdom), only one of them, India, produces opium, the
latex that bleeds, coagulates and is harvested from incised opium-poppy
capsules. The 11 other actually grow opium poppies to harvest poppy straw and
produce concentrate of poppy straw (CPS) in the context of a modern mechanized
agriculture that resorts for the most part to combine harvesters on large
tracts of cultivated land.
Conversely, because opium harvesting is a long and arduous manual process, it
requires a numerous and, more than anything, cheap local workforce if the opium
and morphine production process is to be economically viable. For that reason,
and also because of international agreements derived from the role the opium
economy played in its colonial past, opium is only legally produced in India.
Of course, since 12 countries already produce raw opium materials to make
morphine, codeine and thebaine, and have significantly increased the
concentration of alkaloids in opium-poppy plants, the INCB, pursuant to the
1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, wishes to "to avoid the proliferation
of supply sites" to prevent diversion of opium-poppy plants and seeds licitly
produced to the illicit market.
Diversion from the licit to the illicit market occurs much more easily with
opium than concentrate of poppy straw, as the Indian example shows us.
In India, legal opium producing occurs in selected tracts in Madhya Pradesh,
Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Indian central government sets an opium
minimum qualifying yield (MQY) according to the yields reported by farmers the
previous years. During the 2004-05 crop year (8,770 licensed hectares), MQY of
58 kilograms per hectare in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and of 49kg in Uttar
Pradesh had to be achieved by opium farmers to be eligible for the renewal of
their license in 2005-06.
Cultivators are issued a license for growing poppies and the entire opium
produced by all farmers is purchased by and only by the Central Bureau of
Narcotics at a price fixed by the central government. The price paid to the
farmers depends on the yields achieved, with farmers producing more opium
getting paid a higher price per kilogram: in 2004-05, the minimum price paid
per kilogram was Rs750 (US$17) for yields up to 44kg per hectare. The maximum
price paid was Rs2,200 for yields above 100kg/ha. The average national yield
was 56kg/ha and was paid at a price Rs1,150 per kilogram.
However, it is important to bear in mind that, to try to prevent diversion to
the illicit market, in 2004-05 the maximum licensed area to be cultivated in
opium poppies was 0.10 hectare. Therefore, the maximum income that Indian
farmers can derive from legal opium production is limited by fixed prices and
by limitation of areas cultivated by each of them.
With such low prices paid to Indian opium farmers, diversion to the illegal
market, where opium can fetch prices as much as four to five times the minimum
government price, clearly takes place; although there is no reliable estimate
of such diversion.
The 2005 International Control Strategy Report of the US Department of State
stresses that "in 2004, the government of India discovered and shut down six
morphine base laboratories in India's opium-growing areas; four in Uttar
Pradesh and two in Madhya Pradesh".
The fact that the central government raises the MQY and the official price paid
to farmers is clearly not enough to keep some of them from diverting part of
their harvest to the illegal market. It is worth noting that the CBN recently
tightened its control on opium farming and against diversion, drastically
lowering the number of hectares licensed (from 21,141 in 2003-04 to 8,771 in
2004-05) and the number of farmers licensed (from 105,697 in 2003-04 to 87,682
Shortcomings of opium licensing in Afghanistan
The proposal to license opium production in Afghanistan thus raises an
important question: Would the prices paid to opium farmers be high enough to
provide them with a sufficient income and to enable the development of the
Afghan rural economy while, in the meantime, preventing opium diversion from
the licit to the illicit market?
In Afghanistan, opium prices have varied greatly during the past decade,
ranging from $23 to $350 per kilogram of fresh opium at harvest time. In 2005,
the average farm-gate price of fresh opium at harvest time was $102 per
kilogram (average yield: 39 kg/ha) and 309,000 families, or about 2 million
persons (8.7% of the population) were involved in opium-poppy cultivation,
itinerant workers not included.
Such prices, which are far from enriching Afghan opium farmers but simply allow
them to cope with poverty, only need to be compared to those of India to
realize that licit opium production in Afghanistan could not compete with
illicit opium production, that most opium farmers would still have to give up
opium production while the others would see their revenues plummet, and that,
considering the limited writ and power of the Afghan authorities, diversion
from the licit to the illicit market would be unavoidable and would reach much
higher proportions than in India.
More important, licensing opium production in Afghanistan would not be better
than eradication or alternative development at addressing the causes of the
recourse to illegal opium production and would thus fail to fulfill the
international community's objective: the suppression of illegal opium
production. If crop substitution proved to be a failure in the past decades,
why would the substitution of an illegal opium production for a legal opium
production work better by reducing farmers' income and not addressing the
structural factors causing illegal opium production?
It is crucial to understand that, contrary to what has often been denounced
here and there, opium production is more a consequence of Afghanistan's
lawlessness, instability and poverty than its cause. Opium production clearly
proceeds from poverty and food insecurity, from Afghanistan to Myanmar and
Laos, where it is a coping mechanism and livelihood strategy.
Opium production is a vital element in the livelihood strategies of part of the
Afghan rural population, providing peasants not only with a source of income,
but also with access to land and credit. More than opium production as such, it
is therefore poverty and the shortcomings of the Afghan agrarian system that
should be tackled.
It is alternative livelihoods that must be promoted, in a way that
counter-narcotics objectives are mainstreamed into national development
strategies and programs, if the causes of opium-poppy cultivation are to be
addressed and illicit opium production eventually curtailed.
Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy is a geographer and Centre National de la Recherche
Scientifique research fellow, and produces www.geopium.org.