Western roots feed Afghan poppy scourge
By Julien Mercille
For years, there has been much discussion about the best strategy to rid
Afghanistan of its poppies. Eradication, said the George W Bush administration.
Interdiction and alternative livelihoods, retorted the Barack Obama
administration. Licensing and production for medicinal purposes, suggests the
influential Senlis Council.
The issues have been fiercely debated: Would there be enough demand for
Afghanistan's legal morphine? Is the government too corrupt to implement this
or that scheme? To what extent will eradication alienate farmers? Which crops
should we substitute for poppies?
These questions are not unimportant, but fundamentally, they do not address the
primary source of Afghan drug production: the
West's (and Russia's) insatiable demand for drugs.
Afghanistan accounts for about 90% of global illicit opium production. Western
Europe and Russia are its two largest markets in terms of quantities consumed
and market value (the United States is not an important market for Afghan
opiates, importing the drugs from Latin America instead). Western Europe (26%)
and Russia (21%) together consume almost half (47%) the heroin produced in the
world, with four countries accounting for 60% of the European market: the
United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany.
In economic terms, the world's opiates market is valued at $65 billion, of
which heroin accounts for $55 billion. Nearly half of the overall opiate market
value is accounted for by Europe (some $20 billion) and Russia ($13 billion).
Iran is also a large consumer of opium, with smaller amounts of heroin. The
situation is similar for cocaine, for which the US and Europe are the two
dominant markets (virtually all coca cultivation takes place in Colombia, Peru
In short, it is the West that has a drug problem, not producer countries like
Afghanistan (or Colombia): demand is king and drives the global industry.
How should we reduce opiate consumption and its negative consequences in the
West and Russia? Drug policy research has typically offered four methods. There
is a wide consensus among researchers that such methods should be ranked as
follows, from most to least effective: 1) treatment of addicts, 2) prevention,
3) enforcement, and 4) overseas operations in producer countries. For example,
12 established analysts reached the following conclusions, published a few
Efforts by wealthy countries to curtail cultivation of
drug-producing plants in poor countries have not reduced aggregate drug supply
or use in downstream markets, and probably never will ... it will fail even if
current efforts are multiplied many times over.
A substantial expansion of [treatment] services, particularly for people
dependent on opiates, is likely to produce the broadest range of benefits ...
yet, most societies invest in these services at a low level.
a widely cited 1994 RAND study concluded that targeting “source countries” is
23 times less cost effective than “treatment” for addicts domestically, the
most effective method; “interdiction” was estimated to be 11 times less cost
effective and “domestic enforcement” seven times.
The problem is that the West's drug policy strategy has for years emphasized
enforcement, combined to overseas adventures, to the detriment of treatment and
Also, Russia has been complaining about the suspension of eradication in
Afghanistan, but it has a very poor record of offering treatment to its own
addicts, rejecting widely accepted scientific evidence. Moscow has chosen a
strategy that “serves the end of social control and enforcement,” just like the
US: criminalization is emphasized and the largest share of public resources is
directed to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate drug users, instead of offering
them treatment. This worsens Russia's HIV epidemic, the fastest growing in the
world - with nearly one million HIV infections, some 80% of which related to
the sharing of drug needles - while syringe availability remains very limited.
For instance, methadone and buprenorphine remain prohibited by law in Russia,
even if they are effective in reducing the drug problem by shifting addicts
from illegal opiates to safer, legal alternatives.
Accordingly, a just released New York University report states that “Nothing
that happens in Afghanistan, for good or ill, would affect the Russian drug
problem nearly as much as the adoption of methadone” in Russia - which would
also help Afghanistan reduce poppy cultivation.
Obama announced last year that the US would have access to seven military bases
in Colombia under the pretext of fighting a war on terror and a war on drugs.
Likewise, Russia recently announced that it would set up a second military base
in Kyrgyzstan, to combat drug trafficking. Victor Ivanov, the Director of the
Russian Federal Drug Control Service, explained how he was inspired by US drug
war tactics in Latin America:
The United States' experience is
certainly quite effective. The powerful flow of cocaine from Colombia into the
United States prompted Washington to set up seven military bases in the Latin
American nation in question. The US then used aircraft to destroy some 230,000
hectares of coca plantations ... Russia suggests building its military base in
Kyrgyzstan since it is the republic's Osh region that is a center of sorts
whence drugs are channeled throughout Central Asia.
record on drug policy has improved over the last two decades, important
advances having been made to bring harm reduction into the mainstream of drug
policy, and rates of drug usage for each category of drugs are lower in the
European Union (EU) than in states with a far more criminalized drug policy,
such as the US, Canada and Australia.
But there is still room for improvement. For example, although opioid
substitution treatment and needle and syringe exchange programs now reach more
addicts, “important differences between [European] countries continue to exist
in scale and coverage”, a recent review of harm reduction policies in Europe
concludes. In particular, ''Overall provision of substitution treatment in the
Baltic States and the central and south-east European regions, except in
Slovenia, remains low despite some recent increases. An estimate from Estonia
suggests that only 5% of heroin users in the four major urban centers are
covered by substitution programs, and that this rate is as low as 1% at
Lack of funds is no excuse, as there is plenty of money available, for
instance, out of the $300 billion Europeans spend every year on their
militaries, to maintain among other things their more than 30,000 troops in
The UK was put in charge of counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. However,
domestically, leading specialists Peter Reuter and Alex Stevens report that
''Despite rhetorical commitments to the rebalancing of drug policy spending
towards treatment… the bulk of public expenditure continues to be devoted to
criminal justice measures… this emphasis on enforcement in drug control
expenditures also holds for the most explicitly harm reduction-oriented
country, the Netherlands.''
In the UK, over 1994-2005, ''the number of prison cell years handed out in
annual sentences has tripled'' (although significant increases have also been
made towards treatment). ''The prison population has increased rapidly in the
past decade [and] the use of imprisonment has increased even more rapidly for
drug offenders than other offenders… These increases have contributed
significantly to the current prison overcrowding crisis.''
British enforcement costs taxpayers dearly, but the government does not
regularly or publicly calculate those costs. Through a Freedom of Information
request a document was released that ''calculated the annual cost of enforcing
drug laws - including police, probation, prison and court costs - at
approximately ฃ2.19 billion, of which about ฃ581 million was spent
on imprisoning drug offenders.''
All this said, there is one way in which Afghanistan does have a drug problem,
namely, its increasing number of addicts. A recent report from the United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that drug use had increased
dramatically over the last few years and that around one million Afghans now
suffer from drug addiction, or 8% of the population - twice the global average.
Since 2005, the number of regular opium users in Afghanistan has grown from
150,000 to 230,000 (a 53% increase) and for heroin, from 50,000 to 120,000 (a
140% increase). This spreads HIV/AIDS because most injecting drug users share
But treatment resources are very deficient. Only about 10% of addicts have ever
received treatment, meaning that about 700,000 are left without it, which
prompted UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa to call for much greater resources for
drug prevention and treatment in the country.
The problem is that the Obama and Bush administrations could not care less:
since 2005, the US has allocated less than $18 million to “demand reduction”
activities in Afghanistan - less than 1% of the $2 billion they spent on
eradication and interdiction. Clearly, US priorities have nothing to do with
fighting a war on drugs.
Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He
specializes in US foreign policy and geopolitics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org