Tuesday, February 10, 2004

it’s poppy growing time again
Head-shaking over Afghanistan’s lively opium trade has become something of a yearly ritual, a fact which regime change in that country has done nothing to alter. So also this year:

The BBC's Andrew North in Kabul says they discussed whether it was possible to reduce demand or develop "alternative livelihoods" for the farmers.

However he adds that they admitted that it would be difficult to find any crop to compete with the profits from opium which is why many put greater emphasis on law enforcement measures such as the forced eradication of poppy fields

…leaving the Afghan farmers to starve, join the Taliban, whatever. I don’t feel any urge to cheer on this process, even though, apparently, Afghanistan produces over 90% of the raw opium that finds its way in the form of heroin into Europe. When I consider the comparative life chances of the average Afghan peasant compared to those of the average European junkie, I know where my sympathies lie. As for producing alternative crops, food prices have been driven so low that it’s only through cultivation of illegal substances in places like Afghanistan and Bolivia that farmers can earn enough to own their smallholding and maybe live in reasonable comfort by local standards.

This doesn’t mean to say that nothing could be done to regularize the trade. A certain amount of legally produced opium goes on to the market every year for medicinal uses. There’s no reason why Afghanistan’s output couldn’t be integrated into this trade. Excess capacity could be soaked up by greater medicinal use – if anything, heroin is underused, given its effectiveness as a painkiller, with this being largely a by product of the general moral panic over drug use. All sorts of scare stories about the effects of heroin fuelled calls for its prohibition. Prohibition duly followed, and to uphold the majesty of the law the prejudice against the drug spilled over into legitimate medical use. In the US, for instance, morphine analogues like Dilaudid and Dolophine are still used in place of heroin, because, I believe, they are supposed not to have the same euphoric effect. Can’t let a little thing like the relief of agonizing pain undermine the great war on drugs, can we?

Heroin is still used on the NHS. Around five years ago, I had the interesting opportunity to watch a close family member die. It was a process made much less traumatic through the constant administration of heroin, duly euphemized as diamorphine, which was the only thing that stopped her dying in agony. I’ve had very warm feelings for the drug itself since then, and it would be good to think of others in the same position being comforted in their last moments by a product grown and traded for a fair return by some of the poorest people on earth. This is how trade is supposed to work. It would also help stabilize Afghanistan’s economy and divert the profits of the trade away from the warlords and traffickers, and maybe enable Hamid Karzai to venture out of Kabul once in awhile.

update: an opium farmer's account of the trade.